Operation Battle of Makin

The 'Battle of Makin' was fought between US and Japanese forces on Makin atoll of the Gilbert islands group (20/24 November 1943).

On 10 December 1941, three days after the 'Ai' csrrierborne air attack attack on Pearl Harbor had drawn the USA into World War II, 300 Japanese troops and a force of labourers of the Gilbert Islands Invasion Special Landing Force arrived off Makin atoll and occupied it without resistance. Lying to the east of the Marshall islands group, Makin was an excellent seaplane base used to protect the eastern flank of the Japanese perimeter from any Allied attack by extending Japanese air patrols closer to the islands held by the Allies: Howland island, Baker island, Tuvalu, and the Phoenix and Ellice island groups.

The end of the Aleutian islands campaign and US progress in the Solomon islands group, combined with increasing supplies of men and matériel, gave the US Navy the resources to make possible an invasion of the central Pacific late in 1943. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet and the Pacific Ocean Areas, had argued for this invasion earlier in 1943, but the resources had not then been available to carry it out at the same time as 'Cartwheel', the operation to envelop the Japanese main base area of Rabaul on New Britain island in the Bismarck islands group. The plan was to approach the Japanese home islands by 'island hopping', that is the establishment of naval and air bases in one group of islands to support the attack on the next. The Gilbert islands group was the first step in this chain.

On 17 August 1942, 211 US Marines of the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion under the command of Colonel Evans Carlson and Captain James Roosevelt were landed on Makin from the submarines Nautilus and Argonaut. At that time, the Japanese garrison comprised only some 83 to 160 men under the command of a warrant officer. The raiders killed at least 83 Japanese soldiers, annihilating the garrison, and destroyed installations for the loss of 21 killed (mostly to air attack) and nine taken prisoner. The Japanese moved their prisoners to Kwajalein atoll, where they were later beheaded. One objective of the raid was to confuse the Japanese about US intentions in the Pacific theatre, but it also had the effect of alerting the Japanese to the strategic importance of the Gilbert islands group, which led to further reinforcement and fortification.

After Carlson’s raid, the Japanese reinforced the Gilbert islands group, which up to this time had been left lightly guarded. Makin was garrisoned by one company of the 5th Special Base Force, with between 700 and 800 men, in August 1942, and work on both the seaplane base and atoll’s coastal defences was resumed in earnest. By July 1943 the seaplane base on Makin had been completed and was ready to accommodate Kawanishi H8K 'Emily' four-engined flying boat bombers, Nakajima A6M2-N 'Rufe' single-engined floatplane fighters and Aichi E13A 'Jake' single-engined reconnaissance floatplanes. The atoll’s defences were also completed, although they were not as extensive as those of Tarawa atoll, which was the main Imperial Japanese navy air base in the Gilbert islands group. The seaplane carrier Chitose and the 653rd Kokutai (air group) were detached and deployed to the atoll. While the Japanese were improving their defences in the Gilbert islands group, US forces were making plans to retake the islands.

In June 1943, the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff directed Nimitz to prepare and submit a plan to occupy the Marshall islands group. Initially both Nimitz and Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations, wished to attack right into the heart of the Japanese outer defence perimeter, but any plan for assaulting the Marshall island group directly from Pearl Harbor would have required more troops and transports than the Pacific Fleet had available at the time. Considering these drawbacks and the limited combat experience of the US forces, King and Nimitz decided to take the Marshall islands group in a step-by-step operation via the Ellice and Gilbert islands group. The Gilbert islands lie within 200 miles (320 km) of the southern part of the Marshall islands and were well within the range of US Army Air Forces' Consolidated B-24 Liberator four-engined heavy bombers based in the Ellice islands group and could therefore provide bombing support and long-range reconnaissance for operations in the Gilbert islands group. With those advantages in mind, on 20 July 1943 the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff decided to capture the Tarawa and Abemama atolls in the Gilbert islands group, as well as nearby Nauru island, in an operation codenamed 'Galvanic'.

