マキンの戦い Makin Island: Go Tell the Spartans…

Japanese “Special Naval Landing Force” officer. His comrades defended Tarawa and Makin. They were among the most elite of Japan’s forces.

”旅人よ、スパルタ人に告げよ。我等はここに横たわり、汝らの言葉/命令/法に従うと” ーー ケオスのシモーニデース

“Passing Stranger, Go Tell the Spartans obedient to her laws and traditions here we lie”  Simonides of Ceos

Author’s Introduction: After the defeat of American forces in the Philippines and the central Pacific, the battle in the Solomon Islands ground on with a gradually building intensity and attrition. It was two years before the total chain was either occupied by American forces or physically isolated by the capture of strategic points on New Guinea, New Britain, and the the Admiralty Islands in 1944. The landings on Attu in the Aleutian Islands were too peripheral and isolated to allow Americans to mass and hit the home islands of Japan. The main allied effort, agreed at the Quebec Conference, would be in the central Pacific and would not begin until nearly the end of 1943.

Initial plans called for the capture of almost all islands in the Gilbert, Ellice and Marshall Island chains. This would represent the most massive and direct US force projection across the Pacific Ocean aimed at establishing gradually encroaching bases of operation radiating American power towards Japan. American plans rested upon achieving air superiority over the islands using large, carrier-based formations. Air power would protect naval elements landing US forces on Japanese-held islands. These forces could then be defended from major Japanese naval threats from both the carriers and the newly seized airfields on the islands. Japan was still a formidable fighting power, its pilots were still, on average, among the best in the world. But trumps in the eyes of every strategist – Japanese or American – was Japan’s possession of all the islands with airstrips on coral atolls that could not be sunk throughout the Pacific. It was feared land-based forces were superior to carrier-based planes because islands could not be sunk. The fear was that Japan would sortie with a major naval carrier fleet supported by land-based planes near their theatre of operations.

It was expected the Japanese would mount credible offensive power to be able to defend against the American landings or be able to make counter landings and push the Americans back into the sea. Large forces defended by primarily carrier-based air power was a largely untested idea. While casualties were sometimes high on both sides Japan was never able to seriously threaten any major American landing. The combination of overwhelming US air, naval and land forces and Japan’s inability, and at times, unwillingness to concentrate force ensured America was able to dictate the campaign. Landings in the Gilberts and Marshals would lend confidence to US operational capability and efficacy of their carrier-borne task forces.

The Makin Island landing is not well known and, like many narratives in this blog, took place against the background of more intense battles. At the same time US Army troops were fighting on Makin, the 2nd Marine Division was engaged in a fearful battle over the much smaller island of Betio in the Tarawa group. That battle ultimately cost the lives of over 1000 Marines and almost 5000 Japanese defenders. This was happening 150 kilometres to the south of Makin.  On Tarawa in a  72-hour battle the Japanese inflicted over 3000 casualties on the Americans including over 1000 American Marine dead before the Japanese were completely annhilated.

The Makin garrison much smaller (about 350 combat personnel and another 340 labourers), spread out over a wide area and lacking adequate defensive emplacements when the US Army landed. The Japanese inflicted severely less US combat casualties in land fighting. Less than 70 men were killed in a three-day battle of considerably lower intensity than the “utmost savagery” witnessed on Tarawa.

With a landing force of over 6700 men of the US Army 27th Division, the Americans enjoyed an 18 to 1 advantage. Yet both battles took the same amount of time for the Americans to secure the island. The American Army Division  commander, in contrast to his Marine cousins to the north on Tarawa was cited as  lacking “drive and aggression” in a clearly one-sided battle with overwhelming American force against a small Japanese garrison. He was replaced by the overall commander of the landing forces – Marine General Holland Smith. This has become a subject of much ink slung among historians.  What is not debated is that the Japanese garrison would fight to the death in the same tradition as their better-known brothers at Tarawa – Japanese “Marines” of the Rikusentai (陸戦隊) regiment on Tarawa.

