Tarawa

Invasion Casualties

April 15, 2020 PRINT | E-MAIL

Tarawa Summary

  • Approximately 400 Americans remain unaccounted-for on Tarawa from World War II.
  • Approximately 140 remains recovered and identified to date.
  • Last operation conducted April 2020

Geographic Overview

  • Tarawa is a coral atoll of the Gilbert Islands and of Kiribati.  It lies 2,800 miles northeast of Australia (latitude 1°22'47" N, longitude 173°09'06" E) and is the most populous atoll in the Gilberts (an estimated 46,000 Micronesians live there). 
  • Tarawa consists of a lagoon fringed by a V-shaped reef 22 miles long and comprises more than 30 islets (12 square miles of land), of which eight are inhabited

 

Historic Significance

  • The Battle for Tarawa comprised a part of a larger U.S. invasion (Operation GALVANIC) intended to capture Japanese-held territory within the Gilbert Islands. The operation commenced on November 20, 1943, with the Second Marine Division landing on Betio, within the Tarawa Atoll, and the U.S. Army landing on Makin Island (over 100 miles north of Tarawa). While lighter Japanese defenses at Makin Island meant fewer losses for U.S. forces, firmly entrenched Japanese defenders on Betio Island turned the fight for Tarawa into a costly 76-hour battle. The island’s 4,500 Japanese defenders fought back stubbornly from behind solid fortifications.  With air support and naval gunfire, the Marines rooted out the Japanese defensive positions one at a time.  U.S. forces defeated a final Japanese counterattack on the night of November 22-23, and eliminated the last Japanese defenders.  Tarawa, which proved a valuable base, cost more than 1,000 American lives, and twice as many wounded.
  • Approximately 400 Americans remain unaccounted-for from the battle.
  • The Japanese lost more than 3,000 killed on the island; an estimated 1,000 Korean laborers also died.  These men were buried where they fell, or in bomb craters and existing trenches.  In many instances, U.S. casualties are commingled with those of Japanese and Korean dead.

Accounting Milestones

  • Immediate Post-War
    • 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.  These remains were subsequently disinterred and shipped to the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) at Schofield Mausoleum in Hawaii for identification and repatriation.  
    • In 1949, the unidentified remains from Tarawa were buried as individual unknowns in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP) in Honolulu, Hawaii.
  • Recovery Activity on Tarawa (1970s-Present)
    • 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.
    • A Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) JPAC team surveyed the locations identified by History Flight, Inc., in 2009.  JPAC returned in August 2010 and excavated five sites searching for unaccounted-for Marines.  
    • Since 2009, History Flight, Inc. and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), have returned to Betio Island every year in order to conduct further work.  Survey work, phase two testing, and excavation work have occurred at multiple sites across the island, resulting in numerous accessions. 
    • In June 2015 and March 2016, History Flight, Inc. recovered approximately fifty-one (51) sets of remains from a site identified as Cemetery 27.  The 604th GRC never located this cemetery during its recovery efforts in 1946. 
    • In 2016, because of the Cemetery 27 discovery, DPAA established the Tarawa Commingled Human Remains Project.  The project is dedicated to the analysis of the remains recovered from Tarawa.  On August 19, 2016, the Department of Defense approved the proposal to disinter all unknowns associated with Tarawa currently interred in the NMCP.  Disinterment of the remains occurred from October 2016 through May 2017. 
    • 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.
    • In 2019, History Flight uncovered thirty-two (32) sets of remains from a burial trench identified as Row D.  Like Cemetery 27, the burial trench was never uncovered by the 604th GRC during recovery efforts.
    • Forensic analysis of remains recovered from the above missions and disinterments is ongoing and identifications continue to be made.  As of April 2020, the DPAA has identified 137 sets of remains associated with U.S. personnel lost during the battle for Tarawa.

[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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