BREACHING THE MARIANAS: The Battle for Saipan
by Captain John C. Chapin
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Ret)
As the weary Marines finally tried to get some sleep,
all along their irregular line of foxholes, two things were very clear
to them: they had forced a precarious beachhead in the teeth of bitter
enemy fire, and a long, tough battle obviously lay ahead.
Defense Photo (USMC) A412992
The 2d Marine Division
The origins of this division lay in the activation of
the 2d Marine Brigade as part of the Fleet Marine Force on 1 July 1936.
A year later the brigade deployed to Shanghai, China, returning in 1938
to San Diego, California.
On 1 February 1941, the unit was redesignated as the
2d Marine Division. Its component regiments, the 2d, 6th, 8th, and 10th
Marines, brought with them impressive histories of service in Vera Cruz
(Mexico), World War I in France, and the Caribbean.
In World War II, elements of the division served in
Iceland, in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and on Samoa, then
the full division in the Guadalcanal campaign, followed by the bloody
assault of Tarawa for which it was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation,
and on to Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa.
The 2d Marine Division Patch
This 2d Marine Division shoulder patch was worn on
Saipan. Designed and approved in late 1943. the insignia is in the
official Marine Corps colors of scarlet and gold. The insignia displays
a spearhead-shaped scarlet background with a hand holding aloft a
lighted gold torch. A scarlet numeral "2" is superimposed upon the
torch, and the torch and hand are encircled by five white stars in the
arrangement of the Southern Cross constellation; under this the
division's first World War II combat took place at Guadalcanal.
While the thoughts of the riflemen focused on
survival and the immediate ground in front of them, the senior command
echelons saw the initial success of the landings as a culmination of
months of planning, training, and organization for a strategic strike on
a crucial Japanese stronghold. The opportunity for this sprang from
earlier Central Pacific victories.
The Marine conquest of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands
in November 1943, followed by the joint Marine-Army capture of Kwajalein
and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands in January-February 1944,
had broken the outer ring of Japanese defenses and set the stage for
These earlier victories had moved up the entire
American operational timetable for the Central Pacific by three valuable
months. After discussions of various alternatives (such as an attack on
the vast Japanese base at Truk), the Joint Chiefs of Staff had settled
on the next objective: the Mariana Islands. There were to be three
principal targets: Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. It was a daring decision,
for Saipan was 1,344 miles from the Marshalls and 3,226 miles from
Hawaii, but only 1,250 miles from Japan. Furthermore, the islands were
linchpins in the revised inner defense line which the Japanese felt they
absolutely had to hold after their previous losses in the Central and
The 4th Marine Division
Defense Photo (USMC)
This division had its roots in the shifting and
redesignation of several other units. The 23d Marines began as infantry
detached from the 3d Division in February 1943, the same month that an
artillery battalion became the genesis of the 14th Marines and engineer
elements of the 19th Marines formed the start of the 20th Marines. In
March the 24th Marines was organized, and then in May it was split in
two to supply the men for the 25th Marines.
This war-time shuffling provided the major building
blocks for a new division. The units were originally separated, however,
with the 24th Marines and a variety of reinforcing units (engineer,
artillery, medical, motor transport, special weapons, tanks, etc.) at
Camp Pendleton in California. The rest of the units were at Camp
Lejeune, North Carolina. This East Coast echelon moved to Pendleton by
train and also by ship through the Panama Canal in July and August 1943.
All the units were now finally together, and thus the 4th Marine
Division was formally activated on 14 August 1943.
After intensive training, it shipped out on 13
January 1944, and in 13 short months made four major assault landings:
Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima, suffering over 17,000
casualties. It was awarded two Presidential Unit Citations and a Navy
Unit Commendation, and then deactivated 28 November 1945. In February
1966, however, it was reactivated as the lead division in the Marine
Corps Reserve, and it furnished essential units to Desert Storm in the
liberation of Kuwait.
The 4th Marine Division Patch
Worn on Saipan, it had a gold "4" on a scarlet
background, the official colors of the U.S. Marine Corps. This emblem
was designed by SSgt John Fabion, a member of the division's public
affairs office before the Marshalls campaign. His commanding officer was
astonished to find that, when the division attacked Roi islet in
Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands (January 1944), the layout of
the runways on the Japanese airstrip there were "an exact replica."
Saipan represented a wholly new kind of prickly
problem for an American assault. Instead of a small, flat coral islet in
an atoll, it was a large island target of some 72 square miles, with
terrain varying from flat cane fields to swamps to precipitous cliffs to
the commanding 1,554-foot-high Mount Tapotchau. Moreover, the Japanese
considered it "their own territory," in spite of the fact that it was
legally only a mandate provided by the terms of the Versailles Treaty
following World War I. The fact that Japan held the islands led it to
install a policy of exclusion of all outsiders and the start of military
construction, forbidden by the treaty, as early as 1934.
Attacking a formidable objective such as Saipan
called for complex planning and much greater force than had previously
been needed in the Central Pacific. An elaborate organization was
therefore assembled. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance was in overall command
of the force detailed to invade the Marianas as well as the naval units
needed to protect them. Admiral Turner was in command over the
amphibious task force, while Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith
was to direct the landing forces on Saipan and then on the neighboring
island of Tinian. (A similar command structure, but with different
combat units, was set up for the attack on Guam to the south.)
The operation plan for Saipan, code-named Forager,
called for an assault on the western side of the island, with the 2d
Marine Division on the left and the 4th Marine Division on the right.
