I am new to John Butterfield’s celebrated “D-Day at” series, about which you can read a great deal from Michal at the links below. As Tarawa historically saw the first major US landing in the Central Pacific, and American forces learned hard lessons there, I thought it fitting for me to jump into the full “Two Days in Hell” scenario cold. Here’s how it went, with some comparison to history and a few game-mechanic explanations along the way.

D-Day series articles:
D-Day at Omaha Beach – “Easy Fox” scenario
D-Day at Omaha Beach – yet one more time “Easy Fox” scenario
D-Day at Omaha Beach – “The First Waves” scenario
Solitaire Wargames – my 3 favorite
My Top 3 D-Day Themed Wargames
D-Day at Peleliu – Review
D-Day at Peleliu – “15 September 1944” scenario
D-Day at Tarawa – Review
D-Day at Tarawa – “The First Waves” scenario
D-Day at Tarawa – “The 20 November 1943” scenario
D-Day at Tarawa – “The 21 November 1943” scenario

Historical invasion (from World at War article in the box).

The Reef

Lead companies of three US Marine battalions in LVTs (amphibious tractors) cross the reef about 9am on 20 November 1943, one battalion each at Red Beaches 1, 2, and 3. Just beyond the reef—which the Americans only now find out their landing boats cannot cross—follow-on companies, headquarters, supplies, tanks, and artillery bob on the water, awaiting release as later waves to shore.

Breaching the reef.

(Above, you can spot three companies of each battalion at the top of the board. Each will draw cards to check for Drift, how many vehicles and men survive their run in from the reef, and how far in the Marines make it before bailing from their vulnerable LVTs.)

Hitting the beach.

The first waves’ LVT losses are light. Marines at the base of the pier already threaten to pocket a few Japanese defenders. But the key US leader on Red 1, Major Michael Ryan, is left wading in.

LVT bogged or knocked out on Red 1’s seawall.

The Sand

The first task on the beach is keep the Marines in the US toeholds alive. That involves, first, getting some return attacks or barrages going on the Japanese coastal positions then, second, seizing ground to left and right to link up beachheads. An hour or so in, 2nd Battalion/2nd Marines and 2nd Battalion/8th Marines join Red 2 and Red 3 to hold a single, albeit tenuous, strip of island shore. Red 1 forces remain split across two stretches of sand.

Japanese defenses have been firing on the Marines from the moment US naval and air bombardment lifted and landing craft approached the reef. As the Japanese troops recover more fully from the shock of shelling and invasion, they start to react more dynamically—with reinforcements, advances, and attempts to overrun US positions. The Japanese island fortress’s three units of tanks ready to move out.

Fighting for sand.

(Tank units start Disrupted, representing the time needed to assemble crews and warm up engines, perhaps. Instead of obscuring Disrupted units with markers, I have turned their counters 45 degrees. The orange markers at center right will reveal which Japanese lettered Actions such as Reinforce, Assault, or Overrun have become available.)

Pinned at the seawall.

The more isolated clumps of Marines take the worse casualties, but the Japanese-built seawall is, at least, a mixed blessing: it helps shield adjacent Japanese against attack but also gives Americans on the sand some cover. On the “Bird’s Beak” of Red 1, K Company faces only “steady” fire from the enemy’s nearby (orange) position but “intense” fire from the more (green) position flanking the seawall from further up the beach.

The Seawall

Seawall cover (USMC Archives).

Another hour on, and Marines are hopping the seawall and gaining some yards inland, as reserve battalions—short of surviving LVTs—begin their long wade from reef to shore. But the Japanese defense is, if anything, waking up even more. Within the airfield triangle, Type 95 tanks advance into better firing position, and patrols from a massive fortified building along a taxiway disrupt the inland US units led directly by 8th Marines HQ.

A lively defense.

