Operation Kourbash

This was the US seizure of Makin atoll in the Gilbert islands group of the central part of the Pacific Ocean within 'Galvanic' (20/23 November 1943).

Butaritari atoll, generally called Makin after its principal island, was given the codename 'Kourbash', later changed to 'Playful', and lies 105 miles (170 km) to the north of Tarawa as the most northerly element of the Gilbert islands group. Its nearest neighbour in the group, other than Little Makin atoll about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north of Butaritari’s eastern end, is Abaiang atoll, some 70 miles (115 km) to the south. Makin occupied a key position to support future operations into the Marshall and Caroline island groups: Kwajalein atoll in the central part of the Marshalls islands group is 450 miles (725 km) to the north-west and Truk atoll in the eastern part of the Carolines isands group is 1,265 miles (2035 km) to the west-north-west.

The atoll is of basically triangular shape, and its south-eastern side is about 18 miles (29 km) long and comprises of two long but narrow islands averaging 500 yards (460 m) in width. Both islands have a maximum height of 12 ft (3.6 m). The western Makin island (Butaritari island), is the atoll’s largest and is 10 miles (16 km) long with a cross-T section, 3 miles (4.8 km) long, on its south-western end. Kuma island, to the north-east of Makin island, is 6.5 miles (10.5 km) long and slightly narrower than Makin. The two islands are connected by a continuous reef which turns north off the north-eastern end of Kuma island for about 4 miles (6.4 km) and then, after broadening, extends to the west for some 20 miles (32 km). A few scattered islets dot the reef’s eastern end, but the northern arm is almost devoid of islands except for two small islets on the expanded eastern end. The atolls' western side has several coral heads and shoals lying across the entrance to the lagoon, and only one islet of any significance occupies the centre of the open western side. Other coral reefs are scattered across the central and eastern portions of the lagoon.

Little Makin atoll lies about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north of Makin island’s eastern end and is an elongated coral reef 6 miles (9.6 km) long. The main island on its northern end is 2.75 miles (4.4 km) long and about 900 yards (825 m) wide with a few islets scattered in a line off its southern end.

Late in 2943, Makin island’s western portion was covered by coconut palms, thicker on the southern side, and salt brush. The lagoon side of the northern arm of the T, Flink Point, and its junction with the long arm was limned by mangrove swamps. Much of the island’s central portion was covered with salt brush and swamp, except near the shores. The whole of the junction with the T-cross arm was swamp-covered with interspersed small lagoons. The eastern portion was also covered with palms, thickening toward the eastern end. A motor road of packed coral extended along the lagoon side the island’s entire length and almost to the end of the T-cross arm’s southern portion, Ukiangong Point, but only halfway up the cross arm’s northern arm. Just to the west of the island’s central section was the old British administrative area, which included the government house and a small hospital. There were four roads crossing the government area connecting to a simple road running along the oceanside only in this central section.

The island’s indigenous population numbered about 1,700 persons before the outbreak of the Pacific War, but after the Japanese had taken occupation the islanders were ordered to relocate to other islands. The local population worked the coconut plantations, harvested taro, and fished. There were several villages, of which the largest was Butaritari to the east of the government area, and the second largest Ukiangong near the cross arm’s southern end. Four con­crete or stone piers jutted out into the lagoon from this area: from east to west these were the Gov­ernment Wharf, which was 250 yards (230 m) long; Stone Pier, which was 150 yards (137 m) long; King’s Wharf, which was 300 yards (275 m) long and possessed an unloading 'island' at its end; and On Chong’s Wharf, which was 200 yards (183 m) long.

The island was bordered by reefs on each side, between 100 and 200 yards (110 and 220 m) across on the southern ocean side and between 500 and 1,500 yards (460 and 1370 m) wide on the northern lagoon side. The sand beach on the ocean side was about 20 yards (18.25 m) wide, but there was almost no beach on the lagoon side. It was the lagoon side which the US forces chose for their landing, in the area of the wharves, onto which the landing craft could home and which could later be used for the unloading of landing ships. That side’s wider reefs were assessed as posing no major obstacle as they were flat and sufficiently deep at high tide for landing craft to pass over them. At low tide the reefs were completely exposed. However, the US Army experienced tidal problems on the lagoon side similar to those which the US Marine Corps did at Tarawa.

On 8 December 1941 a company of the 51st Guard Force arrived from Jaluit atoll in the Marshall islands group and landed on Makin. The Japanese then established a seaplane base and radio station in the former government area. The Japanese naval garrison comprised only 73 men of the 62nd Guard Force, under the command of Sergeant Major Kanemitsu, when two companies of Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson’s 2nd Raider Battalion attacked on 17 August.