The sole survivor of the Makin Garrison was leading seaman Sawami-san of the Japanese Naval Special Landing Forces (sometimes referred to as the Japanese “Marines.” Sawami-san was a medic and as such was in a position of being able to traverse the battle ground tending the wounded and did not have to remain in a single place to fight. His reminiscences cover his activities at the end of the battle in the final pocket of organised resistance and the fate of the Korean labourers. [1] Like all battles he remembers certain events with a vivid intensity. His recollections of the jumpiness of US Army soldiers is verified by contemporary US accounts and was one of the criticisms General Holland Smith had against Army Units serving under him.

US Army Troops of the 27th Division Land on Yellow Beach Two on central Butaritari Island in the Makin Atoll group. Landings on this beach were opposed in a piecemeal fashion by the Japanese defenders
US Army Troops of the 27th Division Land on Yellow Beach Two on central Butaritari Island in the Makin Atoll group. Landings on this beach were opposed in a piecemeal fashion by the Japanese defenders


Text Translation Begins:

Makin Island: In Death, Victory: By the end of 1943 the American attacks across the Pacific began in earnest. First the Gilbert Islands were taken back, and then it was the turn of the Marshall Islands to set up the campaign in the Marianas. The main strategy of these actions was to set up invasion routes to lay open retaking the Philippines and the Japanese home islands. Makin started this process.The Americans underestimated the small garrisons and got a rude awakening when they landed.


Date of American Landing: November 21st, 1943.

American Land Troop Strength: Approx 6,500 Japanese Strength: 693 (including labourers)

Last Day of Defence (Gyokusai Day): November 23rd, 1943

Japanese Survivors: 1 (Sawami )


My Reminiscenses of Makin

“ Ah….Makin…. How many time must I recount that tragedy? It was a battle to the death…but, no, no … since the end of the war I have found it difficult and hard to speak of those terrible times.  But while I am still living, I feel that I must tell the story… that it is my duty to tell the story.

I am sure you realise, I am the onle surviving Japanese soldier of that battle – I Sawami, Seaman[2] First Class (一等水兵) the sole surviving member of the entire garrison. I need to tell my story…

Were there any other survivors..?

There were some others… About 104 South Korean Labours survived the battle.  But those fellows never saw any action. It was hard to conceal them or seek adequate cover once the Americans started to land. The over 200 Korean labourers were forcibly herded into a small half underground ammunition shelter.  Ultimately about half of them survived the battle because of this. I think it was the best plan to keep them there and the most safe. If they had done the same as our Japanese troops they would have probably been all dead. Why did half of them die, you may ask? I think that responsibility lies with the Americans. When the Americans reached the ammunition bunker in the heat of battle they battered in the door, unleashed a flurry of grenades into the small shelter, and then blindly shot up the entire space. None of the labourers were armed and none were resisting. They were peacefully sitting on their knees and haunches… half of them were killed. I was also captured as a prisoner of war and heard all of this from the remaining Korean prisoners themselves. [3]

And what about the Americans? Do I have any feelings about them? I do not think my feelings have much significance or meaning. They won the war and to the victor go the spoils as they say. In the middle of a war bad things happen… it’s up to all of us to clear them up as best we can.”


From the beginning of 1943, American planning against Japan and actions to take back islands in the Pacific was well underway. At security conferences in the US and joint planning concentrated on the  Southern Pacific, the Solomon Island and New Guinea, including Timor and the southern approaches of Mindanao. All were seen as important to capturing the main island of Luzon in the Philippines. In the Central Pacific, Truk, Guam in the South Pacific, and the Northern Pacific extending to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska were seen as another important ocean axis of attack on the Japanese home Islands. Getting Burma back in order to help funnel supplies into China was also part of the general effort against Japan. But General Douglas MacArthur was very much against the Central Pacific Campaign. He maintained a steadfast support for his own Southern Pacific strategy.

