Steps to Tokyo
The battle for Saipan was hard-fought and bloody, but capturing the Pacific island gave the U.S. a much-needed base for air attacks against Japan.
On the morning of June 15, 1944, the first U.S. landing boats and amphibious tanks and tractors, loaded with Marines, hit the southern shore of Saipan island, some 1,300 miles southeast of Tokyo. The next day, elements of the Army's 27th Infantry Division landed on Saipan to join the fight.
The battle for Saipan, and later Tinian and Guam, captured Japan's complete attention. If the Americans were to take the island they would not only disrupt the Japanese supply lines, but would gain a valuable staging base from which to launch U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 bombers against the Japanese mainland. Even the radio in Tokyo reported that the war in the Pacific had reached "a very serious stage."
The assault on Saipan ran into problems from the outset. Four days of bombing leading up to the landings produced unimpressive results: Many of the Japanese gun positions remained intact, and their mortar and artillery fire disabled many of the American amphibious tractors as they approached shore.
Still, some 20,000 Marines made it to the beaches that first day and dug in well enough to repel a massive Japanese counterattack that night. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, a scene that would replay itself throughout the siege. The taking of Saipan would be costly.
Two regiments of the Army's 27th Inf. Div. landed on the island the next day, joining the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions for the push up the island.
After eight days of heavy fighting, Marine Lt. Gen. Holland "Howlin' Mad" Smith, overall commander of the ground forces, decided on an island-wide thrust north. The 2nd Marine Div. took the left flank, the 4th took the right. The 27th Inf. Div. regiments were assigned the center of the front.
The land was taken at a high price. American casualties in the first two weeks were reported as 1,474 killed, 7,400 wounded and 878 missing. Nearly 2,000 more Americans died before the island siege ended, and another 6,000 were wounded. Many perished during a last, suicidal Japanese counterattack on July 7.
Japanese Lt. Gen. Yoshitsugu Saito, commander of the island's defenders, knew all was lost when Garapan and Tanapag Harbor fell. U.S. Army and Marine troops had pushed what was left of his forces to the northern tip of the island.
Dirty and weary from 23 days of intense fighting, Saito ate canned crab, drank sake, walked to a flat rock and sat down. Then, after telling his army, "I advance to seek out the enemy. Follow me," he plunged his samurai sword into his stomach and had his adjutant shoot him in the back of the head.
His army, and many civilian men, women and children, followed his lead, first making one last charge at the advancing Americans. When that failed, many committed suicide by leaping from the cliffs at Marpi Point.
The 27th Inf. Div. took the brunt of the initial suicide attack. Some 2,000 to 3,000 Japanese troops rushed screaming into the American lines, overwhelming the two regiments. One soldier who survived the onslaught likened it to a Hollywood cattle stampede, saying that the Japanese just kept coming. As bodies mounted, both sides had to clear away some of the dead to continue with their mission. When it was over, more than 4,300 dead Japanese were counted on the beaches at Tanapag.
Saipan became the staging base for the attack on nearby Tinian, three-and-a-half miles south. Tinian was taken with relative ease, falling in one week with some 1,800 American casualties. A prize catch, Tinian boasted three airfields and a fourth under construction. It became an important operational base for the rest of the Pacific war. The B-29 bomber "Enola Gay" would fly from Tinian to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan.
Meanwhile, the assault on Guam began on July 21, after Spruance was assured that Saipan would fall. The Army's 77th Inf. Div. was assigned to participate. Attacking alongside the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, the soldiers moved northwest across the island. Guam fell on Aug. 10 at a cost of 7,000 American casualties. After the battle for Guam, Marine Maj. Gen. Roy Geiger praised the efforts of the 77th Inf. Div. soldiers.
The capture of Saipan, Tinian and Guam, overshadowed by the Allied invasion of Europe, proved to be the back breaker in the Pacific war. Though mostly a Navy and Marine operation, soldiers helped capture the strategically important islands, speeding a victory over Japan.
Reinforcements come ashore on Saipan.