The raid was intended to divert Japanese attention from the 'Watchtower' landing on Guadalcanal, which had taken place 10 days earlier. Like 'Watchtower', this marine raider undertaking was planned in great haste, but the US Navy planners correctly assessed that the Japanese were few in number.

The raiders were delivered to the atoll by the submarines Argonuat and Nautilus, which departed Pearl Harbor on 8 August and arrived off Makin early on 16 August. The submarines spent the day reconnoitring by periscope, then came close ashore in the hours before dawn on 17 August to launch the 221 raiders in rubber boats powered by outboard engines. The heavy surf led to difficulty manning the boats, and Carlson made a swift decision for all the boats to land at one point rather than the two which had originally been planned. One of the boats did not receive word of the change, however, so while 15 boats landed at the correct point, three others landed a short distance to the north of the others, and the boat whose occupants had not heard the change of orders landed 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of the others.

Shortly after landing, one of the raiders fired a shot, which alerted the men of the Japanese garrison and Carlson, knowing that surprise had been lost, ordered one of his companies to rush the coastal road on the lagoon side of the islet. The raiders made contact with the Japanese garrison at 06.30 and began an advance to the south. The raiders were aided by shore bombardment by the two 6-in (152-mm) deck guns of Nautilus, which also sank a transport and a patrol boat in the lagoon. The Japanese resisted fiercely, sniping from trees and fighting to the death around machine gun positions. During this struggle, 12 Japanese aircraft of various types bombed and strafed the island while two Kawanishi H6K 'Mavis' flying boats arrived with reinforcements. One was destroyed and the other driven off by machine gun fire, but not before some 35 troops had made it to shore.

Late in the day, the marine advance reached palm groves, which provided excellent cover for snipers. Carlson had his men pull back into more open terrain, and the Japanese responded by advancing out of their cover, whereupon they were bombed by their own aircraft.

Meanwhile, the 12 raiders whose boat had landed far to the south began to savage the Japanese rear, destroying the radio station and picking off Japanese soldiers. Eight of these men made it back to the submarines that evening.

Just before sunset, Carlson began a withdrawal to the landing point, but the surf was so heavy that the boats had great difficulty in clearing the reef. Only seven boats carrying fewer than 100 men reached the waiting submarines, and Carlson was forced to remain on the atoll through the night. On the following day, 18 August, Carlson made another attempt to reach the submarines, but Japanese air activity prevented any more than 30 men from getting to the submarines. The Japanese later claimed that Carlson attempted to negotiate the surrender of his men at this point, but this seems out of character for Carlson, and there were few surviving Japanese to whom the Americans could in fact have surrendered. Carlson’s men swept the island during the day, collecting documents for Allied intelligence and killing the few remaining Japanese. After the fall of night, Carlson had four boats lashed to a local outrigger canoe, and this allowed him to evacuate most of his remaining men.

Unknown to Carlson, though, nine of the raiders were left behind as it had wrongly come to be believed that they had been killed. These men had little choice but to surrender a few days later, when the Japanese reoccupied the atoll. They were transported to Kwajalein and were initially treated relatively well, but on 16 October 1942 the Japanese navy commander in the Marshall islands, Rear Admiral Abe Koso, ordered the men summarily beheaded.

The raiders claimed to have killed 83 of the Japanese, and by the time the operation was over the marines had lost 18 men killed, 16 wounded and 12 missing. The actual Japanese losses were 46 men killed, and 26 more men survived by hid­ing.

All that the raid achieved in real terms was to persuade the Japanese to reinforce and fortify their positions in the Gilbert islands, and none of the reinforcements were diverted from the Solomon islands group.

On 20 August the Japanese flew in an advance party by flying boat seaplane, and the main element of their relief force soon arrived by ship. Nauru and Ocean islands were soon occupied, and on 15 September the 1,500-man 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force reached Tarawa from Japan. Detachments were were deployed to Butaritari and Apamama atolls in the Gilbert islands group. On 15 February 1943, the 6th Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force was redesignated as the 3rd Spe­cial Base Force and then took under command all the Japanese forces in the Gilbert islands group to create the Gilberts Area Defence Force. An improved floatplane base on Butaritari island had become operational by July.

At the time of the 'Kourbash' landing, Butaritari island was defended by the 'Makin' Detachment of the 3rd Special Base Force, elements of 1st Construction Unit and 4th Fleet Construction Department, and Imperial Japanese navy air force personnel. The US Army estimated that the Japanese strength was 500 to 800 men, and Lieuten­ant Seizo Ishikawa in fact had 798 men under his command.

