BREACHING THE MARIANAS: The Battle for Saipan
by Captain John C. Chapin
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Ret)
It was to be a brutal day At first light on 15 June
1944, the Navy fire support ships of the task force lying off Saipan
Island increased their previous days' preparatory fires involving all
calibers of weapons. At 0542, Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner
ordered, "Land the landing force." Around 0700, the landing ships, tank
(LSTs) moved to within approximately 1,250 yards behind the line of
departure. Troops in the LSTs began debarking from them in landing
vehicles, tracked (LVTs). Control vessels containing Navy and Marine
personnel with their radio gear took their positions displaying flags
indicating which beach approaches they controlled.
Admiral Turner delayed H-hour from 0830 to 0840 to
give the "boat waves" additional time to get into position. Then the
first wave headed full speed toward the beaches. The Japanese waited
patiently, ready to make the assault units pay a heavy price.
The first assault wave contained armored amphibian
tractors (LVT[A]s) with their 75mm guns firing rapidly. They were
accompanied by light gunboats firing 4.5-inch rockets, 20mm guns, and
40mm guns. The LVTs could negotiate the reef, but the rest could not and
were forced to turn back until a passageway through the reef could be
first assault wave has hit the beach from the LVT (amphibious tractor)
that brought it ashore, and the Marines now prepare to fight their way
inland. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 83261
Earlier, at 0600, further north, a feint landing was
conducted off Tanapag harbor by part of the 2d Marines in conjunction
with the 1st Battalion, 29th Marines, and the 24th Marines. The Japanese
were not really fooled and did not rush reinforcements to that area, but
it did tie up at least one enemy regiment.
When the LVT(A)s and troop-carrying LVTs reached the
reef, it seemed to explode. In every direction and in the water beyond
on the way to the beaches, great geysers of water rose with artillery
and mortar shells exploding. Small-arms fire, rifles, and machine guns
joined the mounting crescendo. The LVTs ground ashore.
Confusion on the beaches, particularly in the 2d
Marine Division area, was compounded by the strength of a northerly
current flow which caused the assault battalions of the 6th and 8th
Marines to land about 400 yards too far north. This caused a gap to
widen between the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions. As Colonel Robert E.
Hogaboom, the operations officer of the Expeditionary Troops commented:
"The opposition consisted primarily of artillery and mortar fire from
weapons placed in well-deployed positions and previously registered to
cover the beach areas, as well as fire from small arms, automatic
weapons, and anti-boat guns sited to cover the approaches to and the
immediate landing beaches."
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
As a result, five of the 2d Marine Division assault
unit commanders were soon wounded in the two battalions of the 6th
Marines (on the far left), and in the two battalions of the 8th Marines.
With Afetan Point in the middle spitting deadly enfilade fire to the
left and to the right, the next units across the gap were two battalions
of the 23d Marines and, finally, on the far right, two battalions of the
Although the original plan had been for the assault
troops to ride their LVTs all the way to the O-1 (first objective) line,
the deluge of Japanese fire and natural obstacles prevented this. A few
units in the center of the 4th Division made it, but fierce enemy
resistance pinned down the right and left flanks. The two divisions were
unable to make direct contact.
A first lieutenant in the 3d Battalion, 24th Marines,
John C. Chapin, later remembered vividly the extra ordinary scene on the
beach when he came ashore on D-Day:
All around us was the chaotic debris of bitter
combat: Jap and Marine bodies lying in mangled and grotesque positions;
blasted and burnt-out pillboxes; the burning wrecks of LVTs that had
been knocked out by Jap high velocity fire; the acrid smell of high
explosives; the shattered trees; and the churned-up sand littered with
"D-Day at Saipan" Watercolor by SSgt John Fabion.
Marine Corps Art
When his company moved in land a short distance, it
quickly experienced the frightening precision of the pre-registered
Japanese artillery fire:
Suddenly, WHAM! A shell hit right on top of us! I was
too surprised to think, but instinctively all of us hit the deck and
began to spread out. Then the shells really began to pour down on us:
ahead, behind, on both sides, and right in our midst. They would come
rocketing down with a freight-train roar and then explode with a
deafening cataclysm that is beyond description.
It finally dawned on me that the first shell bursts
we'd heard had been ranging shots, and now that the Japs were "zeroed
in" on us, we were caught in a full-fledged barrage. The fire was
hitting us with pin-point accuracy, and it was not hard to see
whytowering 1500 feet above us was Mt. Tapotchau, with Jap
observation posts honeycombing its crest.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
That night the lieutenant and his runner shared a
shallow foxhole and split the watches between them. Death came
Slowly, very slowly, the hours of my watch passed,
and at last I leaned over and shook my runner awake. "It's time for your
watch," I whispered. "Look out for that place over there, maybe Japs in
it. Keep awake." With that I rolled over on the ground and was asleep in
Right away, it seemed, someone was shaking me and
insisting, "Wake up!" I jerked bolt uprightin combat your reflexes
act fast and you never go fully to sleep. A glance at my watch showed
that it was almost dawn.
