The Battle of Saipan was a battle of the Pacific campaign of World War II, fought on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands from 15 June – 9 July 1944. The Allied invasion fleet embarking the expeditionary forces left Pearl Harbor on 5 June 1944, the day before Operation Overlord in Europe was launched. The U.S. 2nd Marine Division, 4th Marine Division, and 27th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Holland Smith, defeated the 43rd Division of the Imperial Japanese Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito.
In the campaigns of 1943 and the first half of 1944, the Allies had captured the Solomon Islands, the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall Islands and the Papuan Peninsula of New Guinea. This left the Japanese holding the Philippines, the Caroline Islands, Palau Islands and Mariana Islands.
It had always been the intention of the American planners to bypass the Carolines and Palaus and to seize the Marianas and Taiwan. From these latter bases communications between the Japanese homeland and Japanese forces to the south and west could be cut. In addition, from the Marianas Japan would be well within the range of an air offensive relying on the new B-29 Superfortress long-range bomber with its operational radius of 1,500 mi (2,400 km).
While not part of the original American plan, Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Southwest Pacific Area command, obtained authorization to advance through New Guinea and Morotai toward the Philippines. This allowed MacArthur to keep his personal pledge, made in his "I shall return" speech, to liberate the Philippines, and also allowed the active use of the large forces built up in the southwest Pacific theatre. The Japanese, expecting an attack somewhere on their perimeter, thought an attack on the Caroline Islands most likely. To reinforce and supply their garrisons, they needed naval and air superiority, so Operation A-Go, a major carrier attack, was prepared for June 1944.
Bombardment of Saipan began on 13 June 1944. Fifteen battleships were involved, and 165,000 shells were fired. Seven modern fast battleships delivered twenty-four hundred 16 in (410 mm) shells, but to avoid potential minefields, fire was from a distance of 10,000 yd (9,100 m) or more, and crews were inexperienced in shore bombardment. The following day the eight pre-Pearl Harbor battleships and eleven cruisers under Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf replaced the fast battleships but were lacking in time and ammunition.
The landings began at 07:00 on 15 June 1944. More than 300 LVTs landed 8,000 Marines on the west coast of Saipan by about 09:00. Eleven fire support ships covered the Marine landings. The naval force consisted of the battleships USS Tennessee and California. The cruisers were USS Birmingham and Indianapolis. The destroyers were USS Norman Scott, Monssen, Colahan, Halsey Powell, Bailey, Robinson and Albert W. Grant. Careful Japanese artillery preparation — placing flags in the lagoon to indicate the range — allowed them to destroy about 20 amphibious tanks, and the Japanese strategically placed barbed wire, artillery, machine gun emplacements, and trenches to maximize the American casualties. However, by nightfall the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions had a beachhead about 6 mi (10 km) wide and 0.5 mi (1 km) deep. The Japanese counter-attacked at night but were repulsed with heavy losses. On 16 June, units of the U.S. Army's 27th Infantry Division landed and advanced on the airfield at Ås Lito (which is now the location of Saipan International Airport). Again the Japanese counter-attacked at night. On 18 June, Saito abandoned the airfield.
The invasion surprised the Japanese high command, which had been expecting an attack further south. Admiral Soemu Toyoda, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Navy, saw an opportunity to use the A-Go force to attack the U.S. Navy forces around Saipan. On 15 June, he gave the order to attack. But the resulting battle of the Philippine Sea was a disaster for the Imperial Japanese Navy, which lost three aircraft carriers and hundreds of planes. The garrisons of the Marianas would have no hope of resupply or reinforcement.
Without resupply, the battle on Saipan was hopeless for the defenders, but the Japanese were determined to fight to the last man. Saito organized his troops into a line anchored on Mount Tapotchau in the defensible mountainous terrain of central Saipan. The nicknames given by the Americans to the features of the battle — "Hell's Pocket", "Purple Heart Ridge" and "Death Valley" — indicate the severity of the fighting. The Japanese used the many caves in the volcanic landscape to delay the attackers, by hiding during the day and making sorties at night. The Americans gradually developed tactics for clearing the caves by using flamethrower teams supported by artillery and machine guns.
The operation was marred by inter-service controversy when Marine General Holland Smith, unsatisfied with the performance of the 27th Division, relieved its commander, army Major General Ralph C. Smith. However, General Holland Smith had not inspected the terrain over which the 27th was to advance. Essentially it was a valley surrounded by hills and cliffs under Japanese control. The 27th took heavy casualties and eventually, under a plan developed by General Ralph Smith and implemented after his relief, had one battalion hold the area while two other battalions successfully flanked the Japanese.
