Tarawa

Invasion Casualties

March 29, 2017

Tawara Summary

The Battle for Tarawa formed one piece of a larger U.S. invasion (Operation GALVANIC) to capture Japanese-held territory within the Gilbert Islands. The operation commenced on 20 November 1943 with simultaneous attacks at Betio Island (within the Tarawa Atoll) and Makin Island (over 100 miles north of Tarawa). While lighter Japanese defenses at Makin meant fewer losses for U.S. forces, firmly entrenched Japanese defenders at Betio turned the fight for Tarawa into a costly 76-hour battle.

Invasion Casualties

  • Casualty figures for those killed and still missing on Tarawa have varied substantially across different sources. As of 2016, ongoing DPAA research has generated the following figures for U.S. casualties geographically associated with the Tarawa Atoll:
    • 5 servicemen (Navy) were killed in aircraft losses near Tarawa preceding the start of Operation GALVANIC. 4 of these are not accounted for.
    • 961 servicemen (Marines and Navy) were killed in the primary attack on Tarawa from 20-23 November 1943. 470 of these are not accounted for.
    • 73 additional casualties (Marines and Navy) were suffered over the rest of 1943 (from 24 November to 30 December), the majority of which occurred outside of Betio, either on other islands in the Tarawa Atoll or as water losses near Tarawa. 7 of these are not accounted for.
    • 64 additional casualties (Marines, Navy, and Army Air Force) occurred on or near Tarawa over the following three years (1944—1946). 15 of these are not accounted for.
    • 123 of the accounted for losses listed above were reported as buried at sea.
    • 491 of the casualties geographically associated with Betio Island and the greater Tarawa Atoll are unaccounted for.
    • In August 2016, the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration approved the disinterment of 94 caskets of unidentified sets of remains from Tarawa currently interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP, or “Punchbowl”) in Honolulu, Hawaii. Disinterment of these unknowns is expected to continue into 2017, with 16 unknowns associated with Tarawa having been disinterred to date.
  • Many Marines were killed on the 600+ yard wade into shore. It is likely that these men would neither be buried on the island nor officially buried at sea, but, figure in the number of unaccounted for given above.
  • Due to sanitation concerns, hasty battlefield burials were conducted by Marines untrained in graves registration, with little record-keeping. Many graves/trench burials were not properly marked or their locations recorded.
  • There were over 3,000 Japanese killed on the island, in addition to an estimated 1,000 Korean laborers. Many of these remains were buried in bomb craters and existing trenches in the aftermath of the battle, sometimes commingled with U.S. casualties, as illustrated by more recent recoveries and identifications.

US Navy SeaBee Construction

  • Immediately after the final day of battle, landing troops were replaced by U.S. Navy Construction Battalions ("SeaBees"), who had little knowledge of burial locations.
  • Between 1943 and 1946 at least five SeaBee units cycled through the advanced base, without continuity of personnel.
  • These units engaged in construction projects requiring movement or re-arrangement of the known burials or grave markers. In several cemeteries, later recovery efforts found that grave markers had been moved without any correspondence to the graves they were supposed to be marking. No records of the movements have been found, and we suspect none were kept. Unmarked graves were likely obscured by construction.

Remains Recovery Efforts

  • In May 1946, a Graves Registration company (604th) arrived and searched for all graves on the island using Marine and SeaBee records. Graves Registration personnel returned briefly in 1948 and 1949 to search particular areas again for additional graves.
  • The Graves Registration company consolidated all graves they could find into a single organized cemetery called "Lone Palm Cemetery" on the west end of the island. Several graves and "cemeteries" were found to be in memorial only, with no remains buried beneath the markers.
  • Graves Registration returned to the island in 1947, disinterred all remains from Lone Palm Cemetery, and shipped all remains to the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) at Schofield Mausoleum in Hawaii for identification and repatriation. The additional analysis and processing conducted here resulted in 465 individuals being positively identified and buried at the direction of the next of kin.
  • In 1949, unknown remains from the Battle for Tarawa were recommended for approval as a single consolidated Group Burial. This proposal was overturned, and unidentified remains were buried as individual unknowns.

