Battle of Saipan

Battle of Saipan

On June 15, 1944, during the Pacific Campaign of World War II (1939-45), U.S. Marines stormed the beaches of the strategically significant Japanese island of Saipan, with a goal of gaining a crucial air base from which the U.S. could launch its new long-range B-29 bombers directly at Japan’s home islands. Facing fierce Japanese resistance, Americans poured from their landing crafts to establish a beachhead, battle Japanese soldiers inland and force the Japanese army to retreat north. Fighting became especially brutal and prolonged around Mount Tapotchau, Saipan’s highest peak, and Marines gave battle sites in the area names such as “Death Valley” and “Purple Heart Ridge.” When the U.S. finally trapped the Japanese in the northern part of the island, Japanese soldiers launched a massive but futile banzai charge. On July 9, the U.S. flag was raised in victory over Saipan.

U.S. Commanders Focus on Taking Saipan

In the spring of 1944, U.S. forces involved in the Pacific Campaign invaded Japanese-held islands in the central Pacific Ocean along a path toward Japan. An armada of 535 U.S. ships with 127,000 troops, including 77,000 Marines, had taken the Marshall Islands, and American high command next sought to capture the Mariana Islands, which formed the critical front line for Japan’s defense of its empire.

U.S. commanders reasoned that taking the main Mariana Islands–Saipan, Tinian and Guam–would cut off Japan from its resource-rich southern empire and clear the way for further advances to Tokyo. At Saipan, the island nearest to Japan, U.S. forces could establish a crucial air base from which the U.S. Army’s new long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers could inflict punishing strikes on Japan’s home islands ahead of an Allied invasion.

American commanders decided to make the first Mariana landing on Saipan, the largest of the Mariana Islands. Saipan, which had been under Japanese rule since 1920, had a garrison of approximately 30,000 Japanese troops, according to some accounts, and an important airfield at Aslito. Marine General Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith (1882-1967) was given a plan of battle and ordered to take the island in three days. After the invasion of Saipan, according to the plan, U.S. forces would quickly move to seize Guam and Tinian. However, American intelligence services had greatly underestimated Japanese troop strength on Saipan.

The Landing and First Phase of the Battle

On the morning of June 15, 1944, a large fleet of U.S. transport ships gathered near the southwest shores of Saipan, and Marines began riding toward the beaches in hundreds of amphibious landing vehicles. Battleships, destroyers and planes had pounded key targets in pre-assault bombardments, but they had missed many gun emplacements along the beach cliffs. Subsequently, Marines headed straight into exploding bombs and streaming gunfire.

In “Breaching the Marianas: the Battle for Saipan,” author John C. Chapin, a Marine on Saipan, described the chaos around him that morning, with its “bodies lying in mangled and grotesque positions; blasted and burned out pillboxes; the burning wrecks of LVTs [landing vehicles] …; the acrid smell of high explosives; the shattered trees; and the churned up sand littered with discarded equipment.”

Despite the heavy resistance they faced, 8,000 Marines managed to reach the shore that first morning. By the end of the day, some 20,000 troops had established a beachhead on Saipan; however, the U.S. had suffered approximately 2,000 casualties in the process. The next morning, the troops were joined by U.S. Army reinforcements and began pushing inland toward Aslito Airfield and Japanese forces in the southern and central parts of the island. On June 18, American troops continued to spread out across the island even as their offshore naval protection departed to head off the Japanese Imperial Fleet that had been sent to aid in the defense of Saipan.

Death Valley and Purple Heart Ridge

After having failed to stop the American landing on Saipan, the Japanese army retreated to Mount Tapotchau, the mountain peak that dominates the island. Located at the center of Saipan, Mount Tapotchau is the island’s highest point, rising some 1,550 feet. In intensive fighting, U.S forces gradually drove the Japanese defense from their nearly impregnable position in the heights. As the battle raged, Smith ordered a contingent of troops to assault Japanese positions by moving across a large, much exposed valley. Soon to be designated “Death Valley,” the area was bordered by a ridge where well-protected, heavily armed Japanese soldiers fired directly down on the approaching Americans. The Marines dubbed the ridge “Purple Heart Ridge” for the many American casualties sustained there. Fighting their way through rugged jungle terrain, Marines finally won control of Mount Tapotchau by the end of June. The Japanese were forced to retreat further north, marking the turning point in the Battle of Saipan.

Banzai Charge: July 6

By early July, the forces of Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito (1890-1944), the Japanese commander on Saipan, had retreated to the northern part of the island, where they were trapped by American land, sea and air power. Saito had expected the Japanese navy to help him drive the Americans from the island, but the Imperial Fleet had suffered a devastating defeat in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19-20, 1944) and never arrived at Saipan. Realizing he could no longer hold out against the American onslaught, Saito apologized to Tokyo for failing to defend Saipan and committed ritual suicide.

Before his death, however, Saito ordered his remaining troops to launch an all-out, surprise attack for the honor of the emperor. Early on the morning of July 6, an estimated 4,000 Japanese soldiers shouting “Banzai!” charged with grenades, bayonets, swords and knives against an encampment of soldiers and Marines near Tanapag Harbor. In wave after wave, the Japanese overran parts of several U.S. battalions, engaging in hand-to-hand combat and killing or wounding more than a thousand Americans before being repelled by howitzers and point-blank machine-gun fire. It was the largest banzai charge of the Pacific war, and, as was the nature of such an attack, most Japanese troops fought to their death. However, the suicidal maneuver failed to turn the tide of the battle, and on July 9, U.S. forces raised the American flag in victory over Saipan.

Aftermath of the Battle

The brutal three-week Battle of Saipan resulted in more than 3,000 U.S. deaths and over 13,000 wounded. For their part, the Japanese lost at least 27,000 soldiers, by some estimates. On July 9, when Americans declared the battle over, thousands of Saipan’s civilians, terrified by Japanese propaganda that warned they would be killed by U.S. troops, leapt to their deaths from the high cliffs at the island’s northern end.

The loss of Saipan stunned the political establishment in Tokyo, the capital city of Japan. Political leaders came to understand the devastating power of the long-range U.S. bombers. Furthermore, many of Saipan’s citizens were Japanese, and the loss of Saipan marked the first defeat in Japanese territory that had not been added during Japan’s aggressive expansion by invasion in 1941 and 1942. Worse still, General Hideki Tojo (1884-1948), Japan’s militaristic prime minister, had publicly promised that the United States would never take Saipan. He was forced to resign a week after the U.S. conquest of the island.

Battle of Saipan, 15 June-9 July 1944

The battle of Saipan (15 June-9 July 1944) was the first invasion of the Marianas campaign, and it took nearly a month for US forces to secure the fairly small island.

Saipan was the base of the Japanese Central Pacific Area Fleet, a fairly new command that had been created from the remnants of the forces defeated in the Marshall Islands and Caroline Islands. It was commanded by Admiral Nagumo Chuichi, the commander of the First Air Fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The island was also defended by General Obata Hideyoshi's 31st Japanese Army, which had 30,000 troops and 48 tanks on Saipan (Obata was actually away from Saipan, visiting the Palau Islands when the invasion took place, and command was actually held by General Saito of the 43rd Division). There was a working airfield at Aslito, at the southern end of the island, and a seaplane base at Tanapag Harbour. The Japanese had spent a great deal of effort and money building fortifications on Saipan, including twelve naval observation posts, four gun positions, barracks, air raid shelters. The Navy was officially in charge, but that appears to have been largely ignored by the Army. Many of the troops arrived just before the invasion, and others arrived without most of their supplies after their transport ships were torpedoed by the Americans. The Japanese plan was to defend the beaches, and try and destroy the invasion before it could get established. If that failed, then counterattacks were to be launched to complete the job.

The attack was carried out by General Holland Smith's 5 Amphibious Corps.

Saipan had a limited number of potential landing sites. On the west coast the beaches sloped up gently to the shore, but the coast was protected by reefs that ran along most of the island. The other shores were mainly free of reefs, but also only had small beaches leading to steep slopes, limiting the potential for a landing. On the west coast there was a gap in the reef off Charan Kanoa (towards the southern end of the west coast) and a dredged channel leading to Tanapag Harbor just to the north of the centre of the west coast. There were also very few harbours - Tanapag Bay was partly sheltered against most winds, while the anchorage at Garapan was only sheltered to the east.

The island was long and narrow, with two peninsulas on the east coast on either side of Magicienne Bay on the south-eastern corner of the island. The Kagman Peninsula, to the north of the bay was the larger of the two. There was an airfield at Aslito at the southern end of the island. The central and northern areas of the island are rather mountainous. The island is dominated by Mount Tapotchau in the centre, and the mountains run north to Mount Marpi.

The initial invasion was to involve two Marine divisions, both of which were to land on the southern part of the west coast. The 4th Marine Division was to land on the right, south of Afetna Point, from the town of Charan Kanoa south towards the south-western tip of the island (Blue and Yellow Beaches). The 2nd Marine Division was to land on the left, running north from Afetna Point almost to Garapan (on Green and Red Beaches). Further to the north a naval force carrying the reserve regiments from both divisions would carry out a diversionary demonstration around Tanapag Habor, doing everything apart from actually landing. Both divisions were to push inland - the 4th to capture Aslito airfield, the 2nd to take Mount Tapotchau and nearby heights. The 27th Division was the corps reserve, and had to plan for a wide range of options (none of which actually came to pass).

The invasion was to be covered by a massive naval bombardment, originally planned to involve 7 fast battleship, 4 older battleships, 2 heavy and 3 light cruisers, 15 destroyers and 24 LCI gunboats. Another 33 ships were to bombard Tinian at the same time. The fast battleships and destroyers were to attack on D-2 to knock out aircraft, airfields, coastal defence and anti-aircraft guns and set fire to the sugar cane fields near the beaches. D-1 would see the older battleships and cruisers join in. On D-Day the bombardment would increase in intensity, with beach defences coming under particular attack. The LCIs would advance towards the beaches ahead of the first wave of amphibian tanks. Air support would come from the fast carrier task force.

The landings themselves would be lead by LVT (A)s armed with 75mm howitzers or 37mm guns. They would shield the LVTs carrying troops, and then support the actual fighting on land.

The Invasion

Task Force 58 arrived in the attack area a day earlier than expected, and Mitscher received permission to launch an extra attack on 11 June. This fighter sweep caught the Japanese by surprise, and destroyed something between 147 and 215 aircraft on the islands. However this wasn't the first air raid to hit Saipan, and the Japanese didn't realise that an invasion was imminent. This must have become clear over the next four days, as Mitscher's carrier groups carried out three days of concerted attacks on the Japanese defences of the Marianas.

The naval bombardment began on 13 June, when seven fast battleships and eleven destroyers were detached under the command of Admiral William A. Lee Jr. This force bombarded Tinian and Saipan between 1040 and 1725, probably with little impact.

The main bombardment force - seven old battleships, eleven cruisers and twenty-six destroyers, under Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, arrived on 14 June. These ships had far more training and experience of shore bombardment, and were also allowed closer to shore, and they were thus more effective than the fast battleships. Many anti-aircraft guns were destroyed, but the fixed fortifications mainly survived intact.

The invasion fleet moved into place just after 0500 on 15 June. The pre-invasion bombardment began at 0530. The Japanese High Command reported that it wasn't very effective, but some of the troops on the ground thought otherwise. As the real invasion prepared to move off, a diversionary force of Marines carried out a fake landing off Garapan, reaching within 5,000 yards of the shore, but the Japanese didn&rsquot fall for the ruse. The naval bombardment paused between 0700 and 0730 to allow for an air strike, then resumed. The landing was delayed until 0840, meaning that the advance was to begin at around 0810.