MacArthur supported generally a strategy of pressure on all points, but concentration of force and defeating the Japanese army along the southern route to the Philippines after retaking New Guinea and the Solomons took priority. The Joint Chiefs of Staff however were in favour of both a central and southern strategy in order to split Japanese strength and not allow them to focus resources on a single front. For the central  Pacific attack Admiral Nimitz, US Pacific Fleet Commander resolved upon landings in the Gilberts and Nauru around the November 05, [1943] time frame. Following quickly in the New Year a move would then be made to retake the Marshall Islands. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, the allied leaders decided upon the following six-step schedule for a central Pacific advance.

  • The Gilbert Islands and Nauru
  • The Marshall Islands, Wake Island and Kosrae Island (in Micronesia)
  • Ponape (in Micronesia)
  • Truk to include the Caroline Islands
  • Palau, Yap
  • Marianas Islands

The noticeable lack of focus on the Japanese fortress base of Rabaul in the Solomon Islands lead to strong objections from MacArthur. His persistence however was brushed off by the Joint Chiefs as was his preaching on the southern attack route, and the American focus remained on the Gilberts. In the end MacArthur was largely ignored. The first to place to hit the chopping block would be the islands of Tarawa, Makin and Abemama in the Gilberts.

Landing day was set for November 21, 1943. Makin was assigned to the US Army’s 27th Division under the command of the Army’s General Holland Smith[4] (see footnotes on inaccuracies in original text) with 6,500 personnel in the attacking force with no previous combat experience. The expected hard battle would be fought on Tarawa and there the Marine 2nd Division under the command of Marine General Harry Hill.  [5] The 2nd Marine division also had many veterans of the Guadalcanal campaign. These had been stationed in New Zealand and were assembled in Efate Island in Vanuatu before the assault.  A striking force under the command of Admiral Pownall (Task Force 50) was comprising a total of six larger carriers, five smaller carriers, 6 battleships and five cruisers and 21 destroyers tasked to establish air superiority over the Gilbert Island chain and degrade enemy defences.

The entire offensive force was under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance, the author of the Midway victory and comprised a total of 108,000 men.[6] He directed operations from the cruiser Indianapolis.  


Firestorm on Makin:

{Sawami-san continues)

“I was a medic, a career sailor, Seaman 1st Class, just 19 yrs. old, attached to a field hospital. We were ensconced in a wooden public administration building, when the shelling on the morning of November 21st exploded all around us. It still scares me and still in my dreams I wake up in a sweat, frantically searching for some kind of cover. I have a feeling that the enemy is coming to get me…

My subordinates at the time had no idea what was happening.  We had heard a rumour that the enemy would be landing on the 20th.  To some degree we understood, but did not, at some level really believe or expect, they would be coming.  

About a year before in August, 1943, 220 US Marines had made a landing on the island in the night from two submarines. At that time there were only two small detachments on the island comprising about 70 men. The Americans fell upon them at night and they were virtually annihilated. After that we rushed transports and destroyers to the island, but the Americans had left.  We found about 27 Japanese survivors of the American raid. We also found out that the Americans had suffered about 30 dead as a result of the raid, but had pulled out promptly to their submarines and escaped.  They also left about 9 men behind on the island who were promptly made prisoners by our forces[7]… but why had the Americans raided these islands and then withdrew. We couldn’t figure it out.

There was a possibility that the Americans could be trying the same type of raid on this small island therefore we had a battalion comprised of 240 Special Naval Landing Force (Rikusentai) under Lieutenant Ichikawa. Combined with associated members of our naval air unit and construction corps who could bear arms we had 500 defenders. It was expected that any enemy landing of a force three times the garrison size would be more than evenly matched with that number. Therefore a landing of a battalion-sized force would be greeted with undaunted vigour and everyone was in high spirits. But we were not prepared for an invasion by an entire regiment… [8]

On the morning of November 21st at around 2:45 a.m. American boats appeared and were moving towards our positions on Butaritari the largest island in the Makin atoll. A ferocious bombardment added to carnage with the coming of dawn. Butaritari was long and slender and shaped like a hammerhead.  On the bottom third of the shaft was the main Japanese defence zone.   On the main hammer face were coastal gun positions at Ukiangong Point on the extreme southern tip.[9]

American ships opened up supporting fire from 17,000 metres offshore with two battleships, two cruisers and 6 destroyers. Anything constructed above ground was blown to bits. This included all administrative buildings, storehouses and soldiers quarters, not to mention native villager huts and their churches. Everything disintegrated into one burning mess. Lines of coconut trees also disappeared in this hail of fire and Japanese soldiers had no choice but to seek shelter in trenches and underground shelters or foxholes.  One waited motionless while the giant shells passed overhead. There was no means by which the Japanese guns could reply against this tide of destruction.