CILHI/JPAC/DPAA Activity

  • In 1978, Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) received a unilateral turnover from Tarawa, consisting of several sets of comingled remains and one U.S. ID tag. After identification analysis, thirty-one (31) comingled remains were returned to the Japanese government as Japanese casualties, and one (1) set of remains was interred in the NMCP as a U.S. unknown.
  • CILHI recovered several remains in 1980 that had been collected during a construction (sewer) project. Of the recovered remains, two (2) were identified as US Marines in 1982, one (1) partial set of remains was interred in the Punchbowl as a U.S. unknown, and seventeen (17) sets of remains were returned to the Japanese government.
  • The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) excavated and recovered two (2) remains in 2000 that had been unearthed by locals during the construction of a driveway. These remains were identified in November 2001.
  • DPAA is in possession of one (1) partial set of remains that were turned over to government authorities after discovery by a Peace Corps representative in 2004.
  • In 2008, a group of independent researchers (History Flight, Inc.) visited Betio twice and used instruments to mark the location of several prior disturbances in the soil. These soil disturbances may be the result of Japanese defensive positions, U.S. construction efforts, burial of war dead, prior searches for U.S. burials, or more recent construction activities.
  • In 2009, a JPAC team surveyed these locations for potential future excavation. While conducting the surveys, the team also examined remains held by the Kiribati police and returned with partial remains of at least six (6) individuals of unknown national origin.
  • In August 2010, JPAC conducted a mission to excavate several sites publicized by History Flight, Inc. as potential sites of former burials. The JPAC team did not uncover any remains believed to be those of American service members at the sites excavated, but did receive two sets of possible U.S. remains from local I-Kiribati who had located them.
  • In October 2011 and March 2012, JPAC personnel participated in geospatial investigations with History Flight, Inc.
  • In June 2012, two JPAC CIL personnel conducted a forensic review of remains unilaterally turned over to the Kiribati police, and returned to the JPAC CIL with remains.
  • In October/November 2012, JPAC conducted a phase two testing mission and the team returned to the JPAC CIL with remains.
  • In November/December 2013, JPAC conducted an investigation and phase two testing mission in conjunction with History Flight, Inc. The team returned to the JPAC CIL with remains.
  • In May 2014, the JPAC CIL received possible U.S. remains from local I-Kiribati who had discovered them.
  • In September 2014, JPAC conducted a phase two testing mission on Betio. Any material evidence or possible remains recovered were taken to the JPAC CIL.
  • In February 2015, DPAA conducted a Field Forensic Review on Betio. Any material evidence or possible remains recovered were taken to the DPAA Laboratory.
  • In June 2015, History Flight, Inc. conducted additional excavations on Betio. They recovered approximately thirty-five sets of remains from what is believed to be Cemetery 27. Material evidence and remains have been received by the DPAA Laboratory in unilateral turnover.
  • In July 2015, DPAA sent an excavation mission to try and locate U.S. remains at a former Japanese Radar installation correlated with a few grave sites on Green Beach. This site is still open for investigation. Also on this mission, surveys of historic features on Betio were conducted in order to more accurately correlate historic imagery with possible grave locations.
  • On 19 August 2016, the Department of Defense approved the disinterment of 94 caskets of at least 103 sets of remains recovered from Tarawa and interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Disinterment of the remains began in October 2016.
  • In September 2016, DPAA conducted an investigation mission on Betio and will recommend sites for future excavation.
  • Forensic review of remains recovered from across many of the above missions is ongoing in the DPAA Laboratory and identifications continue to be made.

Tarawa Today

  • The island nation of Kiribati formally established self-rule in 1971, followed by independence from the United Kingdom in 1979. The capital of Kiribati is South Tarawa, a series of causeway-connected islands (including Betio) in the southern part of the Tarawa Atoll.
  • In 2010, the Kiribati government estimated South Tarawa’s population to be over 50,000, with a population density of over 3,000 people per square kilometer.


[1] In January 2015, three elements of the Accounting Community--the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), and Life Science Equipment Laboratory (LSEL)--combined to become one agency, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).



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