BREACHING THE MARIANAS: The Battle for Saipan
by Captain John C. Chapin
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Ret)
D+20D+23, 58 July
Any Japanese "withdrawal" meant that some of their
men were left behind in caves to fight to the death. This tactic
produced again and again for the American troops the life-threatening
question of whether there were civilians hidden inside who should be
saved. There was a typical grim episode at this time for First
Lieutenant Frederic A. Stott, in the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines:
On this twenty-first day of the battle we trudged
along a circuitous route to relieve the 23d Marines for an attack
scheduled for 1300. A normal artillery preparation preceded it, followed
by the morale-lifting rockets, but neither they nor mortar fire could
eliminate many cave-dwelling Japs. And again the cost was heavy. Using
civilian men, women, and children as decoys, the Jap soldiers managed to
entice a volunteer patrol forward into the open to collect additional
civilian prisoners. A dozen men from A Company were riddled as the ruse
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
This kind of treacherous action by the Japanese was
demonstrated in a different form on the following day (D+21). Lieutenant
Colonel Chambers described how he dealt summarily with itand, by
contrast how his men treated genuine civilians who had been hiding:
. . . . a few of the Japs had played possum by
smearing blood of other Japs on themselves and lying still as the
Marines came up. However, within the battalion my instructions were "if
it didn't stink, stick it." [My officer] just laughed and said the
Marines had bayoneted all the bodies. You had to do it!
We also picked up several civilian prisoners,
including some women and children. The thing that really got to me was
watching these boys of mine; they'd take all kinds of risks; they'd go
into a cave never knowing whether there would be soldiers in there, to
bring out these civilians. The minute they got them out, they began to
feed them, give them part of their rations, and offer their cigarettes
to the men. It made you feel proud of the boys for doing this.
Once the 2d Marine Division became corps reserve, it
was obvious to General Smith that the time was ripe for a banzai attack.
He duly warned all units to be alert, and paid a personal visit on 6
July to General Griner, of the 27th Infantry Division, to stress the
likelihood of an attack coming down the coastline on the flat ground of
the Tanapag Plain.
General Saito was now cornered in his sixth (and
last) command post, a miserable cave in Paradise Valley north of
Tanapag. The valley was constantly raked by American artillery and naval
gunfire; he had left only fragmentary remnants of his troops; he was
himself sick, hungry, and wounded. After giving orders for one last
fanatical banzai charge, he decided to commit hara-kiri in his cave. At
10a.m. on 6 July, facing east and crying "Tenno Haika! Banzai! [Long
live the Emperor! Ten thousand ages!]," he drew his own blood first with
his own sword and then his adjutant shot him and Admiral Nagumo in the
head with a pistol, but not before he said, "I will meet my staff in
Yasakuni Shrine 3 a.m., 7 July!" This was to be the time ordered for the
commencement of the final attack.
salvo from the truck-mounted rockets was a welcome prelude to any Marine
attack. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 88403
Medal of Honor Recipients
Harold Christ Agerholm
Private First Class Harold
Christ Agerholm was born on 29 January 1925, in Racine, Wisconsin. "For
conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and
beyond the call of duty while serving with the Fourth Battalion, Tenth
Marines, Second Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces
on Saipan, Marianas Islands, 7 July 1944. When the enemy launched a
fierce, determined counterattack against our positions and overran a
neighboring artillery battalion, Private First Class Agerholm
immediately volunteered to assist in the effort to check the hostile
attack and evacuate our wounded. Locating and appropriating an abandoned
ambulance jeep, he repeatedly made extremely perilous trips under heavy
rifle and mortar fire and single-hand edly loaded and evacuated
approximately 45 casualties, working tirelessly and with utter disregard
for his own safety during a grueling period of more than 3 hours.
Despite intense, persistent enemy fire, he ran out to aid two men whom
he believed to be wounded Marines, but was himself mortally wounded by a
Japanese sniper while carrying out his hazardous mission. Private First
Class Agerholm's brilliant initiative, great personal valor and
self-sacrificing efforts in the face of almost certain death reflect the
highest credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service. He
gallantly gave his life for his country.
