Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Review of "Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa," by Joseph H. Alexander

 Review of

Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa, by Joseph H. Alexander ISBN 9781591140030

Five out of five stars

A report of the ultimate killing ground

 The naval battle of Midway in June 1942 meant that Japan no longer had a chance to win the war in the Pacific. With four carriers and their valuable air crews lost, Japan could no longer be aggressive in sending naval forces to oppose American advances. The question for American military planners then became, what to do about the powerful Japanese ground forces dug in on Pacific islands.

 One of the toughest was the Japanese garrison in the Gilbert Islands, specifically on the island of Betio in Tarawa. The Japanese defenders were determined to fight to the death and were supported by very sound fortifications. The American planners decided to storm the island and overpower the defenders. It was the first time that American forces would engage in an amphibious operation against extreme opposition.

 The American invasion of Betio started on November 20, 1943 and the battle lasted three days. With the size of Betio only 381 acres and with approximately 5,000 Japanese defenders on the island, it was little more than a killing ground. Despite the massive casualty rate among the attacking Americans, they pressed forward and cleared the island.

 This book is by a retired Colonel in the United States Marine Corps. It is a history of incredible bravery, valor and determination on both sides to fight to the finish. Only seventeen of the Japanese soldiers on the island became prisoners of war. Alexander is very explicit in describing the failures of American planning and the lack of communication between units once the battle started. While there were some recriminations after the fact, the American forces were effective in applying the lessons learned. Specifically, the realization that massive preliminary bombardments were needed before the troops went ashore.

 While there was no true turning point battle on land in the Pacific like the action at Midway, the fight for Tarawa comes closest. One fact that is rarely noted but pointed out here is that the invasion could have easily failed. The combination of a lucky shot that killed the Japanese commander and his key staff and the lack of a Japanese counterattack on the first night helped seal the American victory. Alexander points out that such a counterattack could have succeeded, and the American forces could have been defeated. While the ultimate American victory was assured, it would have required a second invasion or at minimum a long-term siege.

 This is a great book about one of the most brutal battles of World War II, one where two forces simply went at it until one was dead. To their credit, the Japanese had transported all civilians off of Tarawa, so it was strictly between the two armed forces.

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