World War II: 50 Years Ago: Saipan's Bloody Legacy

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By Col Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret.) - Originally Published June 1944

The Marines moving westward toward the Mariana Islands in June 1944 were about to cross the threshold into a new chapter of the violent Pacific War. "We are through with the flat atolls now," warned Lieutenant General Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith, commanding the Expeditionary Troops. "Now we are up against mountains and caves where the Japs can really dig in. A week from now there will be a lot of dead Marines."

The ensuing battle of Saipan, the first stage in the American conquest of the Marianas, would be the bloodiest challenge to date in the 15-month Central Pacific drive from Tarawa to two Jima. In 24 days of unrelenting assault and counterattack, the Marines, sailors and soldiers of Gen Smith's command would annihilate a force of 32,000 well-armed Japanese soldiers and rikusentai, the Special Naval Landing Forces.

The Saipan invasion was a strategic gamble. The target was a thousand miles beyond the nearest American base, surrounded by enemy airfields, and well within striking distance of the still-powerful Japanese fleet. The costs in American lives and material would be staggering. But victory would bring the Japanese home islands within range of America's new B-29 bombers, rattle the imperial dynasty and shorten the endless war.

American planners knew that no island this close to Japan would be cakewalk. Tiny Tarawa-a half square mile of sand and coral-had been bad enough. Saipan was 72 square miles of volcanic rock, mountains, cliffs, caves. Like Tarawa, Saipan was encircled by a fringing reef, but this time there would be no protective lagoon: The surf would be breaking directly on the reef. Additionally, in the Saipan town of Garapan, the Marines would face house-to-house fighting for the first time since Vera Cruz in 1914.

Some intelligence assessments were encouraging. The Japanese long considered the Marianas as a backwater, administrative center. The sudden fury of the American amphibious offensives against the Gilberts and Marshalls caused consternation. The Imperial General Headquarters rushed reinforcements and fortification material by the shipload to Saipan and Guam. American submarines had a field day. Time and time again, these intrepid raiders interdicted Japanese manis carrying ammunition, barbed wire, concrete and steel for the islands.

The biggest payoff came in the repeated sinking of troop transports. Few reinforcing elements arrived in Saipan with their unit integrity intact. As one key example, American submarines sank five of the seven transports carrying the main body of LtGen Yoshitsuga Saito's 43d Division from Japan to Saipan. While other ships picked up many of the survivors, the soldiers reached Saipan demoralized and largely weaponless-barely a week before the American invasion.

All this submarine interdiction made a critical difference in the tactical outcome of the assault because Saipan was a defender's dream. While Gen Saito followed the same defend-at-the-water's-edge policy which had ruled at Tulagi, Gavutu, Tarawa and the Marshalls, some of his enterprising subordinates began to experiment with defense-in-depth techniques. In some cases they mounted large-caliber, direct-fire weapons in interior caves, covered the openings with steel doors, and camouflaged the entrance artfully.

The Japanese figured the Americans would land on the east coast, at Magicienne Bay, and arrayed much of their firepower in that quadrant. But their artillery officers were professionals. All points on the coastline would be covered by howitzers, heavy mortars and dismounted naval guns.

Holland Smith assigned the veteran Second and Fourth Marine Divisions the assault mission for Saipan. Major General Thomas E. Watson now commanded the 2dMarDiv, replacing MajGen Julian C. Smith. MajGen Harry Schmidt continued his able command of the 4thMarDiv. The Army's 27th Infantry Division under MajGen Ralph C. Smith comprised the reserve. Altogether, more than 70,000 Marines and soldiers would embark for the battle.

The Marines were well-armed and -equipped for this campaign. Veterans of the fighting in the Solomons and Gilberts had recently assembled in Quantico, Va., to make the standard Marine division slimmer, lighter and more lethal. The most sweeping change appeared at the lowest echelon. Saipan would mark the first appearance of the Marine fire team, the four-man element of the rifle squad built around a Browning automatic rifleman. This tripled the squad's automatic firepower; more importantly, it strengthened and decentralized tactical leadership, a critical feature for the chaotic fighting to come.

Each Marine division would assault Saipan with 10 times the number of portable flamethrowers, plus a battalion of Sherman medium tanks, augmented by older light tanks reconfigured with an experimental Canadian flamethrower kit made by Ronson (the Marines promptly dubbed them "Zippo tanks").

The U.S. Fifth Fleet would again take the lead in Operation Forager. The senior leadership remained unchanged since Tarawa: Admiral Raymond A. Spruance commanded the fleet; Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner commanded the amphibious forces.

