The Gilbert Islands, 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii, had to be taken. In Tarawa atoll, tiny Betio Island, 800 yards wide and two miles long, was the target. But it was defended by 2,600 dug-in Imperial Japanese troops.
Bad luck plagued the invasion. A neap tide, where the sun and moon stand at right angles to each other, cancelled out high tide, which would have helped the landing craft over the reefs encircling the lagoon. Instead, the Amtracks got hung up on the reef and the Marines had to slog ashore in chest-deep water. Japanese machine guns took advantage and the result was a bloodbath.
A camera crew accompanied the Marines and the resulting footage was so horrifying that it took a presidential decree to allow the public to see the film. What followed was shock: Americans had never seen such images before: bodies torn apart, the dead floating in the lagoon, the water red with blood. It was a sobering moment: the enemy was resourceful, brutal, and courageous. It would take all we had to beat him.
To most people, the Pacific War was just "one damn island after another." In an area six times the size of the United States, America fought an enemy that had been preparing for war for many years. They were dug in on hundreds of islands and atolls in concrete bunkers with six-foot thick walls that could withstand even the most devastating bombing and shelling.
But the War had to start somewhere, and the Allies' first beachheads were taken in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. From there, we went to the east to the Gilbert islands to begin our push toward Japan.