Think South Pacific and you are almost bound to think of atolls with incredible turquoise waters, of remote villages, of peaceful people living their everyday lives far away from the rest of the world - literally. Some of these places have actually seen heavy fighting in the Second World War, and Tarawa is one of those places. The Battle of Tarawa took 3 days from 20 November 1943, and in those few days, more than 1100 US marines and 4500 Japanese soldiers were dead. After bombing Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Japanese built strongholds in several places of the South Pacific which thus eventually became a battleground of the biggest war of our history and which took the war to places that were of strategic importance, but otherwise had nothing to do with the war. Most of the remains of the war have been removed, but many still remain, and walking around Betio you are bound to see those war relics. I walked from Bairiki, the islet to the east of Betio, over the causeway that links both islands, and started scanning the beach to see if there was anything visible already here.
With plenty of rusting vehicle parts, it was not easy to say if they were war related, or more recent remains of a truck. Once I reached the entrance to Betio, though, it was very obvious: there are two large mounted guns pointing towards the Pacific, in a quite good condition still. One of them bore a love declaration to a certain Lilian; both had graffiti on them, making them look less menacing. Walking on the beach, I stumbled upon the rusting remains of what looked like a similar gun, and I could see other items stuck in the sand. I had heard that you can even still find human remains in the sand, which has never been completely cleared of all war remains. The battle lasted only for a couple of days, but some of the mess is still here. Continuing a walk around Betio, I concentrated on the coast first as it was low tide. I went to Red Beach 2, where I saw probably the best known relic of the Battle of Tarawa: a Sherman tank in a permanent capsize in the water. Walking to Red Beach 1 - the beaches are called so because this is where the US marines landed and many found their death - I saw so much garbage on the beach that it was hard to discern any material of historic significance.
Still, I tried to imagine how young men had been fighting here on this beach, emerging from the greenish-blue waters, watched by palm trees; this certainly seemed like no place for war at all. Rounding the beach, I reached Temakin Point, where I found a Japanese gun and bunker, completely demolished, and then, a cemetery in which a memorial for the 22 British and New Zealanders who were executed by the Japanese, as well as one for the inhabitants of Tarawa who suffered during the war. Next was the war memorial erected for the US marines who died; standing right next to the sports stadium, the column holds a time capsule which is to be opened on 29 November 2043, 100 years after the battle. Close by is the Japanese Memorial Garden, surrounded by a fence and with two religious shrines and a rather contrasting mounted gun. I passed the Japanese command bunker, with plenty of bullet holes; after the battle, 300 bodies were found inside; when I stepped into the dark bunker with its thick walls, it was obvious that this had become a de facto public toilet with a lot of rubbish inside. A Japanese tank lies just off the coast but the high tide had now taken it out of sight. On the way out of Betio, I saw more bunkers, and discovered a rusting mounted gun surrounded by thatched roof huts. One of the guys proposed I should come back the next day so they could clean the gun for a picture; it was used to attach laundry lines and was covered by leaves and plants. I ended my tour of the war relics at the mounted guns I had seen in the morning; a group of young Kiribati were using it as a place to gather and have a drink. The war relics of Betio have become integrated into the lives of the locals.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Battle of Tarawa relics. Read more about this site.