In the north the 2nd Marine Division (General Thomas Watson) landed with four battalion teams in a row. The division landed in four waves. The first was made up of alternating lines of troop carrying LVTs and gun carrying LVT(A)(4)s with 75mm howitzers. The remaining three waves were made up of just LVTs.

In the south the 4th Marine Division sent in the amphibian tanks first - 68 LVT(A)(1)s and 16 LVT(A)(4)s. Four waves of troop carrying LVTs then followed.

As the LVTs crossed the reef the Japanese opened fire, but with little impact. On the 2nd Division front only seven LVTs of both types were knocked out by enemy fire and two by the rough seas, meaning around 98% reached the shore safely. However their complex formation broke down, and the formation drifted north, causing overcrowding in the centre and opening up a bigger than wanted gap between the two divisions. The landings began at 0843 and were over by 0908.

On the right the 4th Division things went more smoothly. Three of the LVT(A)s were knocked out, and only two of the 196 troop carrying LVTs. The landings lasted from 0843 to 0907.

Once the LVTs were on shore the plan to have them advance some way inland, acting as conventional tanks, was largely unsuccessful. They struggled to cross any difficult ground and were very vulnerable to Japanese fire. As a result the troops quickly got out and fought as conventional infantry. On the 2nd Division front the advance slowed to a crawl as the LVTs became badly mixed up, and struggled to get past a wooded bank. The 4th Division had more luck, and was able to advance through Charan Kanoa on their left. Further south less progress was made, although some did reach Agingan Point before being forced to withdraw by US naval gunfire.

At first the Marines struggled to get far inland, but as the day wore on the first tanks and artillery guns were able to land. General Watson moved onshore on D-Day. The 2nd Marines were estimated to have lost 238 dead, 1,022 wounded and 315 missing on the first day. On the right the 4th Marines made more progress on the left than the right. General Schmidt also came ashore on D-Day, although probably too soon. Overnight the left wing was ordered to pull back to confirm with the rest of the line, to avoid the risk of a counterattack against their exposed position. The beachhead was now 10,000 yards wide and around 1,000 yards deep in most places, so although few of the final objectives for the day had been captured, the landings had been a general success.

As expected, the Japanese planned a counterattack for the night of 15-16 June. This began with a strong attack on the 6th Marines, 2nd Division, on the exposed left flank of the beachhead, which began at around 2000. This was the first of three attacks on this flank, all of which were repulsed with the help of naval star shells and eventually five medium tanks. These attacks cost the Japanese at least 700 dead. The 4th Division was also attacked, but these were less organised, and posed less danger.

Early on 16 June Admiral Spruance received news that a massive Japanese naval build-up was taking place, and an attack was likely. The Japanese had decided to seek out their long awaited decisive battle in the Marianas, and were preparing for a massive carrier attack on the US fleet. Most of the aircraft involved were to land on the islands, allowing the attack to be carried out from very long range. This news forced Spruance to postpone the invasion of Guam, which had been set for 15 June. The threat of a major naval battle forced Spruance to order the unloading plans to be altered - the transport ships would retire to the safe transport area at the end of 17 June and only those ships that were urgently required would return on 18 June. The amphibious forces under Admiral Conolly would withdraw to the east. Some of the cruisers and destroyers allocated to the invasion forces were transferred to Mitscher's control for the upcoming battle. One other result of this news was the decision to land the 27th Division, the reserve unit for the invasion, as soon as possible.

On 16 June the Marines continued to expand their beachhead. The 2nd Marines pushed across Afetna Point and made contact with the left flank of the 4th Marines. The 4th Marines managed to take Agingan Point, securing their right flank, but the advance towards Aslito Field went less well.

General Saito ordered a second counterattack on the night of 16-17 June, but he didn't give his men enough time to prepare. Eventually a combined armoured and infantry assault was launched at about 0330 on 17 June, with 37 tanks and around 1,000 infantry, but this was driven off by the 6th Marines, and by the time the attack ended the Japanese had lost around at least 24 of the tanks and an unknown number of infantry.

On the same night the 27th Infantry (General Ralph Smith) landed on the 4th Marine Division's beaches. Part of the division was immediately allocated to a 4th Marine attack towards Aslito airfield, which was due to start at 0730 on 17 June. Despite heavy resistance this attack got very close to the airfield. Elsewhere the Americans were advance from the northern beachhead as well.

The airfield was secured on 18 June, and only five days later, on 23 June, it was being used by P-47 Thunderbolts. The Americans also reached the east coast of the island around Magicienne Bay. On the same day the Japanese attempted to attack the American beaches from the sea, using a force of 35 small boats, but this force was intercepted and destroyed. The Japanese were forced to plan a new defensive line, which would run across the width of the island to the north of the beachhead.

The most important events of 19 June took place in the skies to the west of the islands (battle of the Philippine Sea). The Japanese launched a series of heavy air attacks, hoping to knock out the American fleet, but the attack turned into a disaster for the Japanese. Three quarters of the aircraft involved were lost - some 330 out of 430 - and the carriers Shokaku and Taiho were sunk by submarines. On the following day Mitscher attempted to catch the retreating Japanese fleet, destroying another 65 aircraft and sinking the Hiyo. Although around 100 American aircraft were lost, mainly because they ran out of fuel on the way home, most of their crews were rescued. The Americans had destroyed Japanese naval air power, but because the carriers got away they didn't realise they'd done it!

On 19 June the Americans began to pivot to the left ready to advance north up the island. The 2nd Marines were to stay roughly where they were. The 4th Marines were to move north along the east coast to form up to their east. The 27th Infantry was to focus on clearing out Nafutan Point, the south-eastern corner of the island, to secure the airfield. This would actually take longer than expected, and the area wasn't entirely secured until 27 June (by which time the advance north had already begun).

On 21 June General Holland Smith decided to withdraw most of the 27th Division from the fight at Nafutan, ready to act as the corps reserve for the advance north. One battalion was to remain at Nafutan, while the rest of the division was withdrawn. General Ralph Smith managed to convince him to leave two battalions to deal with the resistance. The plans for the point kept altering, and the confusion helped break the relationship between the two Smiths. Eventually the last resistance was cleared by 27 June.

Meanwhile the Marines were preparing for their advance north. They had reached their jumping off line by the end of 20 June, the same day that the 106th Infantry, the last element of the 27th Division, finally landed on the island. The Japanese had also formed a new line across the island, but they had already lost about half of their strength. The attack began on 22 June, with the 2nd on the left and the 4th on the right. The bulk of the 27th Division was prepared to move into the middle of the line if a gap developed. By the end of 22 June the 27th was ordered to prepare to take over the area occupied by the left wing of the 4th Marines.

The 27th ran into fierce resistance in the centre of the line, and made little progress on 23 June. This angered General Holland Smith, who blamed the Army for the slow progress of the entire attack, but also probably under-estimated the difficulties of their task. On 24 June the attack resumed, and once again the 27th made limited progress. On the flanks the Marines did better, against lighter resistance. The 2nd Marines reached the outskirts of Garapan, the 4th Marines had captured the Kagman Peninsula.

Although the 27th felt that they were facing the heaviest resistance, over the previous two days they had also suffered the lowest casualties - 277 compared to 333 for the 2nd Marines and 812 for the 4th. By the end of 24 June General Holland Smith decided to relief Ralph Smith, and replaced him with General Sanderford Jarman, who was serving as the island commander (the senior army officer on the island), until a new commander could arrive from Hawaii. Jarman was eventually replaced by General George W. Griner (at 10.30 on General Griner). The entire affair caused a great deal of bitterness between the Army and the Marines, and most of the senior army officers on Saipan made it clear that they would prefer not to serve under Holland Smith again. The change in command also failed to speed up the offensive, as it took another six days for the key feature on the 27th Division front to be captured.

While the Americans were arguing, the Japanese were rapidly losing strength. Their new defence line had failed, and by 25 June they realised that the battle was being lost. After prolonged pressure, the key positions in the centre of the line began to give way on 27 June, while the 2nd Marines occupied the summit crest of Mount Tapotchau. General Saito decided to establish a third defensive line, across the northern tip of the island. The troops on the second line would carry out a fighting retreat to the new line. The American advance continued, and on 30 June the 27th Division finally managed to close up with the two Marine divisions. Although the army men had a difficult task, their casualty figures were much lower than the Marines - 1,836 since D-Day compared to 4,454 for the 4th Marines and 4,488 for the 2nd Marines. A debate late raged about whether the army division hadn't fought hard enough, or the Marines had suffered unnecessary losses.

As the Americans advanced north, the 2nd Marines focused on the capture of Garapan, while the other two divisions pushed north. The advance was now slow but steady, against the normal desperate Japanese resistance. As the front line narrowed, the 2nd Marines were pinched out and became the corps reserve. By early July it was clear to the Japanese commanders that the island was lost. On 6 July Saito and Nagumo committed suicide, after ordering a banzai charge. The Americans were expecting just such an attack, starting early on 7 July.

On 6 July, with the battle lost, Nagumo and Saito committed suicide. This was followed by a series of suicidal banzai attacks, in which the Japanese lost 2,500 men to no effect. This attack managed to get into a gap between two battalions of the 105th Infantry, and at great cost overran some 105mm guns. The attack was finally stopped short of the 105th's command post. This was an unusually effective banzai charge, but even so the Japanese had only inflicted 917 casualties at the cost of 2,295 dead in the battle with the 105th. A total of 4,311 Japanese dead were counted after the attack.

The last organised resistance came on 8-9 July, and ended with a mass suicide at Marpi Point at the northern end of the island, with civilians andsoldiers taking part.

When the fighting ended a total of 23,811 Japanese dead were counted. Only 736 prisoners were taking, included 438 casuatleis.

The Americans lost 3,225 killed in action, 13,061 wounded and 326 missing. The casualties were split roughly 2-1 in favour of the Marines, about what one would expect from the balance of troops.

Saipan was soon turned into a major US base. Only four months after the conquest of the island, the first B-29s set off for the Japanese Home Islands, at the start of a massive bombing campaign. More immediately Prime Minister Tojo resigned on 18 July, nine days after the end of the battle, along with his cabinet. The attack had also triggered the battle of the Philippine Sea, which stripped the Japanese Navy of its last naval aviators, and meant that the remaining carriers could only be used as a decoy during the battle of Leyte Gulf.

After the fall of Saipan the Americans moved on to attack Guam (21 July-9 August 1944) and Tinian (24 July-31 July 1944), completing the conquest of the main islands in the southern Marianas.

Battle of Saipan - HISTORY

Saipan's Legacy

The campaign on Saipan had brought many American casualties, and it also heralded the kind of fighting which would be experienced in subsequent operations in the Central and Western Pacific in the days that lay ahead in the Pacific War. Holland Smith declared it "the decisive battle of the Pacific offensive" for it "opened the way to the home islands." Japanese General Saito had written that "the fate of the Empire will be decided in this one action." A Japanese admiral agreed, "Our war was lost with the loss of Saipan" It had truly been a "strategic strike" for the United States.

The proof of these fundamental judgements was dramatized four months later, when 100 B-29 bombers took off from Saipan bound for Tokyo.

There were other fateful results. The United States now had a secure advanced naval base for further punishing strikes close to enemy shores. Emperor Hirohito was now forced to consider a diplomatic settlement of the war. The militaristic General Tojo, the Premier, and his entire cabinet fell from power on 18 July, nine days after Saipan's loss.

