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Tarawa Atoll

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Title: Tarawa Atoll  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Telecommunications in Kiribati, USS Tarawa, Tabiteuea, Subdivisions of Kiribati, Tabontebike, Betio, William J. Bordelon, Keiji Shibazaki, USS Pecos (AO-65), Abemama
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Tarawa Atoll

For other uses, see Tarawa (disambiguation).
Map of South Tarawa (red) and North Tarawa (yellow) within Tarawa Atoll
Location Pacific Ocean

1°26′N 173°00′E / 1.433°N 173.000°E / 1.433; 173.000 (Tarawa)

Archipelago Gilbert Islands
Highest elevation 3 m (10 ft)

Main articles: Kiribati, South Tarawa and North Tarawa

Tarawa is an atoll in the Republic of Kiribati, in the central Pacific Ocean. It comprises North Tarawa, which has much in common with other, more remote islands of the Gilberts group; and South Tarawa, which is the capital of Kiribati and home to over 50,000 people - half of the country's total population. The atoll is best known by outsiders as the site of the Battle of Tarawa during World War II.


Tarawa has a large lagoon, of over 500 km2, and a wide reef. Although naturally abundant in fish and shellfish of all kinds, marine resources are being overharvested by the large and growing population. Drought is frequent, but in normal years rainfall is sufficient to maintain breadfruit, papaya and banana trees as well as coconut and pandanus.

North Tarawa consists of a string of islets, separated in places by wide channels that are best crossed at low tide.[1]

On South Tarawa, the construction of causeways has now created a single strip of land from Betio in the West to Buota in the Northeast.[2]


Tarawa atoll has three administrative subdivisions:

  • Betio Town Council (or BTC), on Betio Islet;
  • Teinainano Urban Council (or TUC), from Bairiki to Bonriki (The meaning of Teinainano is "down of the mast", alluding to the sail-shape of the atoll.)
  • Eutan Tarawa Council (or ETC), for North Tarawa or Tarawa Ieta (all the islets on the east side north of Bonriki, including Buota which is linked by road to South Tarawa).

South Tarawa is the capital of the Republic of Kiribati. The House of Assembly is in Ambo, and the State House is in Bairiki. The offices of the various Ministries of the Kiribati Government are located from Betio in the South nawerewere at the Eastern end of North Tarawa.


In Kiribati mythology, Tarawa was the earth when the land, ocean and sky had not been cleaved yet by Nareau the spider. Thus after calling the sky ‘karawa’ and the ocean ‘marawa’, he called the piece of rock that ‘Riiki’ (another god that Nareau found) had stood upon when he lifted up the sky as, ‘Tarawa’. Nareau then created the rest of the islands in Kiribati, and also Samoa. The first inhabitants were spirits, but real people arrived on these islands thousands of years ago, and there have been migrations to and from Kiribati in ancient times.[3]

Evidence from a range of sources including carbon dating and DNA analysis confirms that the exploration of the Pacific included settlement of the Gilbert Islands by around 200 BC. The people of Kiribati are to this day great seafarers, capable of making ocean crossings in local vessels using traditional navigation techniques.[4]

Thomas Gilbert, captain of the East India Company vessel Charlotte, was the first European to describe Tarawa, arriving on June 20 1788. He named it Matthew Island, after the owner of his ship, the Charlotte. He named the lagoon, Charlotte Bay. [5] Gilbert's 1788 sketches survive.

Tarawa Post Office opened on 1 January 1911.[6]

Sir Arthur Grimble was a cadet administrative officer based at Tarawa (1913–1919);.[7] and became Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony in 1926.[8]

During World War II, Tarawa was occupied by the Japanese, and beginning on November 20, 1943 it was the scene of the bloody Battle of Tarawa. On that day United States Marines landed on Tarawa and suffered heavy losses from Japanese soldiers occupying entrenched positions on the atoll. The Marines secured the island after 76 hours of intense fighting with around 6,000 dead in total from both sides.


  • A Pattern of Islands by Sir Arthur Grimble, John Murray & Co, London, 1952; republished 2011 by Eland, London, ISBN 978-1-906011-45-1
  • Return to the Islands by Sir Arthur Grimble, John Murray & Co, London, 1957

In popular culture

  • The book The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost is a rather humorous account of the author's two years living on Tarawa.
  • Tarawa is the site of the 1944 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Frank Filan, depicting a destroyed bunker.
  • The book Return to Mars by Ben Bova uses Tarawa as the mission control for an expedition to Mars.
  • The Far Reaches, a book of historical fiction by Homer Hickam, describes the Battle of Tarawa (ISBN 0-312-334753).
  • A British drama film Pacific Destiny based on the book A Pattern Of Islands was made in 1956.
  • Leon Cooper, a US Navy Landing Craft Operator who took part in the WWII battle, returned to the island in 2008 to investigate reports the beach he landed on was littered with garbage. His journey was chronicled in the documentary "Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story," narrated by Ed Harris.


  • USS Tarawa is the name of the first LHA-class amphibious assault ship.


External links

  • Tarawa on The Web - A History of the Bloodiest Battle
  • The Marine Assault of Tarawa
  • Tarawa the Aftermath
  • "Tarawa" the USCG cat
  • Exhibit: The Alfred Agate Collection: The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 from the Navy Art Gallery
  • Return to Tawara

Coordinates: 1°25′N 173°02′E / 1.417°N 173.033°E / 1.417; 173.033

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