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Saipan and Tapotchau (Fall 2012)

            A popular tourist destination today, Saipan had its dark days. Sixty-eight years ago, one of the bloodiest battles in all of World War II took its toll on the beautiful island. The battle was short and lasted only twenty-four days from June 15, 1944, to July 9. The Marianas Island chain would be of great significance for both Japan and the United States. The capture of Saipan was the key to the Marianas Chain, the Marianas Chain would serve as a launching pad for the United States, and, most importantly, the Marianas Islands were the key to defeating Japan. The battle had a large impact on many aspects of life for both the Americans and the Japanese.  There were many deaths, both military and civilian. The Battle of Saipan would eventually pay off with the end of the war between Japan and the United States.

            Saipan was one of the most important keys that would lead to the end of the war with Japan. “Saipan is one of the islands in the Marianas chain, about 1,300 miles south of the Japanese home islands,” (O’Brien). The main reason the United States wanted to capture the Marianas Islands were their location. The Japanese had airfields on Saipan and the other Marianas Islands, which would help the United States end the war with Japan. These Japanese airfields were major Japanese staging areas for air attacks that they launched. It was the main location of the Japanese Air Force. “The Air Force’s B-29 Superfortress, which had a 1,500-mile combat range carrying more than four tons of bombs, could devastate Japan from these airfields,” (Campbell 60). The combat range meant the B-29 would be able to fly to Japan without having to stop to fuel. The science and technology of this new B-29 had a large impact on where the landing strip should be. The science and technology was a large history force in this battle. The capture of Saipan would also mean the “American Navy could cut enemy supply routes,” (Campbell 60). The Japanese major supply route between their home islands in Japan and their garrisons in the Central Pacific was straddled by Saipan (O’Brien). Cutting off the supply routes would lead to an end in the Pacific War. “The American battle plan called for subduing Saipan in ten days” (Rickenbacker 791). This was not going to happen though.

            The capture of the islands in the Marianas chain was believed to be the shortest route to defeat Japan. The highest level of American command thought the conquest of Japan would be quicker through the Central Pacific rather than through the Philippine Islands (O’Brien). The 2nd Marine Division, the 4th Marine Division, and the Army’s 27th Infantry Division were assigned to the attack. “Overall command of the amphibious landing was the responsibility of Marine Lt. Gen. Holland M. ‘Howlin’ Mad Smith’,” (O’Brien). The 27th Infantry Division was a New York National Guard Unit and was the first infantry division to leave the continental United States after Pearl Harbor. “The invasion force was made up of 535 ships carrying more than 127,000 troops. Naval bombardment was to begin the attack on June 11, 1944,” (O’Brien). The naval bombardment lasted more than three days. The United States attempted to confuse Japan by bombarding both coasts (O’Brien). The goal of the pre-invasion bombardment was to push the Japanese troops back to clear the landing zones in the hope that American casualties would be lessened. Another goal of the bombardment was to destroy the Japanese airfields to make them useless and hopefully hinder Japanese air attacks.

            Since Saipan was only about fifteen miles in length and heavily defended, the United States knew this would be a tough objective to take. The biggest challenge would be “deal[ing] with the island’s 25-30,000 civilians,” (Hughes). Besides the numerous civilians, “[Saipan] was defended by 32,000 troops and a normal component of 1,500 aircraft,” (Rickenbacker 791). The mission pushed forward despite the possibility of heavy civilian casualties. The United States attempted to minimize the civilian casualties by lecturing United States civil affair officers about the peoples of the island. Hughes states in his article “When Soldiers Kill Civilians,” that “the civil affairs officers organized armbands to give to civilians- red for Japanese, read and white for Koreans, and white for others- and prepared to land on June 17th to manage civilians,” (Hughes). The attempt to prevent civilian casualties failed and many were confused with Japanese soldiers and ended up being killed. Rickenbacker states in his article “Salute” that on “June 15, 1944, the first wave of United States Marines hit the beach on Saipan,” (791).  The Marines were met with very strong Japanese resistance. “By the end of the day, the marines had suffered more than 2,000 casualties,” (O’Brien). The Japanese led a strong counter attack against the Marines and pushed civilians including women and children in front of them. The Japanese were trying to trick the Marines into believing this was surrender. The ruse failed and many civilians were killed. The march across Saipan would begin the next day despite the constant attacks by the Japanese throughout the night. 

            The 27th Infantry Division was originally to be a “floating reserve,” (Weider). After the first day, with the numerous Marine casualties, Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, “the commander of the Fifth Fleet and overall commander of the Saipan invasion” (O’Brien), decided to put the 27th Division onto shore. Another reason he did this was to “free up his fleet for impending naval battle” (O’Brien). Admiral Spruance led his naval fleet to win the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which also became known as the “Turkey Shoot.” Each regiment of the 27th Infantry Division was to meet up with different Marine Divisions. The main goal for the 27th Division was to attack up the middle of the island and make their way towards Mt. Tapotchau. 

