Saipan Showdown: U.S. Marines Went to War To Take a Japanese Airfield During World War II

March 30, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: SaipanBattle For SaipanWorld War IIU.S. MarinesImperial Japan

Saipan Showdown: U.S. Marines Went to War To Take a Japanese Airfield During World War II

An amazing effort that went down in history books.

On board one of the transports headed for the island of Saipan in early June 1944, a battalion surgeon gave a group of Marines a lecture on what they could expect when they reached their destination. “In the surf,” he explained, were “barracuda, sea snakes, anemones, razor-sharp coral, polluted waters, poison fish, and giant clams that shut on a man like a bear trap.”

Warming to his subject, the doctor went on to tell everyone exactly what was waiting for them when they landed on the island itself: “Leprosy, typhus, filariasis, yaws, typhoid, dengue fever, dysentery, saber grass, hordes of flies, snakes, and giant lizards.” The men were also warned not to eat anything growing on the island, not to drink the water, and not to approach any of Saipan’s local inhabitants. After finishing his lecture, the surgeon paused, looked out at his audience, and asked if there were any questions.

After a moment, one private raised his hand. “Sir,” he asked, “why ‘n hell don’t we let the Japs keep the goddamn island?”

There was a very good answer to that particular question, although the surgeon did not tell the private what it was. The primary reason why Saipan was so highly prized and why the U.S. high command wanted to take the island from the Japanese was Aslito airfield, a Japanese air base on the southern part of the island. This was probably the most important enemy airfield between their massive naval base at Truk and the Japanese home islands.

Saipan also had a good harbor, Tanapag, which the Japanese had modernized and improved since the war began, as well as an unfinished airstrip on the north tip of the island. But the primary American objective was Aslito Field.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff had seen the strategic importance of Saipan a year and a half earlier, in January 1943. Saipan and the other islands in the Marianas chain would be invaluable as forward bases for refueling submarines and other warships as American forces island-hopped their way to Japan. But Aslito would be a part of the attack on Japan itself—as a base for the long-range Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber. Tokyo was 1,500 miles from Saipan, within striking range of the Superfortress.

Saipan was also closer to the Japanese base at Truk, which has been described as “Japan’s Pearl Harbor.” Taking possession of Guam, Saipan, and Tinian—the largest of the Marianas Islands—would not only neutralize Truk but would also put B-29s closer to Japan than they had ever been.

The Japanese high command was also well aware of the strategic importance of Saipan and the Marianas and knew that the Americans would be turning their attention to the island chain at some point in the near future. On June 14, 1944, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, commander of the newly created Central Pacific Area Fleet, wrote, “The Marianas are the first line of defense of our homeland. It is a certainty that the Americans will land in the Marianas Group either this month or the next.” He was absolutely correct. American forces would make three separate landings on Guam, Saipan, and Tinian. Saipan would be the first.

By the time Admiral Nagumo made this statement, about 30,000 Imperial troops had been sent to defend Saipan. Most of the troops were from the 43rd Division. Nagumo was sent to oversee the defense of the island. When he arrived, the news he received from the defending troops was anything but encouraging.

General Hideyoshi Obata, who commanded all ground forces in the Marianas, gave the admiral a sobering account of the situation. “Specifically, unless the units are supplied with cement, steel reinforcements for cement, barbed wire, lumber etc., which cannot be obtained in these islands,” he told the admiral, “no matter how many soldiers there are, they can do nothing in regard to fortifications but sit around with their arms folded, and the situation is unbearable.”

Actually, thousands of tons of building materials had been sent from Japan to build up the island’s defenses, but they never arrived; the ships carrying all the cement and barbed wire and lumber had been sunk by American submarines. There would be no more building supplies coming. The defenders would have to make do with what they had.

They would also need all the luck they could get. By early June, a flotilla of American ships—which is usually described as “massive”—had set sail from its bases and was steaming toward Saipan. This task force consisted of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, along with transports carrying the men of the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions. They would be followed by the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Division. Of the eight battleships in the invasion task force, four were veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack: Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and California.

Aboard the transports, the men anxiously concentrated on preparing for the invasion. They belted .50- and .30-caliber machine-gun ammunition, sharpened their bayonets, and wondered what would be in store for them on an island most of them had never heard of.

On June 7, the Marines were given some news that helped take their minds off their own concerns, at least for a while. Half a world away, Allied forces had come ashore on the beaches of Normandy. Operation Overlord began the liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis. Reaction to the announcement varied from ship to ship.

Aboard most transports, the bulletin was short and to the point: “The invasion of France has started. That is all.” On the aircraft carrier Enterprise, mimeographed news releases were distributed to the men. Groups of three and four leaned over each other’s shoulders to read the releases as they came in, and the men shouted each other into silence whenever another announcement came over the loudspeaker. Most of the men throughout the task force reacted with relief and satisfaction when they heard the news, although some responded by saying “Thank God” to no one in particular.

The news of the Normandy landings was as welcome to Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, the commander of the Joint Expeditionary Force, as it was to everyone else in the task force. But Turner had more immediate things to worry about. This would be his fifth major amphibious operation after Guadalcanal, the Central Solomons, the Gilberts, and the Marshall Islands, and he probably knew more about this specialized type of warfare than anyone else. He would be putting all his knowledge and experience to use in the impending Marianas campaign.

Admiral Turner set the date for the invasion of Saipan for June 15, 1944. The landings on Guam and Tinian would depend upon how events turned out on Saipan—the sooner that Saipan could be secured the sooner the dates for invading Guam and Tinian could be decided. The overall operation for capturing the Marianas, the invasion, and securing of all three islands, was given the code name Forager.

While Turner’s expeditionary force made its way toward Saipan, a fast carrier group commanded by Admiral Marc A. Mitcher began a series of air strikes against Saipan and Tinian. On the morning of June 11, a total of 11 aircraft carriers launched more than 200 fighters and bombers against both islands. On Saipan they destroyed more than 100 Japanese aircraft.

Two days later, the battleships arrived at both Tinian and Saipan and began their own bombardment. At Saipan, they kept on shelling until just before the landing force went ashore. To the gunners on board the ships, it seemed that nothing could possibly be alive on the island, not after the pounding it had taken for the past two days.

Battleships, cruisers, and destroyers of the task force began their final bombardment of Saipan at 5:50 am on June 15. Twelve minutes later, Admiral Turner gave the order: “Land the landing force.” On every transport, the chaplain’s last prayers and blessings were broadcast over the ships’ loudspeakers. One chaplain said, “Most of you will return, but some of you will meet the God who made you.” An officer turned to a war correspondent and said, “Perish-the-Thought Department.”

It took until 8 am before the landing force was actually ready to land. Shortly before that hour, more than 700 landing craft filled with eight battalions from the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions started for Saipan’s western coast.

The first of the landing parties came ashore on Beach Red 2 at 8:44 and came under heavy fire almost immediately. A Marine colonel, the operations officer of the landing force, described the scene in his report: “The opposition consisted mostly of artillery and mortar fire from weapons placed in well-deployed positions, as well as fire from small arms, automatic weapons, and anti-boat guns sited to cover the beach areas….”

American warships sailed back and forth off Saipan’s western beaches, firing at inland targets. Others entered the strait between Saipan and Tinian and unleashed their ordnance at Saipan’s southern tip. As the landing craft approached the shore, the defenders began shooting back. The battleship Tennessee and the cruiser Indianapolis, the flagship of Admiral Raymond Spruance, were both hit by Japanese shore batteries. As the landing craft made their runs toward the beach, they came under fire as well.