The lessons learned in this campaign would be observed in future American operations, as flaws were analyzed and corrected. The clear need to improve aviation support for the ground troops led directly to the better results in the Philippine Islands and on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The artillery-spotting missions flown by VMO-2 and -4, set a pattern for the use of the light planes in the future.

Naval gunfire support was also closely reviewed. General Saito had written, "If there just were no naval gunfire, we feel we could fight it out with the enemy in a decisive battle." While more than 8,500 tons of ammunition were fired by U.S. Navy ships, the flat trajectory of the naval guns "proved somewhat limiting," as the shells didn't have the plunging and penetrating effect which was needed against Japanese strongholds.

Finally, there were lessons learned from the supply confusion that had marred the early days on the beaches and hadn't improved much since the days of the Guadalcanal landing. Logistic problems had arisen because, once a beach was in friendly hands, the ships were unloaded as rapidly as possible and the sailors in the landing craft were in a hurry to get into the beaches and back out again. Supplies were spread all over the beach, partly because of the enemy's artillery and mortar harassing fire on the beaches, but also because of the corps' hard-driving, rapid attack, the estimate of resupply requirements was far too small. For example, a shortage of radio batteries was never corrected. There was insufficient time to sort and separate equipment and supplies adequately. Consequently, there were mix-ups, with Marine uniforms getting into Army dumps and Army supplies showing up in Marine dumps.

It was after the beach confusion at Saipan that the Navy decided a permanent corps shore party should be organized. It would be solely responsible for the movement of all supplies from the beach to the dumps and for the subsequent issue to the divisions.

Tactical lessons learned were also new to the Central Pacific war. Instead of a small atoll, the battle had been one of movement on a sizable land mass, and it was further complicated by the numerous caves and the defensive systems they provided for the Japanese. The enemy had defended caves before, but never on such a large scale. On Saipan, these caves were both natural and man-made. Often natural vegetation gave them excellent camouflage. Some had steel doors which could be opened for an artillery piece or machine gun to fire, and then retreat behind the door before return fire could take effect. The flame-throwing tanks could reach many of these caves and so proved very useful. Unfortunately, their range was limited on Saipan, but this was later improved.

Thus it was that the hard experiences on Saipan led to a variety of changes which paid valuable dividends in saving American lives in the future Pacific campaigns. And the loss of the island was a strategic strike from which the Japanese never recovered, as the United States drove forward to ultimate victory.


Having captured Guadalcanal in the Solomons, Tarawa in the Gilberts, and Kwajalein in the Marshalls, American forces continued their "island-hopping" campaign across the Pacific by planning attacks in the Marianas Islands for mid-1944. Comprised primarily of the islands of Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, the Marianas were coveted by the Allies as airfields there would place the home islands of Japan within range of bombers such as the B-29 Superfortress. In addition, their capture, along with securing Formosa (Taiwan), would effectively cut off Japanese forces to the south from Japan.

Assigned the task of taking Saipan, Marine Lieutenant General Holland Smith's V Amphibious Corps, comprised of the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and the 27th Infantry Division, departed Pearl Harbor on June 5, 1944, a day before Allied forces landed in Normandy half a world away. The naval component of the invasion force was led by Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner. To protect the Turner and Smith's forces, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Fleet, dispatched Admiral Raymond Spruance's 5th US Fleet along with the carriers of Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher's Task Force 58.

World War II: A Photographer at the Battle of Saipan

A contact sheet with scenes from the Battle of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection

Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk

When U.S. forces came to Saipan on June 15, 1944, the island’s strategic significance was clear: at just about 1,500 miles from Tokyo, it could serve as a staging ground for a full-on American attack on Japan. As LIFE pointed out in its coverage of the battle, American warships in the Pacific had to return to Hawaii—nearly 4,000 miles away—each time they needed supplies. A victory in Saipan would mean those long trips would no longer be necessary.

The problem with Saipan, for American forces, was not that victory there seemed doubtful. The problem was that it would come at a high cost. The terrain offered Japanese forces the advantage of numerous hiding places, and the ongoing fighting—the battle lasted nearly a month, by most counts, though some holdouts continued to fight much longer—concluded in suicide attacks by Japanese forces, as well as mass suicides among the civilian population.

Photographer W. Eugene Smith, sent by LIFE to capture the battle, described what he saw in a note that accompanied his photos as “some of the worst terrain that Yanks have ever been called upon to dislodge an enemy from.” Those notes were adapted into captions but not published in the magazine. They have been maintained in the decades since in the LIFE archives.

One of the most famous photographs Smith took on this assignment was an image of American troops rescuing a baby who had been found in a cave full of dead bodies. As Smith described the discovery in his notes, it came amidst a two-day mission during which troops searched for a cave in which scores of people were rumored to be hiding. Hours spent scouring the region produced only cave after cave of dead bodies. “The stench was vile and the flies and maggots were there by the millions,” Smith noted. “The heat was intense.”

The first living person the Americans found was the baby, “a ‘living-dead’ tiny infant” as Smith put it.

The baby had somehow become stuck, face-down on the ground, with its head behind a rock. Because the ground and the rock were not smooth, however, enough air circulated for the baby to be able to breathe. The search troops heard the baby crying, writhing on the ground struggling to free himself. “It took 5 minutes of careful removal of the dirt to free the head. [The baby] was passed down from hand-to-hand until it reached ground level,” Smith wrote. “Then it was rushed to a hospital by Jeep and we continued our search. No adults who were alive had been found.”

It was the following day that the long-sought cave was located. The American forces used smoke to flush out 122 civilians. The small number of soldiers who remained in the cave were said to have killed themselves rather than surrender.

As for the civilians, they were given water and medical attention, Smith reported. The scene, coming as it did after a grisly run of days, clearly left him with a feeling of hope that was rare in that time. “The soldiers who had lost so many comrades due to the same caves now showered them (especially the kids) with candy or anything else they had,” he wrote. “It was a magnificent example of fair play and lack of a blinding hatred such as can overcome decency and reason. This was real Americanism.”

Marines followed tanks against the last Japanese defenders with machine gunners providing cover. Three men alongside the photographer were hit just before he took the picture.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A U.S. Marine rested behind a cart on a rubble-strewn street during the battle to take Saipan from occupying Japanese forces.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Battle of Saipan, 1944.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A medic tended to a wounded soldier during a fierce battle to take Saipan from occupying Japanese forces.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The one living person among the hundreds of corpses in one cave was this fly-covered baby who almost smothered before soldiers found him and rushed him to hospital.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

A contact sheet with scenes from the Battle of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection

Some civilians found safety from bombs and shells in the island’s many caves.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Dust from a nearby explosion caused this mother and son to scamper from a cave. Many believed Japanese propaganda which told them that they would be killed if captured.

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An exhausted Marianas Island father with a wounded child after his capture by (or surrender to) Americans during battle between U.S. and Japanese forces for control of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Native civilians fled ruins of a village during the fighting between Japanese and American forces for control of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Contact sheet with scenes from Battle of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection

An American soldier pointed a rifle into a bunker during fighting in the final days of the invasion.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Weary Marines filled canteens with water while the fighting raged on during the battle to wrest control of Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

U.S. Marines tended to wounded comrades while the fighting raged on during the battle to take Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

U.S. Marines tended to wounded comrades while the fighting raged on during the battle to take Saipan.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The Battle of Saipan, 1944.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

As a jeep carried away a wounded American solider for treatment, a bulldozer scooped a grave.

W. Eugene Smith The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Battle of Saipan - HISTORY

By David H. Lippman

In the high summer of 1944, the United States was coiling a massive fist in the Central Pacific aimed directly at the Mariana Islands, specifically Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. By taking these islands in the Marianas, the Americans could turn them into airbases for their Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers, which could in turn pound Japan’s factories and cities into rubble.

Saipan was the major target.To seize this island chain from the Japanese, the Americans assigned the U.S. Fifth Fleet, under Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, centered around 15 aircraft carriers and 10 fast battleships, 535 combatant ships and auxiliaries in all. The assault force would consist of 130,000 Marines and Army troops organized into the 3rd Amphibious Corps and the 5th Amphibious Corps. The latter formation, under Lt. Gen. Holland M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, was tasked with invading Saipan. It consisted of the 2nd Marine Division and the 4th Marine Division. Its floating reserve was the Army’s 27th Infantry Division, drawn from the New York State National Guard.

Operation Forager, as the descent on the Marianas was called, was a massive assault: Saipan was 3,500 miles from Pearl Harbor, and troops were embarked from Hawaii and the West Coast. A seaborne logistical framework of enormous proportions would be needed to keep the invading ships and men supplied with shells, bullets, and food. D-day was set for June 15.

The 43,682 Defenders of Saipan

The defense of Saipan was headed by the newly organized 31st Army, under Lt. Gen. Hideyoshi Obata, which was also responsible for the Caroline and Palau Islands. To hold these islands, Tokyo began pulling troops from the Manchurian border with the Soviet Union. Among the young men in the Japanese 118th Regiment was Sergeant Takeo Yamauchi, a conscripted Russian-language student, who admired Soviet communism. “We were laid out on shelves like broiler chickens. You had your pack, rifle, all your equipment with you,” he said later.

Obata now had an army of 22,702 men on Saipan, but it was an incredibly disorganized force. The naval forces were commanded by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the disaster for the Imperial Japanese Navy at Midway in June 1942. Nagumo had been assigned to command Saipan’s 6,690 officers and sailors, which included 800 men of the 1st Special Naval Landing Force, Japan’s version of America’s Marines, and 400 men of the 55th Naval Guard Force.

It all added up to 43,682 Japanese defenders on the rocky, craggy island, but Obata was not one of them. When the Americans arrived, their invasion caught him returning from an inspection trip to the Palaus, and he got no farther than Guam. The land battle would be conducted by Lt. Gen. Yoshitsugu Saito, centered on his own 43rd Infantry Division. His other forces included the 47th Independent Mixed Brigade, the 7th and 16th Independent Engineer Regiments, the 3rd Independent Mountain Artillery Regiment and its two dozen 75mm guns, the 25th Antiaircraft Regiment, and the surviving 36 medium T-97 and 12 light tanks of the 9th Tank Regiment.

Saito’s plan was simple: defeat the enemy on the beaches. To do so, Saito planned immediate counterattacks to weaken the Americans. Saito’s tanks would then deliver the knockout punch. Problem was, he did not know where the Americans would land, so he had to defend the entire coastline.

A Methodical Invasion Plan

The Americans, schooled in Japanese tenacity by bloody battles in the Solomons, New Guinea, and Tarawa, approached the invasion of Saipan with the thoroughness and technical skill that would be their hallmark throughout the Pacific campaigns. Both the Marines and the Army relied on solid combinations of artillery, armor, and infantry in battle, with the Army’s well-proven tactic of “holding attacks” to draw off the main defenders while a second force sought an opening on the flanks to defeat the enemy.

Operation Forager got down to business on June 11, when Spruance’s vast fleet steamed to within 200 miles of the Marianas and the carriers began turning into the wind to launch 200 Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters to hammer the 14 Japanese airfields on the islands. A heavy naval bombardment followed.

The American landing target was the four-mile long beachfront that stretched from a mile south of Garapan through Charan Kanoa and down to Agingan Point, just above the southwestern tip of the island. The beaches were designated Red, Green, and Blue, from north to south. The northern beach was the responsibility of the 6th and 8th Regiments of the 2nd Marine Division, while the 23rd and 25th Regiments of the 4th Marine Division would take the southern sector. Each battalion was responsible for about 600 yards of front.

The First American Wave

At 7 am, the shelling stopped, and 34 LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) steamed up to the line of departure, two miles from shore, and began disgorging amtrac armored amphibious vehicles. More than 719 of them, jammed with eight battalions of Marines, headed ashore as 155 planes roared over them, strafing and bombing the beaches. The first wave of Americans hit the beach at 8:44 am.

