Saipan is an island within the Marianas Island group. It is 12 miles long and just under 6 miles wide, altogether encompassing around 90 square miles. Following the Spanish-American War (1898), the United States occupied the island of Saipan, a Spanish-held territory, for a short period of time. Subsequently, Spain sold the island to Germany in 1899. Germany administered the island as part of German New Guinea, but there was never any serious attempt to develop of settle the island. Essentially, control of Saipan remained in the hands of its Spanish/Mestizo landowners.
During World War I, Japan was an ally and therefore an enemy of Germany. Japan “captured” Saipan and, with appreciation for their participation in World War I, the League of Nations granted to Japan formal control over it. In time, Saipan became one of Japan’s more important possessions and a place for Japanese settlement beginning in the 1920s. Extensive sugar plantations were developed and the Japanese began to improve the island’s infrastructure—including port facilities. In October 1943, the civilian population of Saipan was just under 30,000 Japanese.
During World War II, the Japanese regarded Saipan as one of its last lines of defense of the Japanese homelands and became strongly committed to defending it. Unhappily for the Empire of Japan, the allied military campaigns of 1943-44 successfully defeated the Imperial Japanese Army in the Solomon Island, Gilbert Islands, Marshall Islands, and on the Papuan Peninsula of New Guinea. All the Japanese had remaining at this point in the war was the Philippine Islands, the Caroline Islands, the Palau Islands, and the Mariana Islands.
General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, did not favor Admiral Nimitz’ mid-Pacific island-hopping campaign. In his opinion, island-hopping was a tragic waste of available manpower. On the other hand, history reflects that were it not for these bloody campaigns, American air power would have been restricted at a time when it served the interests of the United States to pound the Japanese into submission.
After leaving Tarawa, the 8th Marine Regiment was transported to Hawaii, stopping first at Peal Harbor to off-load the wounded for treatment at military hospitals. The regiment then proceeded to the big Island of Hawaii for billeting. Their bivouac site was located 65 miles from the city of Hilo, in the mountainous area between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa (two active volcanoes). It was up to the men to construct their own camp, which they did and named Camp Tarawa. The Island of Hawaii provided these Marines with a much cooler climate than they were used to, but it also helped men still suffering from malaria. In January 1944, the Commanding General, 2nd Marine Division ordered his staff to begin working on a training syllabus that would prepare his men for the next combat mission. Before this could happen, however, the 8th Marines needed personnel replacements and a refit in uniforms and equipment.
Admiral Nimitz targeted Saipan as the Division’s next operation sometime during the summer of 1944. Major General Thomas E. Watson [Note 1] replaced Julian C. Smith in April 1944. Saipan was important to Admiral Nimitz because he judged it as being the key to controlling the central Pacific area. Capturing Saipan would disrupt Japanese communications with the home islands, and provide air and sea bases for the U. S. Navy. From Saipan, the United States could strike at Japanese installations in the Philippines, Formosa, China, and even the Japanese home islands.
Once more, Lieutenant General H. M. Smith would command the V Amphibious Corps. His landing force at Saipan would include the 2nd Marine Division under General Watson, and the 4th Marine Division under Major General Harry Schmidt. Serving in reserve was the US 27th Infantry Division under Major General Ralph C. Smith.
The terrain features of Saipan range from hilly with rolling plateaus in the eastern and Northern region to narrow coastal flats and at some locations, the rocky hills end abruptly in high cliffs that drop into the sea. In the southern and western areas, the island is relatively flat.
Japanese defensive structures, while incomplete, were still formidable. For one thing, the Japanese had learned how to fight a defense-in-depth [Note 2], which is costly to the attacking force. Meanwhile, US intelligence under-estimated the Japanese strength and calculated it to be around 19,000 men. In reality, it was closer to 32,000 and every one of these men were committed to give up their life for their Emperor.
The American expeditionary force began an incremental departure from Hawaii in May 1944. In total, 110 transport ships were required to carry this force to the Marianas. Air and naval bombardments began on 11 June, but by now, particularly among the veterans of Tarawa, few Marines had much confidence in the effectiveness of either source; they would not be disappointed.
The 2nd Marine Division was assigned to assault the beaches just north of Charan Kanoa in the southwestern sector of the island. The 8th Marines, now commanded by Colonel Clarence R. Wallace, would assign 2/8 and 3/8 to the initial landing. As the Navy bombarded the coast shortly before dawn on 15 June, the assault units loaded into LVTs and the tractors aligned themselves for a dash to shore, scheduled for just after 0800.