Since the time of the Makin Raid in 1942, the Gilberts, Nauru, and Ocean Islands were all reinforced with more troops and fortifications greatly strengthened. On February 25th 1942, 3rd Special Operations Base was established comprised of Special Naval Landing forces and reorganised, ground and air defences considerably strengthened in a very short period of time. Around July, Shibasaki Keiji assumed command of all the Gilbert defences and increased morale and drilled the soldiers incessantly increasing the morale and discipline of these isolated island garrisons but it still could not be said they were up to strength for what was to come.

On Tarawa the main element of the 3rd Special Operations Base comprised 901 men. In addition there were 1699 men of the Sasebo Special Naval Landing Regiment, along with construction labouring battalions, both Japanese and Korean, the total number on Tarawa was about 4,600 men. On Nauru 67th Garrison the main body of troops were 405 members.  On Ocean Island there was an additional 371 men of this same Garrison. On Abemama a coast watching ground had been established of 24 men.


On Makin Atoll a branch formation of the 3rd Special Operations Base of the 243 men.

Air base elements of the 952nd Air Unit (60 men) and; 602nd Air Unit (50 members)

The 111th Construction Corp (340 individuals including about 200 Korean Labourers).


There were about 693 Japanese military, technicians and labourers on the island.

Of this total there was one group with combat experience: a company of about 243 men. Beyond that the air corps group mostly technicians, and labourer personnel were of dubious worth in combat. So in the end it was really this 243 men who stood against the wave of American forces landing on Makin. [10]

This disparity was even more pronounced in terms of arms the Japanese had to repel the Americans. Heavy weapons on the island consisted of three 8-cm guns and three 8 cm anti-aircraft guns and an additional complement of twelve 13 mm machine guns.

The inevitability of the Americans wanting to make a move against the islands was made plainly evident days before the actual landing with a series of bombing raids.

On the 19th a single B-24 flew high above the island. On the next day, the inexperienced garrison was subjected to a terrific air bombing. At 3:45 in the morning about 40 carrier-based planes arrived and bombed and strafed the island for a period of 2 hours. Although there was some damage Japanese casualties were comparatively light. Eventually the bombing slackened off and we were allowed to crawl out of our foxholes to other places.

Again at 7:25 about 94 American carrier-based dive bombers were overhead raiding us in a second wave attack that lasted about an hour. Our anti-aircraft guns and machine guns spit fire at them and on the ground everything was being ripped apart in smoking pyres as the strafing continued well after the bombing. Our casualties started to mount. Events got worse as a third wave of 30 planes continued the attack at 10:00. A fourth wave at noon of 58 planes. At 12:28 another wave of 50 planes. At 14:35 in the afternoon 17 planes. Without even a chance to catch their breath the enemy planes pressed upon Sawami and his men closely with their murderous fire. About 100 men were lost from these combined attacks.

Sawami-san Continues: “It was expected all the time, from dawn till dusk that day that American forces would attempt a landing on the island. All of our positions were secured and all were told to annihilate the Americans at the water’s edge. Not one step back was to be contemplated. It was a fight to the death.[11] “ Fervent orders were passed down from Sub-Lieutenant, Ichikawa.[12] With the coming of the night a bombardment started from heavy guns out at sea. There was nothing we could do in reply and around 5:00 p.m. we were forced to abandon the central causeway and pull back to On Chong’s wharf and King Wharf. On the Western side of the island all Japanese forces were pulled back to the western tank barrier running across the width of the island.

