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An atoll is a broken ring of islands and reefs enclosing a lagoon.  Usually has a radius of a few miles.

In my experience, mentioning the name of Tarawa has evoked only two reactions- passionate interest or Tarawhere?

If you belong to the latter category, Tarawa is an atoll located in the Pacific just north of the Equator and at about the same longitude as New Zealand.  Its brief hour of fame arrived in World War 2 when it was seized by Japan.  Subsequently in 1943, it was the first of the little atolls to be recaptured by the U.S. marines who then hopped from one of these places to another until they wound up in the Marianas Islands, within bombing range of Japan.

Tarawa is but a little speck in the mighty Pacific.  Unlike the U.S.marines, I came by air.  The atoll forms the shape of a twisted and broken circle, never more than a few hundred yards wide, every side fringed with coral sand and a backbone of tropical trees.  Within the circle is the shallow lagoon, outside is the deep ocean.

My first experience of Tarawa was Bonriki airport, nine miles over a few causeways from the capital Betio.  The terminal is a wooden building.  Landing there can sometimes be troublesome with pilots having to buzz over the unfenced runway to get the locals off it.  Immigration procedures are in the same casual key- Just report to the office in town to get your visa (and pay $50).

The people are Micronesians who originally came between 200 and 500 A.D. Today, Tarawa Island and about 30 others (Christmas Island included) form the independent Republic of Kiribati.

The atmosphere on the atoll is, to say the least, easygoing.  People are friendly and not overly curious.  Although there are some hotels, tourism hasn’t caught on.  Frankly, unless World War 2 interests you, Tarawa has precious little to offer other than peace and quiet.  On Christmas Island, which I didn’t reach, there’s a wildlife reserve and, if you’re into diving, you can explore coral reefs and sunken warships.

Recently, the Republic adjusted the International Date Line to run just east of its territory, rather than down the middle.  This action (apparently agreed to by the Greenwich Observatory) means that Kiribati plans to be the first nation to welcome in the millennium.

With little in the fine of resources, other than seafood and coconuts, Tarawa has to import practically everything.  One expatriate working there spoke of his love of the place and the people and his utter detestation of the imported UHT milk.  That person was a mechanic opting out of the rat race in Sydney.  He was born in Dublin (so it’s true, we’re everywhere).

While there, I explored what I wanted to see.  The World War 2 relics are a series of huge guns (made in Britain) and bunkers running along the ocean-facing side of the atoll.  Although rusting and well scored by shell fragments, they are bearing up well to the elements.  On the beach are concrete barriers, designed to drive landing craft into the line of fire of the coastal batteries.  Coral sand, sea shells, coconut shells and logs were all piled up into the defences.

In the town of Betio (which must be one of the greenest and sandiest on Earth), there is a huge blockhouse (now disused) and a memorial to the U.S. marines.  Another monument in the cemetery commemorates a group of British coastwatchers beheaded by the Japanese just before the American invasion.

Map of South Tarawa courtsey wikipedia.org

The assault was well-planned and decisive.  Because the Japanese built squat loos over the water, they were easily visible from the air.  The Americans painstakingly counted the loos from their aerial photographs and by working on the expected ratio of loos to rear ends in the Japanese army, they estimated the garrison to number 2500 – 3000.  That figure turned out to be a bit low but there was no mistake about the invasion.  The landing craft penetrated into the lagoon over the treacherous reefs and, in so doing, avoided the fire of the ocean-facing guns.  The Americans suffered 3000 casualties but the fortress which the Japanese claimed couldn’t be taken by a million men in 100 years was overrun in a few weeks.

Time has obliterated many of the relics and the native Tarawanese got back to their singing, dancing and handicrafts.  Personally, I would never have heard of them but for my own interest in World War 2 and, if you want to get there, it’s within flying reach of Australia, Hawaii or Majuro.

Paradise is waiting for you!

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Written by Paul Holland

Published here 26 Mar 2023 and originally published Easter 1998

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