Like a week before in Normandy on the other side of the world, chaos immediately reigned. The 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment landed on Green Beach 1 instead of Green Beach 2, the 3rd/8th’s chosen assault site. Marines from the 6th Regiment landed on the wrong stretch of Red Beach. In a matter of minutes the commanding officers of all four invading battalions of the 6th and 8th Marines were wounded.

Following their initial landings on the western beaches of Saipan, U.S. forces fanned out for the arduous battle that followed. In just over three weeks, the strategically important island in the Marianas archipelago was secured.

Saito had placed his guns well, keeping them concealed and in depressions to avoid destruction from American shells, and now they hammered the invaders. The shelling was so intense that the Americans thought the beach was mined. On the southern beaches, Yellow 1 and 2, the 25th Marines also came ashore under heavy fire. The 1st/25th Marines hit Yellow 2 Beach, and the battalion’s LVTs (Landing Vehicles Tracked) headed back out to sea without unloading ammunition, mortars, or machine guns. The battalion was pinned down for an hour. The 2nd/25th was able to get 700 yards inland, but the 23rd Regiment achieved only 100 yards inland.

Despite the heavy fire, the Americans refused to be dislodged from their beaches. With their usual determination and firepower, the Marines attacked into Charon Kanoa, it was the first time American troops had invaded a full-scale Japanese community. By noon, however, the 6th Marines had suffered 35 percent casualties, and the regiment’s boss, Colonel James Risely, aware that most of his senior officers were dead or wounded, assigned junior officers to take over higher duties.

Landing the M4 Shermans

Meanwhile, three companies of the 8th Marines faced Japanese guns and pillboxes in a woodland called Afetna Point, which enabled the enemy to pour enfilading fire on the Americans. The 8th Marines fought through pillboxes, shrubs, dense foliage, and Japanese troops. Company G of the 2nd/8th Marines had been issued a generous supply of shotguns, and the Americans used them with good effect against the Japanese.

South of Afetna Point, the 4th Marine Division pushed forward, struggling to gain a large concrete ramp that would be a perfect landing spot for the 46 gleaming new M-4 Sherman tanks, whose 75mm guns were superior to any Japanese machine, and a platoon of specially equipped flame tanks mounting Canadian Ronson flame guns that could spew a stream of fire up to 80 yards. The problem was getting the tanks ashore. Some of the tanks made it, but others never reached the shore, their landing craft sunk on the run-in by Japanese guns.

Although the tanks were having trouble coming ashore, the 4th Marine Division’s artillery was in battery soon after the landing. Two battalions of 75mm pack howitzers and three of 105mm howitzers were landed and began a spectacular artillery duel with Japanese guns, which gave the division’s commander, Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt, some relief. His command post was a foxhole 50 yards from the water under heavy Japanese fire.

“I Couldn’t Even Shoot Anymore”

Life was no easier for the Japanese defenders. Sergeant Yamauchi and his pals were holding their ground at 2 pm when a second lieutenant came up, the adjutant from battalion headquarters. Yamauchi charged. Only two men joined him. “I suddenly felt something hot on my neck. Blood. I’m hit, I thought. But it was just a graze. I was too petrified to move. I couldn’t even shoot anymore,” Yamauchi recalled.

Realizing his attack was doomed, he ordered his two buddies to withdraw, but both were hit, one dead, the other wounded in the face. Yamauchi ran back to his trench alone to find the adjutant had disappeared, the rest of his squad still dug in.

Counterattack on the Beachhead

By sunset, 20,000 Americans had gained a beachhead some 10,000 yards long and 1,000 yards deep, half the terrain expected to be taken, manned by most of the two divisions supported by seven artillery battalions and most of two tank battalions. Several hundred Americans were dead.

Reinforcing the Marines that are already fighting on Saipan, these soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Division file forward from their LSTs (landing ship, tank). The LSTs were required to anchor on the other side of a coral reef, and the soldiers had to wade ashore through the surf.

Saito was confident, but his men were not. He ordered only 36 T-97 tanks and 1,000 infantrymen of the 136th Infantry Regiment, under Major Tirashi Hirakushi, a former public relations officer, to attack. Someone brought up the regimental colors to inspire the men. Yamauchi and his battered squad were told to hold the trenches while the rest of the men attacked.

Chaos reigned from the beginning. Hirakushi was relieved of his job of leading the attack and ordered to find the general, or at least his body. Another officer was assigned to head the attack at the last minute, which weakened unit cohesion. The new boss mounted the lead tank and ordered his men forward. Before the tank had gone half a mile, an American shell disabled it. Yamauchi heard his pals shuffling forward and fell asleep from exhaustion. The Americans were only 100 meters away.

With their usual ferocity, the Japanese infantry charged into the Marine defenses. As they lurched forward, the Marines lit up the sky with flares and .50-caliber machine-gun fire, waking up Yamauchi. The 6th Marines had heard the Japanese boots, tanks, clattering swords, and finally their bugles blaring battle calls. American machine guns began ripping into the Japanese attack. More than 700 Japanese soldiers died without gaining any ground.

Yamauchi decided he would play dead, lying face down in his trench. He had heard the Americans shot up Japanese corpses but was willing to take a chance to survive the battle. After several days, he rejoined a ragtag Japanese unit.

Attack on the Southern Flank

On the southern flank, the Japanese hurled a strong attack, backed by artillery and mortars, against the 25th Marines. The Japanese used civilians, including women and children, to mask their approach, and the Americans at first thought this was a civilian surrender. But when they neared the American lines, the Marines saw through the ruse and opened fire with 105mm howitzers, breaking up the attack.

Finally, at 5:30 am, about 200 Japanese charged for the Charan Kanoa pier, at the seam between the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions. The 3rd/23rd destroyed the enemy, but the Japanese were able to briefly grab the pier and damage it badly.

50% Casualties For Marine Officers

Tokyo was sending more help than inspiring words. The Combined Fleet had left its lairs in Japan and Singapore, bristling with guns, planes, and hate for Americans, and was headed for the Marianas. The Americans knew they were coming. Spruance delayed the June 18 date for the invasion of Guam and ordered the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Division to commence landing on Saipan.

As dawn broke on Saipan, the Americans resumed the offensive. They did not advance too deeply on this second day of the invasion, instead devoting their energy to consolidating their positions, mopping up, and most importantly, unloading the rest of the two Marine divisions and bringing ashore Maj. Gen. Ralph Smith’s 27th Infantry, starting with the division’s 165th Infantry Regiment, under Colonel Gerard W. Kelley.

Reinforcing the Marines that are already fighting on Saipan, these soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Division file forward from their LSTs (landing ship, tank). The LSTs were required to anchor on the other side of a coral reef, and the soldiers had to wade ashore through the surf.

Meanwhile, Japanese ferocity had a sharp impact on the battlefield. The 2nd Marine Division ended the day with half of its company and battalion officers dead or wounded. In the 4th Marine Division’s sector, Lt. Col. Maynard Schultz, boss of the 1st/24th Marines, was killed by artillery. Also impacted by Japanese shells were five companies of black Marines, the first employed in combat in the war, who came under fire while hauling ammunition and supplies to the front lines.

Another Japanese Armored Attack

That night, the Japanese tried to counterattack again. Saito sent in the 136th Infantry Regiment and Colonel Takashi Goto’s 9th Tank Regiment to launch a coordinated attack at 5 pm against the 6th Marine Regiment. The Navy’s 1st Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force would take part as well. But his men were so disorganized, the attack did not go in until 3:30 am, with Goto himself saddling up in his command T-97 tank and infantrymen riding the huge vehicles, some blaring bugles.

When the Japanese tanks lumbered toward battle, they made a vast noise that alerted the Marines and worried Jones. He had been told the Japanese might have as many as 200 tanks on Saipan. It sounded to him like all 200 were headed straight for him.

In their dugouts, the Marines watched as the tanks rolled over and past them. Captain James Rollen leaped out of his foxhole and fired a grenade launcher at a T-97. It bounced off, and Rollen staggered out of the battle, eardrums damaged by concussion. Captain Norman Thomas took over moments later and was quickly killed.

As dawn broke, so did the Japanese attack. The surviving Japanese began retreating toward Mount Tipo Pale, while an offshore destroyer hurled shells after them, blasting a surviving tank. The Marines counted 31 wrecked T-97s and the bodies of more than 700 mangled Japanese soldiers and Marines, for a loss of about 70 leathernecks.

Advancing Across Saipan

Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith now cut orders to have the 2nd Marine Division be the northern pivot of a wheeling attack by Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt’s 4th Marine Division, which would push across the farmlands of southern Saipan to the east coast at Magicienne, then drive northward into the central highlands. The 27th Infantry would operate on the 4th Division’s flank, reaching for Aslito Airfield. Once that was accomplished, the three divisions would undertake the daunting task of storming Mount Topatchau and driving across the island to the northern peak at Marpi Point.

Loud, crusty, and opinionated, Holland Smith had a common touch and concern for his Marines. Admiral Spruance provided regular gifts of five-gallon drums of ice cream from his ships’ reefers, and every time they arrived Smith would shout out from his front window that any leatherneck in earshot should hurry over for the ice cream.

Steadily the Marines and GIs began their advance across Saipan. Under their boots and vehicles, the island’s dirt roads turned to dust and mud. The southern third of Saipan was dominated by well-tended farms and villages, which grew sugar cane, corn, peas, cantaloupe, and potatoes.

At his tactical headquarters, Saito, having recovered his composure, studied his maps on the 17th and determined that he could not hold southern Saipan until the Imperial Navy had steamed up, smashed the American fleet, and relieved the garrison. Nevertheless, Saito was determined to hold the island, slowly retreating, buying time, and inflicting casualties.

Amid the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers, a Marine of the U.S. 2nd Division raises his M1 carbine to take aim at the retiring enemy on Saipan during the advance on Mount Marpi. The bitter battle for Saipan resulted in heavy casualties for both sides.

Capturing Conroy Field

On the 18th, Holland Smith ordered his three divisions forward to sweep the southern portion of Saipan and take Aslito Airfield, enabling land-based planes to operate from Saipan. The 165th Infantry Regiment drew the assignment and went forward with artillery and tank support. At 10 am, the troops crossed the airfield and pronounced it secured 16 minutes later.

The airfield was renamed Conroy Field in honor of Colonel Gardiner J. Conroy, who had commanded the 165th in its invasion of Makin and been killed there. The Marines soon renamed it Isely Airfield after a naval aviator who had been shot down over Saipan. The 165th moved on toward Nafutan Ridge, where they came under heavy Japanese fire.

Meanwhile, the 4th Marine Division advanced in the face of intense Japanese machine-gun fire and a sudden counterattack by two tanks. The tanks caused 15 casualties before they were driven off by bazookas and artillery.

That same day the Japanese made their major effort to defeat the U.S. Navy at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and suffered immense losses, withdrawing from the scene.

Nafutan Point

The next American land objective was Nafutan Point, a short peninsula dominated by a high, craggy ridge, and Mount Nafutan, which stood 407 feet high. The Japanese defenders numbered about 1,050 men from the remnants of the 317th Independent Infantry Battalion and the 47th Independent Mixed Brigade along with some other stragglers. Behind them were frightened Japanese civilians. In command was Captain Sasaki, boss of the 317th.

The 27th Division was given the job of clearing Nafutan Point and came under heavy fire from Japanese pillboxes. The 105th Infantry tried to place shaped charges against the pillboxes to blast them open, but the fire was too heavy. The Americans tried outflanking the enemy, struggling through an exploding Japanese artillery dump. The 165th struggled through a slope made up of a coral formation studded with sharp rocks, pocked with holes, deep canyons, crevasses, and caves, overgrown with vines, small trees, and bushes. Fortunately, the natural defenses were tougher than the Japanese.

After dark, the Japanese tried a 20-man counterattack, which was broken up. A group of 20 to 30 civilians stumbled into an American position and all were killed.

On June 20, Ralph Smith’s GIs continued to struggle to gain Nafutan Point, using smoke screens to conceal their flanking movements. When the 1st Battalion of the 105th Infantry came under Japanese fire from snipers in a town, Lt. Col. William O’Brien, commanding the battalion, ordered the settlement burned down, with tanks, antitank guns, and flamethrowers doing the job. With artillery and tank support, the GIs steadily squeezed the Japanese, suffering light casualties, one man dead in the 105th and six in the 165th. With two regiments of the 27th engaged, the division’s third regiment, the 106th, finally came ashore to serve as corps reserve. Meanwhile, the two Marine divisions pivoted on the invasion beaches to prepare for the big drive to clear the island from south to north.

On the 21st, the 27th continued to attack Nafutan Point. At 9:30 am, the 1st/105th moved forward slowly without opposition, but at 12:55 pm it came under heavy mortar and automatic weapons fire in open terrain. The GIs withdrew and summoned tanks. On the 27th’s extreme left, the fresh 2nd/105th, under Lt. Col. Leslie M. Jensen, went into attack in extremely difficult terrain, facing the nose of Mount Natufan, a sheer cliff that split the battalion front like the bow of a ship. The cliff was only 30 feet high, but the approach to it was a steep slope through a cane field’s stubble, which lacked cover.

The battalion jumped off on schedule at 9:30 am and was immediately hit by the usual small arms, machine-gun, and mortar fire. The Americans assaulted the cliff and reached its top, but could not hold on. Jensen called for rations, water, and artillery, which fired at point-blank range. The Americans ultimately forced the Japanese to withdraw.

Slow Advance Toward Smith’s Line

However, the American advance was still moving slowly. On the 22nd, at 6 am, the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, backed by 18 battalions of artillery and naval and air support, launched a coordinated attack and made substantial gains on the lower slopes of Mount Tapotchau. The Marines faced counterattacks and heavy enemy fire, which was aggravated when a Japanese ammunition dump exploded

Back at Nafutan Point, the 105th Infantry struggled against the Japanese, gaining little ground. Holland Smith warned Ralph Smith that if the 105th did not advance he would fire its colonel. Ralph Smith responded that the Japanese were holding difficult terrain.

With rifles and flamethrowers at the ready, U.S. Marines blast caves and bunkers on Saipan with explosive charges. Any enemy troops that survived the concussion and attempted to escape were quickly cut down.

Meanwhile, the battle raged on. Holland Smith ordered the 27th Division into the main attack, leaving Nafutan to a single rifle battalion and a platoon of six light tanks and very little artillery amid mountainous terrain.

Studying his maps, the 4th Marine Division’s commander, General Harry Schmidt, regarded Holland Smith’s plan as overly optimistic and penciled in a line for reorganization 2,000 yards short of Holland Smith’s objective line. Even so, the Marines struggled to reach the line on Schmidt’s map.

“Death Valley”, “Purple Heart Ridge”, and “Hill Love”

On the 23rd, the Army’s 106th and 165th Regiments were ordered to attack a ridge north of their lines and a valley just west of it. The 3,600 Japanese defenders were from two units, the 118th and 136th Infantry Regiments. The Americans would come to name the valley “Death Valley” and the hills “Purple Heart Ridge.”

Seven American regiments, two Army and five Marine, would make the assault. The first American objective was “Hill Love,” and the 1st/165th led the way with a platoon of tanks from the 762nd Provisional Tank Battalion. The 3rd/165th tried to attack a little cove in the mountain wall studded with Japanese machine guns and their crews.

The Battle of the Caves

What the Army would call the Battle of the Caves raged on ferociously. The 762nd Tank Battalion sent 72 Shermans into action—only 18 were left at the day’s end. The 3rd/106th came under Japanese mortar fire that took 31 men in less than a minute.

Watching this futile attack, Holland Smith fumed over the Army’s poor showing. Studying the island from the 1,554-foot Tapotchau summit with a powerful Japanese telescope he found there, Holland Smith assessed Saipan’s mountains and valleys. His Marines were taking a pounding but taking ground. The 2nd Marine Division had lost 2,514 men, while the 4th had lost 3,628. The 27th Division’s two fresh regiments would now have to be the main assault force.

Two Branches, Two Different Tactical Approaches

Now the differences between the Marine Corps and Army approach to war began to plague the American drive. Holland Smith and his Marines stressed high-cost frontal assaults and relied on speed, aggression, and violence to achieve their goals. Ralph Smith and his GIs favored the Army’s standard holding attack, which relied on one force holding the enemy under pressure while a second force outflanked the defenders, relying on movement and firepower.

Holland Smith believed the 27th was “flat and listless,” and he blamed Ralph Smith. He called in Army Maj. Gen. Sanderford Jarman, who was to take command of the island once it was secured and ordered him to visit Ralph Smith and convey the corps commander’s displeasure. Holland Smith warned Ralph Smith that if the 27th was not an Army Division “and there would be a great cry sent up more or less of a political nature,” he would immediately relieve Ralph Smith.

Holland Smith gave his subordinate one more day to make progress, but the Japanese were as stolid and ferocious as ever. The 5th Amphibious Corps attacked on Saturday, June 24, with the 8th Marines digging Japanese positions out with satchel charges, bazookas, and flamethrowers.

At least the Marines had a sense of progress, despite suffering 812 casualties in the 4th Division over the 23rd and 24th and 333 in the 2nd for the same two days.

Meanwhile, Saito had angled his defenders to give a rough reception to the 27th Infantry in Death Valley, which in turn fronted Saito’s headquarters. The Japanese general was determined to hold on, and he had 4,000 men backed by most of the 9th Tank Regiment’s T-97s in position to do so. All of his caves deployed machine guns, mortars, or 75mm guns.

“Start Moving at Once”

As June 24 dawned, Ralph Smith moved through his frontline units, personally directing the assault. The 165th Infantry jumped off right on time at 8 am, seeking to storm Purple Heart Ridge—actually a series of hills connected by a ridgeline running in a northerly direction. The two lead battalions came under heavy fire, and many men were pinned down or killed. One battalion only advanced 150 yards for the entire day.

The 106th headed into Death Valley and came under such heavy mortar fire that many GIs had to fall back behind the line of departure. Ralph Smith radioed his commanders: “Advance of 50 yards in 1½ hours is most unsatisfactory. Start moving at once.”

Jarman Takes Command of the 27th Infantry

Around noon, a Marine jeep pulled up at 27th Infantry Division’s forward command post, and a captain of the adjutant general’s staff hopped out, saluted, and handed Ralph Smith a sealed envelope. Inside was a terse message from Holland Smith relieving Ralph Smith of his post. Maj. Gen. Jarman was to take over the 27th immediately.

A Japanese soldier lies dead at the water’s edge in Tanapag harbor on the island of Saipan, July 15, 1944. This soldier was among a number of Japanese troops that sought safety aboard ships in the harbor. Several of those vessels were attacked by U.S. aircraft and blaze in the distance.

Controversy would rage over this abrupt mid-battle dismissal, but the changes at the top did little to change the situation on the ground. Holland Smith’s three divisions had now created a U-shaped front, with the 27th in the base of the U.

Jarman studied the maps and plans inherited from Ralph Smith and decided to use them, pushing the 106th Regiment eastward toward Chacha Village and then swerving northward to flank Purple Heart Ridge. But as the 106th did so, it came under murderous fire from Saito’s well-protected 31st Army headquarters. The 106th Regiment was stalled by difficult terrain and determined Japanese fire. Jarman asked Ayers why the 106th did not skirt the eastern slope of Purple Heart Ridge or make any progress, and Ayers could offer neither excuse nor “explanation of anything he did during the day,” Jarman reported later. “He stated he felt sure he could get his regiment in hand and forward the next morning. I told him he had one more chance and if he did not handle his regiment I would relieve him.”

The attack up Death Valley did little better. Jarman ordered artillery hurled directly against Hell’s Pocket and Mount Tapotchau, but the Army made no progress. Short of water, food, and ammunition, the exhausted troops pulled back, wounded men being carried by their buddies.

Driven Off Mount Tapotchau

The Marines, however, did better. The 4th Marine Division finally occupied the whole of Kagman Peninsula, cutting the front down by 3,000 yards, while 2nd/8th Marines and 1st/29th Marines fought for Mount Tapotchau, the island’s highest point. Pushing off at 7:30 am, the leathernecks worked their way up to the top by scaling the cliffs. The Army had drawn off so many Japanese defenders to the sides of Tapotchau and Purple Heart Ridge that the Marines were able to reach the top almost unmolested.

Saito appreciated the situation as well, understanding the mess he was in. As he moved his tactical headquarters from Mount Tapotchau to a small cave one mile north of the lost pinnacle, he had only 1,200 able-bodied men and three tanks left of all Japanese Army frontline units.

On the 26th, the Japanese tried a predawn attack against the 1st/6th Marines. It failed.

The Americans continued their offensive. The Marines had turned the U-shaped salient into a death trap for the Japanese men defending it, and the 27th Infantry continued its bloody struggle for Purple Heart Ridge. The 106th Infantry sent in M7 self-propelled howitzers, Sherman tanks, and finally M-8 self-propelled artillery to chisel the Japanese out of their cliffs and caves. The 104th Field Artillery lobbed 360 rounds of 105mm shells into the Japanese positions, but the Japanese kept up heavy return fire. Seeing the 106th unable to gain ground, Jarman kept his promise and fired Colonel Ayers, appointing division chief of staff Colonel Albert K. Stebbins as regimental commander.

The Marines made small gains on Purple Heart Ridge, but mostly the leathernecks took a breather before resuming the assaults the next day.

“Seven Lives For One’s Country”

Far to the south, 500 Japanese troops, isolated by the 105th Infantry on Nafutan Point, lined up to make a midnight charge against the Americans. Captain Sasaki, commanding the 317th Independent Infantry Battalion and the other trapped forces, told his men, “The password for tonight will be ‘Seven lives for one’s country.’”

The Japanese infiltrated through the American lines and at 2:30 am on the 27th hit Aslito Airfield and the emplacements of Marine artillery units. The Marine gunners fired their weapons at point-blank range or reached for their rifles and grenades, fending off the enemy. The 14th Marine Artillery Regiment killed 143 Japanese at the cost of 33 killed and wounded.

On the 27th, Jarman ordered his GIs to reorient their attack. He had only four battalions under his control—Holland Smith was giving direct orders to the rest—but Jarman was determined to clean up Death Valley with the 106th Infantry. The 3rd/106th attacked at 6:20 am and came under immediate machine-gun fire, forcing the GIs to retreat. At 10:20, division ordered 25 minutes of artillery fire, but the artillery spotters had to hold their fire for half an hour trying to figure out where the American troops actually were to avoid hitting their own men.

Following the artillery barrage, the Americans attacked, and this time found a litter of enemy dead and not a shot fired. They moved through the terrain and up Hill King, finding a party of Japanese hiding in rocks and grass. The Americans threw grenades and pulled back to allow their mortars to destroy the position. Hill King was in American hands.

