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By Robert Beckhusen,War Is Boring
This article was originally sponsored by Open Road Media onJuly 20, 2016.
“Once inside, a man quickly found that you could not be claustrophobic and serve in a tank,” Oscar Gilbert and Romain Cansiere write in Tanks in Hell: A Marine Corps Tank Company on Tarawa. “In fact many infantrymen who tried to ride inside found that they preferred to take their chances outside.”
The November 1943 invasion of the tiny, Japanese-held island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll was the first time the U.S. Marine Corps met an entrenched enemy on the beach in World War II. At Guadalcanal the year before, the Japanese retreated inland.
This time the Japanese were better prepared. And the Marines brought tanks with them for the opening assault.
Gilbert and Cansiere’s history recounts the battle as fought by Charlie Company, 1st Corps Tank Battalion and its M4-A2 Shermans. The book combines a detailed analysis of the company’s tanks, with liberal first-person recollections of the shockingly bloody battle.
More than 1,000 Marines died within three days. Of the more than 3,600 defending Japanese troops and laborers, 17 would survive. By the end, “almost every structure on the island had been destroyed in the fighting, or was filled with enemy bodies rapidly decaying in the brutal heat.”
Claustrophobic conditions were the norm for the Sherman tank. And then there was the terrible noise.
The Sherman’s engines “make a constant, loud, pulsing ‘VROOum, VROOum, VROOum’ sound that you soon learn to ignore when concentrating on tasks like loading the main gun or trying to see through the small periscopes,” the authors write. “However, a day, even a half-day, is exhausting and the noise and fumes cause fatigue and headaches.”
America relied on Shermans more than any other tank in World War II, and they were far from comfortable. Loaders often fainted because of the stifling conditions and the fumes. “The constant shaking and impacts were brutal! The tanker’s helmet was absolutely necessary to cushion blows to the head from the interior walls even on flat ground.”
Nor could the crews hear much going on outside the tank given the vibration and noise — or even each other without shouting. Coordinating with troops outside a tank was always a problem, but the tankers learned quick at Tarawa.
The battle was nearly lost.
Tarawa represented a shift in America’s war strategy. After blunting the Japanese advance in the South Pacific, attention turned toward the Gilbert Islands farther north. It was a test-case for the Marines’ amphibious warfare doctrine — but tanks were still untested on a defended beach.
Making matters worse, the Japanese had turned the island in a web of traps, killing zones and bunkers constructed from coconut trees.
At top — an M4 Sherman on Tarawa. National Museum of the U.S. Navy photo. Above — Marine dead at Tarawa. U.S. Navy photo
“The carefully rehearsed logistics plan was a complete disaster,” the authors write.
The Marines mistimed the tides, and combat engineers tasked with clearing landing zones for supply transports took to destroying bunkers, necessary to stop their occupants from worsening the slaughter of trapped Marines. The tanks were short on ammunition and spare parts. The Marines’ radio net failed, and most of the tanks lost their intercom systems with it.
“Despite the numerous pre-war exercises, the Marine Corps still had no formal tank doctrine.”
One veteran of the battle, Joe Woolum, recalled in Tanks in Hell that “our instructions were ‘You drive across the island, don’t even bother to shoot or nothing. Instructions were to push across the island as quickly as possible and return, firing only as necessary, turn around and come back. Then if you happened to see something, shoot it.’”
Woolum thought this was “asinine.”
Tanks needed infantry scouts to steer the lumbering Shermans away from log barriers, shell holes left by naval gunfire and trenches filled with flammable diesel fuel. Without infantry cover, the tanks risked being swarmed by Japanese infantry armed with attachable mines or being knocked out by anti-tank guns.
The stories of scouts deliberately exposing themselves to gunfire in order to guide the tanks inland make for some of the most courageous tales in the book.
“There wasn’t much we could see,” Capt. Bale recalled. “It was dark from the dust and smoke. Two of my men volunteered to get out and lead us on foot, spotting the targets for us.”
“God, what guts they had to walk into that hell, in front of tanks and in front of infantry. And both were killed.”
But gradually and deliberately, the tanks proved instrumental in blowing away the Japanese’ pillboxes with their 75-millimeter guns — allowing the Marines to advance.
Naval gunfire destroyed most of the Japanese tanks on Betio, although there were a few duels — including one in which a Japanese round entered down the barrel of a Sherman.
The strength of Tanks in Hell is that it trusts veterans of the battle to recall their own experiences — and gives them plenty of space to do so — while the historians do the work of tracing the individual paths of specific tanks and fitting them into a cohesive narrative of Pacific tank combat. Helpfully, each tank had a name, making them easier to follow.
By the third day, desperate and fanatical Japanese soldiers charged the Marines in suicidal banzai attacks. In one shocking final story, a crowd of Japanese troops rushed the Sherman tank Colorado. The tank’s gunner “fired a high-explosive round into the midst of the frenzied crowd.”
The charge ended.