Japanese positions during  first day landings.
Japanese positions during first day landings.

“By this time most of our machine guns had been knocked out. As a medic I was responsible for treating the wounded. Running about with a bag on my shoulders I treated them as best I could here and there. Under the orders of the doctor we usually treated only those who were lightly wounded or who possessed some ability to wield arms. Beyond that we did not have the capability or the facilities, anyway those who were wounded badly were doomed.

I was running around trying to attend the cries…. “Medic, Medic” came from various places on the battlefield. I attended to these, but in the vast majority of cases it was cries of those looking after their badly wounded comrades calling out just before they died. Bandages in such circumstances seemed a pitiable response to such suffering. In order to ease the pain in some cases I gave them injections of saline. In spite of this really ineffective treatment, in many cases the patients colour would improve and they would look up at me with thanks. It was something I couldn’t really stand. Eventually they lost strength and collapsed totally. “They’re scuppered” a friend would call out and then place their friend in the corner of the trench pushing them aside and covering them with sand. It was a cramped place to be all of the time in the trenches. I stepped and slid off of bodies countless times whilst running and crawling around to tend the wounded, sometime falling and sticking my hands on the countless body trunks.  By this time the enemy had landed and was moving inland and a heated battle was developing between our sides.

On the Western edge of the island the American First and Third Battalions started to land from about 5:30 in the morning. On this section of the island there was only a platoon of men to defend and most of those had been withdrawn into the extreme southwest of the island. [13]

More and more troops were landing, but encountering no major resistance from Japanese forces. American spirits became more lighthearted with the lack of resistance. “There is not a single Jap on the island… it’s just like Kiska… they have all run away.” One squad on the western end regarded the whole thing like a picnic. But suddenly around 7:00 p.m. they were rent with gunfire and the forms of two or three soldiers went down as gunfire rent the air. “Japs, get down!” Soldiers started dragging their comrades across the ground as a heavier machine gun opened up on the Americans as they clung to the ground. They ran for cover scared out of their wits.  The picnic was definitely over and the Japanese resistance finally encountered. They had met the Japanese soldier and the Americans had lost their nerve and did not seem to have an idea of how to dislodge the Japanese from their positions.[14] It was time for a showdown.

Makin Second Day Fighting
Makin Second Day Fighting

The battle began to heat up considerably when the Americans came up against the main defences of the anti-tank trench cutting across the Western end of the island. The Americans then launched a main landing of their 2nd Brigade landing on the inside of the reef around On Chong’s Wharf [15] around 0740.[16] The main force under Lieutenant Ichikawa on the western edge of the island had collected near the anti-tank trench and air defence emplacements and began exchanging a fierce fire with the landing Americans. At this point the military attached labourers and various technicians stationed on Makin Island grabbed whatever rifles were at hand and joined in the battle. Those who could not carry a rifle carried ammunition. The Marines were momentarily pinned down as they came off the beach. No more than 300 men were able to stop over 2000 Americans coming ashore.

In this hapless position the Americans did their best to avoid Japanese bullets while clinging to the thin edge of the beach.  It must have been clear to them this would be a fight

to the finish.

Makin Second day

Off to the right our sharpshooter Petty Officer Mita was making short work of a few Americans on the beach from the top of a coconut tree. At one point he reported back down into the dugout… “Hey Lieutenant… if I can get one more, it looks like the Americans are all on the point of cutting and running…It looks like they are seriously inexperienced and scared as hell.” Talk like this bucked us all up and we took new heart as we scrambled out of the entrance with renewed hope in our ability to fight off the Americans. True to his word we looked and the Americans were indeed retiring.  

The Makin garrison was appraised by the Americans as having a strength of about 800 men. General Holland Smith had expected to take the island within one day. [17] He was more than displeased to discover the advance stalled and in places driven back in serious counter attacks. Was it due to general clumsiness of the army commanders?

At Hawaii during training some of the problems were evident. It was expected that the infantry would follow their own artillery barrage at a leisurely pace. It was expected that enemy resistance would be pulverised in the face of such firepower and that the infantry would occupy the ground. Such were the teachings reminiscent of World War I infantry tactics.

