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Battle of Saipan: Marines landed on Saipan 78 years ago today

June 15, 2022, marks 78 years since 300 LVTs landed 8,000 U.S. Marines on the west coast of Saipan in the Mariana Islands during World War II. Units of the Army’s 27th Infantry Division landed the next day to gain control of the airfield at “As Lito,” which they secured by June 18.

Prior to these landings, the U.S Navy pounded the island with 180,000 shells of various calibers, the largest 16-inch, fired from 15 battleships and 37 warships over two days to “soften-up” the island, as my Dad would say. Naval aircraft also bombed the island. Despite the pounding, the Japanese incurred minimal damage due to defensive positions the Japanese had created in the many caves.

June 19, the U.S. cut off Japanese supplies and reinforcements in what has become known as the “Great Mariana’s Turkey Shoot,” sinking three carriers and shooting down 330 of 430 planes. The U.S. had decimated the Japanese carrier task force. The battle became hopeless for the Japanese without resupply, but they were determined to fight to the death.

The U.S. had estimated 15,000 Japanese soldiers on the island, but they numbered about 32,000. In the first four days, the Marines suffered 5,000 casualties. In the first three weeks, the brutal battle claimed the lives of 55,000 Marines, U.S. and Japanese soldiers and civilians.

Navajo Code Talkers played a key role in directing Naval gunfire onto Japanese positions. Japanese troops were fortified in caves, hiding during the day and attacking at night. The ravines, caves, cliffs, and hills were a tactical nightmare for the Americans, who soon nicknamed features of the battle: “Hell’s Pocket,” “Purple Heart Ridge” and “Death Valley,” indicating the severity of the fighting. By the end of June, Japanese Imperial Troops encouraged and instigated group suicides, warning of their horrible fate at the hands of the Americans.

By July 7, the Japanese Lt. Gen. Saito made plans for a final suicidal banzai charge as they had nowhere to retreat. At dawn, about 4,000 men charged forward in the final attack, surging over American front lines to engage the Marines and Army. This was the largest Banzai attack in the Pacific War and resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.

In the last days of the battle an estimated 1,000 Japanese civilians committed suicide. Some Japanese civilians who lived beside the cliff, jumped from places that later became known as “Suicide Cliff” and “Banzai Cliff.” The battle officially ceased on July 9, 1944, but pockets of resistance continued under the leadership of Capt. Sakae Oba until surrendering on Dec. 1, 1945. Oba is “The Last Samurai.”

Of the 71,000 American troops, 3,426 were killed and 10,364 were wounded. Of the 32,000 Japanese forces, the US captured 921, the rest were killed or committed suicide along with an untold number of civilians. There are so many heroic stories of Americans who sacrificed their lives there to save their brothers in arms. Lt. Col William J. O’Brien, Sgt. Thomas A. Baker, Capt. Ben L Salomon, PFC Harold G Epperson, PFC Seth T. Garner, just to name a few.

The capture of Saipan put the American military within 1,300 miles of the Japanese mainland, striking distance for the B-29 bombers. Saipan also provided the U.S. with a launch point for retaking other islands in the Mariana chain and for invading the Philippines.

This story is dedicated to U.S. Army retired Col. Allan Wondrasek, Bottineau, whose son-in-law CDR Travis Spaeth, Public Health Service, along with his family, is stationed in Saipan.

Lois Schaefer is State Americanism chairman of the Department of N.D. Veterans of Foreign Wars Auxiliary.

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