The Battle is Joined
The command to “land the landing force” came on schedule and the Marines were on their way. As the amphibian vehicles approached shore, they came under intense fire from Japanese cannons, anti-boat guns, artillery, and mortars. Many of the tractors were hit and either sunk or were disabled. Despite these conditions, 8,000 Marines were on the beach in the first twenty minutes. In the confusion caused by Japanese defensive fires, LVT drivers came ashore in the wrong landing zones. The entire division assault group landed 400 yards north of their assigned sector. Moreover, communications with the 4th Marine Division was disrupted. By landing the Marines at the wrong beach, there was an accidental massing of troop formations, and these became easy targets for Japanese gunners.
Both 2/8 and 3/8 moved into the attack against a formidable Japanese defense. At 0950, Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence C. Hays, commanding 1/8 received orders to go ashore. Two battalions were not enough to expand the perimeter. 1/29 under Lieutenant Colonel Tannyhill was attached to the 8th Marines for this purpose. By noon, other Marine units had come ashore and moved inland 1,000 yards. Marines seized the air strip near Charan Kanoa and a Japanese radio station. Within the hour, Japanese were battling to stop the Marines. Heavy fighting near Afetna Point persisted throughout the day. Golf 2/8 overran Japanese positions and captured seven anti-gun boats. Given the close proximity of Marine battalions, many Marines were armed with shotguns in order to avoid accidentally hitting fellow-Marines. Moreover, the shotguns had a wide dispersal pattern and were found more efficient at killing Japanese at close range.
Confusion during the landing caused the 8th Marines to fall behind schedule in meeting their objectives. Making things worse, all three battalion commanders in the regiment were hit during the landing phase. 3/8’s commander was badly wounded by a mortar round; the XO of 3/8 was also wounded. 1/8’s CO was hit with rifle fire on the beach; 2/8’s LtCol Crowe [Note 3] was also wounded, suffering a gunshot wound to his left lung but he initially refused evacuation. While being examined at the aid station, however, a Japanese mortar round exploded nearby sending fragments into his chest, left arm and shoulder, and right leg. The obstinate colonel was forcibly removed from the beach. Command shifted to Major William C. Chamberlin, who also received wounds but continued to exercise control of his battalion.
That night, the Japanese mounted several counter-attacks, but they were weak efforts and more likely designed to keep the Marines awake. At the end of the first day, the 2nd Marine Division suffered 1,300 killed or wounded; 300 Marines were reported as missing in action. The Marines had committed their reserve force and that, along with the number of casualties sustained on the first day, compelled General Smith to commit the Corps Reserve. Major General Ralph C. Smith [Note 4], commanding the US 27th Infantry Division, was ordered to land his division. The division, however, was not fully ashore for another four days.
On 17 June, the tempo of battle increased for the 8th Marines when 1/8 and 3/8 began their advance inland and quickly achieved their objectives; 1/29, however ran into stiff resistance in the marsh surrounding Lake Susupe. Elements of the 4th Marine Division reached the East coast of Saipan on the 18th, which severed the island into two parts. The 2nd Marine Division prepared to execute a wheeling maneuver to move north. The 27th US Infantry Division was assigned the task of mopping up remnants of enemy positions bypassed on Nafutan Point [Note 8].
General Smith ordered V Amphibious Corps to execute a major offensive for 22 June. Both Marine divisions would participate in the attack with most of the 27th brought up for additional muscle. When the operation commenced, 2nd Marine Division occupied the left flank with the 4th Marine Division on the right flank. The 8th Marines made excellent progress until reaching the lower slopes of Mount Topotchau. Here, the terrain became rugged and impeded further advance.
Operations commenced again the next day. The 27th US Infantry Division was now committed to the center of the Corps’ formation. Terrain again slowed progress, but there was another problem. 8th Marines, operating to the right of the Division’s TAOR, lost contact with the 106th Infantry Regiment, which was assigned to the 8th Marines’ immediate right. The Army division’s main attack had been halted in an area that became known as “Death Valley” [Note 5] It was an area with strong Japanese fortifications. The 8th Marines continued their attack, but again, rough terrain slowed their pace.
Colonel Wallace ordered another attack on 25 June: four battalions (including 1/29) pushed forward to achieve the summit. Now under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Rathvon M. Tompkins [Note 6], 1/29 reached the summit and discovered an exceptional observation post. Enemy counter-attacks failed to dislodge the Marines. Below, the balance of the 8th Marines struggled over the challenging ground. Enemy riflemen, afforded good cover and concealment, harassed and ambushed the Marines.
