How the Battle of Saipan Ended the Japanese Empire

Image Credit: U.S. Military
July 13, 2019 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Imperial JapanAmericaWorld War IIImperial Japanese NavyU.S. Navy

How the Battle of Saipan Ended the Japanese Empire

The tide was turned.

Problems soon developed. Because of the heavy Japanese shelling from Afetna Point and an unusually strong northerly current, elements of the 2nd Marine Division had landed farther north than anticipated. This caused confusion and overcrowding of men wading ashore at the point where Green Beach 1 and Red Beach 3 were located. Soon, a large gap between the two divisions developed.

On Yellow and Blue Beaches, the 4th Marine Division was also running into stiff opposition. Particularly hardest hit was the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines on Yellow Beach 1. The Leathernecks were forced to “hug the beach” as enemy automatic weapons and mortar fire rained down upon them. Also, pointing down at the Marines were 16 105mm, 30 75mm, and eight 150mm howitzers. One thing in favor of the Leathernecks was the fact that the Japanese did not concentrate their firepower. Most batteries were firing independently of each other.

“The Japanese couldn’t hit the side of a barn with artillery pointblank,” Pfc. Sam Stillwagon later remarked. “Now mortars, that’s something else. Give them a mortar and they could put it in your hip pocket.” Despite Stillwagon’s condemnation of Japanese marksmanship, Marine casualties were mounting as the day wore on.

Saito Escapes Death… But Just Barely

To silence the Japanese, naval gunfire was called in. Also, fighter planes strafed and bombed suspected Japanese gun emplacements. Army amphibious tractors carrying the 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines soon appeared and the infantrymen quickly disembarked to join in the fight. Later, one Marine officer praised the efforts of the Army amtracs that led the attack. “They took more than their share of punishment and diverted enemy attention from the tractors carrying troops,” he said.

Meanwhile, Nagumo was observing the ongoing battle from a distant hilltop. As he marveled at the massive U.S. naval display before him, he noticed that several of the battleships being used in the invasion had been sunk or badly damaged at Pearl Harbor by his carrier strike force. The Americans had obviously repaired them or built new ships. How ironic, he thought. Nonetheless, the Japanese officer beamed with pride as he pointed out this fact to one of his staff officers.

Saito narrowly escaped death that first day. As he was speaking at a conference with his officers, an errant shell found its mark. Nearly half the group was killed in the explosion, but Saito miraculously survived the blast. Although incoherent and dazed, he quickly regained his faculties and resumed command of the Army.

In the 4th Marine Division’s sector was the burned-out town of Charan Kanoa. In his book A Special Valor: The U.S. Marines in the Pacific War, author Richard Wheeler describes the terrain. “The undulating coastal lowlands the Marines were facing were made up largely of farms, cane fields, brush patches, and woodlands. The preliminary bombardment had torn up the terrain and blackened it with fires, and most of the farmhouses and their utility buildings had been destroyed or damaged. This area had few heavy fortifications but was amply furnished with mortar and machine gun positions, together with riflemen in ruined buildings, in trenches, in clumps of brush, and behind rises in the fields. The terrain was well suited to defense. Once again the Marines, although superior in numbers and firepower, knew the terrifying disadvantage of having to advance in the open against a concealed and deadly enemy. They had to initiate each encounter by pitting their flesh against steel.”

Too Tired to Remember Their Names

Lieutenant Colonel John J. Cosgrove’s 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines were soon advancing along Charan Kanoa’s death ground. The riflemen came under intense shelling as they moved forward. “One man was brought in with his leg almost blown off between the hip and knee,” recalled Marine Combat Correspondent Sergeant David Dempsey. “The doctor amputated without removing him from the stretcher.” Some Marines suffered from combat fatigue. “They hid behind trees,” Dempsey continued. “And cowered at each new shell burst. Some could not remember their names.”

