Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tarawa today

Today Tarawa is part of the country of Kiribati (pronounced, Ki-ri-bus) which is one of the poorest countries on the Pacific. Kiribati is a smattering of small coral atolls scattered across an area of ocean the size of the continental United States The highest point in the islands is a whole 3 metres above sea level and whenever there is a tsunami warning many locals on South Tarawa go to the highest point of the island, the sports stadium for protection!

Tarawa has a large lagoon of approximately 500 square kilometres (193 square miles) and a wide reef. Although naturally abundant in fish and shellfish of all kinds, marine resources are being strained by the large and growing population. Drought is frequent but in normal years rainfall is sufficient to maintain breadfruit, papaya and banana trees as well as coconut and pandanus. North Tarawa consists of a string of islets, with the most northern islet being Buariki. The islets are separated in places by wide channels that are best crossed at low tide.On South Tarawa, the construction of causeways has now created a single strip of land from Betio in the West to Buota in the Northeast.

Most I-Kiribati live on South Tarawa (on the map North Tarawa is in yellow, South Tarawa in red).Today, approximately 50,000 people call South Tarawa home making it one of the most densely populated places in the Pacific. The land area of South Tarawa is 3,896 acres (1,577 ha) or 15.76 square km. However, much of this land is not available for use including the water reserve and runway, the causeways, and a large area of reclaimed land at Temwaiku while the eastern corner of the atoll is too swampy and low-lying for settlement. If these areas are excluded, the land area of South Tarawa is only just over 1,000 hectares (10 square km or 2,500 acres) and the population density of 49 people per hectare or 4,905 per square km is almost equal to the density of London (5,100 people per km2) and twice the density of Sydney, Auckland or New York.

Kiribati has few natural resources and is one of the least developed Pacific Island countries. Economic development is constrained by a shortage of skilled workers, weak infrastructure, and remoteness from international markets. The public sector dominates economic activity, with ongoing capital projects in infrastructure including road rehabilitation, water and sanitation projects, and renovations to the international airport, spurring some growth.
South Tarawa is the economic hub of Kiribati, the location of the main port and airport and of most of the State Owned Enterprises and private businesses. Copra produced on the outer islands is processed on Betio, producing copra oil for the international market and other products which are sold locally. There is also a fish processing plant producing tuna for export. However, imports far outweigh exports, and most households on South Tarawa rely on Government employment and remittances from relatives working overseas for their income. Unemployment and under-employment are a serious problem; in 2010 only 34% of urban adults (over 15) were engaged in cash work; the remaining two-thirds are either out of the labour force, unemployed or engaged in subsistence activities. Young people are especially likely to be unemployed and this is a growing problem.

As well as South Tarawa the other main population centre is the eastern island chain of the Line Islands of which Kiritmati  Island (Christmas- no not the one in the Indian ocean full of refugee detained by Australia) is the largest island and is several hundred kilometres to the east.

Causeway linking atolls in South Tarawa
Kiribati is well of the usual beaten track for most tourists and it is experiencing first hand the impact of climate change and is experiencing all sorts of problems due to sea level rise and rapid population growth. Some settlements have been abandoned due to frequent flooding and fresh food, especially fruit and vegetables, are often in short supply due to the salination of the soils, meaning a lot of food needs to be imported. So Kiribati is not your typical South Pacific paradise. In fact the country has purchased land in Fiji in case they are forced to leave their homeland for good!

Why the interest in Kiribati/Tarawa?
So why the sudden interest in Tarawa and Kiribati? Well, as alluded to in the previous post, apart from my general interest in World War Two history, it is because I’m off to live there for a year! I’ve accepted a role with New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad and will be living there for twelve months. It is not going to be easy, no doubt there will be many, many challenges and struggles ahead but I am hoping that the experience will be a life changing one. I've never been a fan of the corporate treadmill so see this as an opportunity to branch out and do something completely outside my comfort zone. I’ve been wanting to do a VSA assignment for many years but it is only now that my kids are nearing the end of high school that I feel the time is right. So recently I applied for a role in Kiribati and am pleased to say that I have been accepted for the one year posting.
I’ll be leaving my wife and kids back home in NZ but due to the isolated nature of Kiribati volunteers have to leave the island every 4 months or so for a week or two break either back home or elsewhere in the Pacific so plan on meeting up with my wife in Fiji every four months or so and hope that other family members will take the opportunity to pop out for a visit to one of the more remote corners of the Pacific.

I’m not sure when I will be going yet, I have a four day briefing in Wellington in a couple of weeks but still have to pass medical checks etc before going so it is still quite a process. I am hoping some time in early January so I can give my current employer plenty of notice and as I’ve some work to do around home first but we will see.

No doubt the year ahead will be fraught with challenges and it will be a very difficult one, but I am really looking forward to the experience, it is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time and intend to create a blog to about my experience.

So, in the next twelve months things will change dramatically for me and wargaming will not really be on my regular radar for quite some time.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Battle of Tarawa

The island atoll of Tarawa lies in the heart of the Pacific Ocean in the Gilbert islands approximately 4000 km (2500 miles) southwest of Hawaii and 2100kms east of Truk Island in the Caroline islands.The island was scene of a bloody battle during World War Two.

Prior to the outbreak of war New Zealand had a 18 coastwatchers stationed on the island, most of whom were civilian volunteers from the NZ postal service. 

The Imperial Japanese Navy occupied the Gilbert Islands three days after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1943. They built a seaplane base on Makin and dispersed troops along the coastlines of the atolls to monitor the Allied forces' movement in the South Pacific. 

