The Guns of Betio

The World War II Series > Vanuatu > Betio Guns > John Swope > Kiribati

The Captain pulled his silver suitcase off the claim rack. Customs was next, but after the female officer flipped through a single pair of underwear he was allowed to proceed through the terminal door immediately.

His heavy-set driver stood at the edge of the curb. "Nice flight?"

The Captain grunted, his bloodshot eyes at the mercy of Kiribati's hot sun reflecting off the white coral, and got into the back seat.

The drive from the airport along Tarawa Atoll's string of islands to Betio is typically 40 minutes. But with the recent rains having turned its potholed strip of asphalt into a gray swamp, that time creeps up to an hour.

The afternoon sees many ladies with stalls along the road peddling tuna from coolers. "Yellowtail," they'll call to passing cars from beneath their colorful umbrellas.

His driver was a 58-year-old local. Piita was his name.

After crossing onto Betio, the Toyota took the first turn to the right - in the direction of the lagoon.

Piita waved his hand out towards the lagoon's flats, which at low tide are very visible. "Just outside there," he said, "was a crashed plane from World War II. For years following the war, people cut up its fuselage to make combs. The metal worked well with women's hair. I don't know if it is still out there."

The Captain instructed Piita to pull over. He stepped out of the sedan and began walking, his crepe soles making a crushing sound as he moved across the sand.

Sixty-three years ago, it was a battlefield of billowing black smoke and death's stench.

Allied and Japanese forces tore through Betio turning the coral and sand landscape into a charred crisp that resembled something like a lunar surface.

Formerly a part of the Gilbert Islands, this half-square-mile rock is a part of the Republic of Kiribati - a collection of 33 atolls spread over 1,300 square miles of the Pacific. Though few people living today recall the mayhem of those dark days, many war relics still linger, crumbling on its white sands.

Betio was seen as a point of great strategic importance in the war in the Pacific. Japanese forces originally claimed it from the British a few days following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The island was subsequently converted into a fortress. Korean and local labor hacked tree trunks and assembled the logs into stockades. Concrete was poured for hundreds of pill boxes. Coastal guns, some of which fired 8-inch shells, were mounted along the beaches.

Beaches were further protected with coils of barbed wire, mines, and barricades of steel protruding from concrete mounts set in shallow water on both the lagoon and ocean sides.

A single airstrip was cut into the center of the island, which is so narrow at certain points that the distance from lagoon to ocean could likely be reached with a 5-iron for most stretches.

The battle raged over 4 days. Following the first shots from the Japanese coastal guns, American battleships and destroyers started their assault on the morning of November 20th. Bombers then pummeled Japanese positions from the air.

A B-24 Liberator, produced in greater numbers than any other bomber during the American war effort, rests in the lagoon just off what was referred to as "Red Beach Three" by the American forces.

Crabs and even local fisherman pass by the carcass daily, not giving it a single pause.

Broken sections of both wings, their surfaces stripped of all paint and lettering, lie exposed to Tarawa's seemingly continual sun. Areas where the engines were affixed have had patches of the surface skin stripped away, thereby revealing the interior aluminum ribs and cross bracing. The curved and aerodynamically important leading edge has been removed and carted away to places unknown.

The blades of two remaining props are bent and filled with small holes. They lie in a shallow depression near one of the wings.

All four of the engines are lying face down. These air-cooled, 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasps were once capable of displacing 1,830 cubic inches. Now most of their fuel hoses are cracked or have disappeared, their cylinders encrusted with crustaceans and rust.

The craft is missing its entire fuselage and unique tail, which included a pair of endplates whose rudders and fins were in an oval shape. The front landing-gear strut, however, can be found nearby lying flat in the sand.

Betio forms the western end of Tarawa. After crossing the Nippon Causeway from Bairiki Island, one road loops around the perimeter of Betio's wedge-shaped land mass. At its most western point are the remains of two 8-inch coastal guns, some of the primary targets on that first day.

At "Green Beach," one gun can be found rising above the sand on its swiveling steel mounting with its muzzle pointed inland - undoubtedly the reverse to that of six decades ago, when the American military launched its attack from the sea. Green shrubs now spill over the edge of its steel mount casing.