On 4 September, the amphibious troops of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance’s Central Pacific Force (soon to be the 5th Fleet) were designated as the V Amphibious Corps and placed under the command of a US Marine Corps officer, Major General Holland M. Smith. The V Amphibious Corps had only two divisions, Major General John Marston’s 2nd Marine Division based in New Zealand, and Major General Ralph C. Smith 27th Division of the US Army based in the Hawaiian islands group. The 27th Division had been a New York National Guard formation before being called into federal service in October 1940. It was then transferred to Hawaii and remained there for 18 months before being chosen by Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson, the US Army commanding general in the Central Pacific, for the Gilbert islands invasion. Captain James Jones, commander of the Amphibious Reconnaissance Company, V Amphibious Corps undertook a periscope reconnaissance of the Gilbert islands group aboard the submarine Nautilus, establishing accurate data on the beach-heads for the forthcoming invasion.

Smith’s 27th Division was to supply the landing force, with one main unit (the 165th Regimental Combat Team) reinforced by the 3/105th Battalion Landing Team supported by the 105th Field Artillery Battalion and the 193rd Tank Battalion. Smith, who had assumed command in November 1942, was at the time one of the US Army’s most highly respected officers, and in April 1943 the 27th Division had begun preparing for amphibious operations.

Planning for the 27th Division’s role in 'Galvanic' (the Army portion was codenamed 'Kourbash') began at a time early in August 1943, with Nauru island in the western part of the Gilbert islands group as the original objective. Unlike the other objectives, Nauru is an island rather than an atoll, much larger in size and more heavily garrisoned. In September 1943, however, the 27th Division’s objective was changed. The difficulty of providing adequate naval and air support for simultaneous operations at Tarawa ('Longsuit') and the much more distant Nauru, plus lack of sufficient transport vessels to carry the entire division required to take the larger and more heavily defended Nauru, caused Nimitz to shift the 27th Division’s objective from Nauru to Makin atoll, in the north-east part of the Gilbert islands group. The 27th Division’s staff learned of the change of target on 28 September, scrapped the original Nauru plan and began planning the seizure of Makin.

Heavy aircraft losses and the disabling of four heavy cruisers in the Solomon islands group meant that the original Japanese plan of a strike at the US invasion fleet by forces based at Truk atoll in the nearby Caroline islands group (Japan’s South Seas Mandate) was scrapped, and the garrisons of Tarawa and Makin were now left to their fate.

The US invasion fleet, Task Force 52 commanded by Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, departed Pearl Harbor on 10 November. The landing force, Task Group 52.6, comprised elements of the 27th Division transported by the attack transports Neville, Leonard Wood, Calvert and Pierce, the attack cargo ship Alcyone, the dock landing ship Belle Grove, and the tank landing ships LST-31, LST-78 and LST-179 of Task Group 52.1.

On the eve of invasion, the Japanese garrison on Makin atoll’s main island, Butaritari, numbered 806 men: 284 naval ground troops of the 6th Special Naval Landing Force, 108 aviation personnel of the 802nd and 952nd Aviation Units, 138 men of the 111th Pioneers and 276 men of the 4th Fleet Construction Department and Makin Tank Detachment of the 3rd Special Base Force. The last had three Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks). Overall command was vested in a junior naval officer, Lieutenant Seizo Ishikawa. The number of trained combat troops on Makin was no more than 300 men.

Butaritari’s land defences were centred on the lagoon shore, near the seaplane base in the central part of the island. There were two tank barrier systems: the western tank barrier extended from the lagoon two-thirds of the way across Butaritari, was 12 to 13 ft (3.6 to 4.2 m) wide and 15 ft (4.6 m) deep, and protected by one anti-tank gun in a concrete pillbox, six machine gun positions, and 50 rifle pits; and the eastern tank barrier, 14 ft (4.3 m) wide and 6 ft (1.8 m) deep, extended from the lagoon across two-thirds of the island, bent westward with log anti-tank barricades at each end, and was protected by a double apron of barbed wire and an intricate system of gun emplacements and rifle pits. A series of strongpoints was established along Butaritari’s oceanic side, with 8-in (203.2-mm) coast-defence guns, three 37-mm anti-tank gun positions, 10 machine gun emplacements and 85 rifle pits. The Japanese expected the invasion to hit the oceanic side of Butaritari, following the example of Carlson’s raid in 1942, and established their defences 2 miles (3.2 km) from where the raid had taken place. Without aircraft, ships or any hope of reinforcement or relief, the outnumbered and outgunned defenders could plan only to delay the forthcoming US attack for as long as they could.

