Gilbert Islands

Relief map of the Gilbert Islands

The Gilbert Islands are a chain of atolls some 2500 miles (4000 km) southwest of Hawaii and just north of the equator.  There are hundreds of islands in the chain, all small, with a total land area of just 166 square miles (430 km2). The chain is about 500 miles (800 km) long and is located about 300 miles southeast of the Marshalls and just northeast of the Ellice Islands.  They were discovered by Europeans between 1764 and 1824 and named after a Royal Navy officer who visited in 1788. Their population was quite small at about 28,000 persons, primarily Micronesian with less than 100 Europeans. However, the tiny land area meant the islands had the highest population density of any in the Pacific.

The islands were under British control in 1941, the islands having been proclaimed British protectorates in 1892 ostensibly to protect the natives from exploitation by traders. The natives had a high degree of self-rule and British law prohibited land purchases by non-native persons. British oversight was exercised through a resident commissioner at Ocean Island who also oversaw the Ellice, Phoenix, Fanning, and other small island groups in the area. Most of the natives had adopted Christianity by 1941.

There are 16 main atolls in the chain, none of which have elevations much greater than 12' (4 meters) and consist of coral bedrock overlaid by sand and some poor soil. These support some scrub and coconut palms. The island were relatively healthy for Westerners, with little incidence of malaria or other tropical diseases. The climate is uniformly warm and wet, with temperatures of 72 to 95F (22 to 35 C) and annual rainfall averaging 150" to 180" (380 to 460 cm), but there are drought conditions every five to seven years, and the islands were in drought at the time of the Allied invasion in November 1943.

Infrastructure was limited to a lagoon-side road on each atoll and a few piers for oceangoing vessels. There were no airfields in the group prior to the arrival of the Japanese.

Elements of 51 Guard Force occupied Makin on 8 December 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and began developing a seaplane base and radio station.  The nearby atolls were visited sporadically by Japanese detachments that rounded up Allied coast watchers and European civilians; the civilians were interned while the coast watchers were eventually murdered. Following the Makin raid, the Japanese reinforced their garrisons and began fortifying Tarawa, where they also built an airfield.

Operation GALVANIC. In November of 1943 the Allies recaptured Makin and Tarawa. In proportion to the size of the force involved, the recapture of Tarawa was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the United States, costing the lives of 1100 Marines. The Makin invasion was much less costly on land, but at sea the escort carrier Liscombe Bay was sunk with great loss of life, including that of Admiral Mullinnix.

The Japanese chose not to commit their fleet to the defense of the Gilberts, and, as a result, no fleet action resulted from the invasion. The land campaigns are described in detail in the articles on Makin and Tarawa.

Allied order of battle, Operation GALVANIC

Pacific Fleet (Nimitz)

5 Fleet (Spruance)

Assault Force (Turner)

TF 52 Northern Attack Force (Turner)     

TG 52.1 Transport Group
Carrying 165 Regimental Combat Team and 105 Battalion  Landing Teams, 27 Division (Smith)

APA Leonard Wood
APA Neville
APA Pierce
APA Calvert
AKA Alcyone

LSD Belle Grove Carrying LVTs and 193 Tank Battalion

Destroyer Screen

DD Mustin
DD Kimberly
DD Burns
DD Dale

TG 52.2 Fire Support Group (Griffin)     

Unit 1

BB New Mexico
BB Pennsylvania

Cruiser Division 6 (Griffin

CA Minneapolis
CA San Francisco

DD Dewey
DD Hull

Unit 2

BB Idaho
BB Mississippi
CA New Orleans
CA Baltimore
DD Maury
DD Gridley

Unit 3

DD Phelps
DD Macdonough

TG 52.3 Air Support Group (Mullinnix)

CVE Liscombe Bay

16 FM-1 Wildcat
12 TBM-1 Avenger

CVE Coral Sea

16 FM-1 Wildcat
12 TBM-1 Avenger

CVE Corregidor

16 FM-1 Wildcat
12 TBM-1 Avenger

Destroyer Screen

DD Morris
DD Hoel
DD Franks
DD Hughes
AM Revenge

TG 54.4  Makin LST Group 1

DD Dale
3 LSTs, each carrying an LCT.

