America's Island Hopping Strategy Depended On The Fight At Tinian:

America's Island Hopping Strategy Depended On The Fight At Tinian:

A squabble between a general and an admiral led to “the most perfect amphibious operation of the Pacific War.”

To the east, the 2nd Marine Division was making good progress until it ran into some opposition. This was soon overcome when elements of the division chased an enemy force into a large cave where, with the help of a flame-throwing tank, 89 Japanese died and four machine guns were destroyed. By 6:30 pm, the 2nd Marines had achieved their day’s objectives and buttoned up for the night. About 80 percent of the island was now in American hands. It was time for the final push.

Major General Schmidt, commander of the Marine force on Tinian, issued an order late on the afternoon of July 30 calling on the two divisions to drive all the way to the southeast coastline, seize all territory remaining in enemy hands, and “annihilate the opposing Japanese.” It was an order easier to give than execute. Waiting in caves and on rugged terrain of cliffs and a plateau were about 500 troops of the 56th Naval Guard Force and up to 1,800 troops of the 50th Infantry Regiment in the southeastern corner of the island. They were ready and willing to die for their emperor in their last redoubt.

To soften up the enemy before the assault, the Marines called upon all their artillery on the island, plus the XXIV Corps Artillery on southern Saipan, to bombard the enemy positions throughout the night of July 30-31. The next morning, the battleships Tennessee and California and the cruisers Louisville, Montpelier, and Birmingham added their voices for a 75-minute bombardment, pausing long enough to allow a 40-minute strike on the enemy’s positions by 126 P-47s, B-25 bombers, and carrier-based TBF Avenger torpedo bombers.

A Marine historian noted, “The planes dropped 69 tons of explosives before the offshore gunfire resumed for another 35 minutes. All told, the battleships and cruisers fired approximately 615 tons of shells at their targets. Artillerymen of the 10th Marines fired about 5,000 rounds during the night; 14th Marines gunners fired 2,000. The effect, one prisoner said, was ‘almost unbearable.’”

The Japanese defensive position was almost ideal. As Marines tried to scale the cliffs and steep slopes of the plateau, they were met by concentrated small-arms and mortar fire. Tanks had trouble negotiating the thick vegetation and minefields and could not climb the trackless slopes. To suppress enemy fire along the beach, the guns of armored amphibians patrolling the coastline were brought into play. At about 10 am, a platoon-sized Japanese beach unit launched a suicidal counterattack against the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines and was annihilated.

The 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines also ran into stubborn opposition, including a hidden, high-caliber weapon that forced them to ground. Sherman tanks were brought up and quickly dispatched the weapon. A well-camouflaged concrete bunker was also discovered, and the 20 troops inside were all killed.

In another section of the battlefield, the Japanese seized a disabled Sherman and used it as an armored machine-gun nest until another American tank destroyed it. 

Late in the afternoon, the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines and a company from the 2nd Battalion finally managed to reach the top of the plateau as other battalions surrounded the base and began scaling the sides. The 1st Battalion, 8th Marines made it to the top by late afternoon, followed by elements of the 2nd Battalion. There they stayed for the night.

Captain Carl W. Hoffman, a company commander, recalled his experiences on top of the plateau the night of July 31: “By the time we got up there … there wasn’t enough daylight left to get ourselves properly barbed-wired in, to get our fields of fire established, to site our interlocking bands of machine gun fire—all the things that should be done in preparing a good defense.

“By dusk, the enemy commenced a series of probing attacks. Some Japanese intruded into our positions. It was a completely black night. So, with Japanese moving around in our positions, our troops became very edgy and were challenging everybody in sight. We didn’t have any unfortunate incidents of Marines firing on Marines … [because they] were well-seasoned by this point….

“As the night wore on, the intensity of enemy attacks started to build and build and build. They finally launched a full-scale banzai attack against [our] battalion…. The strange thing the Japanese did here was that they executed one wave of attack after another against a 37mm position firing canister ammunition….

“That gun just stacked up dead Japanese…. As soon as one Marine gunner would drop, another would take his place. Soon we were nearly shoulder-high with dead Japanese in front of that weapon…. By morning we had defeated the enemy. Around us were lots of dead ones, hundreds of them as a matter of fact.”

