by: Bill Cross [ ]
Originally published on:
It's no big revelation that the United States was woefully under-prepared for a global conflict in two theaters of operation during World War 2. And while US industrial might eventually tipped the balance totally in favor of America and its Allies, the initial months of the war were a challenge for all the American services as they tried to grow quickly-enough to fight both Nazi Germany first, and contain or even roll back Imperial Japan.
The strategy against the Japanese was a combination of the Army slogging its way up through New Guinea and the Philippines, while the Navy and its traditional infantry support branch, the Marine Corps, would "island hop" their way closer to the Japanese home islands. The problem was that no tried & true doctrine for amphibious landings was in-place; in fact, the last landings (at Gallipoli in WW1) had been so disastrous that no arm of any nation's military had given serious thought to deploying large numbers of troops from ships onto beachheads until Japan invaded the Philippines shortly after Pearl Harbor.
Fortunately for the Marines, their first landings at Guadalcanal had been unopposed; Japanese defenders fled into the jungle and the US was able to off-load men and matériel before the IJN chased off or sank the support ships and their muscle. But now that the decision had been made to attack the atoll of Tarawa and its main island, Betio, the deficiencies in Marine Corps doctrine became glaringly visible.
Pre-landing surveillance didn't reveal that the coral reef surrounding Betio was too high for LCVPs to get over, and there weren't enough AmTracs to ferry in the troops. The result was the infantry had to exit their boats and walk through the shallow lagoon, all the while under withering Japanese fire. The infantry have gotten most of the coverage by historians, but now an amateur tank guy from France has joined with an historian of the Marine Corps to publish Tanks in Hell: A Marine Corps Tank Company on Tarawa. Oscar E. Gilbert and Romain Cansiere combine on a book that grew out of the latter's interest in all things USMC while growing up in France. Strange as that may sound, Cansiere was able to get to know many of the survivors of Company C, 2nd Marine Division while they were still alive, and record their experiences in the Tarawa landing. The result is a valuable history of the medium tanks that fought in that bloody landing, and a testament to the human spirit in extreme conditions.
The 164-page hardcover book is divided into eleven chapters, two epilogues and five appendixes.
Chapter One: A New Doctrine for a New War
Chapter Two: Salad Days - Formation & Training
Chapter Three: The Tanks of Charlie Company
Chapter Four: The Clothes on Their Backs - Clothing & Equipment
Chapter Five: Objective: Code Name Helen
Chapter Six: Day One - The Reef
Chapter Seven: Day One - Inland
Chapter Eight: Day Two - Securing the Beachhead
Chapter Nine: Day Three - Sweeping the Island
Chapter Ten: Day Four - The Final Carnage
Chapter Eleven: Aftermath
Appendices A-E: Technical details, including equipment, the actual personnel, and company organization
Unlike Guadalcanal, Saipan or Iwo Jima, Tarawa has not received the attention of popular historians or TV programs about the Pacific War. One likely reason is the controversy surrounding the landings, with the Marines hung up on the outer reef. The resulting carnage was the first time that the folks on the home front saw vivid, wrenching images of dead and wounded Americans in such numbers. The country was shocked by the 1,009 Marines killed and 2,101 wounded (total American dead were 1,696 killed due to the loss of the USS Liscome Bay (CVE-56), an escort or "jeep" carrier sunk by a Japanese submarine. And the ferocity of the Japanese defenders also signaled a new kind of warfare for Americans, with only 17 out of the 2,600 garrison captured.
Therefore it's a nice addition to the literature on the battle to hear about the tankers of Company C, 2nd Marine Division. The authors also spend a good deal of time on the tanks, especially from a writer with an eye to modelers and their interest. Cansiere goes into great detail about the M4A2 "Shermans" that Company C used in the conflict (a name it turns out the tankers themselves never used).
The text is for the most part quite readable and it covers in detail, not only Charlie Company's early period, training and deployment to the Pacific, but a day-by-day account of each tank and the fate of its crew. The M4A2 proved of mixed value during the invasion. It's 75mm gun was only effective against the coconut log and sand bunkers used by the Japanese if gunners could drop a round directly through a vision port. Otherwise the barrier would "absorb" the shell and survive intact. The company also had almost no radio communication, either with its HQ, overall Marine Corps command or the troops on the beach, thanks mostly to ancient radios poorly-suited to the conditions on the island.
The book contains numerous photos from the personal collections of the men who took part in the landings, and even those reprinted from NARA are for the most part fresh and not widely seen elsewhere. Their quality is mixed since they're printed on the same paper as the text, rather than on separate glossy paper. The result is some of them are quite fuzzy, or have high contrast obscuring the details. However, it's difficult for me to be hard on the book, since the authors are donating all royalties to the Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots Foundation.
Because Gilbert and Cansiere are more enthusiasts than particularly polished writers, the story line tends to wander a bit at times (I also don't know how much of the text is translated from the French). The story is organized chronologically from training camp to the entirety of the battle, but with digressions and details stuffed in that at times slow the narrative down to a crawl. Additionally, the authors can't seem to decide what's important and what isn't, so a certain amount of information is sometimes included that ended up confusing me rather than clarifying events.
This is most noticeable when they're describing the timeline of events after the landing. The Marine tanks suffered a variety of fates, whether falling into submerged shell holes or shorting out when sea water leaked into their electrical systems, all the way to several tanks knocked out by Japanese artillery fire. The authors try to account for each tank's movements, but frankly I would have been happier to know that a particular tank was disabled after several trips up and down the island air strip, rather than reading about everything it did along the way.
That having been said, the battle was precarious with the Marines struggling to craft a doctrine that would defeat the Japanese defenders. If the IJN had built up Betio's garrison more, or had been able to attack the support ships as at Guadalcanal, it's entirely possible the invasion would have been repelled.
Overall this book is an excellent addition to the literature on the war in the Pacific, especially for armor enthusiasts. The photos are interesting, but not of a high-enough quality to provide the kind of details many modelers will want, but enough to peak your interest in this important, and little-discussed action of tanks in the Pacific.
Thanks to Casemate Publishing for providing this review copy. Be sure to mention you saw the book reviewed here on Armorama when ordering your copy.