Defense Media Network

Slugging It Out In Tarawa Lagoon

Aground and immobile, the USS Ringgold dueled Japanese shore batteries

In Operation Galvanic on Nov. 20, 1943, almost ten thousand Marines journeyed to the Gilbert chain of the central Pacific to invade an island that was 2.5 miles long, 600 feet wide, and about the size of New York City’s Central Park. Part of a coral necklace that could have been a tropical paradise, the island was named Betio. Americans remember it by the name of the atoll to which it belonged – Tarawa.

Part of a coral necklace that could have been a tropical paradise, the island was named Betio. Americans remember it by the name of the atoll to which it belonged – Tarawa.

While an armada of surface warships provided gunnery support from offshore, “tin can sailors” of the destroyer Navy had a key role in the invasion when the USS Dashiell (DD 659) and USS Ringgold (DD 500) hoisted battle ensigns and steamed straight into Betio lagoon to slug it out with Japanese shore batteries.

Tarawa Map

A U.S. Marine Corps map of Tarawa atoll. The USS Ringgold fought from within the lagoon where she had gone aground. U.S. Marine Corps map

The warships were in the middle of the invasion taking place on Red Beaches 1, 2 and 3 on the lagoon side of the island. Marines were attacking 4,700 well-trained Japanese soldiers who were solidly dug in, some under reinforced concrete fortifications.

Veterans of Ringgold remember using their Fletcher-class destroyer’s five 5-inch batteries against Japanese ashore that were close enough to see. Dashiell withdrew from the lagoon early in the battle. Ringgold, however, went temporarily aground on a sand bar and had no choice but to stay and fight.

“It was a mess in that lagoon.”

“We could not depress our guns any lower,” said retired Capt. Paul H. Barkley. During the Tarawa invasion, Barkley was pulling electronics duty as a chief petty officer on Ringgold. The Navy had commissioned him a month earlier but no one on the destroyer had yet learned that he was an ensign.

“It was a mess in that lagoon,” said Barkley. “There were no charts. However, our top brass found a New Zealand Royal Navy Reserve officer who had skippered small freighters and claimed to know the lagoon like the back of his hand. Oh, sure, he did! He took control of our beautiful destroyer and promptly put her aground broadside from the beach.” Immobile, Ringgold had no choice but spend three days and two nights using her 5-inch guns to battle Japanese shore batteries just 700 yards away.

Tarawa

One of the four Japanese eight-inch Vickers guns on Tarawa, destroyed by naval gunfire and air strikes. U.S. Department of Defense photo

During early hours in the Tarawa lagoon, Ringgold lobbed 5-inch shells at what its crew believed was a Japanese picket ship. That vessel, in fact, was the American submarine USS Nautilus (SS 168), which was picking up survivors near shore at Betio. Nautilus was hit, but no one was hurt.

As the morning of the invasion wore on, Ringgold – unable to maneuver – persisted in her point-blank slugfest with captured British 5-inch guns being manned by the Japanese on Betio. In an account written for a reunion with shipmates, Lt. Wayne A. Parker, Ringgold‘s engineering officer, described the ship coming under fire:

Ringgold – unable to maneuver – persisted in her point-blank slugfest with captured British 5-inch guns being manned by the Japanese on Betio.

“When the enemy found the range,” Parker wrote, “the Ringgold took its first hit. A 5-inch shell struck the starboard superstructure, penetrated through the sick bay and the emergency radio room, and ricocheted out into the 40-millimeter gun sponson amidships. Luckily, the shell didn’t explode, but metal fragments hit one of the torpedomen in the chest, knocking him off the torpedo mount and down onto the gun deck.”

Another Japanese shell, also a dud, struck Ringgold‘s hull below the waterline. Flooding began in the aft engine room. Parker sat on the hole that the shell had made in order to slow down the incoming water that was flooding the bilges – using his buttocks to block the torrent and earning a Navy Cross. Parker later directed the installation of a makeshift patch over the hole.

USS Ringgold (DD 500)

The USS Ringgold (DD 500) and USS New Jersey (BB-62) taken from deck of the USS Lexington (CV 16) in 1945. After its heroic actions in Tarawa lagoon, the Ringgold went on to win ten battle stars. U.S. Navy photo

Although Ringgold was unable to move, the Navy lightered ammunition to the destroyer from the battleship USS Maryland (BB 46) far offshore. One crewmember recalled that Ringgold fired “three shiploads of ammunition” (15,000 rounds of 5-inch shells) in three days at Tarawa. Another said the guns glowed red hot from the heat of constant use.

“We had ourselves about 72 hours of holy hell out there,” said Barkley. “The Japs gave us hell. Our wardroom became a hospital. Our doctor and corpsman took care of wounded Marines, but so many of them died.”

“The Japs gave us hell. Our wardroom became a hospital. Our doctor and corpsman took care of wounded Marines, but so many of them died.”

By nightfall of the first day of the invasion of Tarawa, shore batteries no longer pounded the Ringgold, but wounded Marines were coming aboard in staggering numbers. Ringgold‘s skipper, Cmdr. Thomas F. Conley – later awarded the Bronze Star with “V” for the gunfight in the lagoon – oversaw the treatment of the wounded. No one kept count on the total number of Marines brought aboard, but an official history credits Dr. Herbert Mayer and the ship’s corpsmen with operating on 47 Marines in the first 24 hours of the invasion.  Many Marines died aboard the Ringgold, but to others the destroyer was a way station to survival.