When the Americans landed after such a barrage, they were not expecting serious resistance. Therefore when a Japanese sniper was found or a machine gun discovered it delayed the advance for hours. The Americans were nervous. A single rustle of a leaf or movement resulted in wild claims and crazy continuous firing in all directions. Such weak-kneed response was taken every advantage by the Japanese.

Realising the inability of maintaining positions on the western edge of the island the Japanese regrouped around Western anti-tank barrier. The two US battalions landing on the western side of the island eventually following them to this position caught them in a murderous crossfire [between the landing force on Yellow Beach and those forces advancing up from earlier landings on Red Beach].

US artillery positions established at the end of Ukiangong Point duly registered the Japanese positions. Combined with naval bombardment the garrison on Makin was getting annihilated.

Some members were able to steal away during this time and combine their strength into new temporary units. Lieutenant Ichikawa gathered some of members into a unit and planned to harry the Americans and engage in a form or guerrilla war.  Taking advantage of the confusion of battle he took this unit and deftly detoured around the main American positons and headed towards the eastern anti-tank barrier. This unit applied itself with all its might and roamed between positions on both the North and South side of the island pressing close in with the enemy, moving between their positions firing upon them and in some cases forcing them back. In these circumstances there was risk from friendly fire incidents between the Americans. By the time they noticed the movement of the Japanese most of the remaining defenders had already finished reaching the eastern anti-tank ditch.

The Last Days, the Long Odds:

Sawami-san again picks up the story “When we reached this relative shelter of the barrier we had no heavy weapons. Our ammunition for most of our machine guns was exhausted and the guns either destroyed or thrown away. We possessed only small arms and as the morning of the 22nd dawned it was like a day of hell. From dawn’s early light carrier-based planes were swarming about.

They later began to strafe our trenches as we all took shelter. The power of their guns was terrifying.  One shot striking the body opened up a 10 centimetre hole which splashed out guts. Craniums if hit literally blew apart. Internal organs would be spat out of the body from hits in the mid-section. After the planes departed we were subjected to an intense artillery barrage from US artillery positions on the western side of the island.

Despite all of this we did not think twice about our duty. Our island of Butaritari in Makin was long and thin. Our collection point was rather concentrated and the Americans must have enjoyed the ability to view our positions most of the time on this thin strip of land no more than 1 square kilometre. We prayed to all the gods in heaven to spare us. It was all we could do. Of course our dead continued to mount. Those without an arm. Some with pulverised legs. Most could not be bandaged… Everyone imagined digging foxholes and making themselves invisible, but we lacked shovels and resorted to digging holes in the sand with the stocks of our rifles. .. but then here comes another plane tearing up the ground around us…!

The Americans did not like to close with us in tight one-on-one infantry battles. They concentrated their planes and their guns on us first and made us suffer. For the remaining survivors there was no other place to hide on the island. The rest of the island was rather flat and featureless and further east it became even narrower. We became more and more desperate, cornered and no way to go. As chunks of the trench were flying apart all around me, the enemy began a general advance into this swarming hot mass of fear and confusion. Those who made a break for it made easy targets for the Americans. Some did not possess the strength to pull the trigger of their own guns and blow their brains out and they did not possess grenades to hold against their bodies and put themselves out of misery. Those gravely wounded began begging their friends to stab and kill them, I mean, we were all going to die anyway why not end the suffering now, early? They cried at those reluctant who held back at the last moment with the knife plunge sometimes urging them on with insults…. “Come on you stupid you can do it? Just bloody well do it!  I’m ready!” …Other assorted cries also rang out up and down the line from the gravely wounded.  

Eventually night fell and Lt. Ichikawa wounded in the leg and brandishing a sword, gathered what effectives there were left around him. They numbered about 30 people.  “You have all fought courageously and I deeply thank you. With the coming of the light we must steal ourselves for the next attack. Each of you should take as many of the enemy with you as possible… We all have a road to follow. Let’s follow it in a resolute and wilful way,” said the simple Lieutenant. He did all this with a broad grin maintaining humour and confidence in the presence of death. It is hard to qualify and explain the feelings for such a magnificent leader and human being that was our Lieutenant. I am deeply moved by his spirit and will to lead us all in the face of such difficulties.