The Japanese fortified the central portion of Buraritari island around the old government area and the seaplane base on the lagoon side. Unlike Tarawa, Makin was only lightly defended. The primary defence area, some 3,000 yards (2745 m) wide, was flanked by cross-island anti-tank ditches. Some 5 ft (1.5 m) deep and 13 ft (4 m) wide, the eastern tank barrier was about 300 yards (275 m) to the west of Stone Pier and the more heavily fortified western tank barrier, which was 6 ft (1.85 m) deep and 14.5 ft (4.4 m) wide, was located some 350 yards (320 m) to the east of On Chong’s Wharf. A belt between 100 and 200 yards (90 and 185 m) wide had been cleared through the palms to provide a clear field of fire over the ditches. All this clearly identified the locations of the Japanese positions to naval gunfire observers and aircraft. King’s Wharf was located in the centre of the defence area; Government Wharf was 1,000 yards (915 m) to the east of the east anti-tank ditch with the village of Butaritari occupying the lagoon-side area between the ditch and wharf. Most of the defences faced the sea as the defenders expected a landing force to follow the raiders' example. The largest-calibre defensive weapons available to the Japanese were six 80-mm (3.2-inch) pieces, of which half faved the sea and the other half the lagoon.

The original plan for 'Galvanic' called for the seizure of Tarawa and Nauru, but the latter was considered too strongly defended and Butaritari therefore replaced it. The selection of Butaritari also made it easier to provide support for the operation as the two main objectives were only 105 miles (240 km) apart, whereas Nauru was 390 miles (630 km) distant.

The naval force was Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s 5th Fleet in the form of the Northern Attack Force (Task Force 52). Subordinate to the V Amphibious Corps, the US Army’s 6,470-man Northern Landing Force was built round the 165th Infantry, elements of the 105th Infantry and other units of Major General Ralph C. Smith’s 27th Division’s 165th Infantry Regiment, elements of the 105th Infantry, and other reinforcing units. The division assembled at Pearl Harbor and undertook rehearsals on the island of Maui in the same island group, and then departed for the Gilbert islands group, where its arrived off the western end of Makin island before dawn on 20 November.

The main landing was preceded by the delivery of one platoon of army infantrymen and one platoon of reconnaissance marines, who secured the unoccupied Kotabu island, 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the north of Flink Point at 06.43. In the army’s first use of these reef-crossing vehicles, the first waves of amphibian tractors landed on Red Beach and Red Beach 2 on the left and right of the western end of the island’s cross arm at 08.32. For the first time, some of the amphibious tractors had been fitted with 4.5-in (114-mm) rockets. The landing beaches were undefended and found also to be free of man-made obstacles, but the coral was unexpectedly studded with rocks, which prevented the following landing craft from approaching the beaches, thereby making it necessary for their embarked troops to disembark in the water and wade ashore. It was later assessed that had the beaches been well defended, the landing force would have been devastated.

The accompanying tanks found great difficulty in negotiating the swampy terrain between the beaches and the western tank barrier 2,500 yards (2285 km) to the east. Large-calibre shell holes contributed to the problem. The northern and southern ends of the cross arm were secured within hours.

The second wave of attackers landed at 10.41 over Beach Yellow on the lagoon side between the King’s Wharf and On Chong’s Wharf. With amphibian tractors in the lead, the landing force received only very light fire during its approach. Once ashore the troops attacked in both directions, trapping the defenders of the western tank barrier between two forces.

The US beach-heads were well established by the fall of night, and the American infantrymen resumed their offensive on the following day, overrunning the remaining pockets of resistance and clearing the eastern tank barrier on 22 November. At 12.00 on the same day one company was landed by amphibian tractor on the lagoon side at a narrow isthmus of the island 4,000 yards (3660 m) beyond the eastern tank barrier to block Japanese fleeing from the main force as it advanced to the east.

To the east of Butaritari island, Kuma island had been reconnoitred on 21 November, and a small force was landed on this island at 14.00 on 22 November on the lagoon side some 2,000 yards (1830 m) from the island’s south-western end and drive forward to that so as to block any Japanese who may have escaped from Butaritari island, which was declared secure at 10.30 on 23 Novem­ber.

Most of the assault troops departed on the following day, leaving an element to secure the construction troops scheduled to develop the islands for US service. The US Army’s losses were 66 dead and 158 wounded, and of the Japanese defenders only slightly more than 100, most of them Korean labourers, survived to be taken prisoner. While the US Army casualties were light, those of the US Navy were considerably heavier when the escort carrier Liscome Bay was sunk, with the loss of more than 600 men, by a submarine while operating to the south-west of Butaritari island.

The US Army built an airfield with a 7,000-ft (2135-m) runway on Butaritari island in the area to the east of the main defence area, and this Starmann Airfield was completed early in January 1944 to allow support operations to be flown over US offensives in the Marshall and Caroline island groups. The airfield was built on sand and could only support fighters.