 After the arrival of the Japanese forces these coast watchers were captured and most were later executed by the Japanese.
John Jones was one of seven coastwatchers on Butaritari atoll in the north of the group. He was captured and taken to a prison camp in Japan. Seventeen others were beheaded by the Japanese on Tarawa atoll in August and September 1942 in retaliation for an American raid on the atolls. An eighteenth, Ron Third, was based on Ocean Island, now called Banaba, died in captivity after the island was captured by Japan in the August of that year. Five other civilians - three Britons, an Australian and a New Zealander - were also killed in the Tarawa massacre. 

All those executed received a posthumous mention in dispatches and the civilian coastwatchers were retrospectively given military rank in 1944 so that their dependants could claim pensions and other rights. In 2014 their sacrifice was finally officially recognised in New Zealand with a memorial dedicated to them was unveiled in Wellington.  John Jones, the last surviving Coastwatcher, then 94 years old, was able to finally pay tribute to his fallen friends and colleagues

However, the fate of the coastwatchers remained largely unknown here in New Zealand until recently and it was a long forgotten chapter of our wartime history. After having waited for so long for recognition of his comrades sacrifice,  John Jones passed away earlier this year at the age of ninety-six

The Americans put up a memorial to the murdered coastwatchers after their forces retook Tarawa  and this memorial was replaced in 2012 by a new memorial. It is interesting to note that is memorial was provide by the Australian government, not the New Zealand one!

The Battle of Tarawa Nov 20-23rd 1943

Tarawa was to become the southerly point of Japan’s defensive shield, and so its capture was seen as being important in keeping the lifeline between Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand open for the allies.

 Like most islands in this region, Tarawa was actually a coral atoll and consists of 38 islands surrounded by coral reef. Betio island is the largest island group and lies at the southernmost reach of the lagoon, and it was here that the majority of the Japanese troops were based. Shaped roughly like a long, thin triangle, the tiny island is approximately 3.2 kms (2 miles) long and only 730m (800 yards) wide at its widest point. A long pier was constructed jutting out from the north shore onto which cargo ships could unload cargo while anchored beyond the 500-metre (550 yd)-wide shallow reef which surrounded the island. The northern coast of the island faces into the lagoon, while the southern and western sides face the deep waters of the open ocean.

Tarawa was selected for the site of one of the first amphibious landings to pierce the Japanese defensive shield, and as it turned out to be the first one where the beach landing was opposed by Japanese forces. Unfortunately for the marines who landed the planners had ignored the advice of a New Zealand expat who had lived on the islands for 15 years who had told them that the lagoon would be less than 3 feet deep at the time of the landing. Although the Am tracks were able to navigate the lagoon the Higgins boats and other landing vessels were unable to and so many marines found themselves floundering ashore and having to cross up to 1200 metres of lagoon, under heavy fire the whole way, to even arrive to the beaches. Many of them did not make it. Indeed about half of all US casualties were among those struggling to cross the lagoon. 

The main value of the island was its airfield. Rear Admiral Shibasaki Keiji defended Betio with 4,836 troops of whom 2600 were of the Special Naval Landing Forces and about 1,000 were Japanese construction troops. There were also 1,200 Korean labourers on the island. At Keiji's disposal were also 14 large coastal defence guns, 50 field artillery pieces, over 100 machine gun nests, and 500 pillboxes dotted the landscape. To further deter landing attempts, the Japanese constructed a huge wall across the lagoons to the north.

The American 2nd Marine Division landed on 20 November and were met with fierce resistance from the Japanese defenders. indeed at the end of the first day the marines toehold was extremely precarious but luckily the Japanese commander had been killed while vacating his bunker to allow it to be turned into a hospital and this meant the Japanese were disorganised and did not launch a night counter attack, which could have had disastrous consequences for the Americans. 

On the second day the Americas were able to consolidate their position and secure the beaches for reinforcements. By the end of the day, the entire western end of the island was in U.S. control though the position was still far from secure but the tide had turned in the Americans favour.

The third day of battle consisted primarily of consolidating existing lines along Red 1 and 2, beaches an eastward thrust from the wharf, and moving additional heavy equipment and tanks ashore onto Green Beach. During the morning the forces originally landed on Red 1 made some progress towards Red 2 but took casualties. Meanwhile, the 6th Marines which had landed on Green Beach to the south of Red 1 formed up while the remaining battalion of the 6th landed.

By the afternoon the 1st Battalion 6th Marines were sufficiently organised and equipped to take to the offensive. At 12:30 they pressed the Japanese forces across the southern coast of the island. By late afternoon they had reached the eastern end of the airfield and had formed a continuous line with the forces that landed on Red 3 two days earlier. By the evening the remaining Japanese forces were either pushed back into the tiny amount of land to the east of the airstrip, or operating in several isolated pockets near Red 1/Red 2 and near the western edge of the airstrip.

That night the Japanese forces formed up for a counterattack, which started at about 19:30. Small units were sent in to infiltrate the U.S. lines in preparation for a full-scale assault. The assembling forces were broken up by concentrated artillery fire, and the assault never took place. Another attempt, a large banzai attack, was made at 03:00 and met with some success, inflicting 173 casualties, including 45 dead. 

The next day the island was finally secured. The Japanese fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the Marines. The 2nd Marine Division suffered 894 killed in action, 48 officers and 846 enlisted men, while an additional 84 of the wounded later succumbed their wounds.  A further 2,188 men were wounded in the battle.   Of the 3,636 Japanese in the garrison, only one officer and sixteen enlisted men surrendered. Of the 1,200 Korean laborers brought to Tarawa to construct the defences, only 129 survived. All told, 4,690 of the island's defenders were killed. 

As well as the Americans and Japanese losses the islands were home to an indigenous population who also suffered extensive losses during the battle, which, as so often in military history, is often overlooked.