Harold Glenn Epperson
Private First Class Harold
Glenn Epperson was born on 14 July 1923, in Akron, Ohio. "For
conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and
beyond the call of duty while serving with the First Battalion, Sixth
Marines, Second Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces
on the Island of Saipan in the Marianas, on 25 June 1944. With his
machine-gun emplacement bearing the full brunt of a fanatic assault
initiated by the Japanese under cover of predawn darkness, Private First
Class Epperson manned his weapon with determined aggressiveness,
fighting furiously in the defense of his battalion's position and
maintaining a steady stream of devastating fire against rapidly
infiltrating hostile troops to aid . . . in breaking the abortive
attack. Suddenly a Japanese soldier, assumed to be dead, sprang up and
hurled a powerful hand grenade into the emplacement. Determined to save
his comrades, Private First Class Epperson unhesitatingly chose to
sacrifice himself and, diving upon the deadly missile, absorbed the
shattering violence of the exploding charge in his own body
Stout-hearted and indomitable in the face of certain death, Private
First Class Epperson fearlessly yielded his own life that his able
comrades might carry on . . . . His superb valor and unfaltering
devotion to duty throughout reflect the highest credit upon himself and
upon the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his
Grant Frederick Timmerman
Sergeant Grant Frederick Timmerman was born on 14
February 1919, in Americus, Kansas. "For conspicuous gallantry and
intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as
Tank Commander serving with the Second Battalion, Sixth Marines, Second
Marine Division, during action against enemy Japanese forces on Saipan,
Marianas Islands, on 8 July 1944. Advancing with his tank a few yards
ahead of the infantry in support of a vigorous attack on hostile
positions, Sergeant Timmerman maintained steady fire from his
antiaircraft sky mount machine gun until progress was impeded by a
series of enemy trenches and pillboxes. Observing a target of
opportunity he immediately ordered the tank stopped and, mindful of the
danger from the muzzle blast as he prepared to open fire with the 75mm,
fearlessly stood up in the exposed turret and ordered the infantry to
hit the deck. Quick to act as a grenade, hurled by the Japanese, was
about to drop into the open turret hatch, Sergeant Timmerman
unhesitatingly blocked the opening with his body holding the grenade
against his chest and taking the brunt of the explosion. His exceptional
valor and loyalty in saving his men at the cost of his own life reflect
the highest credit upon Sergeant Timmerman and the United States Naval
Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country."
Also receiving a Medal of Honor, GySgt Robert H.
McCard, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division.
Two types of non-combatants are attached to Marine
units: members of the Navy Medical Corps and Navy Chaplain Corps.
Whenever the Marines are in combat, they are well tended to in body and
soul on the front lines. Navy Lieutenant John H. Craven, Chaplain
Corps, earned the Bronze Star for his actions under fire on Saipan.
Later he summarized activities:
"In combat our main action was to go from place to
place, unit to unit, and start out early in the morning and go till
dark, just visiting one unit after the other and many times just have a
very brief service. We had some very small hymn books . . . and some
Testaments I could carry in my map case, and we would just gather a few
men together in a bomb crater or defilade . . . and I would have one
service after the other. Sometimes we had twelve, thirteen, or fourteen
of those in one day, especially on Sunday . . ."
"Then we had to take our turn at the cemetery. Each
chaplain from different units would go down and take his turn for
burial. We had a brief committal service for each one as they brought
the bodies in. And I set myself up to try to keep up with all of the
men of our units: where they were, whether they were in the hospital. I
worked closely with a sergeant major and it was amazing how we were able
to keep up with men, and when they were killed and when and where they
Craven kept a notebook listing all the casualties,
and he would keep that current from day to day. Each evening he would
compare notes with the regimental sergeant major. It was a help to any
chaplain to know who were casualties and where, and to report and work
with their frieds, and it was also a help to the sergeant major because
it verified reports he got.
When Chaplain Craven and the other chaplains returned
to the rear areas with their units, they started writing letters to the
families of everyone who was killed in the regiment, and added their
letters to those the commanding officers were required to write.
