Ancient History

The most profound visitation of the outside world [on Tarawa] during the modern era occurred with the arrival of World War II. The Japanese had initially garrisoned Butaritari with troops shortly after their attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The island, and particularly Tarawa, formed part of Japan’s defensive periphery around their conquests in East and Southeast Asia. In 1943, the U.S. Marines destroyed the Japanese forces in what came to be known as the Battle of Makin.

If nature can’t consume it, it remains on the island, most often right where its working life came to an end. This includes the relics of the Battle of Tarawa, one of the bloodiest engagements fought during World War II.

The Japanese admiral [Keiji Shibazaki] charged with defending Tarawa had predicted that a million men and a thousand years of battle would be required before his soldiers could be dislodged from the atoll. The Second Marine Division needed three days. The Battle of Tarawa was fought on the islet of Betio, which is less than one square mile in size. On November 21, 1943, the U.S. Marines approached Betio under the morning sun. They misjudged the tides and their landing vehicles could not traverse the reef and so they waded five hundred yards in the open and suffered a 70 percent casualty rate in the first wave of attack. There were 4,300 Japanese soldiers on Betio, as well as several hundred Korean laborers, and over three days all of them were killed except seventeen soldiers who surrendered because they were too injured to fight on and could not find within themselves the strength to commit suicide. The Marines lost 1,113 soldiers. Corpses are still found when new wells are dug. There is also unexploded ordnance. Now and then a bomb is discovered.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost

I had no idea the Japanese chose so remote locations like Tarawa to station troops. Apparently the atoll is home to probably the most inaccessible shinto shrine in existence – kudos to whoever can find me a picture.