Now the end was very near. In that trench was such misery as I have never witnessed before. The Lieutenant gave the order to give the final finishing stabs to our wounded to put them out of misery. It was better to die at the hands of friends than on the uncertain end of American bayonets. On the morning of the 24th, very early in the morning, about 0400 in the pale light of the early morning the remaining 30 survivors, myself included, snuck out of our trenches with bayonets and knives and made our way silently towards the enemy line.

We were suddenly discovered about 50 metres from the American positions. The air was rent with an explosion of small arms, automatic fire and grenades. Some of our group went down immediately. Others broke into a run towards the American positions some not going ten paces before falling.  It was a death charge all around. A self-decided act of redemption. All went to their deaths without uttering a sound. My body suddenly felt as if on fire and then I could not move. My right shoulder was hit once and I got two more in my hips. I began to feel colder and colder as my eyes began to close. So this is what death feels like… Eventually I lost consciousness. “


Makin atoll. In this battle the US lost 66 soldiers dead and 218 wounded. But in this battle the force discrepancy was over 17 to 1 and looked at from that angle, the American casualties were not insignificant. Even more so when we add those lost when one of the American battleship Mississippi’s main turrets exploded killing 43 men and wounding 19.

Also the Japanese submarine イ-175 was successful in sneaking in and torpedoing and sinking the escort carrier Liscome Bay killing 642 navy personnel. When combining all of this damage sustained by America in the entire Makin Battle the Japanese sacrifice of the garrison can be evaluated most highly.

Text Translation Ends


Translator Note* Video link from Critical Past® of the aftermath in the western anti-tank ditch on Butaritari Island in Makin Atoll. Many of the Japanese soldiers may have died here before being accompanied by their brothers, unceremoniously dumped here by US forces cleaning up after the battle. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2Y-zxs57FY

With the wave of war sweeping ever Eastward Makin Atoll, point of contact for two great empires struggling for control of half of the globe, was once again forgotten from the realm of human experience and therefore the pages of history.


[1] Footage shot on the island by US forces https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBaG3vkZPxk

[2] The names is listed as 沢見. Most likely “Sawami” is his family name. Both characters have several readings. I have not been able to find a phonetic rendering of the name from any source. Therefore I am using the most conventional reading of these two characters. Sawami 沢見 is usually the pronunciation of this character and is not an uncommon surname. There are other pronunciations. Here is an example of a name where unless there is a phonetic rendering of a name, written down in the Japanese phonetic script, although we know who the person is from their Chinese characters, there is the very real possibility of losing the proper pronunciation of a name to history.I have not been able to ascertain his first name from available Japanese or US documents.

[3] This unintentional shooting of Korean Labourers is also documented in many other US sources.

[4] Here is where Japanese interpretations sometime get it wrong. Holland Smith was a Marine General, not an Army General and commanded the entire amphibious landing force in the Gilbert Operations, which included the 2nd Marine Division. The 27th was commanded by Army Major General, Ralph C. Smith, who would have reported to Marine Lt. General Holland Smith during this operation. He was eventually relieved of command by Smith for perceived lack of aggressiveness in the face of weak Japanese resistance on Makin, an action that is debated in Army and Marine circles to the present day. [5] Again incorrect, 2nd Marine Division was under the command of Marine Major General Julian C. Smith.  Harry Hill was a US Navy Admiral in command of the Amphibious Support Group, supporting the landings on Tarawa with fire support and command of transports.

[6] It should be noted the total Japanese force in the entire Gilbert Islands was, at most 6,000 personnel, including civilian labourers attached to the military. American land forced projected a land force dominance of 18 to 1 in their favour.