            Mt. Tapotchau was the “key to taking Saipan and the other Marianas as bases” (Campbell 58). This was going to be the hardest objective to take on the island. The path there was treacherous and the Japanese were ready to attack around every corner.  There were many terrain features that were in the favor of the Japanese. Death Valley was the worst crossing for the 27th Infantry Division. Death Valley, named by the American troops, was a valley completely exposed to the enemy occupying Mt. Tapotchau. The name tells exactly what happened at Death Valley. Many American troops were shot attempting to cross the valley. The American troops named other sites such as Purple Heart Ridge. Other than these terrain features, there were many cliffs, hills, and other valleys that posed a risk for the advancing American troops. The Japanese were hidden in bunkers and caves among the cliffs just waiting for the unsuspecting Americans to walk upon them. The earth and environment was a large history force that put the advantage in the Japanese favor, but somehow they were unable to take complete advantage of it.

            The mission to take Tapotchau was very dangerous and would have given even the best general troubles. Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith did not realize how difficult it was and decided to replace Major General Ralph C. Smith, who had command of the 27th advancing up the middle and most dangerous part of the island, with Major General Sanderford Jarmon. It is believed by many of the soldiers of the 27th that Lieutenant General Smith had it out for Major General Ralph Smith from the beginning. “[Holland Smith] criticized the Army troops for not moving fast enough and for not securing the island sooner” (O’Brien). This replacement of command caused the rival that still exists today between the Army and the Marine Corps. After the command change, Nafutan Point and Tapotchau were declared secure and the Americans pressed on towards the end of the island.

            “June 30 was the beginning of the end for the Saipan battle” (O’Brien). The Japanese lost Tapotchau and were beginning to realize that they were not going to be able to win. The Japanese troops along with the civilians of the island retreated towards Marpi Point, a large cliff, at the North end of Saipan. The Americans had the Japanese pinned against the cliff but knew that something would be coming. All of the civilians who had followed the Japanese troops during their retreat were either forced to or believed that the United States troops would torture and rape any prisoners that they could capture. The emperor of Japan, Hirohito, convinced many of the civilians of Saipan that this is what the American troops would do to any prisoners. Hirohito told the civilians it would be more honorable to commit suicide than to be captured. Hirohito told them that they would have an enhanced spiritual status in the afterlife if they committed suicide rather than give themselves up. The role of this specific individual, Hirohito, was a huge history force. If he had not convinced the civilians of Saipan that Americans would torture them, many lives would have been saved. The civilians followed the Japanese troops still hoping they could win and go back to their respective lives because of Hirohito.

            The Americans knew the Japanese were planning a last stand. The last stand would be the “bonzai charge which [would bring] the battle of Saipan to its virtual conclusion on July 7, 1944” (Worden 26). The Americans had the “most sickening job of butchery” (Worden 26), in the war. “Gyokusai can be roughly translated as ‘breaking the jewel,’ a reference to the destruction of an entire Japanese unit” (O’Brien). The first screams of “Bonzai!” were heard at 4:45 in the early morning. All soldiers, whether wounded or not, were part of the charge. Some carried sticks or stones because there were not enough weapons for everyone taking part in the final stand. The soldiers were joined by many civilians wanting to give their lives rather than be captured by the Americans. The casualties were heavy in the last charge. Only one Japanese soldier surrendered and only after being convinced that he would not be tortured or dishonored. All other Japanese soldiers died in the attack or committed suicide after forcing thousands of civilians to jump over the Marpi Point cliff to their deaths. If the civilians refused, they were killed on the spot. Although the actual numbers of suicide are not known, it is estimated that over five thousand Japanese committed suicide. It is the largest mass suicide recorded by Guinness World Records.

            The losses recorded were high. The United States reported “2,359 killed, 1,213 missing, and 11,481 wounded” (Time). The Japanese losses were recorded as “over 16,000 dead, 1,000 prisoners, and countless others missing in the caves where they were buried by explosives and by bulldozers” (Time). The Japanese death toll is not accurate because many were swept away after jumping over the cliff or buried by their suicide grenades. The civilian losses were the worst with almost all being from suicide at Marpi Point. 

            The Battle of Saipan was very important for the Americans to be able to defeat Japan. Saipan provided the airstrip in which the plane that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki took off from. It is recognized as being the key to ending the war. The losses were great for both sides, but proved the loyalty of both the Japanese fighting for their country and the American troops fighting for the United States. Saipan was the key to the Marianas and the Marianas were the key to ending World War II.

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