By 7 July, the Japanese had nowhere to retreat. Saito made plans for a final suicidal banzai charge. On the fate of the remaining civilians on the island, Saito 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." At dawn, with a group of 12 men carrying a great red flag in the lead, the remaining able-bodied troops — about 3,000 men — charged forward in the final attack. Amazingly, behind them came the wounded, with bandaged heads, crutches, and barely armed. The Japanese surged over the American front lines, engaging both army and marine units. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 105th Infantry Regiment was almost destroyed, losing 650 killed and wounded. However, the fierce resistance of these two battalions, as well as that of Headquarters Company, 105th Infantry, and supply elements of 3rd Battalion, 10th Marine Artillery Regiment resulted in over 4,300 Japanese killed. For their actions during the 15-hour Japanese attack, three men of the 105th Infantry were awarded the Medal of Honor — all posthumously. Numerous others fought the Japanese until they were overwhelmed by the largest Japanese Banzai attack in the Pacific War.
By 16:15 on 9 July, Admiral Turner announced that Saipan was officially secured. Saito — along with commanders Hirakushi and Igeta — committed suicide in a cave. Also committing suicide at the end of the battle was Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo — the naval commander who led the Japanese carriers at Pearl Harbor and Midway — who had been assigned to Saipan to direct the Japanese naval air forces based there.
In the end, almost the entire garrison of troops on the island — at least 30,000 — died. For the Americans, the victory was the most costly to date in the Pacific War. 2,949 Americans were killed and 10,464 wounded, out of 71,000 who landed. Hollywood actor Lee Marvin was among the many American wounded. He was serving with "I" Company, 24th Marine Regiment, when he was shot in the buttocks by Japanese machine gun fire during the assault on Mount Tapochau. He was awarded the Purple Heart and was given a medical discharge with the rank of Private First Class in 1945.
Saipan had been seized by Japan after World War I, and thus a large number of Japanese civilians lived there — at least 25,000.[unreliable source?] The U.S. erected a civilian prisoner encampment on 23 June 1944 that soon had more than 1,000 inmates. Electric lights at the camp were conspicuously left on overnight to attract other civilians with the promise of three warm meals and no risk of accidentally being shot in combat.
Weapons and the tactics of close quarter fighting also resulted in high civilian casualties. Civilian shelters were located virtually everywhere on the island, with very little difference noticeable to attacking marines. The standard method of clearing suspected bunkers was with high-explosive and/or high-explosives augmented with petroleum (e.g., gelignite, napalm, diesel fuel). In such conditions, high civilian casualties were inevitable.
Emperor Hirohito personally found the threat of defection of Japanese civilians disturbing. Much of the community was of low caste, and there was a risk that live civilians would be surprised by generous U.S. treatment. Native Japanese sympathizers would hand the Americans a powerful propaganda weapon to subvert the "fighting spirit" of Japan in radio broadcasts. At the end of June, Hirohito sent out an imperial order encouraging the civilians of Saipan to commit suicide. The order authorized the commander of Saipan to promise civilians who died there an equal spiritual status in the afterlife with those of soldiers perishing in combat. General Hideki Tōjō intercepted the order on 30 June 1944 and delayed its sending, but it went out anyway the next day. By the time the marines advanced on the north tip of the island, from 8–12 July 1944, most of the damage had been done. 1,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle to take the offered privileged place in the afterlife, some jumping from "Suicide Cliff" and "Banzai Cliff".
On 16 June 1944 Gunnery Sergeant Robert H. McCard, a Marine, killed sixteen enemies while sacrificing himself to ensure the safety of his tank crew. McCard was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. The USS Robert H. McCard (DD-822), a Gearing-class destroyer, was named in his honor.
On 25 June 1944, PFC Harold G. Epperson, part of the 2nd Marine Division, threw himself on a grenade to contain the blast from killing members of his squad. For his bravery and sacrifice, PFC Epperson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Epperson's Medal of Honor was presented to his mother in a ceremony on Wednesday, 4 July 1945 in Tiger Stadium, Massillon, Ohio. The USS Epperson (DD-719), a Gearing-class destroyer, was named in his honor.
When his battalion came under attack from a much larger enemy force on 7 July, Lieutenant Colonel William O'Brien refused to leave the front lines even after being wounded, and continued to lead his men until being overrun and killed. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor on 9 May 1945, for his actions throughout the battle for Saipan. The U.S. Army ship USAT Col. William J. O'Brien, which served in the Pacific Ocean at the end of World War II, was named in his honor.
On 7 July, Private Thomas A. Baker's position came under attack by a large Japanese force. Although seriously wounded early in the attack, he refused to be evacuated and continued to fight in the close-range battle until running out of ammunition. When a comrade was wounded while trying to carry him to safety, Baker insisted that he be left behind. At his request, his comrades left him propped against a tree and gave him a pistol, which had eight bullets remaining. When American forces retook the position, they found the pistol, now empty, and eight dead Japanese soldiers around Baker's body. Baker was posthumously promoted to sergeant and, on 9 May 1945, awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions throughout the battle for Saipan. He was buried at Gerald B. H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville, New York.