The Army's 27th Infantry Division was in reserve, ready to be fed into
the battle if needed. While each of the two Marine divisions had
previously fought as a complete unit, the 27th had experienced only two
minor landings (at Makin and Eniwetok islets) for some of its regiments
The intensive training for these three divisions took
place in the Hawaiian Islands with Major General Harry Schmidt's 4th
Marine Division on Maui, Major General Thomas E. Watson's 2d Marine
Division on the "Big Island" of Hawaii, and Army Major General Ralph C.
Smith's 27th Infantry Division on Oahu. As Lieutenant Chapin described
(These) months were busy, hard-working ones. The
replacements that arrived to fill the gaps left by Namur's casualties
(in the Kwajalein battle) had to be trained in all the complexities of
field work. Most of these replacements were boys fresh from boot camp,
and they were ignorant of everything but the barest essentials. Week
after week was filled with long marches, field combat problems, live
firing, obstacle courses, street fighting, judo, calisthenics, night and
day attacks and defenses, etc. There were also lectures on the errors
we'd made at Namur. Added emphasis was placed on attacking fortified
positions. We worked with demolition charges of dynamite, TNT, and C-2
[plastic explosive], and with flame throwers till everyone knew them
forward and backward.
The Army 27th Infantry Division
This division, before the national emergency was
declared in 1940, was a State of New York National Guard organization.
It contained many famous old regiments, some dating from the
Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In World War II, the division's 165th
Infantry had been the renowned old 69th New York Infantry, also known as
the "Fighting 69th" and "Fighting Irish" of World War I fame. The first
unit of this regiment was organized in 1775.
As the war in Europe grew in intensity, the Selective
Service Act gave the President the power to federalize the National
Guard. Thus, the 27th Division was activated by President Roosevelt on
25 September 1940. It was first sent to Fort McClellan, Alabama, for
intensive training, and then, in December 1941, to California.
On 28 February 1942, the first elements of the
division sailed from San Francisco and landed at the town of Hilo on the
"Big Island" of Hawaii. During the next two months, the division units
were scattered through out the island for local defense and training.
That was the start of the longest wartime overseas service of any
National Guard division in the United States Army.
In the fall of 1942, the division was directed to
assemble on the island of Oahu. MajGen Ralph C. Smith took over command
at that time. Then in midsummer 1943, orders came to prepare the 165th
Infantry Regiment, reinforced by a battalion of the 105th Infantry and
an artillery battalion, for an assault to capture the coral atoll of
Makin, in the Gilbert Islands chain. Following a four-day battle there,
in November 1943, the division furnished a battalion of the 106th
Infantry for the unopposed occupation of Majuro in the Marshall Islands
in January 1944.
The final prelude to Saipan for units of the 27th
came the next month. Two battalions of the 106th fought at Eniwetok
Atoll in the Marshalls.
After the division's struggle on Saipan, it went on
to the battle for Okinawa in April 1945, and then to the occupation of
Japan in September 1945.
The final chapter came in December 1946 when the 27th
Infantry Division was deactivated.
The month of May 1944 brought final maneuvers and
practice landings for all three divisions. The operation plan looked
neatly and efficiently organized on paper.
In practice it looked different to that
To us in the lower echelons it was just the same old
stuff that we'd been doing for a solid year: filing up from compartments
below decks to your assigned boat station, going over the side, hurrying
down the net to beat the stopwatch, into the heaving LCVP (Landing
Craft, Vehicle, Personnel), and away. Then the interminable hours of
circling, meanwhile getting wet, hungry and bored. The K rations (in a
waxed box) tasted like sawdust; the weather got rougher and rougher.
Some of the men got seasick, and all of us were soaking wet and
Finally we headed back to our transport and clambered
up the cargo net with a sigh of relief. The next day it was the same
thing all over again, except that this time we went ashore. This, too,
had an awfully familiar feeling: wading through the surf, getting your
only pair of shoes and socks wringing wet, and then onto the beach where
all the sand migrated inside your shoes. A series of conflicting and
confusing orders flowed down through the chain of command: halt and move
on, halt and move on, go here, go there.
The vast attack force now gathered at Pearl Harbor.
Although there were unfortunate accidents to some of the landing craft,
over 800 ships set out in the naval component, some for direct fire
support of the troops, some for transport, and some (the fast carrier
task force) to make advance air strikes and then to deal with the attack
which the landing probably would incite from the Japanese Navy. Holland
Smith's V Amphibious Corps, totaling 71,034 Marine and Army troops,
sailed with some slow elements starting on 25 May. The specialized craft
for the ground forces ran the gamut of acronym varieties. After staging
through the Marshalls, the armada headed for the target: Saipan.
At sea the troops got their final briefings: maps of
the island (based on recent American aerial and submarine photographs of
a hitherto "secret island"), estimates of 15,000 enemy troops (which
turned out in the end to be 30,000 under the command of Lieutenant
General Yoshitsugu Saito and Vice Admiral Chiuchi Nagumo), and detailed
attack plans for two Marine divisions.
Simultaneously, the American fast carriers' planes
began, on 11 June, their softening-up bombing, combined with attacks on
Japanese land-based air. Two days later, the main enemy fleet headed for
the Marianas for a decisive battle. Then, on 14 June, the "old
battleships" of the U.S. Navy, reborn from the Pearl Harbor disaster,
moved in close to Saipan to pound the Japanese defenses with their heavy
guns. That night underwater demolition teams made their dangerous swim
in close to the assault beaches to check on reefs, channels, mines, and
beach defenses. All was now in readiness for the landings.
The bloody business of D-Day was, as the troops well
realized, only a beginning, for the long, grueling fight which began
the next morning.