November 18 - 19, 1943
By Walter J. Deptula-Drew, ADC, CAC, USN
The invasion of Tarawa was Air Group Nine's first experience in amphibious
operations. On the morning of 18 November 1943, two days prior to the landing
of the Marine assault forces, our planes arrived over Tarawa Atoll and started
an attack on Betio Island, the invasion point on which the airfield was located.
We had two strikes that day. Our flight crew was the same as our other
strikes-Pilot LTJG Richard B. Zentmeyer; Radioman Herbert C. (Andy) Anderson;
and myself, Turret Gunner Walter J. Deptula.
Beginning that night, we were subjected to nightly torpedo attacks by
Japanese planes from nearby bases. Nevertheless, we managed to come through
unscathed and continued our daily pounding of the island. Over 700 individual
sorties were conducted by Air Group Nine planes. These attacks literally
pulverized all above ground installations but they did not eliminate the
Japanese in their underground dugouts.
We commenced our strikes to 'soften' up the island prior to the Marine
landing on 20 November 1943. We carried four 500-pound bombs in the bomb
bay on both flights. The flights were uneventful. The next day, on the 19th,
we also carried four 500-pound bombs and had two more uneventful strikes.
One little-known fact was that, due to a change in the tide on the day
of the invasion, the landing craft carrying the Marines got hung up on the
coral reef surrounding the Atoll. The Marines had to wade 700 yards to shore
with heavy backpacks and equipment. Those who didn't drown were struck down
by machine gun fire. A ship that had been tied to the dock was lying on its
side due to previous bombing attacks. The Japanese were using it as a machine
gun nest and were slaughtering the Marines as they moved past the ship. That
was one of many mistakes the planners had made during this invasion. When
we got a frantic call to bomb the ship into oblivion, we launched a number
of planes and did just that. There was little left of the ship when we were
Betio's defenses were strong and Marine casualties were high-980 Marines
and 29 sailors died in the three days of vicious fighting. Almost the entire
enemy garrison of about 4700 men perished. Zentmeyer, Anderson, and I flew
a total of nine missions over Tarawa. It took a total of 150 tons of bombs
to subdue Tarawa.
Many mistakes were made at Tarawa that would not be repeated and the
battle of Tarawa will go down as one of the bloodiest in the history of the
U.S Armed Forces. Nevertheless, the seizure of Tarawa was a great and decisive