(Today’s column is an edited version of one from June 23, 2014.)
The world recognized the 75th anniversary of D-Day last week, with ceremonies held once again at Normandy, France. But there is another 75th ‘D-Day’ anniversary: June 15, 1944.
The immediate story actually starts the day before D-Day, June 5, 1944. That’s when an invasion fleet loaded with expeditionary forces, left Pearl Harbor, the site of that terrible day in December 1941. The fleet sailed for a week for the Northern Mariana Islands, specifically its principal island of Saipan. Arriving in the area on June 13, the fleet began bombarding Saipan to soften the beaches for troops to invade two days later. In many, many ways, this was D-Day for the Pacific. Saipan put American forces within striking distance of Japan.
I lived on Saipan during my high school years, 1979 to 1982. While most of my life there was focused on girls, classes and the beginning of my radio career, there were reminders of the war all around. Most notable are Banzai and Suicide cliffs on the north side of the island. At these two places -- Banzai into the Pacific; Suicide an inland cliff just a short distance to the south -- hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped to their deaths rather than be captured by American soldiers.
I also remember abandoned airfields. I don’t know if they’re visible today. If I visited the island now, I would find new reminders, especially one near a house I used to live in near one of the island’s western beaches. American Memorial Park, according to its website, “…honors the American and Marianas people who gave their lives during the Marianas Campaign of World War II. 5,204 names are inscribed on a memorial which was dedicated during the 50th Anniversary of the Invasion of Saipan. Within the 133-acre boundary are white beaches, sporting areas, picnic sites, playgrounds, walkways, and a 30-acre protected wetland and mangrove forest.” The park appears to be literally, across the street from where I lived.
June 15, 1944, 7 a.m. The invasion begins. By 9 a.m., two hours later, more than 8,000 Marines had landed on the island’s west coast. Although casualties went back and forth on both sides, by the next day, American forces had taken the main Japanese airfield. The Japanese counterattacked, but by June 18, Japanese Lt. Commander Yoshitsugu Saito orders its abandonment. It has served for many years as Saipan International Airport, on the south end of the island.
Around the same time, Americans fought Japanese forces in the Philippines, making it impossible for the Japanese to resupply its Saipan forces. Despite abandoning the airfield and, essentially, being routed, Saito took his troops to the top of the mountain that defines the island, Mt. Tapotchau. This turned out to be a sound tactic, at least for a while.
According to Wikipedia, “The nicknames given by the Americans to the features of the battle -- ‘Hell’s Pocket,’ ‘Purple Heart Ridge’ and ‘Death Valley’ -- indicate the severity of the fighting. The Japanese used the many caves in the volcanic landscape to delay the attackers, by hiding during the day and making sorties at night. The Americans gradually developed tactics for clearing the caves by using flamethrower teams supported by artillery and machine guns.”
What came next was pretty horrific, for both sides. The Japanese, down to 3,000 able-bodied troops, with -- incredibly -- all their wounded, surged over the Americans. Two American battalions were nearly destroyed. Three men of the 105th Infantry posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
It wasn’t until July 9, nearly a month later, that Admiral Richmond Turner declared Saipan secure. Within days, the American launched another invasion, this time about 4 miles to the south on the island of Tinian. It was from there that the Enola Gay and Bockscar carried their atomic loads to be dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I have stood on that airstrip, Tinian’s blue skies and green vegetation an odd counterpoint to the chilling reality of what those atomic bombs did. Of course, what they did was end the war, but in a way I doubt anyone on Earth ever wants to see again.
Both American and Japanese military officials at the time, and historians on both sides since, agreed that the Battle of Saipan changed the course of the war in the Pacific and led the way for the end of the war itself.
Saipan and the Northern Marianas Islands are a U.S. Commonwealth, just a step away from a statehood its people will likely never enjoy. The economy is weaker than the rest of the country’s and suffered a nearly 23 percent drop in population from 2000 to 2010. I still keep in touch with many of my classmates, through Facebook, but I doubt I would recognize most of my old haunts.
Living on Saipan changed me. I went there a rather upset 15-year-old, mad at my father for uprooting us so near the end of a school year to a little, not quite 45-square mile island 7,800 miles away in the middle of the western Pacific ocean. I left there, three years later, on my way to college and having already started my first career in radio broadcasting. But I also left as someone who appreciated yet another culture different from mine (Chamorro, made up of the descendants of natives mixed with Spanish conquerors, German and Japanese colonists and, finally, American influences).
And I left with the knowledge that a small island in the middle of the world’s largest ocean, near the planet’s deepest undersea trench, made a tremendous difference for the good of our country’s greatest generation, the nation they served and the world.