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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Invasion Of Saipan, June 15, 1944

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Today in 1944, the invasion of Saipan began when two US Marine Corps divisions and one US Army division landed on the west coast of the nearly 70 square mile island. This marked the first Allied attack against an island considered by Japan to be part of that nation’s main defense line in the Pacific.

The Japanese first occupied Saipan, the largest island in the Marianas chain, in 1914. By 1941, more than 30,000 troops were garrisoned there. The Japanese knew that their defensive perimeter would be attacked in the first half of 1944, but Saipan was not considered a likely target by the war planners in Tokyo. The Imperial Japanese Navy had sent nine fleet and escort carriers, five battleships and their escorts further south with the expectation of an American invasion in the Caroline Islands. When the bombardment of Saipan began early on the morning of June 13th, the Japanese task force raced for the island and prepared for a battle.

The two Marine divisions, the 2nd and 4th, landed first at 7AM on the 15th. The next day, part of the Army’s 27th Division came ashore and within two days the combined forces had captured the island’s airfield. The Japanese counter-attacked every night, but they were continually repulsed with heavy casualties.

On June 19th, the Japanese task force met the US Navy in the form of Task Force 58, which consisted of 15 aircraft carriers, 7 battleships, 79 cruisers and destroyers and 28 submarines. When what history would call the Battle of the Philippine Sea concluded the next evening, the Japanese had lost three irreplaceable aircraft carriers and over 600 sea- and land-based planes. From that day forward, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carriers could only serve as decoys and targets.

The Japanese defenders of Saipan soon realized that they were not going to be resupplied from the sea. Even though their defeat was essentially guaranteed, they took up defensive positions in the mountainous center of the island. The area was riddled with caves where the Japanese soldiers would hide during day, waiting for nightfall so they could counter-attack. The caves were eventually cleared using flamethrowers and close artillery support.

Three weeks after the first Marines came ashore, the island was almost completely in American hands. The 3,000 remaining Japanese soldiers made a final suicide charge as their commander, Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito, killed himself. Many of the Japanese civilians on the island jumped from cliffs rather than allow themselves to be captured. They had been told by their government that the American marines and soldiers would kill and eat babies and rape every woman on the island. Some of Japanese did surrender, but fewer than 1,000 soldiers and civilians did so. All told, 29,000 Japanese died on Saipan while the US lost over 3400 marines and soldiers.

The use of both Marine Corps and Army forces in close quarters caused more than a few problems. General Holland Smith, the Marine Corps general in overall command of the operation, relieved General Ralph Smith, the commander of the Army’s 27th Division, over what Smith believed was the 27th’s poor performance. This and other controversies would lead to much post-war analysis and the institution of better inter-service training in the US armed forces.

The invasion of Saipan also saw heavy use of Navajo codetalkers. The codetalkers were Marines, all of them Native Americans, who used the Navajo language as a means of communication between units. Since the language was not spoken outside of a small area in the United States, it served as an unbreakable code. To further confuse their communications, the codetalkers substituted words; for example, a tank might be referred to as a turtle. On Saipan, the codetalkers helped direct naval gunfire with deadly accuracy against Japanese positions.

After they were secured from the Japanese, the Marianas served as a base for B-29 Superfortresses. In fact, the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, took off from Tinian Island, one of Saipan’s neighbors. Today, Saipan is part of the United States Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

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