“A Handful of Japs”

The 3rd/106th kept moving through Death Valley, through cane fields, into the floor of the valley, pushing ahead despite heavy fire and shortages of ammunition and water. A platoon of light tanks was dispatched to provide the infantrymen with covering fire and supplies. Joined by the 165th, the 106th Infantry steadily attacked across Death Valley, getting into a severe hand-to-hand fight that left seven American casualties and 35 Japanese killed. The 1st/106th was assigned to mop up Hell’s Pocket.

The 4th Marine Division continued its advance on the right backed by 1st/165th, 3rd/165th, and 1st/105th from the 27th Division. The 4th Marines moved ahead rapidly. The 2nd Marines made slower progress, reaching the outskirts of the capital, Garapan.

Meanwhile, Saito, Nagumo, the 31st Army’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Keiji Igeta, and other top Japanese officers convened to figure out what to do. It was decided simply to delay the Americans as long as possible.

Holland Smith was annoyed that the 105th had progressed so slowly against “a handful of Japs.” He had a point—American leadership had been halting and slow, coordination poor, but the Japanese were in strong defensive terrain. The slow advance added to Holland Smith’s gripes against the Army and Ralph Smith.

On the 28th, the 27th Infantry Division got its third new boss in a week, as Maj. Gen. George Griner was sent out from Hawaii to take over the division from Jarman. He inherited a division still struggling to finish off Purple Heart Ridge. As usual, the Japanese defenders did not open fire until the Americans were practically on top of them. Finally, however, Hell’s Pocket was cleaned out.

The Marines advanced slowly, battling terrain and Japanese defenses. American fighter bombers added to the horror with a misdirected airstrike that hit the 1st/2nd Marines with three rockets, causing 27 casualties.

Taking Fourth of July Hill on Independence Day

The next day, June 29, the Americans continued to grind their way northward with the Marines driving on the flanks, isolating the Japanese defenses. The Marines advanced slowly into Garapan.

Under Griner, the 27th fought better. At 2 pm, three of the division’s battalions jumped off to attack the northern end of Death Valley with Holland Smith himself watching from Mount Tapotchau. The Marine general was pleased and “expressly complimented” the division’s performance to Griner.

A U.S. Marine tries to communicate with a Japanese family he has discovered hiding on Saipan. The Japanese civilians had been warned of American brutality by their own propagandists. Tragically, many of them chose suicide rather than surrender to American forces.

On the last day of June, the 27th finished its bitter struggle to capture Death Valley and Purple Heart Ridge. “No one had any harder job to do,” said Marine General Harry Schmidt later. Fighting raged on in Garapan. GIs assaulted Hill Uncle-Victor backed by heavy artillery fire, advancing 400 yards and finally clearing out Death Valley.

Sergeant Takeo Yamauchi was ordered to withdraw with his pals in single file amid pouring rain. American troops opened fire on them, knocking Yamauchi’s glasses off his face. He and some buddies hid in a bunch of rocks, staying there until July 3.

The Americans now moved on the major town of Tanapag, finally looking down on it from the high ground. The 2nd Marine Division secured Garapan, finding Saipan’s capital a mass of rubble from artillery fire.

On July 2 and 3, the Japanese continued to retreat in a piecemeal manner, while the Americans picked their way slowly and carefully behind them. The 24th Marines stormed Fourth of July Hill but were forced back each time by Japanese machine guns and mortars. The leathernecks pulled back and let the artillery take over, pounding the hill all night long. By 11:35 am on Independence Day, Fourth of July Hill was in American hands.

Hara-Kiri Gulch

The American advance continued in a heavy downpour, which mired the tanks, but the 1st/165th reached the top of the last ridge over Flores Point seaplane base. In the Army’s center, the 106th Infantry Regiment fought into the seaplane base joined by the 8th Marines.

Saito set up a new headquarters in the valley south of the village of Makunsha named Paradise Valley by the Americans and Hell Valley by the Japanese.

Holland Smith now had his plans ready for the third and final phase of the Saipan drive. The objectives were now Marpi Point and Marpi Airfield at the northern tip of Saipan.

With the island narrowing, he could not put three divisions in the line, so he pulled out the 2nd Marine Division to rest and prepare for the coming invasion of Tinian. The 4th Marine Division would advance on the right, 27th Infantry on the left. The Army assault would begin on July 5.

The attack went in at 1:30 pm with the usual opening barrage of artillery and air attack. The 27th Infantry attacked a canyon 50 yards wide and 400 yards long covered with undergrowth and trees. An ideal position, the Americans named it Hara-Kiri Gulch.

Company K of the 165th hit Hara-Kiri Gulch first, doing so with tanks. Japanese troops darted out from ditches and slapped mines on the tanks, which disabled them. The Americans sent in more tanks and made repeated attacks, but the Japanese returned heavy fire.

“We Three Will Commit Suicide”

Among the 200 to 300 defenders of Paradise Valley was Sergeant Takeo Yamauchi. He and two other soldiers stayed concealed there through July 8. He told the two men sharing his dugout that Japan was going to lose the war.

Saito told an assembly of officers that the final stand was at hand. That evening, the headquarters group ate the last of their food. Hirakushi asked if Igeta and Saito would participate in the final assault. Nagumo, who had said almost nothing during the whole retreat, finally spoke for the three officers: “We three will commit suicide.”

Tanapag Falls to the 27th

At dawn on July 6, the Americans resumed the offensive. They were beginning to sense victory. Most of the island had been taken, and while Japanese defense remained fierce it was uncoordinated, splintered, and steadily weakening.

Company K of the 105th Infantry, under 1st Lt. Roger Peyre, joined by a platoon of light tanks under 1st Lt. Willis K. Dorey, attacked through a deep gully at 10:30 am and came under heavy Japanese fire. Peyre’s men moved out of a coconut grove into a counterattack down a cliff that was climaxed by a gigantic explosion that sent Japanese bodies and limbs in all directions.

All day the Americans continued their drive. The 27th captured Tanapag, the last significant town on Saipan. That evening, the 1st and 2nd/105th deployed in an elongated semicircle. The 3rd/105th camped inland and several hundred yards south of the other two battalions. The GIs did not know it, but the artillery of 3rd/10th Marines were setting up behind them to bring Marpi Point under fire.

Lying heaped in a shell hole, a large number of dead Japanese soldiers have yet to be buried. The Japanese regularly fought to the death on Saipan, perishing in pitched banzai charges or at the hands of American troops determined to capture the island despite the heavy resistance.

At Saito’s cave, a sentry reported that an enemy tank was “peering over” the edge of the cliff above. Saito, conferring with Igeta and Nagumo, summoned Hirakushi and told the major that the three flag officers intended to commit suicide at 10 am. Command of the final assault would devolve upon Colonel Eisuke Suzuki of the 135th Infantry Regiment.

One Last All-Out Attack

When Hirakushi woke from a deep sleep, it was past sunset. He found his soldiers and sailors assembling outside, armed with rifles, swords, and even bamboo spears as officers sorted them into groups in the moonlight to the line of departure. More than 3,000 Japanese including civilians entered the coastal plains. Hirakushi heard Japanese troops shouting battle cries, and then rifle fire sputtered from a ridge signaling the attack. Hirakushi’s men charged down the beach toward Tanapag without waiting for the command, and the major followed his men. As he charged, an explosion surrounded him. Then he passed out.

The Americans knew something was coming. A single prisoner had divulged the Japanese intent, saying that they were planning an all-out attack before dawn by everyone who could carry a rifle or spear.

The Japanese stormed over the two defending Army battalions, killing or wounding 650 GIs. Another group of Japanese troops stormed through a winding canyon and into the 3rd Battalion, but these Americans were too well emplaced and could not be dislodged.

As the Japanese attack flowed south, Marine artillery deployed behind the GIs opened fire, knocking out a Japanese tank, but the enemy stormed through to the gunners’ emplacements. The assault forced the Americans back into the streets of Tanapag. For the next four hours, the GIs, out of communication with their command posts, short of ammunition and water, with no means to evacuate wounded men, hung on against repeated Japanese attacks.

Smith responded with massive force. Navy cruisers sprinted to the scene and hurled shells at the beaches. An Army tank unit finally entered the fray. American artillery fired at anything that moved, driving American troops into the water. Griner sent his 165th Infantry Regiment to attack the Japanese on their right flank, into Hara-Kiri Gulch, driving the enemy out of the plain.

By mid-afternoon, the Japanese attack petered out against determined American defense and overwhelming firepower. Army and Navy medics passed through the many scattered bodies and found surviving Japanese. On a U.S. Navy hospital ship, Major Hirakushi woke up, bandages on his head and shoulder, and his left hand handcuffed to a bed.

Suicides on Saipan

As the Americans regained the ground lost in the initial Japanese assault, Holland Smith pulled the battered 27th Infantry Division out of the line and assigned the Marines to finish off the defenders. The 2nd Marine Division began mopping up, attacking on the 7th at 11:30 am. The 6th Marines found a pocket of resistance of about 100 Japanese troops, who finally succumbed around 6:30 pm. All day long on the 8th and 9th, the 8th Marines investigated caves, finding disorganized Japanese groups dug in.

On July 9, the 4th Marine Division grabbed the ridge that overlooked Marpi Point and the cliff wall that fronted the sea. Saipan was secured.

At Marpi Point, a plateau some 833 feet above a shore of jagged coral rocks, 5,000 men, women, and children were trapped by the Marines. Fearing horrible deaths and eternal shame at the hands of the leathernecks, the Japanese civilians began killing themselves. Whole families waded and swam out to sea to drown themselves. The orgy of suicides went on through July 12.

Believing horrific tales of American atrocities fabricated by Japanese military propagandists, Japanese civilians commit suicide by flinging themselves and their children from the cliffs at Marpi Point on the island of Saipan. Unable to intervene, U.S. Marines watch helplessly as the civilians end their lives by drowning or falling on the rocks below.

Sergeant Takeo Yamauchi Surrenders

Some Japanese men held out, among them Sergeant Takeo Yamauchi, whose dugout was ignored on the 8th and 9th. On July 10, American warships fired on his area, killing one of his men. Yamauchi suggested to his crew that they swim out to where the bow of a sunken ship was jutting out of the sea, but most of the men were no longer responding to rank and authority.

Left to right, U.S. Marine General Holland M. Smith, commander of the V Amphibious Corps, Marine Major General Thomas G. Watson, commander of the 2nd Division, and Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander of U.S. naval forces in the Philippine Sea, confer during operations in the Marianas.

That evening, Yamauchi and some like-minded pals tried to swim to the ship, but the waves were too strong and most of the men turned back to shore. Just one sailor and Yamauchi were left in the water when an American machine gun opened fire. Yamauchi and his sailor colleague found a cave with a sergeant, several soldiers, and about 20 Japanese civilians, including women with crying babies. They huddled in the cave under a road. Late on the 13th, Yamauchi slipped out of the cave and made his way to a tree, planning to surrender at daybreak.

There he found four Japanese civilians—a middle-aged couple, a man a little older than himself, and a teenage girl. The middle-aged woman gave Yamauchi some porridge in an old tin can, his first meal in days. Then he just stood up and walked off through the jungle, the teenage girl and the couple following him. A Marine appeared in the jungle and ordered Yamauchi’s party to halt and took them all prisoner.

“Hell is Upon Us”

Scattered fighting and roundups continued on Saipan for weeks—it was not until August 10 that the Americans could truly say the island was secure. By then, the Americans were moving on Tinian and Guam.

With the island of Saipan in hand, it was time for the Americans to tally the cost. More than 70,000 Americans took on 30,000 Japanese. The Americans had lost 3,225 dead, 13,061 wounded, and 326 missing. The Japanese losses were even greater. The Americans buried 23,811 Japanese defenders and took 1,780 prisoners, including 921 Japanese (17 of them officers), and 838 Koreans.

