Thanksgiving in 1943 fell on Thursday, November 25th, two days after the island of Tarawa was “secured.” The Tarawa invasion, was also the second time in the war that the United States faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing. Previous landings met little or no initial resistance. The 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and well-prepared, and they fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the American Marines.
In order to set up forward air bases capable of supporting operations across the mid-Pacific, to the Philippines, and into Japan, the U.S. needed to take the Marianas Islands. The Marianas were heavily defended, and in order for attacks against them to succeed, land-based bombers would have to be used to weaken the defenses. The nearest islands capable of supporting such an effort were the Marshall Islands, northeast of Guadalcanal. Taking the Marshalls would provide the base needed to launch an offensive on the Marianas but the Marshalls were cut off from direct communications with Hawaii by a garrison on the small island of Betio, on the western side of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Thus, to eventually launch an invasion of the Marianas, the battles had to start far to the east, at Tarawa.
The Japanese forces were well aware of the Gilberts' strategic location and had invested considerable time and effort fortifying the island. The American invasion force was the largest yet assembled for a single operation, consisting of 18 aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 8 heavy and 4 light cruisers, 66 destroyers, and 36 transports. The force carried the 2nd Marine Division and a part of the Army's 27th Infantry Division, for a total of about 35,000 soldiers and Marines.
Only one Japanese officer, 16 enlisted men and 129 Koreans were alive at the end of the battle. Total Japanese and Korean casualties were about 4,713 dead. For the U.S. Marine Corps, 990 were killed and a further 2,296 wounded. A total of 687 U. S. Navy personnel also lost their lives in the landing attempts, giving a total of 1,677 American dead. Although the United States forces were seven times larger than the defending garrison, the Japanese were able to inflict substantial damage upon the U.S. force.
These heavy casualties sparked off a storm of protest in the United States, where the high losses could not be understood for such a tiny and seemingly unimportant island in the middle of nowhere. Writing after the war, Marine General Holland M. Smith asked,"Was Tarawa worth it?" "My answer," he said, "is unqualified: No. From the very beginning the decision of the Joint Chiefs to seize Tarawa was a mistake and from their initial mistake grew the terrible drama of errors, errors of omission rather than commission, resulting in these needless casualties." Thought Smith, "[We] should have let Tarawa 'wither on the vine.' We could have kept it neutralized from our bases on Baker Island, to the east, and the Ellice and Phoenix Islands, a short distance to the southeast.”