One other regimental chaplain used a special type of
ministration. He had a canvas gas-mask carrier slung over each
shoulder. In one carrier he had Scotch whiskey, in the other fried
chicken. As he knelt by each young, frightened, wounded Marine, he was
invariably asked, "Am I going to be O.K.?" "Sure you are!" was the
cheerful answer, "While you are waiting to be evacuated, would you
rather have a drumstick or a wing?" The young Marine would be so
surprised he would forget about himself. Then, when the chaplain asked
if he wanted to wash it down with a swig of Scotch, he couldn't believe
he was hearing correctly amidst all of the confusion, noise, and death
all around him.
A young doctor, hearing about this chaplain, said,
"That man probably saved more young lives from dying of shock than will
ever be known."
Saipan cemetery was dedicated after the battle. Watercolor by SSgt John
Fabion. Marine Corps Art Collection
The ultimate outcome was clear to Saito: "Whether we
attack, or whether we stay where we are, there is only death."
The threat of a mad, all-out enemy charge was nothing
new to the troops on Saipan. A rifleman recounted one such
Whenever we cornered the enemy and there was no way
out, we faced the dreaded banzai attack. The 23d Marines had a few of
these during our Saipan adventure, as did all the other outfits. I
dreaded these attacks and yet welcomed them, which is quite a paradox.
They generated a great deal of fear but, when it was over, that
particular sector was Jap-free.
For hours, we could hear them preparing for their
banzai attack, as it was the end for them and they knew it. Because it
was against their heritage, their training, and their belief, they would
not surrender. All that was left was a final charge, a pouring in of all
their troops in one concentrated place with their pledge to take as many
of us with them as possible.
His account continued with a dramatic description of
the tense waiting he endured, while he listened to the enemy "yells and
screams going on for hours." The noise increased as Marine artillery and
mortars, pounding in the direction of the Japanese sounds, added to the
deafening din. The Marines were waiting in their foxholes with clips of
ammo placed close at hand so that they could reload fast, fixing their
bayonets onto their rifles, ensuring that their knives were loose in
their scabbard all in anticipation of the forthcoming attacks. Listening
to the screaming, all senses alert, many of the men had prayers on their
lips as they waited. Unexpectedly, there was silence, a silence that
signaled the enemy's advance. Then:
corpsmen risked their lives daily to treat wounded Marines. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 81846
Suddenly there is what sounded like a thousand people
screaming all at once, as a hoard of "mad men" broke out of the darkness
before us. Screams of "Banzai" fill the air, Japanese officers leading
the "devils from hell," their swords drawn and swishing in circles over
their heads. Jap soldiers were following their leaders, firing their
weapons at us and screaming "Banzai" as they charged toward us.
Our weapons opened up, our mortars and machine guns
fired continually. No longer do they fire in bursts of three or five.
Belt after belt of ammunition goes through that gun, the gunner swinging
the barrel left and right. Even though Jap bodies build up in front of
us, they still charged us, running over their comrades' fallen bodies.
The mortar tubes became so hot from the rapid fire, as did the machine
gun barrels, that they could no longer be used.
Although each [attack] had taken its toll, still they
came in droves. Haunting memories can still visualize the enemy only a
few feet away, bayonet aimed at our body as we empty a clip into him.
The momentum carries him into our foxhole, right on top of us. Then
pushing him off, we reload and repeat the procedure.
Bullets whiz around us, screams are deafening, the
area reeks with death, and the smell of Japs and gunpowder permeate the
air. Full of fear and hate, with the desire to kill.... [Our enemy seems
to us now to be] a savage animal, a beast, a devil, not a human at all,
and the only thought is to kill, kill, kill.... Finally it ends.
cost of battle. Fellow Marines mourn as a buddy is to be buried.
Defense Photo (USMC) 84474
This was the wild chaos that General Smith predicted
as the final convulsive effort of the Japanese. And it came indeed in
the early morning hours of 7 July (D+22), the climactic moment of the
battle for Saipan. The theoretical Japanese objective was to smash
through Tanapag and Garapan and reach all the way down to Charan-Kanoa.
It was a "fearful charge of flesh and fire, savage and primitive. . . .
Some of the enemy were armed only with rocks or a knife mounted on a
The avalanche hit the 105th Infantry, dug in for the
night with two battalions on the main line of resistance and the
regimental headquarters behind them. However, those two forward
battalions had left a 500-yard gap between them, which they planned to
cover by fire.
