Tarawa

8 inch British coastal guns 001

Two days after Pearl Harbour the Japanese attacked and captured Tarawa in December 1941.

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The island became a fortress, buildings were knocked down and all the palm trees removed. The local population became slaves and were forced to create bunkers, an airstrip and concrete structures with metal spikes concreted into the coral reefs around the atoll, all fishing boats were destroyed along with any other form of boat or canoe etc .
Once everything was completed the local population were forced to leave the atoll and they had to walk up to 25 miles across coral reefs to the northern area of the atoll.
During my trip to Tarawa in the 1980’s I saw eight-inch guns still point out to sea. I was told (not by locals) that the guns had been removed from Singapore, after the fall of that island, and transported to the Pacific to defend Tarawa. Later I read that the Imperial War Museum in London stated that Singapore didn’t have any eight inch guns for the Japanese to capture, so they couldn’t have been transferred to Tarawa from Singapore.
They were in fact manufactured in Britain for a contract to supply eight inch and twelve inch guns to the Japanese navy for the Japan – Russian war of 1904-1905.
The Tarawa defensive guns appear to have been part of this contract.

The old bomber strip 001

The Japanese airstrip when I visited Tarawa. The trees had returned, but the actual landing strip was causing problems for even the grass to grow.

Tarawa was the most heavily defended atoll that the Americans would attack in WW2.
The Americans had to estimate how many troops were defending the atoll. The best guess was about 3100 men, which was reasonably accurate, considering that they were unable to send in reconnaissance units to obtain a more accurate number. The Americans realised from aerial photographs, that the Japanese built their latrines over water, in multi-holed wooden buildings. By counting the number of latrines, they worked out the relationship between the number of backsides to a latrine and estimated 3100 troops!

The Japanese commander (Admiral Shibazaki) said that the Americans could not take Tarawa with a million men in a hundred years.
With 100 pillboxes, concrete bunkers, anti-aircraft guns, coral shallow reefs ring with barbed wire and mines plus entrenched machine guns manned by 4500 Japanese troops, it is not surprising that the Japanese commander made such a comment.

Shibazaki

Rear Admiral Keiji Shibazaki (9th April 1894-20 November 1943)  

When the Americans arrived off Tarawa and sent off the first wave of troops there were problems – the tide was lower than expected and some of the landing craft and amphibious tanks became stuck on coral reefs within range of the Japanese’s guns. Some of the invading troops left the ‘security’ of the landing craft and waded hundreds of yards to the beach under constant fire from the Japanese. 

War and beach 001

As I walked along the shoreline, I could see the remains of landing craft and aircraft at low tide. It was during the 20th to the 23rd of November 1943 that the Battle of Tarawa was fought between the Americans and the Japanese.

Stranded 001

I walked out to the remains and looking back at the beach and thought  is it any wonder the Americans lost so many. On the third day of the battle the tide was higher, which allowed destroyers to get close in and pinpoint the enemy.

The battle lasted 76 hours and in the final hours the Japanese launched a banzai attack. When the battle finished of the 4500 Japanese defenders only 17 remained alive.

The Americans lost more than 1113 dead and 2290 wounded of their 18,000 attacking force in the three day-battle.
They lost nearly as many killed-in-action during the three days of the battle for Tarawa, as they lost in six months when taking Guadalcanal Island. 

Inside a Japanese pillbox 001

Inside a Japanese pillbox near the beach.

Japanese HQ bomb shelter 001

Japanese HQ

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The above pictures show the Japanese HQ building with shell and machine gun damage, which when I visited was being used a simple squash court.

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What the area looked like on the 24th of November 1943, the day after the battle.
I walked along the same beach 44 years later – Tarawa Atoll (the area in question) is 3.2 km (2 miles) long and the narrow bit is 730 mts (800 yards) at the widest point.  
The link below is a six-minute piece of colour film of the landing.