On 7 July 1944, Captain Ben L. Salomon, the battalion surgeon of 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division aided the evacuation of wounded soldiers. After defending his patients from four Japanese soldiers, he manned a machine gun post and effectively repelled numerous enemy forces to enable the evacuation of wounded personnel. When his body was recovered after the battle, 98 dead Japanese soldiers were found in front of his position. For gallantry in battle, Captain Ben L. Salomon was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in May 2002. Salomon was the third Jewish service member to be awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II.
PFC Guy Gabaldon, of Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, was a Mexican-American from Los Angeles. He is officially credited with capturing more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners during the battle. PFC Gabaldon, who was raised by Japanese-Americans, used a combination of street Japanese and guile to convince soldiers and civilians alike that U.S. troops were not barbarians, and that they would be well treated upon surrender. For his outstanding bravery, Gabaldon received a Silver Star, which was upgraded to the Navy Cross. During the war, his commanders had requested that he receive the Medal of Honor for his actions; however, his initial award was the Silver Star. In 1998, efforts were re-initiated to secure the Medal of Honor for PFC Gabaldon. The effort was ongoing in 2006.
Although major fighting had officially ceased on 9 July, pockets of Japanese resistance continued. In September 1944, US Marines began patrols into the island interior in order to bring in civilians and soldiers still holding out in the jungles. A group led by Rikugun Taii Sakae Oba managed to evade capture for more than 512 days until surrendering to American forces on 1 December 1945, three months after the official surrender of Japan. In February 2011, a film about Oba, Oba: The Last Samurai, was released in Japan.
With the capture of Saipan, the American military was now only 1,300 miles (1,100 nmi; 2,100 km) away from the home islands of Japan. The victory would prove to be one of the most important strategic moments during the war in the Pacific Theater, as the Japanese mainland was now within striking distance of United States' B-29 bombers. From this point on, Saipan would become the launch point for retaking other islands in the Mariana chain and the invasion of the Philippines in October 1944. Four months after capture, more than 100 B-29s from Saipan's Isely Field were regularly attacking the Philippines, the Ryukyu Islands and the Japan mainland. In response, Japanese aircraft attacked Saipan and Tinian on several occasions between November 1944 and January 1945. The US capture of Iwo Jima (19 February – 26 March 1945) ended further Japanese air attacks.
The loss of Saipan was a heavy blow to both the military and civilian administration of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō. According to one Japanese admiral: "Our war was lost with the loss of Saipan." US Marine Corps General Holland Smith said: "It was the decisive battle of the Pacific offensive [...] it opened the way to the Japanese home islands." Shortly after Saipan was taken, a meeting at the Imperial General Headquarters was convened where it was decided that a symbolic change of leadership should be made: Tōjō would step aside and Emperor Hirohito would have less involvement in day-to-day military affairs, even though he was defined as both head of state and the Generalissimo of the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces according to the Meiji Constitution of 1889. The general staff believed it was now time to distance the Imperial family from blame as the tide of war turned against the Japanese. Although Tōjō agreed to resign, Hirohito blocked his resignation because he considered Tōjō to be Japan's strongest war leader. But after Tōjō failed to shuffle his Cabinet due to excessive internal hostility, he conceded defeat. On 18 July, Tōjō again submitted his resignation, this time unequivocally. His entire cabinet resigned with him. Former IJA General Kuniaki Koiso became Prime Minister on 22 July. However, due to the legacy of Saipan, Koiso was nothing more than a titular Prime Minister, and was prevented by the Imperial General Headquarters from participating in any military decisions.
Saipan also saw a change in the way Japanese war reporting was presented on the home front. Initially, as the battle started, Japanese accounts concentrated on the fighting spirit of the IJA and the heavy casualties it was inflicting on American forces. However, any reader familiar with Saipan's geography would have known from the chronology of engagements that the US Marines were relentlessly advancing northwards. No further mention of Saipan was made following the final battle on 7 July, which was not initially reported to the public. However, after Tōjō's resignation on 18 July, an accurate, almost day-by-day, account of the defeat on Saipan was published jointly by the Army and Navy. It mentioned the near total loss of all Japanese soldiers and civilians on the island and the use of "human bullets". The reports had a devastating effect on Japanese opinion; mass suicides were now seen as defeat, not evidence of an "Imperial Way". This was the first time Japanese forces had accurately been depicted in a battle since Midway, which had been proclaimed a victory.
After the war concluded, apologists for Hirohito asserted that the order encouraging the civilians of Saipan to commit suicide for benefits in the afterlife had in fact been forged, along with other incriminating orders. Historian David Bergamini considers this unlikely, writing that "half the staff of the palace [...] would have felt obliged to cut open their bellies if the sacred seals of the Throne had ever been misapplied."