(During the Japanese Fire Phase, letters in the Fire card’s colored boxes guide special Actions by Japanese in those colored positions, once that letter has flipped up among the orange Action markers. As an aid to play, I place orange beads for active units, two such beads for a special lettered Action.)

The Taxiway

Two-and-a-half hours into the island battle, the Marines are under even greater pressure to make gains inland, so that their comrades wading ashore will not just overcrowd the narrow beach and make even greater targets of themselves. (Any hexes with more than four steps of US units are concentrated targets, more easily hit.)

The press inland.

On Red 1, Ryan has an added mission: the US commander ashore historically ordered him to clear the western Green Beach for later landings. Here, that includes enemy heavy and medium artillery positions that will bombard Marines in the water and on the sand unless destroyed. It’s a tall task after the losses taken on Bird’s Beak: two of Ryan’s four available companies, K and L, lie eviscerated (Disrupted and down to just a single step each).

Bloody Beak.

On Red 2 and 3—along the northern taxiway of the precious airfield that is the invasion’s main object, the Marines begin their methodical but dangerous reduction of Japanese bunkers and pillboxes. There are always surprises—here are three!

Surprise, surprise, surprise.

Left: Landing CO Colonel David Shoup leads a mixed force against a Japanese strongpoint immediately inland from Red Beach 2, held by a company of 111th Pioneers—construction conscripts. Shoup knows it will take a flanking attack (FL on the Japanese counter) and demolitions (DE) to knock out the position. But closing for attack reveals that only close combat (CC on the red Coastal Depth marker) or US attrition will reduce the Japanese (with enough firepower, Attrition of one US step will at least remove the Depth).

Center: The 8th Marines attack a redoubt across the open ground of the taxiway. (Purple bead means target.) Again flanking (FL) and this time radio support (RD) will be essential. Again, close combat will be the only way to winkle out the enemy (CC Depth). The massive blockhouse here is too solid (fortified buildings double both the Japanese unit and Depth strength) and manned by tough Sasebo Special Naval Landing troops, so even attrition is not an option.

Right: A fresh company just landed on the sand of Red 3 attack apparently weak construction conscripts, but it turns out it will take engineer or heavy weapons units’ flamethrowers (FT) to take them out, and none are at hand.

The Blockhouse

The Americans decide to focus their effort on the central Japanese strongpoint, the fortified building across the taxiway (purple position hex D10). The regimental commander of 8th Marines leads the heavy weapons M Company of 3/8 in a successful close combat (US survivors under the purple bead below).

Bunker busted.

(How the combat went down: In the Close Combat, the Japanese benefit from a Reinforce Event that restores their Depth, but a lucky close-in US naval bombardment finally knocks them out—the diamond symbol drawn for the US Event does not match any US unit, so no friendly fire.)

Thank you, Navy.

Below, a knocked-out fortified building and Type 95 tank—this is the south side of what was Japanese commanding officer Rear Admiral Keiji Shibasaki’s headquarters.

Wreck and blockhouse (USMC Archives).

With that midday victory over local resistance, the Marines’ situation seems suddenly improved. The 8th Marines have an advance into the island’s center in prospect, with more forces wading in on Red 2 and Red 3 and Japanese losses mounting. In the west, Ryan has consolidated his hold on the Bird’s Beak and even suppressed the first enemy heavy artillery position to his front.

D-Day afternoon breakthrough?

Let’s have a look at what the Marines achieved historically in the afternoon to come. Ryan in the west had forayed down Green Beach, knocking out artillery positions and scouting the ground for the next day’s intended landing there. But, short on heavy weapons, Ryan pulled back into the Beak against the anticipated typical Japanese nighttime counterattack. Shoup with the rest of 2nd and 8th Marines ashore from their consolidated Red 2 and 3 beachhead had penetrated past the taxiway into the interior triangle, but still short of the airfield runway.

A historical hard day’s work.

So my game situation appears nicely on track to at least match historical performance. In Part 2, we shall see how that went. To be continued!