Tarawa: The Map

On November 20, 1943, the Second Marine Division assaulted the tiny island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll. Within a week, Betio and the surrounding islands were securely in American hands, and more than three thousand Marines and sailors were dead or wounded. The vast majority of these casualties occurred in the first three days. Numbers of the killed vary from source to source, but average out to over one thousand dead Marines and corpsmen, most of whom fell on an island less than three miles long and half a mile wide. Nearly 4700 Japanese warriors and Korean laborers lost their lives as well. The island has been aptly described as a massive graveyard.

The stories of heroism and tragedy from Tarawa are well known to even casual students of the Pacific War, the Marine Corps, or military history. Yet the scale of the battle is difficult to comprehend to those who were not there. Striking, too, is the fact that nearly half of the dead are still listed as missing in action. The recent returns of Herman Sturmer (2011), Manley Winkley (2013), Randolph Allen (2014), and Richard W. Vincent (2014) made headlines, but since 1949 only six other individuals – five Marines and one corpsman – have been positively identified. (The true number may be only five, as the identity of PFC Arthur Somes has been debated for years.) The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has devoted resources to the search; independent groups like History Flight, The Chief Rick Stone & Family Foundation, and individuals like Bill Niven, Jim Hildebrand, and Jonathan Stevens have dedicated years to researching the battle and performing fieldwork. The results have been astonishing: in 2013 alone, History Flight recovered the remains of at least 61 Americans, and many Japanese individuals as well.

Still, for the general public, the impact of this battle is seventy years removed from relevance. Instead of creating another list of names and faces, I decided to create an interactive map. Not of Tarawa, but of the United States. And even a simple visual was staggering.

TarawaMap
And this is the zoomed out version with not every pin visible. Click the image to see the interactive map.

I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of pins. I used a couple of different sources to account for the individual casualties and came up with a total of 1,015. (I am sure some more knowledgable Tarawa scholar will have some corrections and notes – please do share!) Red pins indicate an individual killed in action and recovered immediately after the War, while blue pins indicate a man who died of wounds and was buried at sea. The black pins represent those whose remains have either been lost forever or have not yet been recovered, and the few candles are for those returned from MIA status since 1949.

Hopefully, this helps to illustrate just how tremendous an impact this one short, terrible battle had on the United States. Nearly every state (with the exception of Vermont) lost somebody; a young man from Alaska and another from Puerto Rico were also among the dead. Many were the only fatality from their area, yet there are a surprising number of small towns that lost more than one. Sergeant Clarence Lowe and Corporal Curtis Lowery were both from the town of Kosciusko, Mississippi; both served with A/1/8th Marines, and both lost their lives and were buried at sea. Surprising, too, were the number of neighbors. Sergeant Donald Stoddard (B/6th Marines) and PFC Robert Smith (F/8th Marines) lived two blocks apart on Pine Street in Boulder, Colorado; Sergeant Charles McGuire (L/8th Marines) and PFC Paul Garrity (C/8th Marines) were virtually next-door neighbors in Indianapolis. One can only imagine that they knew each other before the war; perhaps their families were friends.

I intended to have every pin updated with photographs and a little information on each man, but there were simply too many. It’ll be updated as time and information allow. Hopefully as the months go by, more black pins will be replaced with candles.

So take a moment to look up your hometown, your address, or your favorite place. There may be a pin nearby. Remember that name today. Speak it out loud. It might be the first time someone’s said it in decades.

Visit the permanent map page on MissingMarines, or go directly to the Tarawa Casualty Map.

14 thoughts on “Tarawa: The Map

  1. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I worked in construction. The “old guys” used to talk of Tarawa and such places at lunch. The “old guys” were in their 30s. Some of them had been there, been on similar invasions or had family members who had. Today, few even know where these islands are even located.

    1. Although my main research focus outside of MIA servicemen focuses on the 4th Marine Division, I’ve been lucky enough to talk to one or two Tarawa veterans. You get the feeling sometimes that they’re not remembering the things they’re describing – they’re describing them as they relive them in conversation. It’s truly eerie.