[7] Official count of the American war dead is 18 killed in action and 12 missing (so Sawami-san’s recounting of the battle is correct. It is significant that American accounts assume that they completely wiped out the garrison to a man, but this would have been strange on an island this size with a raiding force of only 220 men. There were plenty of places for Japanese to hide and it appears they made good use of them. If we take Sawami-san’s estimates, are correct. Japanese casualties listed are 46 killed or missing, leaving around 25 survivors. Sawami does not mention that the 9 captured Americans were later executed.

[8] A regiment of the 27th Infantry Division of the US Army was landed against the Japanese forces on Makin, almost 7000 troops.  An advantage of almost 10 to 1. This does not include all of the US Naval support, firepower and US support which the Japanese did not possess. [9] American records state that there was no artillery at Ukiangong Point only dummy positions made of coconut logs. Morison recounts that the Americans simply landed in this sector and set up their own artillery near Ukiangong Point. Samuel Elliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in WWII, Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshals June 1942 – April 1944, University of Illinois Press, 2002, pp. 124-30

[10] Against 6,500 American Landing Troops, a disparity of 26 to 1 for the Americans. If you count only the combat ready troops. Again these figures do not count American naval and air support which increases the disparity even more.

[12] Naval Sub-Lieutenant Ichikawa Seizo, was the commanding officer of the Special Naval Landing force.There was a Lt. Commander in charge or Japanese Naval Air element, as such he would have outranked Ichikawa. But because he was not attached to the majority land detachment, he would have deferred to Ichikawa as senior combat commander. As such he was tasked with a rather weighty responsibility of defence of the island and over 200 combat troops. While somewhat unusual it was not uncommon for the lower ranks to command large groups of men. In fact the Japanese army was relatively under-officered when compared with other contemporary militaries.

[13] American combat reports do not report any significant action or troop concentrations in the Southwestern sector near Uklangong Point. The report the point empty.  But encountered “no resistance” in fact the major fighting of this day consisted of only a few small encounters with the enemy and small harassment from enemy snipers whose fire was inaccurate and ineffective. http://ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-A-Makin/USA-A-Makin-3.html pp.43-46.

[14] One may not be too quick to dismiss the claims of the temerity of US soldiers as this is possibly the encounter on Edwin P. Hoyt describes as “15 [Japanese] men and a machine gun…” These 15 apparently succeeded in “holding up the advance for hours” and “bogging down” the operation completely for the day. In the night Hoyt relates that Americans were extremely jumpy, discharging their weapons”indiscriminately – even at each other.” Edwin P. Hoyt Storm over the Gilberts, Von Nostrand Reinhold, 1978. p.85.

[15] This wharf has been established to support the Chinese merchant and his store located in the same area. By WWII this store the store was owned by an American company. The name of the early Chinese traders however remained.

[16] American records state categorically the landings on Yellow beach near On Chong’s wharf and store happened much later, around 1030 a.m. See http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-A-Makin/USA-A-Makin-4.html .

[17] He expected it “secure” at the end of the day. Which means that all major fighting has stopped and “mopping up” operations would be underway from the morning of the second day.


Published by: rszasz739

Entrepeneur with over 25 yrs Asian-related experience. Have travelled to many of the more isolated battle sites in the Asia-Pacific region. Good Japanese to English translation capability.

Categories Uncategorized2 Comments

2 thoughts on “マキンの戦い Makin Island: Go Tell the Spartans…”

  1. This is a truly superb blog. I have never read about the Pacific war from the point of view of the Japanese. The war was so vicious and unbearably brutal on both sides that even today there is very little understanding between the two sides. I look forward to more.

  2. Very interesting reading.

    It should be noted that the the relief of an Army Major General Ralph C. Smith by a Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith did not occur during operations in the Gilbert Islands (Makin and Tarawa), but much later (in 1944), during operations in the Marianas– specifically at Saipan.


    However, it is believed conduct of the Makin operation did influence the later action, as Holland M. Smith wrote, “After my experience with the Twenty-seventh at Makin and Eniwetok, I was reluctant to use them again in the Marianas, but when the operation was planned they were the only troops available in Hawaii and I had to take them.”


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