World War II: Battle of Makin

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Battle of Makin, November 20, 1943. Photograph Courtesy of the US Army

The Battle of Makin was fought November 20-24, 1943, during World War II (1939-1945). With the end of the fighting on Guadalcanal, Allied forces began planning for a march across the Pacific. Selecting the Gilbert Islands as the first target, planning moved forward for landings on several islands including Tarawa and Makin Atoll. Moving forward in November 1943, American troops landed on the island and succeeded in overwhelming the Japanese garrison. Though the landing force sustained relatively light casualties, the cost of taking Makin increased when the escort carrier USS Liscome Bay was torpedoed and lost with 644 of its crew.

Background

On December 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces occupied Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Meeting no resistance, they secured the atoll and commenced construction of a seaplane base on the main island of Butaritari. Due to its location, Makin was well positioned for such an installation as it would extend Japanese reconnaissance abilities closer to American-held islands.

Construction progressed over the next nine months and Makin's small garrison remained largely ignored by Allied forces. This changed on August 17, 1942, when the Butaritari came under attack from Colonel Evans Carlson's 2nd Marine Raider Battalion (Map). Landing from two submarines, Carlson's 211-man force killed 83 of Makin's garrison and destroyed the island's installations before withdrawing.

In the wake of the attack, the Japanese leadership made moves to reinforce the Gilbert Islands. This saw the arrival on Makin of a company from the 5th Special Base Force and the construction of more formidable defenses. Overseen by Lieutenant (j.g.) Seizo Ishikawa, the garrison numbered around 800 men of which about half were combat personnel. Working through the next two months, the seaplane base was completed as were anti-tank ditches towards the eastern and western ends of Butaritari. Within the perimeter defined by the ditches, numerous strong points were established and coastal defense guns mounted (Map).

Allied Planning

Having won the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz desired to make a thrust into the central Pacific. Lacking the resources to strike directly at the Marshall Islands in the heart of the Japanese defenses, he instead began making plans for attacks in the Gilberts. These would be the opening steps of an "island hopping" strategy to advance towards Japan.

Another advantage of campaigning in the Gilberts was the islands were within range of U.S. Army Air Forces B-24 Liberators based in the Ellice Islands. On July 20, plans for invasions of Tarawa, Abemama, and Nauru were approved under the code name Operation Galvanic (Map). As planning for the campaign moved forward, Major General Ralph C. Smith's 27th Infantry Division received orders to prepare for the invasion of Nauru. In September, these orders were changed as Nimitz grew concerned about being able to provide the needed naval and air support at Nauru.

As such, the 27th's objective was changed to Makin. To take the atoll, Smith planned two sets of landings on Butaritari. The first waves would land at Red Beach on the island's western end with the hope of drawing the garrison in that direction. This effort would be followed a short time later by landings at Yellow Beach to the east. It was Smith's plan that the Yellow Beach forces could destroy the Japanese by attacking their rear (Map).

Battle of Makin

  • Conflict: World War II (1939-1945)
  • Dates: November 20-23, 1943
  • Forces & Commanders:
  • Allies
  • Major General Ralph C. Smith
  • Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner
  • 6,470 men
  • Japanese
  • Lieutenant (j.g.) Seizo Ishikawa
  • 400 soldiers, 400 Korean laborers
  • Casualties:
  • Japanese: approx. 395 killed
  • Allies: 66 killed, 185 wounded/injured

Allied Forces Arrive

Departing Pearl Harbor on November 10, Smith's division was carried on the attack transports USS Neville, USS Leonard Wood, USS Calvert, USS Pierce, and USS Alcyone. These sailed as part of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner's Task Force 52 which included the escort carriers USS Coral Sea, USS Liscome Bay, and USS Corregidor. Three days later, USAAF B-24s commenced attacks on Makin flying from bases in the Ellice Islands.

As Turner's task force arrived in the area, the bombers were joined by FM-1 Wildcats, SBD Dauntlesses, and TBF Avengers flying from the carriers. At 8:30 AM on November 20, Smith's men commenced their landings on Red Beach with forces centered on the 165th Infantry Regiment.

Battle of Makin
M3 Stuart light tanks on Makin, November, 1943. US Army

Fighting for the Island

Meeting little resistance, American troops quickly pressed inland. Though encountering a few snipers, these efforts failed to draw Ishikawa's men from their defenses as planned. Approximately two hours later, the first troops approached Yellow Beach and soon came under fire from Japanese forces.

While some came ashore without issue, other landing craft grounded offshore forcing their occupants to wade 250 yards to reach the beach. Led by the 165th's 2nd Battalion and supported by M3 Stuart light tanks from the 193rd Tank Battalion, the Yellow Beach forces began engaging the island's defenders. Unwilling to emerge from their defenses, the Japanese forced Smith's men to systematically reduce the island's strong points one by one over the next two days.

USS Liscome Bay
USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56), September 1943. Public Domain

Aftermath

On the morning of November 23, Smith reported that Makin had been cleared and secured. In the fighting, his ground forces sustained 66 killed and 185 wounded/injured while inflicting around 395 killed on the Japanese. A relatively smooth operation, the invasion of Makin proved far less costly than the battle on Tarawa which occurred over the same time span.

The victory at Makin lost a bit of its luster on November 24 when Liscome Bay was torpedoed by I-175. Striking a supply of bombs, the torpedo caused the ship to explode and killed 644 sailors. These deaths, plus casualties from a turret fire on USS Mississippi (BB-41), caused U.S. Navy losses to total 697 killed and 291 wounded.