The largest amphibious assault in history began on June 6, 1944, on the northern coast of France. By end of day, some 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy. Within a week that number had risen to a third of a million troops, over 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of equipment.
Half a world away the “D-Day of the Pacific” launched the day before and landed nearly two weeks later, to take the first of three islands in the Mariana group. Saipan.
The “leapfrog” strategy bringing US Marines onto the beaches of Saipan were nothing new. The earlier campaigns to recapture New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, clearing the way for the “island hopping” tactics of admiral Chester Nimitz, to move on the Japanese archipelago.
The Solomon Islands of Tulagi, and Guadalcanal. The heavily fortified atolls of Tarawa and Makin, in the Gilbert islands. The Marshall islands group: Majuro, Kwajalein and Eniwetok. These and more were pried from the grasp of the Japanese occupier, retaken only by an effusion of blood and treasure unheard of, in previous conflicts.
Saipan was different. Captured in 1914, the League of Nations awarded Saipan to the Empire of Japan five years later, part of the South Seas Mandate of 1919. Saipan was Japanese territory, the first not retaken since the Japanese offensives of 1941 -’42. Not only that. Allied control of Saipan put the Japanese archipelago well within range of B29 long range bombers. Control of the Marianas and Saipan in particular spelled the beginning of the end of the war in the Pacific, and both sides knew it.
Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō publicly swore the place would never be taken. This was to be the most pivotal battle, of the war in the Pacific.
We’ve all seen that hideous footage from the closing days. The cataracts of human beings hurling themselves from the cliffs of Saipan to certain and violent death, on the rocks below. Destroying themselves to avoid who-knows-what kind of atrocities the propaganda ministers of their own government, had taught them to expect at the hands of the Americans.
And those were the civilians. The ferocity of Japanese military resistance can scarcely be imagined, by the modern mind. US Marines took 2,000 casualties on the first day alone, June 16, on the beaches of Saipan.
US Army joined in the following day and, for almost four weeks, battled dug-in and fanatical Japanese soldiers for control of Saipan. Fighting was especially intense around Mount Tapotchau, the highest peak on Saipan. Names such as “Death Valley” and “Purple Heart Ridge” etched themselves in blood, onto the histories of the 2nd and 4th divisions of the United States Marine Corps and the US Army’s 27th Infantry Division.
By July 6 what remained of the defenders had their backs to the sea. Crowded into the north end of the island, lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito assembled everything he had, over 4,000 hardened troops, into the largest banzai charge of World War 2.
Banzai as the allies called it after the battle cry “Tennōheika Banzai” (“Long live His Majesty the Emperor”) was a massed assault, one method of gyokusei (shattered jewel) whose purpose is honorable suicide, not unlike the hideous ritual of self-disembowelment known as seppuku.
Imagine if you will, an irresistible tide of shrieking warriors, thousands of them pouring down on you bent on destroying you and everyone around you, each seeking that honorable suicide only to be had, from death in battle.
The evening of July 6 was spent immersed in beer and sake At 4:45am local time July 7, the largest banzai charge of World War 2 came screaming out of the dawn to envelop US forces. First came the officers, some 200 of them, waving their swords and screaming, at the top of their lungs. Then came the soldiers. Thousands of them, howling in the morning’s first light. Major Edward McCarthy said it was like stampeding cattle, only these, kept coming.
The tide was irresistible at first, sweeping all before it. The American perimeter was shattered leaving nothing but isolated pockets, fighting for their lives. Fighting was savage and hand to hand with everything from point-blank howitzers and anti-tank weapons to rifle butts, fists, and rocks.
The human tide advanced some 1,000 yards into the American interior before it was slowed, and then stopped. By six that evening, American armed forces had regained original positions in what was now a charnel house, of gore.
406 Americans were killed that July 7 and an another 512, maimed. 4,311 Japanese troops, lay dead. Three stories come down to us, from that day. Three stories among thousands who have earned the right, to be remembered.
Lt. Col. William O’Brien fired two pistols into the faces of his attackers until he was out, of bullets. Receiving a severe shoulder wound in the process O’Brien leaped onto a jeep and blazed away with its .50 caliber mounted machine gun, all while shouting encouragement to his retreating comrades.
At last even that was out of ammunition. Lt. Col O’Brien was overwhelmed by his attackers his body riddled with bullets, and bayonet wounds. On retaking the position that evening American observers credited 30 dead Japanese, to O’Brien’s .50-cal.
Private Tom Baker exhausted his rifle’s ammunition before turning it, as a club. His rifle butt shattered Baker began to pull back, before he was hit. A fellow soldier began to carry him when he himself, was shot down. Baker refused further aid asking instead to be propped up against a tree facing the enemy with a cigarette, and a pistol.
He was found that afternoon, dead, the eight bullets from that pistol, spent. He was still sitting up against that tree. At his feet, were eight dead Japanese.
Captain Benjamin Salomon was a rear-echelon guy, a dentist assigned to a medical unit. Captain Salomon was treating the wounded in an aid station, when the first attacker, crawled under the tent wall. Salomon hit the man with a medical tray before killing him with a wounded soldier’s carbine.
Ordering the aid station to be evacuated of all wounded, Dr. Salomon covered their retreat with a .30-caliber water-cooled machine gun. He too was found later his body riddled with bullets, and bayonet wounds.
Seven men were awarded Medals of Honor for their actions on Saipan, all of them, posthumous. Among those were Lieutenant Colonel O’Brien, and Private Baker. Dr. Salomon did not receive the medal of honor as his final actions, involved a machine gun. The Geneva Conventions prevent medical personnel from defending themselves with anything more, than a pistol.