The loss of Saipan sent terrible shockwaves through Japan. The nation was already reeling from the naval debacle in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Privately, the Japanese leadership was also less bombastic. Admiral Shigeyoshi Miwa, describing the impact of the loss of the Marianas to Japan, put the situation succinctly to the emperor, saying: “Hell is upon us.”

Originally Published December 29, 2016


I am trying to trace my father’s footsteps. He passed a few years ago with very little detail and his military records were destroyed in a fire at the Defense Dept.

He was in the 27th Infantry. I don’t know which regiment, but either the 165th or 106th from reading your piece.

My father was an Infantryman in the 27th Division on Saipan during the battle … he was in Headquarters Company … served as a.30 Cal Machine Gunner … survived the Banzi Attack … near the end of the battle … I am pleased to meet anyone … who had relatives or anyone who served in the 27th Division during the battle.
Danehy A Carson

The Battle of Saipan 1944

The Battle of Saipan was fought between June 15 th and July 7 th 1944. Saipan held huge strategic importance for both the Japanese and Americans. Saipan was part of the Mariana Islands and its capture would allow the Americans to build runways big enough for its B29 Superfortress bombers to reach mainland Japan and return to their base in Saipan. It also meant that any Japanese forces south of Saipan were cut off from the Japanese mainland itself. The Americans wanted to capture Saipan at all costs but the Japanese, equally aware of its importance, were also prepared to defend the island to the death. The Battle of Saipan proved to be very bloody.

An amphibious landing on the island was preceded by an intense two-day bombardment carried out by the US Navy. Over 165,000 shells were fired at Japanese positions on the beaches that the Marines were going to land on. The first landings on Saipan took place at 07.00 and by 09.00, 8,000 US Marines were ashore. However, they had to fight every inch of the way as the Japanese defenders had placed barbed wire just behind the beaches along with trenches and machine gun posts. By nightfall, men from the 2 nd and 4 th Marine Divisions had advanced about half-a-mile inland and a beachhead of six miles in width had been created.

The Marines fought off Japanese counter-attacks. The Japanese high command took the decision that the best way to support the island’s defenders was to attack the US at sea. This resulted in the Battle of thePhilippine Sea (June 15 th 1944) which proved to be a disaster for the Japanese as they lost three aircraft carriers along with many aircraft. Whereas the Americans could replace lost aircraft carriers because of their vast industrial base, the Japanese could not. The loss of the carriers also meant that the Japanese force on Saipan could not be resupplied or reinforced as they were effectively cut off.

Realising that they could not be resupplied, the Japanese commander on Saipan, General Saito, ordered that his men would fight to the last along a defensive line around Mount Tapotchau in the mountainous centre of Saipan. Mount Tapotchau, and the area surrounding it, was riddled with cave complexes. These proved an excellent base for the Japanese to carry out night time hit-and-run raids on the Americans. Casualties on both sides were high and the Americans had to adopt new tactics to clear out the cave complexes. The weapon of choice to complete this task was the flamethrower supported by the artillery. Flamethrowers were used to drive the Japanese out of their hiding holes or to kill them where they were. Those who fled faced an onslaught by artillery.

The end of the battle occurred on July 7 th when Saito ordered what was effectively a suicide attack by the remaining able-bodied men under his command. When the attack started these 3,000 men were also joined by many hundreds of the walking-wounded and Japanese civilians on the island. Their attack took the Americans by surprise and the Japanese pushed through the Americans front line. However, once it became clear what was happening, the Americans rallied and the charge resulted in 4,300 Japanese deaths. What was the largest Banzai charge in World War Two had little chance of success against the vast amount of firepower the Americans had on Saipan but it was a clear indication of what the Americans would face the nearer they got to the Japanese mainland.

Saipan was declared secure on July 9 th . Nearly 30,000 Japanese soldiers had died trying to defend the island. 3,426 Americans were killed with 13,000 wounded – fractionally fewer than 25% of the 71,000 US soldiers who landed on Saipan. A small group of Japanese soldiers held out in the mountains until December 1945 when they finally accepted that not only the battle but also the war had been lost.

The Battle of Saipan also witnessed another phenomenon few American soldiers had seen in the whole Pacific campaign. 25,000 Japanese civilians lived on Saipan. They had been informed by the Japanese government of the untold horrors that would happen to them if they fell into the hands of the Americans – how they would be brutally treated etc. As a result, and some say as a direct consequence of an order apparently sent out by Emperor Hirohito, over 1,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide as the battle came towards an end. US army film clips exist of Japanese civilians throwing themselves off ‘Suicide Cliff’ to escape the shame of capture and the fear of what the Americans would do to them.

Once the island was secure SEEBEE’s started to construct runways that could be used by the B-29’s. No Japanese position was safe from heavy bombing once these runways were completed. The Japanese population on the mainland now faced an aerial bombardment that brought the war home to them almost on a daily basis. Japanese positions in the Philippines could also be attacked.

This is what it took to be a U-boat ace in World War II

Posted On May 13, 2021 18:42:00

We’ve all heard of fighter aces. We’re talking legends like Robin Olds, Duke Cunningham, Pappy Boyington, James Howard, Jimmy Thach, and Swede Vejtasa. Germany had their own aces, and while Erich Hartmann and Adolf Galland are just some who attained immortality with their feats in the skies, others, like Otto Kretschmer and Gunther Prien, were renowned for what they did under the sea.

Kretschmer and Prien were both considered “U-boat aces,” and according to, they were part of an elite group. Out of 498 men in World War I, and 1,401 in World War II who commanded U-boats, only a total of 71 men sank more than 100,000 tons of enemy shipping. The tonnage totals are eye-popping in comparison to American commanders, many of whom were rotated out of front-line duty to train new crewmen, similar to the policy used for ace fighter pilots like Thach.

America’s top sub skippers, like Eli Reich or Joe Enright, earned their notoriety on single missions. Reich sank the only battleship to be sunk by American submarines during the war, avenging fallen shipmates, while Enright holds the distinction of sinking the Shinano, the largest vessel ever sink by a submarine.

Germany’s U-boat aces pulled some incredible feats, themselves. Prien, for instance, earned his fame by sneaking into the British naval base of Scapa Flow and sinking the battleship HMS Royal Oak. 825 British sailors died when the Revenge-class battleship was hit by three torpedoes.

U-995, the only surviving Type VII U-boat in the world. (Wikimedia Commons)

Kretschmer was the top-ranking U-boat ace of World War II, sinking 46 ships totaling over 274,000 tons of displacement. Compare that to the JANAC total credited to USS Tang (SS 306), Medal of Honor recipient Richard O’Kane’s command, which sank 24 ships totaling 93,824 tons of displacement.

The German U-boat aces were also survivors. All five of their top aces lived through the war, but one was accidentally killed by a sentry five days after the war, and another died in 1950, and of their top ten skippers, only Gunther Prien was killed in action during the war.


Banzai Attack: Saipan

On July 7, 1944, the US Army 27th Infantry Division bore the brunt of the largest Banzai attack of the war. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, over 4,000 Japanese troops were dead, and American dead and wounded numbered nearly 1,000.

Top Image: 27th Infantry Division soldiers advancing during the Saipan Campaign. Photo courtesy of Col. Richard Goldenberg.

After three weeks of fighting on Saipan, two-thirds of the island was in US hands. The 2nd Marine Division, the US Army 27th Infantry Division, and the 4th Marine Division had advanced northward from landing beaches in the southwest and driven the Japanese into the northern corner of the island. By July 6,1944, the US Army’s 27th Infantry Division held the line from the west coast, and tied in with the 4th Marine Division on its right flank. The narrowing island had pinched the 2nd Marine Division out of the line the day before, and it was placed in reserve.

For Lt. General Yoshitsugu Saito, the overall commander of Japanese forces on Saipan, and the remaining 4,000-plus Japanese troops in the northern corner of the island, there was no place left to retreat. Their backs were against the sea, and surrender was an unthinkable option. On the evening of July 6, Gen. Saito ordered all able-bodied troops and civilians to participate in a final Banzai attack before daybreak the next morning.

First and second battalions of the 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division, were the westernmost units on the line by the evening of July 6. Lt. Colonel William O’Brien’s first battalion was dug in about 250 yards from the beach, and Major Edward McCarthy’s second battalion held the line from the first battalion’s left flank to the beach. O’Brien was aware of a gap in the line between first and second battalion and requested reinforcements, but none were available. O’Brien tried to shore up the hole in the line by positioning his anti-tank weapons to cover the gap.

O’Brien was from Troy, New York, and had served in the 27th Infantry Division back when it was a National Guard unit from upstate New York during World War I. After being called into federal service in October 1940, soldiers from all over the US joined the division, but there was still a large contingent of New York State natives in the 27th.

Private Thomas Baker, also hailing from Troy, was a rifleman in Company A of the 105th. Baker had distinguished himself earlier in the campaign on Saipan by single-handedly destroying an enemy strongpoint that was holding up his company’s advance. On July 6, Baker was occupying a foxhole on the frontline.

Captain Benjamin Salomon was running second battalion’s aid station, which was about 50 yards to the rear of the frontline on July 6. Salomon was a dentist, but volunteered to take over the aid station when the battalion surgeon had been wounded. Salomon graduated from the USC Dental School in 1937 and started his own practice. In 1940, he was drafted into the army and initially served as a private in the infantry. In 1942, he was reassigned to the Army Dental Corps and commissioned as a First Lieutenant.

Just after dark, the Japanese troops began assembling for their final attack. Beer and sake was consumed in large quantities, and all through the night of July 6, Japanese soldiers were probing the American frontline, searching for any weak spot they could find. Among the Japanese officers who would lead the attack was Captain Sakae Oba. Unlike Gen. Saito, who would commit suicide in his command post, Oba and 200 other officers would be in the first rank of the largest banzai attack of the war.

It was about 0445 on the morning of July 7 when they attacked. First, came the Japanese officers, waving their swords over their heads and screaming at the top of their lungs, closely followed by thousands of troops. They came right through the gap between the first and second battalions. Major McCarthy described the attack as looking like a cattle stampede from a western movie, except the Japanese just kept on coming.

The Japanese attack burst through the American lines and was cutting it up into tiny pockets of resistance. Lt. Col. O’Brien had two pistols in hand, shouting encouragement to his men and telling them to not give up an inch of ground. After O’Brien exhausted the ammunition in his pistols, he was severely wounded in the shoulder. In spite of the wound, O’Brien then manned a jeep-mounted .50 caliber machine gun and blazed away at the Japanese. O’Brien’s rearguard action allowed many of his men to pull back and regroup. When O’Brien ran out of ammunition, the Japanese horde enveloped him. At least 30 of the Japanese bodies scattered around O’Brien’s .50 caliber machine gun were credited to his last stand.

Private Tom Baker exhausted his ammunition and used his rifle as a club. After he bashed his rifle apart on several Japanese attackers, Baker and a couple of his buddies pulled back. Baker was hit, and a fellow soldier began carrying him. When the soldier carrying him was hit, Baker insisted to be left behind. His buddies propped him up against a tree, lit a cigarette for him, and gave him a pistol loaded with eight rounds. After the battle, his buddies found him dead, with the empty pistol still in hand and eight dead Japanese bodies around him.