US air operations against the Japanese positions on Makin began on 13 November, when B-24 bombers of Major General Willis H. Hale’s US 7th AAF attacked from the Ellice islands group. Grumman FM-1 Wildcat single-engined fighters escorted Douglas SBD Dauntless single-engined dive-bombers and Grumman TBF Avenger single-engined level bombers from escort carriers Liscome Bay, Coral Sea and Corregidor, and there came the 8-in (203.2-mm) gunfire from the heavy cruiser Minneapolis and other vessels. During the bombardment, a turret explosion on the battleship Mississippi killed 43 men.

Troops began to go ashore across two beaches at 08.30 on 20 November. The initial landings on Red Beach went according to plan, with the assault troops moving rapidly inland after an uneventful trip on the oceanic side of the island. Their progress off the beach was slowed only by an occasional sniper and the need for the men to negotiate ways around the debris and water-filled craters left by the air and naval bombardment. The craters in particular prevented armoured support for the Red Beach force by the light tanks of the 193rd Tank Battalion after the leading M3 Stuart light tank became partially submerged in a shell hole and blocked the passage of all the vehicles behind it.

As the landing craft approached Yellow Beach from the atoll’s lagoon side, they began to receive small arms and machine gun fire. The assault troops were also surprised to discover that even though they were approaching the beach at high tide, as had been planned, a miscalculation of the lagoon’s depth caused their small craft to run aground, forcing the men to walk the final 250 yards (230 m) onto the beach in waist-deep water. Equipment and weapons were lost or soaked by water, but only three men were killed during the approach to the beach, mainly because the defenders had chosen to make their final stand farther inland along the tank barriers.

The US invasion plan had been conceived in the hope of luring the Japanese into committing most of their forces to oppose the first landings on Red Beach, and thereby allow the troops landing on Yellow Beach to attack from the rear. The Japanese did not respond to the attack on Red Beach, however, and withdrew from Yellow Beach with only harassing fire, leaving the troops of the 27th Division no choice but to tackle and destroy the fortified strongpoints one by one. Reduction operations were hampered by the frequent inability to use heavy support weapons, including tanks, because of the danger of cross-fire. The commander of the 165th Infantry, Colonel Gardiner Conroy, was killed in action by a Japanese sniper on the afternoon of the first day and was succeeded by Colonel Gerard W. Kelley.

Two days of determined fighting reduced the Japanese resistance. After clearing the entire atoll, the 27th Division’s commander reported on the morning of 23 November 1943, 'Makin taken, recommend command pass to commander garrison force.'

The most difficult problem in seizing Makin had been the co-ordination of the two separate landing forces, made more difficult because the defenders had not responded as anticipated. The unsuitability of the narrow beaches for supply landing operations, a factor which went undiscovered by the pre-invasion reconnaissance, was also a major handicap.

In the early hours of 24 November, the escort carrier and flagship Liscome Bay was sunk by the Japanese submarine I-175, which had arrived near Makin just a few hours earlier. A single torpedo, launched as part of a salvo of such weapons, detonated Liscome Bay's aircraft bomb magazine, causing an explosion which engulfed the entire ship and resulted in a swift sinking. The attack on Liscome Bay accounted for the majority of US casualties in the 'Battle of Makin': of the escort carriers' 916 men, only 272 were rescued, while 644 (53 officers and 591 other ranks) died. The dead included the flagship’s admiral and task force group commander, Rear Admiral Henry M. Mullinnix, and the carrier’s captain, Captain Irving Wiltsie.

The loss of Liscome Bay was the result of several factors. Two ships of the carrier’s escort, Hull and Franks, had left the destroyer screen, leaving a gap. Also, the task force which included Liscome Bay was not zigzagging. I-175 had approached the task force undetected and fired a spread of torpedoes through the gap in the anti-submarine screen.

The complete occupation of Makin took four days and cost considerably more casualties in the naval force than in the ground force. Despite possessing great superiority in men and weapons, the 27th Division had difficulty subduing the island’s small defence force. One Japanese Ha-Go tank was destroyed in combat, and two tanks placed in revetments were abandoned without being used in combat.

Against an estimated 395 Japanese killed in action during the operation, US ground casualties numbered 66 men killed and 152 wounded. As noted above, the US Navy’s losses were significantly higher: 644 deaths on Liscome Bay, 43 killed in the turret fire on the battleship Mississippi, and 10 killed in action with naval shore parties or as aviators, for a total of 697 naval deaths. The overall total of 763 US dead almost equalled the number of men in the whole of the Japanese garrison.