One of the young Marines wounded during the fight for Saipan would later become a Hollywood legend—actor Lee Marvin. Marvin came ashore with Company I, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines on Yellow Beach 2. “During a firefight there are two parts of the body the enemy can pretty much see while hugging the deck,” he recalled during an interview in Leatherneck magazine years later, “the head and the butt. If you present one, you get killed. If you raise the other, you get shot in the butt. I got shot through the wallet.” The Japanese bullet had severed Marvin’s sciatic nerve. It took over a year in various hospitals before he fully recovered from his wound. Although narrowly escaping death, the Academy Award-winning actor said jokingly: “I received my Purple Heart in a hospital on Guadalcanal. I got a permanent scar on my keister and a check once a month for life.”

Meanwhile, in the 6th Marines sector, the three battalions pushed forward. At noon, three Japanese tanks lumbered into the lines and hit the flanks of the 1st and 2nd Battalions. Soon, Companies A and G were bearing the brunt of the assault. Marines armed with rocket launchers quickly disposed of the enemy armor, and the infantrymen continued their northerly drive.

As dusk approached, all movement ceased and the obligatory order was given to dig in for the night. One private was heard to say: “My father always told me that if I didn’t finish high school I’d end up digging ditches!”

“Tell the Colonel the Kitchen Sink is Here!”

As the Leathernecks ate cold C-rations, each kept a wary eye out for the cunning Japanese. Every man knew nightfall would bring the inevitable Japanese Banzai attack. One officer instructed his platoon to keep vigilant because the Japanese would hit their lines with everything “including the kitchen sink.”

Just after midnight, the all-too-familiar sound of infantry and tanks could be heard coming from Garapan. The enemy was chanting and hollering, obviously drunk on sake as they pressed ahead.

Suddenly, a tank appeared. It came to a halt and the turret popped open. A soldier emerged from the vehicle and put a bugle to his lips to sound the charge. Amid the bloodcurdling screams of Banzai, the horde rushed the perimeter. One Marine private yelled: “Tell the colonel the kitchen sink is here!”

As the enemy onslaught came closer, the riflemen poured volley after volley of fire into their ranks. The broadside was so fierce the Japanese never breached their lines.

At dawn the Leathernecks ventured forward to survey the scene. Nearly 700 enemy soldiers were killed, and their mangled and twisted bodies littered the battlefield. The Marines also came upon the tank that had signaled the charge. The dead bugler was slumped over the turret. One M-1 Garandround had found its mark, going straight into the instrument’s stem and killing the man.

2,000 Marines Dead or Wounded

Despite numerous probes during the night, including one where Saipan’s civilians were in the forefront of the assault concealing the Japanese infantry, the Marines held their ground. They had established a beachhead 10,000 yards long and approximately 1,000 yards deep. But it had come at a steep price. Over 2,000 Marines were either killed or wounded.

Saito, still thinking the landings were a feint, did not order any coordinated counterattacks against the Americans. He did not exploit the large opening between the two divisions, and his local commanders struck the invading forces piecemeal. He had missed his greatest opportunity to deal a serious blow to the Marines.

Also during the evening, Spruance visited Rear Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner and General Holland Smith on Kelly’s flagship Rocky Mount. Spruance informed them that the Japanese Combined Fleet was steaming toward the Marianas and should arrive in 48 hours to do battle. He also instructed them to finish their unloading operations so he could get his transports out of harm’s way and intercept the enemy flotilla.

Nodding in agreement, Smith gave the order to land the Army’s 27th Division. However, the lead unit, 165th Regiment, was “literally thrown onto the beaches” after a “snafu” developed between the Army and Navy on the location of the landing site. Nonetheless, they came ashore and were finally situated to the right of the 4th Marine Division the following morning. Following them, the 105th Regiment came ashore on Blue Beach and the 106th Infantry landed several days later.

McCard Dismantled the Tank’s Machine Guns & Killed 16 Enemy Soldiers

The next day, the 2nd Marine Division stepped off to attack on the left flank while the 4th did the same on the right. As the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines edged into the firefight, tanks were brought forward to assist them. One armored vehicle, led by Gunnery Sgt. Robert H. McCard, was struck and immobilized by a Japanese 75mm howitzer. When the crew was pinned down, McCard told them to run to safety as he covered them. He then dismantled one of the tank’s machine guns and personally killed 16 enemy soldiers. He was killed while performing this heroic act of bravery and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.