Seizing Tarawa took four days and cost 3,300 casualties, including 1,009 killed. Eventually dislodged from her parking place in the Betio lagoon with help from three fleet tugs, Ringgold went on to win ten battle stars for action in the Pacific theater. She served in the fleet until 1987.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

  • So I found this page by accident, or did I?, It was Veterans Day and I was chatting to a friend and he was speaking of his Father being a Marine in WWII and said that he part of the invasion force at Tarawa, which totally caught me off guard because my Father in the Navy was wounded during this battle.

    We have been friends for over 20yrs and we never knew this shared fact and we started to question if our Fathers had crossed paths, both of them are deceased so we did what everyone does we started Google searches. Well I did mine on Tarawa and his ship, the USS Ringgold. Well what happen next is something I will remember for the rest of my life as I was reading the above account of the conflict, it was a trip down memory lane for me as this story was told to me many times thru my life by my Father. You see the wounded sailor who took metal fragments to his chest was my Father Robert Boyd….Lt Parker`s story was just what I was told all of those years and to just stumble across a recount of it, just floored me!

    My Father never bragged about it and never went into much detail but the key was he was a Torpedomen on the Ringgold during this battle and was wounded in the chest and I recall him saying he was knocked to the deck below. So to actually see this story in print after all these years is still a very surreal moment to me as I write this.

    Thank You Mr Dorr, Capt Barkley, Lt.Parker, Cmdr. Conley, Dr Mayer and the rest of the crew and Marines that were there. I may of actually met some of you at the 9Th reunion of the Ringgold crew in 1994 in Kansas City or one of the mini reunions held in Lakeland Florida years later.

    My Father passed in 2002 at the age of 80, but the memories of these days lasted his entire life, as did the reunions and now these days will live forever in the hearts and minds of the children of these men and to all who “stumble upon” pages like this. I can only hope that some of you are still with us to read this and to know your service has not and will not be forgotten.

    God Bless you gentlemen…you are truly part of the greatest generation this country has ever known!!!

  • Chuck Oldham (Editor)
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Bluzbartender,

    Saying I’m really glad you liked the story doesn’t seem like enough, but I’m really glad you liked the story. I wish I could have thanked your father in person for his service. I hope that helping to tell his story represents some fraction of a repayment of what we all owe to him and his fellow veterans.

    Thanks for your comment.

  • John Madden

    Bluzbartender, I got chills reading your post. The only thing more amazing that this coincidence is the honor and courage men like your father displayed in this ferocious battle. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks for the stories, My dad was a SeaBee RM 2nd class who rarely spoke about the invasion. One anecdote was that while pinned down on the beach (using guns taken from fallen marine comrades) he was the only one to fall asleep for a while only to be woken by the crabs crawling over him. Seeing the photos & film, I can understand why he was mum on the subject. HE did open up more about it in later years until his passing last year. A civilian salute to all those in uniform-you’re all our heroes.

  • Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Thanks for your comment, Jeff. My uncle was a SeaBee during World War II as well, and he also preferred not to talk about it.

  • Jeffrey Wagner

    My Father was Paul Wagner and he served on the Ringgold during that battle. He told me about Parker and always had a good laugh. He was proud of that ship seeing he was a plank owner.

  • Michael Barson

    I worked for Capt. Paul H. Barkley in Arlington, Va. in the mid-80′s. He was a great man. While I knew he served in the Pacific Only recently did I learn of the USS Ringgold & the Tarawa Lagoon. It’s an Honor to know anyone who was there as they were brave men. I’m grateful for their service to our country.

  • Robert F. Dorr
    Robert F. Dorr

    It was a privilege and an honor to know Capt. Paul H. Barkley who lived near me for many years. We discovered very early in our friendship that we had differing views of U.S. politics. I was concerned until he dismissed the differences with a wave of the hand. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. Yes, he was in the lagoon at Tarawa in great peril at a pivotal moment in history. He was also a thoughtful and gracious man. It was almost impossible to have a conversation with him without learning something.

  • Sounds like all our family there were in the same boat, so to speak, and faced the same perils, greater or lesser. Hopefully some of that valor passed down in our genes though I never had the honor of being enlisted.

    And a correction on my part, my dad was Navy RM 2nd class and was about the only 1 who knew how to run diesel equipment(tractors, bulldozers-everyone was a bit dense on them) so the MN farmboy hopped on and helped out the SeaBees with the heavy equipment. He did say a coconut fell onto the seat next to him which convinced him to don his helmet. I’ll see if I can post more tales of their hellish life in paradise.

  • OK, one more item popped to mind: did anyone hear of the anecdote about the water cistern that everyone was using on the atoll, when they reached the bottom, there were 2 dead Jap soldiers at the bottom? And did anyone hear about ‘raisinjack’ they made in bathtubs? I imagine these tales came from my Navy dad who was stationed there and I’m speculating that the Marines did their job and moved on.

  • Lt. Wayne A. Parker was my uncle. He was a LCDR at the end of the war. He stayed in the Navy Reserve and retired at the rank of Captain. He was successful in business too. He later became the President of Oklahoma Gas and Electric Company.

  • John DeBeer

    Nice writeup. My father-in-law Lt Howard J Baumgartel was the gunnery officer on the Ringgold and tells the stories of the wounded Marines and acting as a shore battery in Tawara. I was a Navy Corpsman with the Marines in VN, in 65, so we had plenty of stories in common. Thanks again for the writeup. He dies some years ago at 92 and we now have the Ringold history book and his burial flag.