By the fall of 1943, Japanese forces had been ejected from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific, and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific were on the verge of capture.
US forces now had to push into the central Pacific, from which they could target Japanese strong points and communications lines. US officials had spent much of that year preparing for Operation Galvanic: the capture of the Gilbert Islands, a group of coral atolls that are now part of Kiribati.
Held by the British until Japan seized them in December 1941, the Gilberts were “of great strategic significance because they are north and west of other islands in our possession and immediately south and east of important bases in the Carolines and Marshalls,” US Navy Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King wrote in official reports.
“The capture of the Gilberts was, therefore, a necessary part of any serious thrust at the Japanese Empire,” he wrote.
The attack on Tarawa focused on Betio, the principal island in the atoll, at its southwest corner.
“The island was the most heavily defended atoll that ever would be invaded by Allied forces in the Pacific,” wrote Joseph Alexander, a historian who was a Marine amphibious officer.
US Marines stormed ashore Betio on November 20, 1943. After 76 hours of intense fighting, they had wrested it from tenacious Japanese defenders.