Operation Forager got off to a ragged start. Mishaps in amphibious training during heavy weather off the coast of Maui killed a number of sailors and Marines. Many more died in the tragic explosion of ammunition among the LSTs staged at Pearl Harbor. The trained veterans could not be replaced, but substitute LSTs showed up in short order. This was a reflection of the gigantic outpouring from America's shipyards and ordnance plants.

Where the Marines had stormed Betio Island with 125 primitive LVTs, they would cross the line of departure at Saipan with 732 amtracs, including brand-new LVT-4s, equipped with rear ramps, and LVT(A)-4s, which mounted a snub-nosed 75-mm. gun in a forward turret. The Americans would need every one of those LVTs. Saipan's fringing reef was indeed a barrier; none of the Navy's Higgins boats would be able to negotiate the combination of shallow water and high surf. Unlike Tarawa, the tide at Saipan would not be a critical factor.

Neither Turner nor Holland Smith wanted to repeat the complicated choreography of Tarawa, where troops had to crawl down debark nets into Higgins boats, transfer into LVTs in rough seas, then endure a 10-mile run to the beach. For Saipan, there were enough LSTs and LVTs to do the job sensibly. The amphibious task force stopped at Eniwetok Atoll to "shoehorn" the assault troops into LSTs, already loaded with amtracs. The rough-riding ships steamed directly for Saipan's southwest coast. Arriving in darkness early on D-Day, the LSTs dropped anchor on line 5,500 yards offshore, opened their bow doors and launched their loaded LVTs toward the beach. The line of departure was dead ahead.

As dawn broke, Navy and Marine control officers in offshore small craft were startled to see small, red flags along the reef. They had not been there the day before. The Japanese, tipped off by the preliminary UDT survey, had placed range markers offshore for their artillery spotters. Meanwhile, the American preliminary bombardment was well underway. Suspected Japanese positions were scorched by a crescendo of fire from the ships' big guns and dive bombers from the carriers. Rocket-firing LCI-Gs accompanied the LVTs and cut loose just seaward of the reef. It was-as always-an awesome sight.

The Japanese maintained good fire discipline, waiting until the LVTs struck the reef line before opening fire. Naval observers, recoiling at the sudden curtain of explosions that erupted all along the line, thought the reef had been mined after all. What they were seeing was a well-orchestrated "time-on-target" artillery and mortar barrage performed by the largely untouched Japanese defenders.

One large-caliber round made a direct hit on the forward part of an LVT carrying the assault elements of Co C, 1st Bn, 6th Marines. The force of the explosion blew several Marines to bits; Lieutenant Paul M. Dodd was severely wounded by the bones from the Marines next to him. The vehicle foundered in the surf, then drifted back out to sea.

Private First Class J. T. "Slick" Rutherford, a Tarawa veteran, manned a .30-caliber light machine gun on the starboard side of his LVT-2 Water Buffalo on the right flank of the first wave. Rutherford found the surf at the reef's edge to be worse than the concentrated fire. The adjacent LVT nosed into a pot-hole crossing the coral; a plunging wave caught the exposed stern of the vehicle and flipped it completely over, trapping many of the Marines underneath. Rutherford's LVT made it to the beach only to be greeted by a hail of small-arms fire. Japanese marksmen shot the LVT driver in the throat. A rifle bullet "whanged" off the side of Rutherford's helmet.

As he lurched in shock to his right, a mortar round exploded on the starboard side which flattened him and killed the troop commander beside him. The LVT crew's mission had been to proceed inland several hundred yards. Now their first job was to limp back to the ship with half the crew and troops dead and wounded.

But the Americans' ship-to-shore plan for Saipan worked. The direct delivery of preloaded LVTs just seaward of the line of departure served to maximize surprise and minimize exposure to the Japanese killing zones along the reef. The Marines lost only 20 of the 719 LVTs employed to assault the beach. Once ashore, however, the story was different. The amtracs were good in the surf, but they were of limited value as infantry fighting vehicles inland. The armored LVT(A)s provided early direct fire support, but they were by no means tanks, and many were blown up by Japanese gunfire.

Even the early delivery of real tanks, the Shermans, did not help the Marines break out of the beachhead that first day. The Marines were ashore in force-20,000 by nightfall-but they sustained nearly 2,000 casualties in the doing, mainly from the unrelenting artillery and mortar fire from Japanese batteries firing from reverse slope under direction of concealed observers in the high ground overlooking the beaches.