The landing





Gilbert Islands

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In 1788 Thomas Gilbert was the Captain of the Charlotte, which had sailed to Australia as part of the first fleet carrying convicts.
After discharging his convict passengers Captain Gilbert sailed for China and passed through a group of islands that we now know as The Gilbert Islands.
He made sketches of the islands and named Tarawa (marked with green above), Mathew Island after the owner of his ship. He also named the large lagoon Charlotte Bay after his ship. Fortunately his sketches have survived.

lagoon

The lagoon . . .a beautiful spot.


He did obtain a cargo for the East India Company and sailed back to England.

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South of Nauru you can see an island called Kiribati, which is the new name for Gilbert Island. Kiribati (pro Ki-ri-bass), which is how they pronounced Gilbert in their own language (Gilbertese). 

Kiribati consists of a thirty-three islands with a land mass of 803 sq km (310 sq miles) but spread across 5,180,000 sq km (2million square miles) of ocean. Tarawa, the atoll where I landed, is 208 km (80 miles) north of the Equator, which was home to about 2000 people, or one third of the total population of Kiribati.
Of this total, about 300 were Europeans mainly British, Australian & Kiwis mostly employed as ‘advisors’.
The people were big in to ‘Manyana’, but done very politely.  

The height of the land above the sea was about 2.5 mtrs (8 feet), fortunately the weather was fine.   

airport

Tarawa airport 001

arrival hall

Tarawa arrival Hall was quiet . . . 

The flight from Nauru was not a long flight but when I stepped out of the aircraft the heat hit me. Above is the passenger terminal and arrival hall, where I was met by our agent Kenton, who was the British Government advisor to the Kiribati Co-Op Wholesale Society, thankfully shortened to KCWS, but known locally as K-C.
He took me to a hotel in Batio, (pro Bay-she-oh), which is the capital on the main atoll of Tarawa.

Hotel 001

My hotel is the green building.

Room

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After the empty suite in Nauru my room in Batio was small . . . . the white door with the red knob was the bathroom door.

I switched on the air-conditioning unit in the hope that it would cool the place down – the agent and I had agreed that he would show me around in the morning – he said that it would be cooler. I only hoped that I would not fade away with heat stroke in the meantime.

I tried to cool off in the shower, but the water pressure was not all the at good, so I sat in the bar, which was the coolest place in the hotel. At that time, they did not have their own beer but imported Australian beer, I did not care as long as it was cold.

Reception 001

The drinks were cold, and the people were friendly, and the tuna fish was fresh.
During one conversation when ordering a beer I did ask about the strange patterns on the wooden floor. Apparently, they were ‘argument’ patterns – a few beers and a wrong word and it was fight time with bottles and knives.

They did not have TV and the radio only broadcast for three hours a day.

I went to bed early.

Next morning at breakfast I picked up the menu – it was the same one from the previous evening. I realised that the menu was not for choosing anything, but to read and be aware of what you might not receive, because the food was reliant on what had arrived from Australia or New Zealand in the last week or so. The one thing that was super fresh was the fish, all locally caught, but most other foods came from overseas.

I commented to the young lady who wanted to know what I wanted for breakfast, that the pattern had changed on the floorboards. She shrugged and said, ‘They fight’, and then asked what I would like for breakfast as if the blood stains were normal, which I suppose they were.

I asked for black coffee, toast, and marmalade.
‘Marmalade is Off’ she said.
‘What kind of jam do you have’, I asked.
‘We have jam jam and we have marmalade jam.’
‘I would like toast and marmalade jam, please.’
‘OK’ she said, everything was very proper and it was hard to keep a straight face.

agent

Kenton arrived on time and I was given the Cook’s tour of the atoll.

Local bank in Batio 001

Tarawa 002

It was a mixture of traditional and modern, but interesting and as English is the national language I could ask as many questions as I liked.

Graves 001

Near the old WW2 airstrip, I was shown a local cemetery. The depth of the soil is very shallow and to mark a grave they would use old beer bottles.
beer bottlesAbove is a closeup of one of the graves. office

KC imported basic foods and general items, mainly by sea, and then they would supply the various shop who were members of the Co-Operative.  

I knew that our agent would not survive on our traffic alone – it was just a sideline for him – but it was a pleasure to see our company name SKYPAK displayed prominently, and he wanted more stickers & signs.
The people in the above picture worked for KC.

The main problem that I had was communicating with Kiribati from Sydney – Kiribati was not linked via ISD so if I wished to speak to Kenton I had to go through an operator. . . which sometimes was very time consuming. 

flag

The flag of Kiribati

The flag of Kiribati is red in the upper half with a gold frigate flying over a gold rising sun, and the lower half is blue with three horizontal wavy white stripes to represent the ocean and the three island groups, Gilbert, Phoenix and Line Islands.
The 17 rays of the sun represent the 16 Gilbert Islands and Banaba Island, which used to be called Ocean Island.

Next stop Ellice Is. now called Tuvalu = Eight standing together . . . 

 

Pacific Islands

In the late 1980’s I used to visit various Pacific Islands on business (someone had to do it!).

On one trip I flew Sydney, Nauru, Tarawa (in Kiribati), Funafuti (Tuvalu), Suva (Fiji).
Kiribati – pronounced Kir-i-bahss – which is the Gilbertese for Gilbert Island, and Tuvalu is the new name of the Ellis Islands, as in Gilbert and Ellis Islands, which used to be a British protectorate until 1974 when they became the independent countries, Kiribati and Tuvalu, after they held a referendum.

I flew from Nauru on Air Nauru to Tarawa.001

The parking of aircraft in Nauru was simple – leave them alongside the main road in a lay-by. The island is so isolated that security was ‘limited’ at that time. The traffic had to stop for the aircraft to cross the road to allow passengers to board.

Tarawa is the name of the main atoll of Kiribati and the capital on Tarawa is Betio. (pronounced ‘bay- she – oh’)

Tarawa is remember for some very heavy fighting by the Americans, against the Japanese during WW2, and the beach on which I walked still showed the remains of landing craft, small tanks or amtracs and pieces of aircraft, along with defensive pillboxes manned by the Japanese.

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As I looked out over the 800 to 1200 yard coral reef, (see picture below) across which the troops had to fight their way ashore under withering machine gun fire, I could feel the ghosts of those brave men who died that November day in 1943.

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The area of the Betio atoll, is three miles long by half a mile wide. 1,115 Americans were killed or listed as missing, and 2,234 were wounded. Of the 4700 Japanese troops defending the island only seventeen were captured, along with 129 Koreans. It was estimated that 4690 Japanese died defending this now forgotten part of the Pacific.

The Americans had to estimate how many troops were defending the atoll. The best guess was about 3100 men, which was reasonably accurate, considering that they were unable to send in reconnaissance units to obtain a more accurate number. The Americans realised from aerial photographs, that the Japanese built their latrines over water, in multi-holed wooden buildings. By counting the number of latrines they worked out the relationship between the number of backsides and to a latrine and estimated 3100 troops!

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Defending the beach I saw eight inch guns still point out to sea. When I visited Betio I was told (not by locals) that the guns had been removed from Singapore, after the fall of that island, and transported to the Pacific to defend Tarawa. Later I read that the Imperial War Museum in London stated that Singapore didn’t have any eight inch guns for the Japanese to capture, so they couldn’t have been transferred to Tarawa from Singapore. They were in fact manufactured in Britain for a 1905 contract to supply eight inch and twelve inch guns to the Japanese navy. The Tarawa defensive guns appear to have been part of the 1905 contract.

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The above pictures show the Japanese HQ building with shell a machine gun damage, which when I visited was being used a simple squash court.

004 Inside another Japanese bunker.

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 The above shows what is left of a captured Japanese bomber strip, which allowed the Americans to carry the war to other islands.
The modern airport is about a twenty minute drive from this area.

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The above picture is to show how shallow the soil is on Tarawa – this is a local grave yard. After the war the American causalities, from this battle, were laid to rest in the war cemetery in Hawaii.
The marking of the grave’s perimeter, in many cases, was often done by using empty glass bottles – beer bottles and soft drink bottles.

 On completion of my business in Kiribati I flew to Funafuti the capital of Tuvalu with  Airline of the Marshall Islands. Quite a noisy trip.001