The Japanese found this gap, poured through it, and
headed pell mell for the regimental headquarters of the 105th. The men
of the frontline battalions fought valiantly but were unable to stop the
Three artillery battalions of the 10th Marines behind
the 105th were the next target. The gunners could not set their fuses
fast enough, even when cut to four-tenths of a second, to stop the enemy
right on top of them. So they lowered the muzzles of their 105mm
howitzers and spewed ricochet fire by bouncing their shells off the
foreground. Many of the other guns could not fire at all, since Army
troops ahead of them were inextricably intertwined with the Japanese
attackers. However, other Marines in the artillery battalions fired
every type of small weapon they could find. The fire direction center of
one of their battalions was almost wiped out, and the battalion
commander was killed. The cane field to their front was swarming with
enemy troops. The guns were overrun and the Marine artillerymen, after
removing the firing locks of their guns, fell back to continue the fight
Marine moves out to catch up with his unit after he has covered a dead
comrade with a poncho liner and marked his position with his bayoneted
rifle. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 84474
The official history of the 27th Infantry Division
recounts sadly the reactions of its fellow regiments when the firestorm
broke on the 105th. The men of the nearby 165th Infantry chose that
morning to "stand where they were and shoot Japs without any effort to
move forward." By 1600 that afternoon, after finally starting to move to
the relief of the shattered 105th, the 165th "was still 200 to 300 yards
short" of making contact. This tardiness was unfortunately matched by
"the long delay in the arrival of the 106th Infantry" to try to shore up
the battered troops of the 105th.
The extraordinarily bitter hand-to-hand fighting
finally took the momentum out of the Japanese surge, and it was stopped
at last at the CF of the 105th some 800 yards south of Tanapag. By 1800
most of the ground lost had been regained.
It had been a ghastly day. The 105th Infantry's two
battalions had suffered a shocking 918 casualties while killing 2,295
Japanese. One of the Marine artillery battalions had 127 casualties, but
had accounted for 322 of the enemy A final count of the Japanese dead
reached the staggering total of 4,311, some due to previous shell-fire,
but the vast majority killed in the banzai charge.
Amidst the carnage, there had been countless acts of
bravery. Two that were recognized by later awards of the Army Medal of
Honor were the leadership and "resistance to the death" of Army
Lieutenant Colonel William J. O'Brien, commander of a battalion of the
105th Infantry, and one of his squad leaders, Sergeant Thomas A.
Three Marines each "gallantly gave his life in the
service of his country" and were posthumously awarded the Navy Medal of
Honor. They were Private First Class Harold C. Agerholm, Private First
Class Harold G. Epperson, and Sergeant Grant F. Timmerman.
The 3d Battalion, 10th Marines, which had fought so
tenaciously in the banzai assault, received the Navy Unit Commendation.
Four years later, the 105th Infantry and its attached tank battalion
were awarded the Army Distinguished Unit Citation.
While attention centered on the bloody battle on the
coast, the 23d Marines was attacking a strong Japanese force well
protected by caves in a cliff inland. The key to their elimination was
an ingenious improvisation. In order to provide fire support,
truck-mounted rocket launchers were lowered over the cliff by chains
attached to tanks. Once down at the base, their fire, supplemented by
that of rocket gunboats off shore, snuffed out the enemy resistance.
The next day, D+23, 8 July, saw the beginning of the
end. The Japanese had spent the last of their unit manpower in the
banzai charge; now it was time for the final American mop-up. LVTs
rescued men of the 105th Infantry who had waded out from the shore to
the reef to escape the Japanese. Holland Smith then moved most of the
27th Infantry Division into reserve, and put the 2d Marine Division back
on the line of attack, with the 105th Infantry attached. Together with
the 4th Marine Division, they swept north towards the end of the
Along the coast there were bizarre spectacles that
presaged a macabre ending to the campaign. The official Marine history
pictured the scene:
The enemy pocketed in the area had destroyed
themselves in suicidal rushes from the high cliffs to the rocky beach
below. Many were observed, along with hundreds of civilians, wading out
into the sea and permitting themselves to be drowned. Others committed
hara-kiri with knives, or killed themselves with grenades. Some
officers, using their swords, decapitated many of their troops.