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.

As the two leaders of the Japanese garrison on Saipan were committing ceremonial suicide, 3,000 of their followers were poised to strike one last blow.

In the predawn hours of July 7, every available Japanese soldier and sailor gathered at the northern end of the island near Makunsha, a village on the west coast. Even the walking wounded, some hobbling on crutches, joined in the attack. Some were armed with just knives or bayonets tied to the end of long poles. Drinking sake to bolster their courage, the soldiers were ready to begin one of the biggest Banzaicharges of the Pacific War.

The formation split into three groups. One headed for the 3rd Battalion, 105th Infantry, located on the high ground, with the remainder of the force heading for the large gap between the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 105th Infantry.

A Melee of Exceptional Barbarity

Just as the sun rose, the GIs were stunned to see thousands of screaming Japanese hurl themselves at their perimeters. Vastly outnumbered, the soldiers fought bravely. Major Edward McCarthy, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, remarked later: “They just kept coming and coming. It didn’t matter if you shot one; five more would take his place.”

“The melee was one of exceptional barbarity,” wrote Richard Wheeler. “Hand grenade fragments ruptured flesh and fractured bones. Bayonets on Garand rifles clattered against improvised spears as one or the other was thrust home. Skillfully wielded swords lopped off heads, sliced away shoulders, and bared intestines. There was kicking, fist-fighting, clawing, and incidents of strangulation. Men on both sides fell by scores, and the ground became a patchwork of bloodstains.”

The indomitable O’Brien raced along the perimeter among his men screaming at the top of his lungs and urging them on. “Don’t give them a damn inch,” he hollered. Clutching a .45-caliber pistol in each hand, he refused to surrender his ground. When his ammunition was depleted, he commandeered an M-1 rifle and emptied the clip at the enemy. He then leaped atop a jeep and began firing a .50-caliber machine gun that was mounted on it. In all, he killed 30 of the enemy. Unfortunately, a crowd of Japanese surrounded him and struck him down. For his outstanding bravery, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Despite their defiant stand, the soldiers could not hold back the hordes smashing into their positions. The Japanese force poured through the Army’s lines and slammed into the perimeter of the 3rd and 4th Battalions, 10th Marines. The official history states: “The gunners could not set the fuses fast enough to fire so they lowered the muzzles and produced ricochet fire by bouncing the shells off the ground. Those not manning the guns fired every type of weapon they could get their hands on.”

The 6th and 8th Marines were pulled out of reserve and immediately swung into action to reinforce the beleaguered soldiers and Marines. Soon the enemy drive fizzled, but the 105th Infantry had suffered horrific losses. When the battle was finally over, one Marine commented: “You could hardly take a step without walking on a body.”

For the next several days mopping-up operations continued. Pockets of cave-dwelling Japanese troops were eliminated. One Marine officer said it was “just like killing rats.” All organized resistance was virtually gone by July 9, and Saipan was declared secured.

However, on Marpi Point, an event occurred that sickened even the most battle-hardened soldier or Marine. The island’s civilians, convinced by the Japanese that there would be U.S. reprisals, began to hurl themselves into the ocean from the cliffs. So many committed suicide from this point that American troops soon began to call it Suicide Cliffs. Mothers jumped with infants in their arms. Entire families killed themselves by holding grenades to their stomachs. Women crushed babies’ heads by slamming them against the rocks.

“Hell Is Upon Us”

American interpreters used bullhorns to attempt to persuade the civilians that no harm would come to them, and to cease the senseless slaughter. Japanese snipers shot those who hesitated to fling themselves from the sheer cliffs to the coral rocks below. It was a ghastly sight as hundreds of bodies floated in the ocean and washed ashore. No one knows the exact count of the dead, but it was later estimated that 15,000 civilians lost their lives during the battle.

Time magazine stated that Saipan was “one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. military annals.” In the end, U.S. casualties were 16,525 dead, wounded, and missing. Of this, nearly 13,000 were Marines and over 3,500 were soldiers.

“Saipan was probably the worst operation I made in World War II—or the Korean Conflict for that matter,” said 1st Lt. Albert Tidwell, a platoon commander with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines. “For the first 14 days I didn’t have the time nor the water to wash my feet.”

However, despite the horrors of the struggle, the seizure of Saipan ensured that the Americans had a base from which to launch air strikes at the Japanese mainland. Those who were killed did not die in vain.

Repercussions from the fighting on Saipan reverberated back to Japan. The defeat of their army caused Premier Hideki Tojo and his entire cabinet to resign. Emperor Hirohito and other members of the military were visibly shaken. One senior officer exclaimed: ”Hell is upon us.”

Those prophetic words would soon become a nightmarish reality. As one Marine historian would write, Saipan was “The Beginning of the End” for the Japanese Empire.

Originally Published May 29, 2019.

This article originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: U.S. Navy