Slugging It Out In Tarawa Lagoon
Aground and Immobile, USS Ringgold Dueled Japanese Shore Batteries
In Operation Galvanic on Nov. 20, 1944, 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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:
“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.
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.”
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.