Horrors of the Pacific war are revealed in new images

Horrors of the Pacific war: U.S. Marines wade into battle with grenades and amphibious tanks after launching from submarines shortly after Pearl Harbor to begin the fightback

  • The images show American forces attacking the Gilbert Islands which were occupied by Japan in late 1941
  • Pictures show Marines sheltering behind sea walls, hurling grenades and wading into Japanese defensive fire 
  • U.S. forces attacked remote and less defended atolls in an ‘island-hopping strategy’ to move closer to Japan 

These terrifying pictures reveal the horrors which American troops had to face in the Pacific theater of World War II. 

Images of the American assault on the Gilbert Islands show U.S. Marines and amphibious vehicles making daring landings as they try to prise the British colony from Japanese hands. 

In one picture, U.S. infantry troops face Japanese fire as they wade ashore, while another image shows Americans sheltering behind a sea wall hurling grenades at Japanese targets. 

Other images show the horrifying consequences of the conflict, as the the coffins of dead Marines are draped in American flags and their colleagues are forced to carry their decomposing bodies.  

The islands, which are now part of the nation of Kiribati, were seized by Japan in December 1941 just days after Pearl Harbor. 

The American fightback began shortly afterwards as U.S. forces launched rubber boats from submarines and destroyed a Japanese garrison.   

Over the top: Some U.S. Marines shelter behind a sea wall during the 1943 Battle of Tarawa while others go over the top to assault Japanese targets with rifles, demolition charges and flame-throwers. American forces took control of less defended islands, and quickly constructed landing strips and small military bases to move closer to the Japanese mainland 

Burials at sea: The remains of three Marines are shrouded in American flags as the fallen troops are given burials with full military honors on board an American ship. This picture is believed to have been taken during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943, when U.S. forces targeted the only one of the occupied Gilbert Islands which had an airfield. The battle resulted in a U.S. victory but nearly 1,700 Americans and thousands of enemy combatants were killed 

Attack by sea: Troops from America’s 165th Infantry Brigade wade ashore in the early hours of the morning, facing defensive fire from Japanese machine guns on Makin Island, part of what is now Kiribati. Employing an ‘island hopping’ strategy, the US troops targeted the islands that were not as strongly defended by the Japanese

Employing an ‘island hopping’ strategy to gain the upper hand in the Pacific, the U.S. troops targeted the islands that were not as strongly defended by the Japanese. 

They took control of those islands, and quickly constructed landing strips and small military bases. Then they proceeded to attack other islands from the bases they had established. Slowly the U.S. army moved closer to Japan, taking control of many of the surrounding islands. 

In 1943, assaults on the Gilbert Islands by U.S. forces (Operation GALVANIC) were given the green light – in particular the taking of Tarawa (Betio), Apamama and Makin by US Army and Marine troops.

The invasion began on November 20, 1943, and the taking of the islands was very costly in human lives as all three Japanese garrisons were eliminated almost to a man and U.S. casualties were also severe.   

Flamethrowers, grenades, booby traps, and guerrilla tactics were used by both sides as the battle reached its bloody climax and the U.S. eventually overran the islands, using them as a base to attack the strategically valuable Marshall Islands.    

Treatment: Medics attend to a stricken man during the 1943 Battle of Tarawa. The medical corpsmen were naval personnel attached to the Marines, identifiable by the white discs on their helmets – having abandoned red crosses on their armbands for fear that these would make ideal targets for Japanese snipers, according to one account 

Debris: The wreckage of a Japanese aircraft litters the airstrip in Betio, in what was then the Gilbert Islands and is now Kiribati. The plane was probably destroyed during pre-invasion bombing by the American Seventh Air Force. Assaults on the Gilbert Islands by U.S. forces (Operation GALVANIC) were given the green light and carried out in 1943

The pictures are published in a new book by historian Jim Moran, The Gilbert And Ellice Islands: Pacific War: Rare Photographs From Wartime Archives. 

‘The initial occupation of these atoll islands was low-key, with a seaplane facility being built on Butaritari (Makin) but no serious defences,’ Moran explained. 

‘On August 17, 1942, Butaritari was attacked by elements of the U.S. Marine 2nd Raider Battalion, landing in rubber boats launched from two submarines that had transported the 200-plus Raiders from Pearl Harbor. 

‘The Raiders eliminated almost the entire forty-four-man garrison and destroyed two radio stations and the seaplane tender, as well as storage and supply facilities on the island, before returning to the submarines and back to Hawaii.  

‘The Makin Raid alerted the Japanese to the vulnerability of their outposts and work started in earnest to considerably increase the defences on, in particular, Makin, Tarawa and Apamama.’ 

In the heat of battle: Having cleared out Japanese defenders, these U.S. Marines have set up a .30 calibre machine gun. Two Marines take a rest and a drink of water – looking horrified at the nature of the conflict – while another Marine throws a hand grenade at their next target. Invading Tarawa was necessary to bring the strategically valuable Marshall Islands 

Preparation: A group of Japanese Special Naval Landing Force troops mount a British-made Vickers eight-inch cannon into its turret on the island of Betio. The Japanese heavily fortified the Gilbert and Ellice Islands following the 1942 assault, using traps and heavy weaponry. The Vickers guns were purchased by the Japanese in 1905 during their war with Russia

Invasion: An amphibious vehicle, LVT-1 No. 28, heads into the landing beaches on November 20, 1943, which was the Gilbert and Ellice Islands’ equivalent of D-Day. Three waves of assault troops were carried in amphibious vehicles such as these. Flamethrowers, grenades, booby traps, and guerrilla tactics were all utilised by both sides during the Pacific conflict

‘In 1943, assaults on the Gilbert Islands by US forces (Operation GALVANIC) were given the green light; in particular the taking of Tarawa (Betio), Apamama and Makin by U.S. Army and Marine troops,’ continued Moran.

‘None of the boats could get over the barrier reef and few Amtracs (sea-going tanks) were returning from the beach, so the men were faced with no other alternative but to climb out of their boats and wade to shore under murderous machine-gun fire.

‘One unit were forced to wade 700 yards through shallow water against murderous fire from numerous Japanese emplacements with no back up.

‘Following the islands being secured, U.S. construction and garrison troops built airstrips on Tarawa and Makin.’  

Battle scene: A Marine wearing a helmet sits on Red Beach 2 – one of the codenames given to the landing beaches by the invading Americans – on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa, on November 20, 1943. At the sea wall, an amphibious vehicle known as an LVT – also referred to as an amtrac, for amphibious tractor – has been put out of action 

U.S. Marines storm a huge bunker in the heat of battle. There were three battleships, five escort carriers, five cruisers and 21 destroyers deployed in the invasion of the island of Tarawa in November 1943, and the American forces had to face more than 4,500 Japanese troops who were defending the atoll 


Prisoner: A member of Japan’s special landing forces holds his hands high above his head as he is escorted by a member of the American forces, stripped down to his underwear in case he was concealing a weapon or a grenade (left). In the right-hand image, a Marine finds time to share his precious water with a terrifiedkitten hiding under a knocked-out Japanese tank

Horrific task: A tin panel is used as a stretcher for a decomposing Marine corpse. It was said that the stench could be smelled 30 miles away from Betio. Four days of heavy fighting on Tarawa cost the lives of 980 Marines and 29 sailors, with more than 2,000 wounded in a battle for control of an atoll which measured just a few acres 

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