Captain Hoffman was a trumpet player and had carried his horn with him throughout the Pacific War. When the fighting died down on top of the plateau, he took the instrument out and began playing some tunes to soothe everyone’s nerves. “My Marines were shouting in requests: ‘Oh, You Beautiful Doll’ and ‘Pretty Baby’ and others.

“While I was playing these tunes, all of a sudden we heard this scream of ‘Banzai!’ An individual Japanese soldier was charging right toward me and right toward the barbed wire. The Marines had their weapons ready and he must have been hit from 14 different directions at once. He didn’t get to throw [his] grenade…. I’ve always cited him as the individual who didn’t like my music. He was no supporter of my trumpet playing. But … I even continued my little concert after we had accounted for him.”

For the next two days, the Japanese continued to mount attacks against the Marines, and although they managed to inflict some casualties, they were slaughtered en masse in the effort. At 6:55 pm on August 1 (the day Ogata committed suicide), General Schmidt declared Tinian “secured,” but a few of the Japanese holdouts didn’t get the word. For the next few months, isolated pockets of the enemy continued to charge the American lines or refused to come out of their hiding places. In fact, the last holdout on Tinian, Murata Susumu, was not discovered until 1953. He was not a soldier but a Japanese civilian working for NKK, the largest sugar company in the Marianas.

It wasn’t only the Japanese who were hiding in caves. As many as 10,000 of the island’s civilians had also sought shelter in them to avoid the fighting and were now beginning to emerge, uncertain of what would happen to them. It is estimated that about 4,000 civilians had been killed in the battle for Tinian.

On nearby Saipan, Marines had watched in helpless horror as civilians, fearful that the Marines would torture and kill them, threw themselves off cliffs. Fortunately, such mass suicides were rare on Tinian, but some civilians were accidently shot dead when they wandered into Marine lines at night. The remaining Japanese also attached explosive charges to groups of civilians and forced them to run at the Americans. Japanese soldiers also pushed some civilians off cliffs.

Keeping his promise to his men, Maj. Gen. Cates’ entire 4th Marine Division sailed on August 14 to its base camp on Maui. During the Tinian operation, it had suffered more than 1,100 casualties, including 212 killed; its next assignment would be Iwo Jima. The 2nd Marine Division, which counted 105 killed and 655 wounded, would remain in the Marianas until the war’s end. It is estimated that virtually all of the 9,000 Japanese soldiers who had defended Tinian were killed, with fewer than 400 being taken prisoner.

Thanks to the work of the Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, 42,000 men and their equipment had been landed across the narrow White Beaches in what Admiral Spruance declared was “the most brilliantly conceived and executed amphibious operation in World War II.” Smith echoed that sentiment, calling it, “the perfect amphibious operation.”

With the capture of Tinian, the Marianas provided the bases the Army Air Forces needed for the bombing of Japan. As a historian wrote, “They were located 1,200 nautical miles from the home islands of Japan—a distance ideal for the B-29 with its range of 2,800 miles. Tinian became the home for two wings of the Twentieth Air Force. Three months after the conquest of Tinian, B-29s were hitting the Japanese mainland. Over the next year, according to numbers supplied by the Air Force … B-29s flew 29,000 missions out of the Marianas, dropped 157,000 tons of explosives which, by Japanese estimates, killed 260,000 people, left 9,200,000 homeless, and demolished or burned 2,210,000 homes.

“Tinian’s place in the history of warfare was insured by the flight of Enola Gay on 6 August 1945. It dropped a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima. Two days later a second nuclear weapon was dropped on Nagasaki. The next day, the Japanese government surrendered.”

In his official history of the 2nd Marine Division, Richard W. Johnston records the reaction when news of the surrender reached the division: “They looked at Tinian’s clean and rocky coast, at the coral boulders where they had gone ashore, and they thought of the forbidding coasts of Japan—the coasts that awaited them in the fall. ‘That Tinian was a pretty good investment, I guess,’ one Marine finally said.”