TF 53 Southern Attack Force (Hill)

TG 53.1 Transport Group
Carrying reinforced 2 Marine Division (Smith)

Transport Division 4

APA Zeilin
APA Harry Lee
APA William P. Biddle
APA Arthur Middleton
APA Heywood

Transport Division 6

APA Harris
APA J. Franklin Bell
APA Ormsby
APA Feland

Transport Division 18

APA Monrovia
APA Doyen
APA Sheridan
AKA Thuban
AKA Bellatrix
AKA Virgo
LSD Ashland
AP La Salle

Destroyer Screen

DD John Rodgers
DD Sigsbee
DD Heermann
DD Hazelwood
DD Harrison
DD McKee
DD Murray

TG 53.2 Minesweeper Group

AM Requisite
AM Pursuit

TG 53.4 Fire Support Group  (Kingman)

Section 1

BB Tennessee
CL Mobile

Destroyer Division 27

DD Bailey
DD Frazier

Section 2 (DuBose)

BB Maryland
CL Santa Fe
DD Gansevoort
DD Meade

Section 3

BB Colorado
CA Portland
DD Anderson
DD Russell

Section 4

DD Ringgold
DD Dashiell

Section 5

CA Indianapolis
DD Schroeder

TG 53.6 Air Support Group (Ragsdale)

CVE Sangamon

9 TBF-1 Avenger
9 SBD-5 Dauntless
12 F6F-3 Hellcat

CVE Suwannee

9 TBF-1 Avenger
9 SBD-5 Dauntless
12 F6F-3 Hellcat

CVE Chenango

9 TBF-1 Avenger
9 SBD-5 Dauntless
12 F6F-3 Hellcat

CVE Barnes

22 F6F-3 Hellcat

CVE Nassau

22 F6F-3 Hellcat

Destroyer Screen

DD Aylwin
DD Monaghan
DD Cotten
DD Cowell

TG 54.5 Tarawa LST Group 1

DD Bancroft
3 LSTs, each carrying an LCT.

TF 50  Carrier Force (Pownall)

TG 50.1 Carrier Interceptor Group (Pownall)

CV Yorktown

VF-5: 37 F6F-3 Hellcat
VB-5: 36 SBD-5 Dauntless
VT-5: 18 TBF-1 Avenger

CV Lexington

VF-16: 37 F6F-3 Hellcat
VB-16: 36 SBD-5 Dauntless
VT-16: 18 TBF-1 Avenger

CVL Cowpens

VF-25: 24 F6F-3 Hellcat
VF-6: 12 F6F-3 Hellcat
VC-25: 10 TBF-1 Avenger

Battleship Division 6 (Hanson)

BB South Dakota
BB Washington
BB Alabama

Destroyer Screen

DD Nicholas
DD Taylor
DD La Vallette
DD Izard
DD Charrette
DD Conner

TG 50.2 Northern Carrier Group (Radford)

CV Enterprise

VF-2: 36 F6F-3 Hellcat
VB-6: 36 SBD-5 Dauntless
VT-6: 19 TBF-1 Avenger

CVL Belleau Wood

VF-24: 26 F6F-3 Hellcat
VF-6: 12 F6F-3 Hellcat
VC-22B: 9 TBF-1 Avenger

CVL Monterey

VF-30: 24 F6F-3 Hellcat
VC-30: 9 TBF-1 Avenger

Battleship Division 6 (Davis)

BB Massachusetts
BB North Carolina
BB Indiana

Destroyer Screen

DD Boyd
DD Bradford
DD Brown
DD Fletcher
DD Radford
DD Jenkins

TG 50.3 Southern Carrier Group (Montgomery)