Among the Marine casualties were several assault battalion commanders, including the colorful Lieutenant Colonel Henry P. "Jim" Crowe, commanding the 2d Bn, 8th Marines. His landing team had been forced north of Green Beach 2 by an unexpected current and the heavy enemy fire; now a dangerous gap existed between the two divisions. Crowe and his runner, Corporal William "Dinie" Donitaly, took off on foot to reconnoiter the gap and seek a linkup with the 23d Marines to the south.

Instead, they found a squad of Japanese riflemen. Crowe, a distinguished marksman, acquitted himself well with his carbine in the ensuing firefight, but both men were cut down, badly hit. The two Marines consoled each other, Crowe trying to cover the sucking wound in his chest: "You know, Dinie, I don't believe we're going to die." Neither Marine did, but Crowe's ordeal was hardly over. Evacuated to the battalion aid station in "the rear," Crowe was subject to intense mortar fire while being treated. Shrapnel killed the corpsman kneeling over him and wounded Crowe in five places.

The American toehold was dangerous in every corner on D-Day. Both divisions landed their artillery units early to help equal the odds, but the Japanese that first day were looking right down the Marines' throats. Everyone was vulnerable. Then came the night.

Marine Lt Jim Lucas, a veteran combat correspondent, described the anxiety of the initial night ashore. "There is something definitely terrifying about the first night on a hostile beach. No matter what superiority you may boast in men and material, on that first night you're the underdog, and the enemy is in a position to make you pay through the nose." Night counterattacks charac-terized the fighting on Saipan throughout the weeks of the battle.

One of these, shortly after the landing, included the first armored counter-attack the Marines had experienced, some 40 Japanese medium attacks roaring through the darkness toward the beach. The 1st Bn, 6th Marines took the brunt of this assault, but they had a lot of help. LtCol William K. Jones' Marines stood fast, using tanks, bazookas, direct support artillery and naval gunfire to destroy the Japanese tank battalion and slaughter the infantry.

Notwithstanding these fierce counter-attacks, the Marines were ashore to stay. There was never a question of "issue in doubt" as at Tarawa seven months earlier. The only real threat to the capture of Saipan came from the San Bernardino and Surigao straits in the Philippines. American submarines patrolling those narrow seas sent flash reports telling Adm Spruance that the Japanese Mobile Fleet was steaming north toward the Marianas. Its mission: sink the American carriers, destroy the amphibious task force off Saipan.

Spruance did not overreact. He had superior numbers and combat efficiency, particularly in his fleet air arm. But certain measures were necessary to lessen the vulnerability of the amphibs. Spruance directed Turner and Smith to offload the 27th Infantry Division immediately and prepare for curtailed support from the fleet. The amphibs would still dart in to unload critical supplies; the gunships could still return for called fire missions. But temporarily, all support ships would be dispersed.

Spruance then uncoiled the striking arm of the Fifth Fleet, Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's Task Force 58. The result was the epic Battle of the Philippine Sea, which included "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," the greatest carrier battle of the war and a convincing naval victory for the United States.

The Marines ashore at Saipan, typically the last to get the word, suffered a collective anxiety attack to awake one morning and find the vast supporting fleet gone. But unlike Guadalcanal, essential services continued. The amphibious ships unloaded 11,500 tons of combat cargo across the beach at the height of the naval battle.

Gen Saito then knew his cause was lost. There would be no triumphant return of the Japanese fleet, no rescue or reinforcement possible for his beleaguered garrison. Still they fought on, making the Marines and soldiers pay for every dozen yards of advance. Casualty rates soared. The raging artillery fire which characterized so much of the fighting produced frightful casualties. The regimental surgeon of the 6th Marines reported treating "nine shell fragment cases for each bullet wound."

Fortunately, the assault forces had anticipated heavy casualties and were well-organized to handle them. Organic Navy surgeons and corpsmen deployed forward with assault units. Adm Turner provided three LSTs, configured as provisional hospital ships, in a near-shore anchorage. Four regular hospital ships, including USS Solace, entered the amphibious objective area by the third day of fighting. As usual, it was the Navy medical personnel ashore who paid the highest price for this support. A total of 414 surgeons and corpsmen were killed or wounded at Saipan, eight times the number for Tarawa.

