The Gilbert and Ellice Islands – Pacific War

The Gilbert and Ellice Islands – Pacific War

Jim Moran
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Another book from the excellent Images of War series of books from Pen & Sword, this time covering the attacks by the US on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands with a very full description of the attack on Tarawa Island.

Again, although called Images of War and certainly the main part of the book is photographic, the author brings a very good narrative of the events as they happen. This starts with an explanation of the location and strategic value of the islands, not initially appreciated by the Japanese. The Islands were British protectorates and their position in the Pacific meant the Japanese occupied them shortly after declaring war on America, Britain and Dutch interests in the area.

The US sent in a strong recce team in August 1942 to raid the Island of Makin, in the Gilbert Islands, and to see what strength the Japanese thus giving them an idea of how Japan thought of the strategic value of the islands. The inexperience of the team led to some incorrect assumptions. They had in fact killed the majority of Japanese on the island at the time of their raid and thought the Japanese were stronger than they actually were. Relying on local native reports did not give an accurate picture. The raid was much more successful than the US realised. It did though give two definite outcomes.

Firstly, it showed the US planners the difficulties of assaulting over reefs and through shallow lagoons, very important for future operations. It showed the types of defensive positions the Japanese had and the type of ground that the assaulting troops would face.

Secondly, and probably more important, it awakened the Japanese to the interest that the US had in these very remote islands, so they reinforced the garrisons and built much stronger defences.

The raiding party also met, though did not fully appreciate, the Japanese idea of fighting to the last man, literally. This would be appreciated more fully in future operations.

The raid did bring back information the planners wanted so arrangements were made to invade the Gilbert Islands. While the Japanese had been occupying and building defences in the Gilbert Islands the US occupied the neighbouring, although hundreds of miles away, Ellice Islands from which they prepared to invade the Gilbert Islands.

November 1943 saw the preparation completed and the US set about invading the Gilbert Islands. Now although the Islands are properly known as the Gilberts, the battles only took place on main Islands, so we know this period as the Battle of Tarawa. The author gives an excellent summary of the invasion and the fighting on the island; the struggles that the troops had getting ashore through the lagoons, the fierce fighting that then took place where the fight-to-the-death mindset of the Japanese was realised for the first time. US casualties were high, 3,301 killed, wounded, missing, even combat fatigue, for one small set of islands. The Japanese on the other hand from a garrison of 4,836 had casualty figure of 4,836, with 4,690 killed. The majority of prisoners taken were Korean labourers on the island to build the defences. On the neighbouring island of Apamama the Japanese Garrison totalled 23, number killed 23.

This was the first major land operation against the Japanese by the US, especially the USMC and certainly let them know the scale of the task in front of them.

Now that is the text dealt with, now to the main part of the book, the photographs. One thing the US were excellent at during WW2 is ensuring they had cameramen at the front documenting the events as they happened. It is because of that policy that the Images of War series is firmly based, and we should be thankful that we have this for historical reasons. The photographs in this first book start with the raid on Makin island showing the troops preparing to land and in training. Some pictures were taken by a member of the raiding party who had taken his camera with him, against regulations. The main body of pictures though are of Tarawa and the fighting there. I am glad that they are in black and white as some are very graphic showing bodies of both Japanese and US casualties. Interestingly, and nothing to do with this book, I watched a documentary on British cameraman on D Day who said they did not take pictures of British casualties as these would not be used when sent back to UK so they did not bother taking them. The US did not have that issue and indeed made a film about the assault on Tarawa which was shown in cinemas to let the public know what their troops were doing and having to go through to win this war. A totally different approach to the UK’s.

The cameramen are up with the forward troops and it is obvious that most are not staged after the event, although some obviously are. One photograph shows US troops in a rest area just sitting around but surrounded by dead bodies, US and Japanese – the picture is shown to display the acceptance that troops had by that time of death and that it did not repel them in the same way as at the start of the battle.

Throughout the book, at the relevant part, are included maps showing the layout of the island being assaulted and where various actions took place. A very good and informative assistance to understanding the action.

The final pages in this book give details of casualties on both sides and ORBATS of the Task Force, units taking part and the ships involved in taking them there, and finally the Japanese ORBAT.

This is another very good book from Pen & Sword and the mixture of text and photographs gives a more complete overview of the actions rather than just a dry report relying purely on text and a few photos and maps. Thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend to anyone wishing to see how the US started its island-hopping campaign in the Pacific.

4/5 Mr MRHs from me.

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