CV Essex

VF-9: 37 F6F-3 Hellcat
VB-9: 36 SBD-5 Dauntless
VT-9: 18 TBF-1 Avenger

CV Bunker Hill

VF-18: 36 F6F-3 Hellcat
VB-17: 32 SB2C-1 Helldiver

CVL Independence

VF-22: 16 F6F-3 Hellcat
VF-6: 12 F6F-3 Hellcat
VC-22: 9 TBF-1 Avenger

Cruiser Division 5 (Small)

CA Chester
CA Pensacola
CA Salt Lake City
CL Oakland

Destroyer Screen

DD Erben
DD Hale

Destroyer Division 96

DD Bullard
DD Kidd
DD Chauncey

TG 50.4 Relief Carrier Group (Sherman)

CV Saratoga

VF-12: 37 F6F-3 Hellcat
VB-12: 24 SBD-5 Dauntless
VT-12: 19 TBF-1 Avenger

CVL Princeton

VF-23: 24 F6F-3 Hellcat
VT-23: 9 TBF-1 Avenger

Cruiser Division 2 (Wiltse)

CL San Diego
CL San Juan

Destroyer Screen

DD Stack
DD Sterett
DD Wilson
DD Edwards

TF 57 Defense Forces and Land-Based Air (Hoover)     

AV Curtiss
AVP Mackinac
AVP Swan

TG 57.2 Striking Group (Hale)

90 B-24 Liberator

TG 57.3 Search and Reconnaissance Group

VP-53: 12 PBY-5A Catalina
VP-72: 12 PBY-5 Catalina
VB-108: 12 PB4Y Liberator
VB-137: 12 PV-1 Ventura
VB-142: 12 PV-1 Ventura
VP-3: 6 F-7 Liberator

TG 57.4 Ellice Islands Defense and Utility Group (Merritt)     

4 Marine Base Air Defense Wing

90 fighters
72 scout bombers

Inshore Patrol Squadrons 51, 65, 66

24 observation aircraft

Air Transport Squadron 353

12 transport aircraft

Service Groups (Calhoun)

Service Squadron 8

AO Schuylkill
AO Suamico
AO Neches
AO Neshanic
AO Platte
AO Tallulah
AO Neosho
AO Cimarron
AO Tappahannock
AO Pecos
AO Sabine
AO Guadalupe
AO Lackawanna

Escort Division 26

DE Wintle
DE Cabana
DE Dempsey
DE Duffy

Escort Division 28

DE Greiner
DE Stadtfeld
DE Dionne

AH Relief
AH Solace

Mobile Service Squadron 4

AD Cascade
AO Sepulga
AR Vestal
ARB Phaon
AGS Sumner
ARS Clamp
ATF Ontario
ATO Kingfisher
ATF Arapaho
ATF Tawasa
AN Elder
2 yard tugs
2 yard minesweepers
5 subchasers
2 coastal transports

Patrol Submarines (Lockwood)

Truk Patrol

SS Thresher

SS Corvina

SS Apogon

Oroluk Patrol

SS Sculpin
SS Searaven

Kwajalein Patrol

SS Seal

Jaluit Patrol

SS Spearfish

Wotje-Mili Patrol

SS Plunger

Nauru Patrol
Weather station

SS Paddle

Tarawa Patrol
Abemama occupation force embarked

SS Nautilus

Garrison Groups

TG 54.6 Makin LST Group 3

DD Caldwell
5 LSTs carrying 2 LCTs.

TG 54.8 Makin Garrison Group
Carrying 7 Garrison Force

DE Whitman
DE Wileman
4 merchant transports

TG 54.7 Tarawa LST Group

DD Coghlan
9 LSTs carrying 2 LCTs.

TG 54.9 Tarawa Garrison Group

DE Lehardy
DE William C. Miller
AP President Polk
AK Jupiter
2 merchant transports

TG 54.10 Abemama Garrison Group 1

DE Charles R. Greer
DE Harold C. Thomas
AP President Monroe
3 merchant transports

TG 54.11 Abemama Garrison Group 2

DE Burden R. Hastings
4 LSTs carrying 3 LCTs.
1 merchant transport

Morison (1951)

Rottman (2002)

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