World War II Battle of Saipan was fought from June 15 thru July 9, 1944. Part of the Pacific campaign, the bombardment of this island began two days prior when fifteen battleships unleashed 165,000 shells. The ships maintained a distance of 10,000 yards or more in order to avoid any minefields.
Troops began to land on June 15th a 0700. Within two hours, 8,000 Marines and 300 LVTs would embark upon the shores of Saipan covered by 11 fire support ships. Despite the strategic planning of the Japanese to maximize US casualties, the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions had still managed to secure a beachhead of 6 miles wide and approximately ½ mile deep by nightfall. That evening, the Japanese launched a counter attack, but experienced heavy losses. The following day – June 16, 1944 – units from the US Army’s 27th Infantry Division landed on Saipan and began advancing towards the airfield (which is now the Saipan Inter’l Airport). Despite another night time Japanese counter-attack, on June 18th Japanese Commander Yoshitsugu Saito deserted the airfield.
Initially, the Japanese high command had anticipated an attack, but further to the south. Japan’s Navy commander-in-chief Admiral Toyoda, planned a force attack on the US Navy forces positioned around Saipan. On June 15th, Toyoda issued the attack order and the battle of the Philippine Sea ensued. The result, however, was disastrous for the Imperial Japanese Navy. In addition to three aircraft carriers, the Japanese Navy also lost hundreds of planes. This meant they had no hope of being resupplied or getting reinforcements.
Without additional supplies, the Japanese were doomed, but remained determined to fight until the last man was gone. Japan’s General Saito anchored a line of troops along Mt. Tapotchau. Despite the use of the volcanic landscape and caves to hold off their attackers during the day so they could attack at night, the Americans eventually developed tactics using flamethrower teams, supported by artillery and machine guns, to clear the caves and surrounding terrain.
Meanwhile, controversy over the performance of 27th Division persuaded USMC General Holland Smith to relieve the commander of the division – army Major General Ralph Smith. But when General Holland Smith began to advance the troops over terrain he had not yet inspected, the result was heavy casualties. Eventually a plan previously developed by relieved General Ralph Smith was successfully implemented. One battalion held the area allowing two more to successfully flank the Japanese.
At the beginning of July, with no place to retreat, Saito planned a final suicidal banzai charge with no regard to the fate of the civilians that remained. He felt at that point there was no distinction between civilians and troops. He thought the civilians would be better off to join the attack, even if just armed with bamboo spears, than to be captured by the Americans.
The attack began on July 7th at dawn with 3,000 US troops moving forward. Though the Japanese managed to surge over the American front lines, the two battalions (1st and 2nd of the 105th Infantry Regiment) along with some additional support, managed to overcome the Japanese leaving more than 4,300 of them dead. In all, the Japanese lost more than 30,000 men. Despite being victorious, the Americans sustained a loss that is still the most costly in history to date – of the 71,000 men who landed, 2,949 were dead and another 10,464 were wounded.
Civilian casualties were also high as a result of this battle. Because the island had been seized by Japan after WWI, it is believed that 25,000 or more of the citizens of the island were Japanese. Japan’s emperor, Hirohito, was disturbed by the possibility of Japanese civilians defecting. By the end of June, he sent a message to all the civilians Saipan encouraging them to commit suicide. Despite the message being intercepted by General Tojo, the order was sent out on June 30th and the civilians were promised a spiritual status equal to that of the troops who died in battle. Before the marines reached the north tip of the island in mid-July, an estimated 1,000 Japanese civilians had committed suicide –many of them jumping off what became known as ‘Suicide Cliff’ and ‘Banzai Cliff’. They were, however, able to reach some of the citizens.
After the Battle
Small pockets of fighting continued even after the battle of Saipan ended on July 9th. Small groups continued to evade capture – some holding out for as long as 512 additional days, taking their surrender three months beyond the official WWII surrender of Japan.
The Battle of Saipan proved to be a beneficial victory giving the United States an important strategic position – striking distance of the Japanese mainland. From this point forward, the US would use Saipan as a launching point to retake other islands in the Mariana chain. It would also prove strategic for the invasion of the Philippines in October of 1944 as well as a launching pad for B-29 aircraft, which would begin to regularly attack the Japanese mainland, the Philippines and the Ryukyu Islands. Though the Japanese retaliated with aircraft attacks on both Saipan and Tinian from November of 1944 through January of 1945, the World War II US victory capturing Iwo Jima ended any further air attacks by the Japanese. A