Capt. Salomon was treating casualties in his aid station when he noticed a Japanese soldier crawling into the tent from under the canvas wall. Salomon threw a surgical pan at him, then grabbed a wounded soldier’s M1 Carbine and shot the intruder. Salomon then ordered his staff to evacuate the wounded and covered their withdrawal by manning a .30 caliber water-cooled machine gun. When Salomon was found a few days later, his body was covered with bullet and bayonet wounds. Surrounding Salomon’s machine gun were 98 dead Japanese soldiers.

The Japanese overran the 105th Regiment, continued down the coastal plain and attacked a 10th Marine Artillery Battery positioned behind the 105th. The Marines were firing their 105mm howitzers, line of sight, directly into the oncoming waves of Japanese troops. But they still kept coming. The Marines destroyed their guns and fell back.

The attack continued for some 12 hours before the Japanese were wiped out. The Japanese had advanced over 1,000 yards before they were stopped. Some 105th Regiment soldiers who were cut off by the Japanese, were forced to swim to US destroyers offshore to survive.

By 1800 hours on July 7, soldiers and Marines had regained all of the ground lost during the banzai attack. The aftermath of the attack was horrific. The Japanese body count in front of the 105th’s position was 2,295, with another 2,016 dead to the rear. A total of 4,311 Japanese troops were killed on the July 7 banzai attack.

The American losses were also high. The first and second battalions of the 105th had nearly been wiped out, with 406 killed and an additional 512 wounded.

Two days later on July 9, 1944, Saipan was declared secure, but the horror didn’t end there. In the days that followed, Marines watched helplessly as hundreds of Japanese civilians committed mass suicide by jumping off the island’s northern cliffs.

Lt. Col. O’Brien and Pvt. Baker were both posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Capt. Salomon was recommended for the award, but was rejected due to his non-combatant status as a medical officer. Salomon’s use of a machine gun during the action was the sticking point for the award. According to the Geneva Convention, medical personnel were only authorized to use pistols or rifles in defense of their patients, so a crew-served machine gun initially disqualified him.

Many surviving eyewitnesses of Salomon’s actions during the battle campaigned for the award on his behalf for the next 58 years. Finally, after numerous submissions and subsequent rejections, Capt. Salomon was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush in 2002.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Capt. Sakae Oba and 46 Japanese survivors of the banzai attack, retreated into Saipan’s rugged interior. Oba organized a resistance to protect 160 Japanese civilian survivors of the battle. Oba raided US camps for supplies and continued to conduct hit and run raids on Saipan for the next 16 months. Capt. Oba finally surrendered to US forces on December 1, 1945.

Battle of Saipan: a brutal invasion that claimed 55,000 lives

The American invasion of the Japanese stronghold of Saipan in the western Pacific was an incredibly brutal battle, claiming 55,000 soldiers’ and civilians’ lives in just over three weeks in the summer of 1944. The U.S. Marines spearheaded the amphibious landing, encountering a fierce and well-prepared resistance from the Japanese troops who controlled the commanding heights looming over the beach.

Artillery, snipers and automatic weapons took a deadly toll with casualties mounting under the remorseless barrage. Marines later commented on the precision of the Japanese mortars and artillery fire. A battalion caught out in the open took heavy casualties as it desperately tried to dig in and find shelter, with one of its officers recalling: “it’s hard to dig a hole when you’re lying on your stomach digging with your chin, your elbows, your knees, and your toes. … (But) it is possible to dig a hole that way, I found.” Such was a precarious beachhead established on the first day of the invasion.

The amphibious landing at Saipan drew on the lessons of previous conquests in Tarawa in November 1943 and the Kwajalein and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands in early 1944. Next up was the Mariana Islands of Guam, Saipan and Tinian, part of the island-hopping campaign adopted by the U.S. that struck deeper into the Japanese defenses, bypassing some well-fortified islands and cutting off their supply lines. Saipan was almost equidistant from the Marshall Islands and Japan, nearly 2,100 km, putting much of the archipelago within B-29 bomber range.

Unlike the flat atolls, Saipan had topography and was a relatively large 185 sq. km. It had been administered by Japan since it was taken from Germany and Tokyo was awarded a mandate by the League of Nations in 1920. Although Japan had already withdrawn from the League in 1933 due to criticism of its invasion of Manchuria, it fortified Saipan from 1934 in violation of the mandate terms, making it a formidable target. The Saipan invasion was code-named Operation Forager and involved practice landings, and training with explosives and flamethrowers for three months.

The U.S. forces confronted about 30,000 Japanese troops, double pre-invasion estimates. On June 14, some of the battleships that had been severely damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor and since repaired, commenced the softening-up phase, pounding the Japanese defenses with their heavy guns, launching shells nearly the size of a VW Beetle. It was payback time.

The U.S. forces faced an implacable foe ready to die rather than surrender and from the outset everyone knew this would be a bloodbath. On the second night, the Japanese counterattacked with 44 tanks, losing 24 of them to the marines’ intense fusillade. In the first four days alone, the marines suffered 5,000 casualties.

On June 17, with the main Japanese fleet steaming for a showdown in the Marianas, U.S. carriers were deployed to meet them while transport and supply ships were withdrawn from their offshore support positions in Saipan. On June 19, in what military historians dub the “Great Mariana’s Turkey Shoot,” the U.S. decimated the Japanese carrier task force, sinking three carriers and shooting down 330 of the 430 planes launched and preventing relief of the Japanese forces on Saipan. The U.S. supply ships returned, but the Japanese were cut off.

The U.S. confronted a tactical nightmare of ravines, caves, cliffs and hills earning nicknames such as Hell’s Pocket, Death Valley and Purple Heart Ridge. With such favorable terrain for the dug-in defenders, the U.S. resorted to unorthodox methods. One marine observed: “The flame thrower tanks were spouting their napalm jets upward into … caves. It was quite a sight!”

Many civilians died in the battle. U.S. forces didn’t always distinguish between noncombatants and combatants when entering caves or hearing movement or voices in the jungle because Japanese troops used civilians as decoys to ambush American soldiers. The brutality of the conflict is also evident in video footage that captures the tragedy of Japanese civilians committing suicide by jumping off a cliff into the ocean.

The suicides in Saipan drew considerable attention and praise in Japan. A correspondent from the Yomiuri praised the women who committed suicide with their children by jumping from the cliff, writing that they were, “the pride of Japanese women.” He even went so far as to call it, “The finest act of the Showa period.” Similarly, Tokyo University professor Hiraizumi Kiyoshi gushed in the Asahi Shimbun, � or 1,000 instants of bravery emit brilliant flashes of light, an act without equal in history.”

Based on numerous wartime diaries and essays, Donald Keene highlights the conspiracy of silence about the gathering decline in Japan’s war fortunes in “So Lovely a Country Will Never Perish.”

“Not until Japan had suffered severe defeats, especially at Saipan, were voices heard warning of disaster, and even then were muted, for fear of being overheard by the feared military police,” Keene wrote.

In order to bolster morale, the government invented victories and enemy losses, a web of deceit that blinded the public and leaders to the real situation. After Saipan fell, the B-29s corrected this fallacy.

As later happened in Okinawa, Imperial troops encouraged and instigated group suicides, warning of the horrible fate that awaited anyone captured by the invaders.

The Japanese commander, Gen. Yoshitsugu Saito, reportedly said: “There is no longer any distinction between civilians and troops. It would be better for them to join in the attack with bamboo spears than be captured.”

Gen. Saito, wounded and knowing the battle was lost, committed suicide in his cave on July 6 after ordering a final banzai charge. The following day, 3,000 troops, including any wounded who could still limp or crawl their way to death, obeyed orders and mounted a final mass banzai charge. These troops were annihilated, but not before inflicting heavy casualties on the American forces. By July 9, mopping up operations were completed.

Given the horrific carnage and atrocities endured and inflicted, there is an odd ring to the chivalry claimed in the aftermath of the battle. “Several times when we tried to feed newly captured women and children first, the male would shove them aside and demand to be first for rations,” one soldier noted. “A few raps to the chest with a rifle butt soon cured them of that habit.”

Of the 71,000 U.S. troops that landed, nearly 3,000 were killed and more than 10,000 wounded. Out of the entire Japanese garrison of 30,000 troops, only 921 prisoners were captured the rest died. The Japanese commanders, and some 5,000 others committed suicide rather than surrender.

It could have been much worse. As one survey concluded, the “unfinished state of the Japanese defenses was, in fact, a critical factor in the final American victory on Saipan. The blockading success of far-ranging submarines of the U.S. Navy had drastically reduced the supplies of cement and other construction materials destined for elaborate Saipan defenses, as well as the number of troop ships carrying Japanese reinforcements to the island.” One Japanese POW observed during an interrogation that had the American assault come three months later, the island would have been impregnable and thus the casualty rate much higher.

The subsequent Battle of Okinawa (April 1-June 22, 1945) nearly a year later demonstrated how deadly improved defenses could be for the invaders, defenders and civilians. There, as many as 200,000 Okinawan civilians died in the prolonged conflagration, perhaps one-third of the entire population, along with 77,000 Japanese and 14,000 American soldiers.

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The Banzai Attack — 0300 7 July

General Saito on the morning of 6 July gave orders to 4,300 Japanese soldiers and an unknown number of civilians to gather and prepare for a suicidal charge which was to commence at 0300 on 7 July. After giving this final order, General Saito in his 6th and final command post, within a cave located in Paradise Valley, committed ritual suicide, along with Admiral Nagumo.

The order for the suicidal charge went out, anyone able to walk, were ordered to attack. General Saito had encouraged the civilians to use whatever weapon they had at their disposal.

One rifleman described it as “a fearful charge of flesh and fire, savage and primitive…Some of the enemy were armed with only rocks or a knife mounted on a pole.”

The advance of the 105th Infantry left them in an exposed position on the night of 6 July. As a result they would bear the brunt of this attack. Added to the exposed position of the 1st and 2d Battalions, 105th Infantry, was the presence of a 500 yard gap in their lines which they had planned to cover with overlapping fire.

At 0300 on 7 July, a tidal wave of human bodies slammed into the 105th and pouring through the gap in the line between the two battalions. One rifleman described it as “a fearful charge of flesh and fire, savage and primitive…Some of the enemy were armed with only rocks or a knife mounted on a pole.” Despite a valiant stand the men of the 105th were unable to hold back the charge and were overrun.

The charged next slammed into the artillery battalions of the 10th Marines. The enemy moved so swiftly the Marines were unable to bring their artillery pieces to bear and deliver effective fire. Hand to hand fighting ensued as the as the charge penetrated through the U.S. lines almost reaching the command post of the 105th Infantry, 800 yards south of Tanapag. This brutal combat continued for 15 hours and finally began to subside around 1800 on 7 July, by which time the U.S. had succeeded in recapturing the ground lost in the early hours of the charge.

At the conclusion of the day the 105th Infantry had ceased to exist as a combat effective unit. Out of 1200 men who were combat effective at the beginning of the charge, 918 became casualties. Of the Japanese 4,311 were killed. This charge consumed the majority of the remaining unit power of the Japanese on the island, and the U.S. turned to a mop up operation on 8 July punctuated by sporadic smaller scale banzai charges. Disturbingly the civilians on the island along with many of the remaining troops took to killing themselves and their families by leaping off of the cliffs near the coastline or drowning themselves in the ocean. Out of nearly 30,000 Japanese troops garrisoning the island, 29,000 were killed.

On 9 July the island of Saipan was declared clear of the enemy, and four months later the first flight of 100 B-29 Superfortresses took off from Saipan, with Tokyo as their target. The battle had been costly for both sides and the final death toll stands at 55,000, making the battle for Saipan one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

Watch the video: Από τον Μεταξά στον Παπαδόπουλο - Η μηχανή του χρόνου