The PRC’s “Great Wall of Sand:” Remembering Tarawa Atoll


2016-12-15 By Ed Timperlake

When reading a recent article on the Chinese illegal build out on islands in the Pacific, I was struck with what the images reminded me of from history.

In an article on “China’s New Spratly Island Defenses,” published by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, several digital globe photos were provided highlighting the build out and its physical characteristics.

One of these photos was of Mischief Reef.


This photo is a dead ringer for the Japanese and the Tarawa Atoll.


The Battle of Tarawa was the first American offensive in the critical central Pacific region.

It was also the first time in the war that the United States faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing.[5] 

Previous landings had met little or no initial resistance,[6][N 1] but this time the 4,500 Japanese defenders were well-supplied and well-prepared, and they fought almost to the last man, exacting a heavy toll on the United States Marine Corps.

The U.S. had suffered similar casualties in other campaigns, for example over the six months of the Guadalcanal Campaign, but in this case the losses were incurred within the space of 76 hours.

More than 1,000 U.S. troops were killed in action and some 2,000 were wounded in only three days of fighting at Tarawa.

Word of the heavy casualties soon reached the U.S. and the public was stunned by the number of American lives lost in taking the tiny island.

However, according to “The Pacific War” by John Costello, U.S. commanders learned important lessons from the Battle of Tarawa that would be applied to future atoll wars, including the need for better reconnaissance, more precise and sustained pre-landing bombardment, additional amphibious landing vehicles and improved equipment: Among other advancements, better-waterproofed radios would be developed.

History in the rear view mirror can be applied to the future as well.

It is important to take the PRC offensive seriously.