As previously mentioned American war strategy in the western
Pacific was developed around the premise that Japan would never
surrender and that the nation would fight to the last man particularly
if the home islands were invaded. It was anticipated that such an
invasion, if it were to occur, would result in the loss of one million
In planning for this eventuality, air bases in the Marianas were
essential in order to accommodate the new B-29 Superfortress, a U.S.
bomber that was just beginning to be mass-produced in early 1944 and
which had a flying range equal to the distance from Saipan, Tinian and
Guam to Japan and return. The B-29's normal range was 2,850 miles at
358 m. p. h. with a 5,000 pounds carrying capacity at 32,000 feet.
Airfields in the Marianas were needed from which to launch air attacks
against Japan in preparation for an invasion of the country itself should it
become necessary. Plans for Saipan's assault were scheduled for June
15, 1944 almost one week after the invasion of Europe.
An armada of 535 ships carrying 127,570 U. S. military personnel
of which 2/3 were Marines of the 2nd and 4th Divisions converged on
Saipan. The ships of the invasion force carried 40,000 different items
to support the assault- everything from toilet paper to government
issued coffins. A single supply ship carried enough food to feed 90,000
troops for one month. Navy tankers transported the petroleum products
which permitted aircraft to consume 8 million gallons of avgas. The
aircraft carriers alone burned 4 1/2 million barrels of fuel.
Seven American battleships and 11 destroyers shelled Saipan and
Tinian for 2 days before the landings and fired 15,000 16 and 5 inch
shells at the islands along with 165,000 other shells of different
caliber. On the second day this force was joined by 8 more battleships,
6 heavy cruisers and 5 light cruisers. The islands were ringed by
American warships with their guns blazing.
Shells rained down on the island, its villages, inhabitants and
defenders gouging huge craters in the sand and coral, splitting
buildings apart in an instant raining flaming boards and debris into
heaps of rubble. Showers of rock and steel erupted on once quite, tree
shaded streets, coconut trees were split apart, Japanese automobiles
and Saipanese ox carts vanished as they were splintered into a thousand
pieces. The earth trembled under the tremendous explosions of naval
bombardment and simultaneous air attacks which filled the air with the
choking dust of earth and the stench of cordite and death. Rails of
track were twisted and bent into grotesque shapes, roads obliterated and
electric poles snapped in blinding flashes of explosions. Caves provided
the only shelter for the islanders against this death rain. Chalan
Kanoa, Susupe and Garapan ceased to exist as communities Their
destruction was total.
The main invasion force landed along 4 miles of beach at Chalan
Kanoa. Twenty eight U. S. tanks were destroyed the first day. The
Japanese positioned colored flags in the lagoon to mark the range of
the landing force and to register their howitzers on the landing force from
locations behind Mt. Fina Susu. Japanese shell fire rained down on the
advancing force every 15 seconds in a deadly cauldron of exploding
steel. By nightfall of the first day the Second Marine Division had
sustained 2,000 casualties. The fighting continued until July 9th when
organized resistance on Saipan ceased. When the fighting ended,
American loses on Saipan were double those suffered on Guadalcanal.
Of the 71,034 U. S. troops landed on Saipan, 3,100 were killed, 13,100
wounded or missing in action. Of the 31,629 Japanese on Saipan
approximately 29,500 Japanese died as a result of the fighting. Only
2,100 Japanese prisoners survived. Fighting between the Japanese and
the Americans involved the use of ships, aircraft, artillery, tanks,
machine guns, flame throwers, rifles, pistols, bayonets, swords,
bamboo spears, clubs, stones and fists. The ratio of battle dead was
9.5 : 1 during the 24 days of fighting. Place names given the rugged
Saipan terrain such as Death Valley, Purple Heart Ridge and Harakiri
Gulch testify to the bitter fighting.
One of the most lamentable events of the battle for Saipan involved
the suicide of hundreds of families, many of whom jumped to
their deaths from the high cliffs at the island's most northern point.
This tragic event continued despite efforts by Americans and
Saipanese using loudspeakers to try to convince many Japanese that
surrender would be shameless and harmless.
The last great aircraft carrier battle of the war was fought in the
vicinity of the Marianas on June 19, 1944 when 15 U. S. carriers
and 950 planes struck a Japanese force of 5 carriers and 550
aircraft. Before the day was over the Battle For The Philippine
Sea, (The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot) saw the Japanese lose 240
planes and the carriers Taiho and Shokaku as opposed to American
losses of 29 planes and damage to the battleship South Dakota.