      I’m 30 now and few of my friends or colleagues have any idea where Tarawa is, or that anything even happened there. I figured showing the casualty rate on a map of the United States would help people connect some of the places they’ve lived or visited with the battle. One of the MIAs (Adelphis Messier) was from the town next to my childhood home, and another lived just a few blocks from where I live now. Had things been just a little different, I could have met them on the street, or gone to school with their grandchildren. Repeat that story a thousand times and the picture starts to come together. And of course one could say the same for each of the 4700 Japanese and Korean men who died there, too.

      I got about halfway through the map and thought about giving up, it was just so overwhelming. I’m glad I didn’t. That helpless feeling was something I needed, I think, to help me understand the battle a bit more. Hopefully the visual shock of even a simple map like this will have the same impact on others, too.

      1. You are correct. It is truly eerie talking to the veterans of these events. In remembering them, they are reliving them in their minds as they speak. Equally significant is that your mind is absorbing what they are telling you and this information becomes imprinted on your mind.

        People say “Dad came home from the war and never talked about it.” That may be true in some cases, but my experience is that they did talk about it. They talked about it with the people who had been there and who understood about such things. I am nearly 72 and consider myself privileged to have been around when the guys who came back were talking together.

        Your map says a lot.

      2. One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been paid was by a veteran I’ve known for years. It wasn’t a comment on my character or a thank you or anything like that. He told me two stories that had bothered him since the war and that he’d never told to anyone – I think it helped him to start putting those episodes behind him. And I was summarily sworn to secrecy. (Hard for a historian, but inviolable for a trusted friend.)

        Those guys don’t let anyone behind the veil by accident. Your Tarawa veterans must have felt the same way.

  2. After reading “Utmost Savagery” I could not imagine anyone coming off that island alive. Each action taken in those 3 days, appeared to me, to be far too integrate, choreographed and so open to disaster. A lot was learned from Tarawa, but I do believe it could have been done with less casualties.

    1. GP – I actually just did a paper for my graduate school course about the logistics of the Tarawa landing, so this has been pretty front-of-mind for me lately. It’s important to recall that in 1943 the US was still pretty new to the concept of amphibious warfare. Thanks to Pete Ellis’ “Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia” and the general American assumption that a fight with Japan was a) forthcoming (see War Plan ORANGE) and b) would involve the seizure of island bases as stepping stones to supply the fleet (we were still operating with an A. T. Mahan mentality), amphibious training became more important in the interwar years. The Marine Corps grabbed the opportunity to become the amphibious experts, but their very first treatises on the subject didn’t appear until 1934; the annual FLEX scenarios were really the only opportunity that they had to practice anything like a combined-arms operation. So by the attack on Pearl Harbor, we had a lot of theories about how to conduct an amphibious landing, but almost no experience. This definitely showed in the Guadalcanal landings.

      The Japanese read Mahan, too, and much of their defensive strategy was aimed around forcing a major fleet engagement – as they tried to do at Guadalcanal, delay the Marines until they could get at our shipping. Tarawa was fortified as part of the Yogiyaki plan (“delaying attack”) which stressed defense at the water’s edge, thereby tying up the attackers and, more importantly, their supporting fleet until naval and air forces could arrive and stage a counterattack. (Of course, Betio is pretty much ALL water’s edge, so they didn’t have many options.) The idea was that without the fleet, the attacking force could be taken out piecemeal. Knowing this had almost worked in the Solomons, the Marine directive from Nimitz was to “get the hell in and get the hell out” to minimize the risk to the fleet. This sped up the timetable for the attack and wound up dictating tactics ashore. The Americans were aware of the reef and the possibility of dodging tides, so they tapped the 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion to act as the primary landing force. Turned out to be a good idea, and not one that had been attempted before – it was a lesson learned in action on Guadalcanal. The older LVTs of the battalion were NOT designed as assault craft – they were lightly armored logistical vehicles – and many had to have extra armor welded on right before departing for the battle. This is part of the reason for the extremely high casualties in the battalion, and especially among the drivers. They got a few LVT2s that were better designed, but these had to come all the way from the States so there was no time to rehearse with them. Of course, the supporting troops in the boats couldn’t cross the reef, and so many tractors were lost in the first wave that bringing in reinforcements and supplies became a nightmare – imagine the battalions cut to pieces while wading ashore, combat ineffective without firing a shot. 1/6 actually did better getting ashore in rubber boats than other battalions in armored vehicles, and their position on Green Beach eventually turned the Japanese flank.

      There are plenty of reasons for why the landings went wrong – over-reliance on naval gunfire being pretty central and a surprisingly common theme – but it was the first acid test of American amphibious doctrine. When you’ve only got one plan to test, it’s hard to plan for contingencies, and when the admiral’s breathing down your neck to hurry up you just press on – and in the case of Tarawa, that meant wading ashore and sneaking supplies in under cover of darkness. There wasn’t a sufficient backup plan in place, so progress was made by improvisation and sheer guts. Bloody and terrible, yes, but it *did* prove that the basis of the American plan was sound, and the modifications made immediately after Tarawa were implemented as early as the invasion of the Marshall Islands, with the result that those islands were taken in far less time with far less casualties. I think America’s first major attack against prepared Japanese beach defenses would have been terrifically bloody no matter where it occurred: Tarawa was made worse by the reef, but many of those mistakes were never repeated by Marines.

      1. Incredible reply – I commend you for the detail and time and effort to give me this. I congratulate you on your educational choices and hard work. I am quite aware of the amphibious training in the Pacific, since a child I questioned my father, paratrooper w/ 187th Rakkasans/11th Airborne Div. and did a paper myself on MacArthur , but that was too many years ago…. Hope I can pick your brain in the future.

      2. Anytime!

        I’m hoping eventually to get hooked up with one of the groups that actually goes on expeditions, hence the additional education. History Flight just announced another Tarawa ID (Capt. Richard W. Vincent) as a direct result of their expedition, and their report of finding PFC Randolph Allen is just extraordinary. Amazing work they’re doing out there – hopefully I can make such a contribution too someday!

        Give the report a read if you have a few minutes. Incredible and moving stuff.
        http://historyflight.com/nw/docs/Randolph_Allen_Recovery_Report_redacted_optimize.pdf

  3. In my family, two were killed in action on tarawa. One was pfc. Johns.w. Holm his body never found. He was my uncle. The other was the uncle to my cousins, he was sgt. Walters. Sutherland killed in action his body was intered and also never found. Both from the Pacific Northwest.

    1. Mr. Newhouse – thank you for the comment, and for sharing that part of your family history. I lost no family at Tarawa, but my grandmother’s cousin was a Marine lieutenant killed on Saipan, and my great uncle went down with the USS Quincy at Savo Island and was never found.

      There have been a large number of remains found on Tarawa in recent years that are awaiting identification at JPAC in Hawaii. If you haven’t already, you might want to contact either History Flight or the Chief Rick Stone foundation – they might have more information, or be able to organize a DNA test that could help identify if PFC Holm or Sgt. Sutherland are among those recently located.

      1. Mr. Newhouse,

        Our foundation has a great deal of information regarding both PFC Holm and SGT Sutherland which we would like to share with you and other family members. There is absolutely no charge for our services. Please contact us via the email link on our web site http://www.ChiefRickStone.com

        The Chief Rick Stone and Family Charitable Foundation

      2. Have gone to honolulu, and checked the punch bowl. My aunt had told me that pic. Holm wasn’t even listed in their system. She had gone over at some point, so I wanted to see for myself. In a way she was right, he is not listed in the computer system at the punch bowl, but he is listed on the the marines wall, along with sgt. Sutherland.

    2. Mr Newhouse – Mr Roecker is exactly right and according to my records, sir, both your uncle and cousin DO still need a family DNA sample for positive identification. Please contact Mr Ronald “Chuck” Williams (Asst. POW/MIA Section, HQMC Casualty, USMC) as soon as possible by calling 703-432-9518. Chuck will recognize my name and he’ll be able to explain the mission and will do his best to answer any questions your family may have. He will also be the person to coordinate sending out the DNA kit and – God willing – when the time comes, he will (I believe) be the one to call and tell you that they are ready come home. There is no expense, Mr Newhouse, nor any travel required on the family’s part. If I may be of assistance, please don’t hesitate to contact me. It would be an honor to help.

  4. I, for one, deeply appreciate your efforts, sir/ma’am. Due to a lack of interest by our own school’s history textbooks, WWII is merely an example of discrimination and racism, not one of an incredible national effort and ultimate sacrifices by our young boys and men. Without blogs such as yours, WWII will absolutely fade into memory merely as a racial wound.

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