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Kiribati: Battle of Tarawa relics

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Battle of Tarawa relics | Kiribati | Oceania

[Visited: October 2012]

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.

Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Mounted gun pointing at the ocean at the entrance of Betio

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.

Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Memorial for the US soldiers who died in the Battle of Tarawa with capsule to be opened 100 years after the battle

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.

Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Wreck of Sherman tank exposed at low tide on Red Beach 2 in Betio
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Rusting cannons on the beach at the south side of Betio
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Bullet-ridden Japanese command bunker in Betio
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Memorial column for those killed by the Japanese
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Two shrines in the Japanese Memorial Garden
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Rusting remains of a gun on the ocean side beach at the entrance of Betio
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Japanese bunker and rusting gun at Temakin Point
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Cannon rusting away on the beach of Betio
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Japanese gun mounted in the Japanese Memorial Garden
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Rusting gun in a backyard in Betio
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Bunker painted yellow in Betio
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Rusting military installation in Betio
Picture of Battle of Tarawa relics (Kiribati): Tree growing through the rusting remains of a World War II gun

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