Tarawa

Invasion Casualties

July 17, 2019 PRINT | E-MAIL

Tarawa 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 2019, ongoing DPAA research has generated the following figures for U.S. casualties geographically associated with the Tarawa Atoll:
    • Four servicemen (Navy) were killed in aircraft losses near Tarawa preceding the start of Operation GALVANIC. All are not accounted for.
    • From November 20-23, 1943, during the battle, 1,021 service members (Marines and Navy) were killed or died of wounds sustained during the battle shortly thereafter; 410 of these are unaccounted for.
    • Additionally, 42 casualties (Marines, Navy, Army Air Forces and Merchant Marines) occurred on or near Tarawa Atoll during the three years after the battle (December 16, 194301946); 15 of these are unaccounted for.
    • In total, there are 429 casualties geographically associated with Tarawa Atoll who remain unaccounted for.
  • Marines killed in action were buried where they fell, or placed in large trench burials constructed during and after the battle.  These graves were typically marked with improvised markers, such as crosses made from sticks, or an upturned rifle.  Grave sites ranged in size from single isolated burials to large trench burials of more than 100 individuals.
  • More than 3,000 Japanese soldiers were killed on the island, as well as an estimated 1,000 Korean laborers.  These men were buried where they fell, or in bomb craters and existing trenches.  Their remains are sometimes commingled with U.S. casualties.

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.
  • As part of construction efforts on the island, the Seabees beautified many of the original cemeteries, constructing what became known as “memorial cemeteries.”  Cemeteries were reoriented, reorganized, and sometimes expanded, to the point that they no longer reflected the configuration of the original cemetery.  Likewise, the new white crosses erected in the memorial cemeteries to represent the individual burials no longer reflected the identities of the individuals originally buried in the cemetery. 
  • The Seabees also engaged in construction projects requiring the movement or re-arrangement of known burials or grave markers. Later recovery efforts found that multiple grave markers were relocated without moving the burial they marked. No record of these movements has been found, and it’s likely none was kept.

American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) Recovery Efforts (1946-1949)

  • From March-May 1946, the 604th Graves Registration Company (GRC) excavated more than 40 memorial cemetery locations on Betio Island.  The 604th GRC consolidated all remains they disinterred into a single organized cemetery, known as Lone Palm Cemetery.  Due in part to the changes made by the Seabees, as well as a lack of information relating to the original burials, the 604th GRC recovered just 532 sets of remains.  Due to the degeneration of identification media and the removal of the original grave markers, the 604th GRC was unable to identify many of these remains.
  • Later in 1946, the 604th GRC returned to the island and disinterred all remains buried in Lone Palm Cemetery.  The remains were transported to the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) at Schofield Mausoleum in Hawaii for identification and repatriation.  Further analysis resulted in additional identifications.  When the CIL concluded operations in 1949, 413 individuals killed on Betio Island had been identified and buried at the direction of their next of kin.
  • In 1949, the unidentified remains from Tarawa were buried as individual unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Recovery Activity on Tarawa (1970s-Present)

  • Construction projects and storms on Betio Island throughout the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the discovery of multiple sets of American remains.  Some of these remains were reinterred locally, while others were turned over to officials from the Army’s Central Identification Lab-Hawaii (CILHI).  In 2000 the CILHI, one of DPAA’s predecessors, excavated and recovered two sets of remains in 2000 that had been unearthed by locals during the construction of a driveway.
  • In 2008, a group of independent researchers, History Flight, Inc., visited Betio Island to conduct extensive survey work.  The work, in conjunction with archival research, led the team to identify several sites on the island as World War II cemeteries.
  • In 2009, a JPAC team surveyed the locations identified by History Flight, Inc. JPAC returned in August 2010 and excavated several sites. The JPAC team did not recover any remains believed to be those of American service members at the sites.
  • Since 2010, History Flight, Inc., and DPAA/JPAC returned to Betio Island each year to conduct further work.  Survey work and excavations have occurred at multiple sites across the island, resulting in numerous accessions of remains into DPAA’s laboratory.  Local residents have also continued to turn over remains found during construction or other activities.
  • In June 2015, History Flight, Inc. recovered approximately 35 sets of remains from a site identified as Cemetery 27.  This cemetery was not located by the 604th GRC during its recovery efforts in 1946.  In March 2016, an additional 16 sets of remains recovered from the Cemetery 27 project area were turned over to DPAA.
  • As a result of the Cemetery 27 discovery, in October 2016 DPAA established the Tarawa Commingled Human Remains Project.  The project analyzes remains recovered from Tarawa.  As part of the project, DPAA proposed the disinterment of all unknowns associated with Tarawa currently buried in the NMCP.  On August 19, 2016, the Department of Defense approved the proposal.  Disinterment of remains occurred from October 2016 through May 2017.  In total DPAA disinterred 95 caskets.
  • In 2016 and 2017, History Flight, Inc. concentrated their efforts on Cemetery 33.  During this period, they recovered 23 sets of remains from the Cemetery 33 project area.  Cemetery 33 represents the largest wartime cemetery on Betio Island, and was excavated haphazardly by the 604th GRC in 1946.
  • In 2017, History Flight, Inc. and DPAA solidified their relationship in a formal partnership. Since this date, History Flight, Inc. has maintained a continuous presence on Betio Island, excavating sites believed to be associated with U.S. losses.
  • Forensic analysis of remains recovered from the above missions and disinterments is ongoing in the DPAA Laboratory and identifications continue to be made.  As of July 17, 2019, DPAA, and its predecessor organizations, has accounted for 114 individual associated with Tarawa Atoll; 68 of these involve accessions from History Flight, Inc.

[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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