The second lies in pieces on the shore. Red crabs race over its muzzle and rusting firing mechanisms at low tide, but high tides bring the Pacific surging right up against its former concrete foundation that is now scattered in broken slabs along the beach. The steel shield through which the muzzle formerly protruded lies down the shore about 20 yards.

The guns, purchased from Britain for the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), were generally rendered ineffective by American battleship fire on the first day.

Back near the causeway on "Black Beach Two" are three more. One has had its muzzle clipped, another - seemingly undamaged - points out toward the reef, and the third has been completely separated from its steel mounting, its muzzle rusting in the shallows. Next to the latter lies a much smaller firing weapon covered in green marine life.

Later that same day, Marines riding LVTs (Landing Vehicle Tracked) began the 10-mile charge towards the beach. Tarawa was seen as a testing lab for the vehicle, an amphibious craft possessing a rotating tread that was originally designed for traveling through swamps and marshes. A pair of .50-caliber machine guns were mounted on top.

The first version, the LVT-1, could transport troops and equipment at a pace of six knots through the sea and twelve miles per hour on land.

But the Marines had underestimated the strength of the Japanese fortifications. The initial assault had not obliterated the island as was the intention. Japanese resistance was tremendous.

For the LVTs, the reef just outside of the lagoon was not a major issue but the final few hundred yards was met with heavy Japanese machine-gun assaults. Some LVTs had been outfitted with thin boilerplate for protection. But many didn't even have that.

That morning's low tide, as well, caused the low-draft LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) transport boats to be trapped on the reef off the lagoon. Weighed down with heavy equipment, some Marines drowned after attempting to wade ashore. Japanese machine-gun fire caught others. Casualties mounted. The lagoon ran red.

A small number of LVTs were able to land on the beach, but could not negotiate the coconut-trunk barricades. Sheets of bullets and tossed grenades rained down on the sand. But eventually a Japanese line of defense was broken by the end of that first day.

On Green Beach, two LVTs can be found.

Just below a row of shanties lining the shore is the straight-six, six-cylinder engine and random tread sections of an LVT-1. Jagged pieces of its frame poke out of the sand at its curved front.

Further out to sea are the remains of an LVT-2, the much larger brother to the LVT-1. Its aircraft-like, 7-cylinder radial engine has disintegrated.

This craft had two rows of cups lining its tread, which boosted its performance on rugged terrain over the LVT-1. The only recognizable component remaining is this tread.

After more positions were secured in the following days, tanks and other heavy equipment were moved ashore. Flame throwers set the Japanese stockades ablaze.

The Japanese garrison of 4,800 troops was lead by Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki. His headquarters, just off Red Beach Three, like so many other concrete structures scattered between Betio's brush and palms, still stands - this in spite of the fact that it received direct hits from 16-inch shells delivered by American ships.

The key to the lock to the chain-link fence that surrounds the compound is readily available from the proprietress operating the store directly across the street.

Riddled with craters and holes, the exterior has steps going up its side to its now grass-covered roof. Steady streams of water drip out of holes and down along the side onto the steps.

Shibasaki died inside. But with American fire having knocked out key communication lines with its initial strikes, his impact on the battle was limited.

Stepping beyond the heavy steel door reveals a two-floor maze of rooms and halls. Re-bar dangles precariously from ceilings. Walls are chipped; some floor sections have collapsed. Graffiti in the native Kiribati language, scattered beer cans, and whiffs of feces indicate that it was once a playground for local Kiribati youth.

American victory was symbolically secured on November 23rd, when a Navy airplane was able to touch down on the airstrip.

Casualties on both sides were heavy. The Americans lost 1,000 troops, many of whom littered the beaches or were lost at sea. Of the 146 Japanese prisoners taken, only 17 were not Korean laborers.

After his capture, one Japanese prisoner is said to have repeated the words uttered by Shibasaki to motivate his troops: "One million Americans couldn't take Tarawa in 100 years."

The World War II Series > Vanuatu > Betio Guns > John Swope > Kiribati

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