Aboard one of the many troop transports plowing the long sea furrows to Tarawa, and later in the hell of Betio, was TIME Correspondent Robert Sherrod. His story:
Ship life was dull. The men of the and Marine Division fairly wilted in their crowded, hot quarters. They spent an hour each day cleaning rifles, sharpening bayonets, then another hour studying aerial photographs and contour maps of Betio, the little bird-shaped island that was the main fortification of Tarawa atoll. There was nothing else to do except see movies, read dog-eared magazines, play cards and sleep, which Marines can do at any time in any position on almost any given surface.
The Marines seemed anything but excited. More than half of them were veterans of Guadalcanal. They had the calm confidence of a Corps which assumes that it is the best fighting force in the world. They knew that the most concentrated bombing and shelling in history would precede their landing: almost 1,000 tons of aerial bombs, plus 1.500 tons of shellfire, on Betio's crowded, scant square mile (see cut). But they could not be sure that even this tremendous pre-landing bombardment would wreck the defenses built by the Japs. On the night before battle, sweat-drenched men packed the wardroom, spilled into the passageways to pray with their chaplains.
D Day. Long before dawn of D Day the first wave of Marines was in its boats, the second wave was climbing down the nets in half-moonlight. At 5 a.m. the sky lit up like the crack of doom: battleship guns were pounding Betio. Soon light and heavy cruisers joined the concert of inferno. Ashore, flames spurted hundreds of feet high. Surely, the Marines thought, mortal men could not stand such pounding.
The Marines' confidence rose. They wondered if the Japs, who undoubtedly knew that the Americans were coming, might now have evacuated Tarawa as they had Kiska. Then, suddenly, a great splash kicked up the sea a few hundred feet from one transport, only 50 feet from another. The Japs were firing their coastal guns. Betio would not be another Kiska, after all.
H Hour. The first wave had been ordered to hit the shore at 8:30. Correspondent Sherrod had been assigned to the fifth wave, commanded by Major Howard Rice, which would reach the beach 31 minutes later, presumably after the first four waves had established comfortable positions. But now it was obvious that H Hour would be delayed because the Jap fire had forced the transports to shift to a safer area.
The fifth wave milled around in what had turned into broad daylight. Now the naval gunfire mounted to an unbelievable crescendo of thunder, smoke and fire. Then came the planes, dropping big bombs, little bombs, incendiary bombs. Wave after wave after wave of torpedo-bombers and dive-bombers from carriers crossed and crisscrossed Betio. Offshore, the rough sea tossed the Higgins craft and drenched the Marines and their weapons.