Saipan provided the United States military with its first opportunity
to learn about military occupation of enemy territory with a Japanese
civilian population. Civilians encountered during the period of the
battle and afterward, while emergency conditions still prevailed,
were placed in secure camps to keep them out of the way of the
fighting. Thus assembled, the U. S. military could better meet their
basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Schools
were established as soon as conditions permitted. In September,
1945 the camps housed 13,954 Japanese, 1,411 Koreans, 2,966
Chamorros and 1,025 Carolinians.
Within a two square mile area near Lake Susupe life in the compound
was primitive and only the bare necessities were provided. Weathered
boards, tattered tents and battered tin sheets from the bombed out
sugar refinery provided the only shelter from the weather. Each hut
(han) accommodated from 20 to 55 people. After the fighting, families
were released from Camp Susupe during the day to cultivate vegetables
since food was scarce.Food production was increased from 79,469
pounds of produce in September, 1944 to 286,029 pounds in September,
1945. The camp also had a makeshift Buddhist temple where Shinto
religious ceremonies were held. Release from these camps is celebrated
as "Liberation Day" every July 4th.
The Japanese on Saipan had a high birth rate - about 300 babies per
1,000 women aged 15 to 45 and there were many orphans attended by
Japanese nurses. These were the children that remained after thousands
of Japanese along with some of the children committed suicide.
After the capture of Saipan the fighting continued elsewhere in the
Pacific for another 13 months. Camps on Tinian were constructed to
house 50,000 U.S. troops and 1.2 million pounds of crops were
produced all of which was consumed on the island. On August 6, 1945
an American Superfortress flying from Tinian dropped the first atomic
bomb on Hiroshima which hastened Japan's surrender. The war ended
with Japan's surrender on August 15, 1945 but it was not until December
1, 1945 that the final surrender on Saipan took place when Army Captain
Sakeo Oba , leading 46 of his men all of whom had continued to hold
out in the mountains as guerrillas, finally surrendered his Samuri sword
to Major Herman Lewis and Colonel Scott, USMC.
Rota was one of the islands which had been bypassed. It was not
occupied until after V-J day, (Victory Over Japan). About 90 percent of
the civilian population on Saipan survived the war. This included Korean,
Okinawans and Japanese who were repatriated to their respective
homelands after the war. As recorded on December 31, 1949 the
indigenous population of Saipan was 6,225. In 1937 23,658 persons
had inhabited Saipan (4,145 were indigenous). The total population of
the Northern Marianas at that time was 46,708.
Tinian, once a somnolent, obscure, little-known island within the
Marianas chain, has the somber distinction of being forever linked to
the destruction of Hiroshima and the death of 80,000 people in the flash
of an instant. Leaflets had been dropped by the Americans two days
before the bomb was detonated warning the people to evacuate the city
as a heavy attack from the air was imminent. Sixty percent of the city
was destroyed when an uranium fission weapon with a yield equivalent to
13,000 tons of T.N.T. (equal to 650 conventional "block buster" bombs
each filled with 20 tons of T.N.T.) was dropped from the American B-29,
Enola Gay based at Tinian.
For many years following the conclusion of hostilities, and extending
into the decade of the 80's, Japanese returned to the Northern
Marianas to collect the bones of fallen soldiers and civilians alike -
many from the base of Suicide Cliff - for cremation at religious
ceremonies and honorable burial.
As an interesting footnote to history the last formal surrender of
World War Two occurred in the Northern Marianas. On June 30, 1951,
18 Japanese castaways on Anatahan, all survivors of a convoy sunk on
June 12, 1944, finally surrendered to Lt. Commander James B. Johnson
U.S.N. five years and 8 months after the conclusion of hostilities.
Today, what little World War Two equipment remains after being
collected and sold for scrap after the war is protected by law because
of its historical value. Lying below the surface of a lagoon once
congested with landing craft and ships of all type are the coral
encrusted tools of war. Rifles, helmets, bullets, tanks, ships and
landing craft litter the sandy lagoon floor as if in an underwater time
capsule in silent testimony to one of the last battles fought in a
pre-nuclear age. more than fifty years after the invasion the accidental
detonation of live ordnance still results in the occasional death of an
unsuspecting island inhabitant. Discoveries of unexploded bombs and
shells should not, under any circumstances, be touched - but reported
immediately to the authorities for removal by a special bomb disposal unit .
Photos courtesy of: