Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Gilbert Islands Campaign, 1943

On this date in 1943, while my dad, Frank Dolan, was en route to the states after 2 years of Pacific service on the USS Vestal, the U.S. Navy began its invasion of the Gilbert Islands, codenamed "Operation Galvanic." Just days before, Dad's troop transport ship, Matsonia, made a 1-day stop at Funifuti, on the southern tip of this long, Pacific island chain. The next day, Matsonia, continued its voyage on to San Francisco, arriving there on November 17th, just as the amphibious invasion of the Gilberts was about to commence.

The Gilbert Islands, together with the Marshalls to the north, were strategic for the success of the Americans in their naval and marine operations against the Japanese Imperial Navy. Their goal was to establish airfields to provide air support for the upcoming operations across the Central Pacific. The first step was to gain control of strategic positions in the Gilbert Islands as the Allies penetrated Japan's eastern defensive perimeter.

Two atolls were key to the American invasion: Makin and Tarawa. Within days after their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese occupied the Gilberts. They built a seaplane base on Makin and dispersed troops along the coastlines of the atolls to monitor the movement of Allied forces in the South Pacific. The largest and most strategically important atoll was Tarawa where a Japanese airfield was located on the tiny island of Betio. Of the two, Tarawa was the most heavily fortified, and it would prove the most difficult and costly for the U.S. Marines who would have to take it.

Source: World War II Database

The battle for Makin began on today's date in 1943, with Army and Navy air attacks. That was followed on the 20th by an Army infantry landing on mostly undefended beaches. They pressed inland over the next couple of days and defeated the Japanese stronghold. The Americans lost 66, with 152 wounded, while 395 Japanese defenders were killed.

Taking Tarawa to the south was not so easy for the Marines. The Tarawa atoll was comprised of 38 islands surrounded by coral reef. Taking the important airfield on Betio was the primary goal. The invasion was preceded by a naval bombardment, which as it happened, was not nearly sufficient to destroy or soften up enemy defenses. Then on the morning of the 20th, Marines boarded their amphibious landing craft and headed for the Betio Island beach. Soon, though, their crafts became stranded on the reef, and the men were forced to wade 700 yards to the beach under horrendous enemy fire. While they took heavy casualties, the Marines reached the beach. However, they were pinned down until on the 21st they were able to pierce the defensive line and eventually take the island. Over the next several days, the Marines took the smaller islands around the atoll. By the end of the Battle of Tarawa, there were more than 1,000 Americans killed and 2,200 wounded. 4,690 of the enemy were killed.

Of course, news of the opening of the Gilbert Islands Campaign had hardly reached the states when Dad arrived there on November 17th. Over the next several months, Dad's new repair ship, USS Hector, will complete its final shakedown before beginning operations in the Pacific Theater. The naval campaign against Japan will proceed next with the invasion and occupation of the Marshall Islands. Within a few months, Dad will be on the Hector, stationed on the remote forward naval base of Eniwetok in the northern chain of these newly captured islands.

Sources: Frank L. Dolan's Service Records; The Two-Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morison; World War II Database

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