Friday, April 21, 2006

Was Tarawa Necessary?

I have been developing a new video documentary project on the Battle of Tarawa and the US invasion of the Gilbert Islands in November 1943. This will be a follow-on to my Nagasaki video. As part of the research for this project, I have been interviewing a gentleman named Leon Cooper, who commanded a Higgins boat (landing craft) at Tarawa. He was in the first wave, and unlike much of the invasion force, he found a way through the reef and dropped his ramp on the sand of Betio so his complement of Marines wouldn't have to wade through the lagoon. Mr. Cooper made as many as a half-dozen round trips that day, with the outbound runs carrying dead and wounded back to the ships.

Mr. Cooper has written an "autobiographical novel" about his experiences called "90 Day Wonder -- Darkness Remembered." He has a blog, too. Incidentally, a '90 day wonder' is a somewhat derogatory term describing a naval officer who received his commission after attending a three-month officer's candidate school.

In my discussions with Mr. Cooper, he has espoused the view that the battle of 'Bloody Tarawa' -- where 1,000 US Marines were killed in just two days -- was completely unnecessary. He believes that the facilities in the Gilbert Islands weren't worth the blood price, and that the "lessons learned" during the conduct of the campaign weren't really all that applicable to subsequent operations against larger islands. Moreover, Mr. Cooper maintains that most if not all of the so-called "island hopping" invasions were themselves unnecessary.

Mr. Cooper has an interesting theory. Given that Japan's two main bastions in the South Pacific, Rabaul and Truk, were bypassed by Pacific commanders General Douglas Macarthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz, why couldn't the entire Japanese defense network of islands have been bypassed as well?

Here is an excellent series of Pacific War maps from the US Military Academy at West Point to refer to.

In short, Mr. Cooper proposes that the US could have made a thrust directly at the Mariana Islands, bypassing the Gilberts and the Marshalls in their entirety. The purpose of securing Saipan, Tinian, and Guam would be establish bomber bases for a campaign against Japan, as was the case in the actual conduct of the war. However, Mr. Cooper believes that the preliminary "island hopping" campaign was both strategically unnecessary and a waste of lives. The US invasion of the Marianas was staged from Hawaii and Guadalcanal, with the forces rendezvousing in the Marshall Islands. This might be justification for taking the Marshalls. But could the invasion force have been marshaled elsewhere?

Histories of the US Pacific War have tended to accept the orthodoxy of the island hopping campaign without much question: each invasion enabled the US to construct airfields, depots, and harbors to enable the next leap west. But given that huge swaths of territory with numerous Japanese garrisons were bypassed, was Bloody Tarawa really necessary? Mr. Cooper believes that US forces embarked on the island hopping campaign due to the influence of the pre-war Plan Orange and its emphasis on relieving/recapturing The Philippines rather than on any sound evaluation of the strategic situation in 1943.

I would be interested in any thoughts readers might have about this theory. I'll share my own later, perhaps in the Comments, after I've done some more research.

I'm not really interested in pursuing this angle in my Tarawa video documentary project, other than to record Mr. Cooper's thoughts on the matter. My interest is in examining the expectations of how the assault would go versus how it really went down. Tarawa happened early enough in the Pacific War as to be an "initial encounter" for a particular type of operation: the opposed beach landing against an island. The casualties it produced were shocking at the time, even by WW2 standards. There was outrage in the US, and calls for Nimitz's resignation. Sound familiar?

UPDATE 11/09/06: I have put online a phone interview I conducted with Leon Cooper about his experiences as a Higgins boat commander at the Battle of Tarawa that can be accessed here.