One example of this up-close medical support occurred during a counterattack against the 3d Bn, 25th Marines the night of D+4. During the height of the melee, a Japanese grenade grievously injured one Marine, and he lay bleeding badly, his right leg hanging by shreds. Two corpsmen somehow retrieved him under intense fire, but there was no safe place to treat his wounds. The battalion surgeon, Navy Lt Michael F. Keleher, decided to operate on the spot. While his corpsmen held a flashlight, Keleher coolly ignored the firing, and using only a pair of scissors, two hemostats and a tourniquet, amputated the Marine's leg, stopped the bleeding and bandaged the stump. The Marine survived.

The story of the battle of Saipan is unfortunately overshadowed by the lingering "Smith vs. Smith" controversy. In a nutshell, Holland Smith relieved Army Gen Ralph Smith of command of the 27th Division because he perceived the junior Smith to be too passive under fire. The chief complaint concerned slow movement of the Army troops which caused the faster-moving Marine divisions on either side to suffer exposed flanks and loss of tactical momentum. Holland Smith was within his authority to take this drastic action, and he had unequivocal support from both Adm Turner and Adm Spruance. Another Army general took charge of the division, and the troops took heart and carried their load, many fighting with great distinction.

But senior Army officers in rear echelons were furious. It did not matter to them that five Army division commanders were relieved of command during the war; this was the first and only occasion of a Marine Corps officer relieving an Army officer. The controversy poisoned top-level Army-Marine Corps relations for years.

The real battle of Saipan raged on. The 4thMarDiv uncovered Magicienne Bay and turned north into hilly country along the eastern coast. Each piece of contested terrain earned its own nickname: Poison Ridge. Dead Man's Gulch, Back-Break Hill, Death Valley. The 1st Bn, 29th Marines seized the top of 1,554-foot Mount Tapotchau under the inspired leadership of LtCol Rathvon McC. Tompkins. The mountaintop had taken a deadly toll. Earlier, a recon patrol from the 25th Marines under Sergeant Major Gilbert L. Morton had fought almost to the last man to protect their wounded until reinforcements could mount a rescue mission. Farther south, two Marine Corps observation squadrons, VMO-2 and VMO-4, landed on newly captured Aslito Airfield. The Marine aviators provided invaluable artillery spotting and reconnaissance throughout the duration of the battle.

Black Marines experienced their first combat of the war. Members of the 3d Ammunition Co and the 18, 19th, and 20th Marine Depot Companies landed on D-Day to serve with the shore party. Private Kenneth J. Tibbs was killed on the beach, thus becoming the first black Marine to die in action against the enemy in the war. Two more would die at Saipan, and five others would be injured. These Marines earned the respect of their white counterparts by forming provisional rifle squads and helping repel the many Japanese counterattacks. As Time correspondent Robert Sherrod reported at the scene, "Negro Marines, under fire for the first time, have earned a universal 4.0 on Saipan."

Late in the battle, the surviving Japanese troops staged a massive banzai attack, some 4,000 troops screaming out of the night with swords and grenades. Finding a wide gap in the American lines, the human waves penetrated several thousand yards to overlap the artillerymen of the 14th Marines. These cannoneers died by their guns in desperate, close-range fighting. Daylight brought reinforcements and succor, but the slaughter had been great on both sides.

Another horror closely followed the banzai attack. As the Marines and soldiers converged on the final enemy positions near Marpi Point in the north, hundreds of Japanese and native civilians, long brainwashed by the garrison that Americans would torture them, began killing their families and themselves by jumping off the cliffs onto the rocks below. It was one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the war. Fifty years later, the surviving natives still mention the white birds of Marpi Point. Before the mass suicides, according to legend, there had been no sea birds in evidence along the northern cliffs; now these unique birds come there every year.

Victory at Saipan did not end the war, but it shortened it. America gained, in exchange for 16,000 casualties, a solid foothold in the heart of the Japanese "Absolute Sphere of National Defense." Ahead lay Guam and Tinian, then bloody Peleliu, two Jima and Okinawa. But Navy Seabees were already working on Saipan's airfields. Five months after the capture of Saipan, a massive fleet of B-29s would take off from U.S. air bases in the Marianas for the first direct bombing of Tokyo since the Doolittle raid of 1942. With the fall of Saipan, the Japanese could sense the inevitable. The Tojo cabinet quit in disgrace. Emperor Hirohito said, "Hell is upon us." he was prophetic.

For further reading, the author recommends the newly published 50th anniversary history of the battle (Captain John C. Chapin, USMCR (Ret), "Breaching the Marianas: The Battle for Saipan "). For ordering information, contact the Marine Corps Historical Foundation, 1800-336-0291, Ext. 60.