On 28th June, the regiment advanced on three small hills where they met stiff enemy resistance. As these Marines were exhausted, Colonel Wallace halted the push at 1600. The next morning, the Marines executed a series of probes to discover enemy defenses and for the next two days searched for a practical route suitable for heavy equipment (tanks). A path for tanks was found and with their aid two of the hills fell to the Marines. After smashing the remaining two hills with artillery and rockets, the 8th Marines enabled the 2nd Marine Division to proceed in good order to the destroyed city of Garapan, Saipan’s largest.
The 8th Marines, now consisting of the 1st and 3rd battalions and 1/29 made a thrust at Tanapag Harbor. The terrain was wooded but not prohibitive and the Marines made good use of their tank/infantry coordination. On 2 July, a Japanese machine gun raked the entire front of 2/8 and 1/29. Colonel Tompkins fell wounded. He was replaced by LtCol Jack Juhan, the regimental executive officer. The Japanese continued to pour fire into Marine positions. Flame weapons and armor were rushed forward, but the Japanese position could not be defeated. Ultimately, Wallace decided to bypass the position and continue the advance. Fox 2/8 was detailed to remain behind to contain the Japanese. Two days later, the 8th Marines reached the sea. General Smith ordered the 2nd Marine Division into Corps reserve for the rest of the day.
On the night of 6-7 July, 5,000 Japanese launched a banzai charge which nearly overran the entire 105th Infantry Regiment and spilled over into the lines of the 10th Marines (artillery). This bloody fight ended when Marine/Army units were rushed to reinforce the 105th, but not before the Army experienced yet another 1,000 casualties. The cost to the Japanese, however, was much higher: 4,000 enemy killed.
The 2nd Marine Division went back on the line on 8 July to relieve the exhausted 27th and began a final drive against the shattered Imperial Japanese Army. The 8th Marines pushed north and then wheeled inland through the hills, south of Marpi Point, back to Saipan’s northeastern beach. The maneuver was completed on 9 July and the 8th Marines joined with the 2nd Marines, 24th Marines, 25th Marines at Marpi Point. It was here that the Marines witnessed hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians leaping to their death from the rock ridges overlooking the sea. Japanese propaganda had informed these people that they would be tortured and killed if they were captured by the Americans. It was a horrific event that marked the end of organized enemy resistance on Saipan. Mopping up operations would take several additional months, however.
The Japanese lost 23,800 killed in action; US experienced 16,500 casualties (killed and wounded). The 8th Marines lost 300 killed in action with 1,100 wounded. Saipan gave the United States its first B-29 base, from which the Japanese home islands were easily reachable. After the war, Japanese officials acknowledged that Saipan marked the beginning of the end for the Empire of Japan.
Next week: Tinian
- Santelli, J. S. A Brief History of the 8th Marines. Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1976
- Rottman, G. L. U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002
- Rottman, G. L. and Howard Gerrard. Saipan and Tinian 1944: Piercing the Japanese Empire. Osprey, 2004
- Johnson, R. Follow Me: The Story of the 2nd Marine Division in World War II. Canada: Random House, 1948.
- Potter, E. B. And Chester Nimitz. Sea Power: A Naval History. Prentice Hall, 1960.
- Morison, S. E. New Guinea and the Marianas, 1944. A History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001
- Goldberg, H. J. D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2007
- Major General Watson (1892-1966) (sometimes referred to as “Terrible Tom” ) served as a US Marine Officer from 1912-50. He commanded 2/6, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Marine Division, and Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific. He retired in grade as a Lieutenant General.
- A tactical scheme of mutually supporting positions that are each capable of an all-round defense that have sufficient depth to prevent an enemy from achieving freedom of maneuver. Strategically, a succession of defended areas permits the continuation of hostilities after forward areas have been lost.
- See also: The Eighth Marines-Guadalcanal; The Eighth Marines-Tarawa. LtCol Crowe was one tough old buzzard.
- Major General Ralph C. Smith, United States Army, (1893-1998) served in World War I and World War II. He commanded 1st Battalion, 30th US Infantry Regiment, 27th US Infantry Division, and the 98th US Infantry Division. His personal decorations include the Silver Star Medal (2), Legion of Merit, and the Purple Heart. General Smith was a fine officer who unfortunately ran afoul of LtGen “Howling Mad” Smith, his immediate superior at Saipan. The clash caused problems between the Army and Marine Corps that lasted for many years.
- “Death Valley” was a result of the conditions explained in Note 2, above.
- Retired as a Major General. His command experience included 1/29, 5th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, MCRD Parris Island, 3rd Marine Division, and MCB Camp Lejeune, NC. He passed away in 1999, aged 87 years.