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Rewind: Life during wartime on Tarawa 75 years ago

One of the coastal guns brought still mounted on Betio, the western end of Tarawa
One of the coastal guns brought still mounted on Betio, the western end of Tarawa (The Tokyo Reporter, 2006)

Later this year will mark 75 years since Allied and Japanese forces battled on the atoll of Tarawa, a part of what known today as the nation of Kiribati. The following article is based on interviews conducted in 2001 with two locals who were present on the atoll’s western end of Betio, where the fighting took place, in the run-up to the battle.

KIRIBATI (TR) – With the world abuzz over the film “Pearl Harbor,” the people of the tiny, low-lying Pacific nation of Kiribati couldn’t be bothered. For one, there are fish to catch, shells to collect, coconuts to pick, and pigs to raise. For another, there isn’t a movie theater in the entire country.

While this may sound like paradise, this collection of isolated coral atolls is perhaps facing ecological disaster as scientists predict global warming may eventually cause seas to swallow the islands whole.

Destruction, however, is nothing new to some of the locals of Kiribati, formerly known as the Gilbert Islands. For two men in particular, they can remember back to 1943, when Allied and Japanese forces used Betio, the western tip of the atoll Tarawa, as a World War II battlefield, turning its coral landscape into a charred crisp.

“At that time, I wasn’t mature enough to understand the situation,” remembers Betero Tokaman, 66, a deeply tanned and heavily tattooed former seaman.

The Gilberts were held by the British until Japan seized the islands in December 1941. Viewed as strategically important, Tarawa was converted into a fortress by thousands of imperial soldiers. Korean and local labor hacked tree trunks and assembled the logs into stockades. Concrete was poured for hundreds of pill boxes.

Coastal guns, capable of firing 8-inch shells, were mounted along the beaches, which 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. The Japanese also cut a single airstrip into the center of the narrow island.

“I just followed my grandfather”

Betero Tokaman
Betero Tokaman

“I had no idea why they were doing all the construction,” Tokaman continues. “I just followed my grandfather to the place of work everyday.”

The Japanese worked night and day over the course of nine months. Tokaman adds, “[The Japanese were] not friendly in their way of supervising the people. It was very tough sometimes. Very rough. They whipped us if we didn’t work properly.”

Tekina Koakoa, 69, a part-time fisherman, his gray hair shortly cropped, concurs, “If you didn’t listen to them, they’d whip you with a stick.” He estimates that more than a hundred Gilbertese in total were forced to work in shifts of maybe 30 at a time.

The battle raged over four days. Following the first shots from the Japanese coastal guns, American battleships and destroyers started their assault on the morning of November 20, 1943. Bombers then pummeled Japanese positions from the air.

“During the fighting,” Tokaman recalls, “we ran away to Teaoraereke [an island to the south]. I can remember the planes dropping bombs. We were very frightened. During the attack, it was focused on the Japanese bunkers and not on the Gilbertese. Maybe there was a communication with the Americans before the attack.”

Koakoa, who fled further south than Tokaman to nearby Bikenibeu, says, “About 20 to 30 Gilbertese were on Betio during the fighting. I know of one who died. A piece of shrapnel from a bomb came up and struck him.”

Casualties mounted, and the lagoon ran red

Betio forms the western end of Tarawa. After crossing the Nippon Causeway from Bairiki, 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.

During the assault, U.S. Marines riding LVTs (Landing Vehicle Tracked) made a 10-mile charge towards the beach. However, that morning’s low tide made matters difficult for low-draft Higgins boats, which became 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, and the lagoon ran red.

Tekina Koakoa
Tekina Koakoa

A small number of LVTs were able to land on the beach. However, they could not get through the coconut-trunk barricades. Sheets of bullets and tossed grenades rained down on the sand.

Eventually, a Japanese line of defense was broken by the end of the first day. Tokaman took shelter at a Catholic mission. He recalls seeing Betio being “lit by flames” that night.

The next morning was a different story. A battalion of Marines made a charge for the lagoon’s beach at dawn. Boats were able to take advantage of the high tide and reach the western shores. Under tank and flamethrower support, the Japanese fortifications were slowly destroyed.

On the third day, the land attack continued with the remaining fortifications being put out of commission. The Japanese made a final charge from the east but were turned back. Allied victory was symbolically secured on November 23, when a U.S. Navy airplane was able to touch down on the airstrip.

Casualties were significant. Less than 200 personnel from the Japanese side — out of 4,800 before the battle started — survived to surrender. The number of dead from the Allied side exceeded 1,000.

“On Betio after the fighting, you couldn’t see any coconut trees,” recalls Tokaman, referring to when he returned. “You could count them — 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. But nothing else.”

Pieces of a B-24 Liberator rest in the lagoon of Tarawa
Pieces of a B-24 Liberator rest in the lagoon of Tarawa (The Tokyo Reporter, 2006)

Even with the fighting stopped, there was still tension on Betio, says Koakoa: “After 6:00 p.m., no one was allowed to go around because the Japanese at that time were still hiding and perhaps hungry. During the night, it was thought that they would go out from their hiding place.” He says that this policy continued for a few days after the fighting.

“They gave us cigarettes”

“After the fighting ended,” remembers Tokaman, “some locals were recruited to clean up the area and build up the airfield. The American and British soldiers were very good people. They gave us what we wanted and what we needed. They gave us cigarettes.”

And jobs, too. “We could work as a house boy or mess room staff,” says Koakoa. “They let us work and paid us.”

Today, three Japanese guns rust away on the west and south shores, still mounted on concrete bases. While many I-Kiribati (locals) have adopted the concrete bunkers into their housing, seemingly ignoring their past use, will this nation of 100,000 be able to move forward as deftly should its next potential scourge — a rising sea — materialize in the future?

“I am not going to think about it,” Koakoa says. “I am just getting old. I listen to the news, but I think if there is a problem with sea-level rise, I would just run away.”

Just like old times.