I turned to my runner who was lying against me,
asleep. "Let's go!" I said, "Pass the word to the squad leaders to get
set." He didn't stir. I shook him. He still didn't move. He was dead.
With the callousness that war demands, I rolled him over, reached for
his canteen, and poured the precious water into my own canteen. Then I
left him lying there ....
All the assault regiments were taking casualties from
the constant shelling that was zeroed in by spotters on the high ground
inland. Supplies and reinforcing units piled up in confusion on the
landing beaches. Snipers were everywhere. Supporting waves experienced
the same deadly enemy fire on their way to the beach. Some LVTs lost
their direction, some received direct hits, and others were flipped on
their sides by waves or enemy fire spilling their equipment and
personnel onto the reef. Casualties in both divisions mounted rapidly.
Evacuating them to the ships was extremely dangerous and difficult.
Medical aid stations set up ashore were under sporadic enemy fire.
Marines dig in on the beachhead, consolidating their
positions, and at the same time preparing to move out on the attack
inland. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 81917
As the Marine artillery also landed in the late
afternoon of D-Day and began firing in support of the infantry, it
received deadly accurate counter-battery fire from the Japanese. The
commander of the 4th Division, Major General Harry Schmidt, came ashore
at 1930 and later recalled, "Needless to say, the command post during
that time did not function very well. It was the hottest spot I was in
during the war...."
Members of the Japanese garrison on Saipan pose for a
photograph during a more peaceful time before the Marine landing.
Col James A.
Capt Carl W. Hoffman, executive officer of the 1st
Battalion, 6th Marines, endured a mortar barrage that had uncanny timing
We entered a little village called Charan-Kanoa. We
paused there to get some water. We had been pinched out of our zone of
action. We were washing up and resting when all of a sudden mortar
shells started to fall on us. We didn't know it at the time, but in a
tall smokestack nearby was a Japanese forward observer. He was directing
the fire, looking right down on us. It didn't occur to us that somebody
could be up in that smokestack after all the preparatory naval gunfire
and everything that had been fired into the area, but he was up there
all right. He really caused a great number of casualties in G
He caught us without foxholes. We had that false
sense of security from having been pinched out of the line. We thought
we had a chance to relax. We didn't. So all had to dig holes in a hurry,
and it's hard to dig a hole when you're lying on your stomach digging
with your chin, your elbows, your knees, and your toes. It is possible
to dig a hole that way, I found, but we lost far more Marines than we
should have before someone finally located that observer up in the
smokestack. I don't know how tall the smokestack was, but I would say
probably the equivalent of two or three stories high. From up there he
could see the entire picture, and he really gave it to us.
Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith
LtGen Smith in his command post ashore on Saipan uses a
high-powered telescope to observe his troops in action. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 89883
Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith, one of the most
famous Marines of World War II, was born in 1882. He was commissioned a
second lieutenant in 1905. There followed a series of overseas
assignments in the Philippines, Nicaragua, Santo Domingo, and with the
Marine Brigade in France in World War I. Beginning in the early 1930s,
he became increasingly focused on the development of amphibious warfare
concepts. Soon after the outbreak of war with Japan in 1941, he came to
a crucial position, command of all Marines in the Central Pacific.
As another Marine officer later described him, "He
was of medium height, perhaps five feet nine or ten inches, and somewhat
paunchy. His once-black hair had turned gray. His once close-trimmed
mustache was somewhat scraggly. He wore steel-rimmed glasses and he
smoked cigars incessantly." There was one other feature that
characterized him: a ferocious temper that earned him the nickname
"Howlin' Mad" Smith, although his close friends knew him as "Hoke."
This characteristic would usually emerge as
irritation at what he felt were substandard performances. One famous
example of this was his relief of an Army general on Saipan. A huge
interservice uproar erupted!
Less than two years later, after 41 years of active
service, during which he was awarded four Distinguished Service Medals
for his leadership in four successive successful amphibious operations,
he retired in April 1946, as a four-star general. He died in January
The night of D-Day saw continuous Japanese probing of
the Marine positions, fire from by-passed enemy soldiers, and an enemy
attack in the 4th Division zone screened by a front of civilians. The
main counterattack, however, fell on the 6th Marines on the far left of
the Marine lines. About 2,000 Japanese started moving south from
Garapan, and by 2200 they were ready to attack. Led by tanks the charge
was met by a wall of fire from .30-caliber machine guns, 37mm antitank
guns, and M-1 rifles. It was too much and they fell back in disarray. In
addition to 700 enemy dead, they left one tank. The body of the bugler
who blew the charge was slumped over the open hatch. A bullet had gone
straight up his bugle!
One of the crucial assets for the Marine defense that
night (and on many subsequent nights) was the illumination provided by
star shells fired from Navy ships. Japanese records recovered later from
their Thirty-first Army message file revealed, "... as soon as
the night attack units go forward, the enemy points out targets by using
the large star shells which practically turn night into day. Thus the
maneuvering of units is extremely difficult."