Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
D+1-D+2, 16-17 June
D+3, 18 June
D+4-D+7, 19-22 June
D+8-D+15, 23-30 June
D+16-D+19, 1-4 July
D+20-D+23, 5-8 July
D+24, 9 July
Saipan's Legacy
Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith
Maj. Gen. Harry Schmidt
Maj. Gen. Thomas E. Watson
PFC Harold Christ Agerholm
PFC Harold Glenn Epperson
Sgt. Grant Frederick Timmerman
GySgt Robert H. McCard
Special Subjects
The 2d Marine Division
The 4th Marine Division
The Army 27th Infantry Division
Divisional Reorganiation
Ground Command List
Marine Artillery Regiments
Navy Chaplains

by Captain John C. Chapin
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve (Ret)

D+20—D+23, 5—8 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 succeeded.

(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 it—and, 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.

truck-mounted rocket
A 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
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
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 country"

Grant Frederick Timmerman
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.

Navy Chaplains

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 were buried."

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."

sketch of cemetery
The 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 experience:

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:

Navy corpsmen treating wounded
Navy 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.

burial ceremony
The cost of battle. Fellow Marines mourn as a buddy is to be buried. Department of 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 pole."

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 banzai onslaught.

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 as infantrymen.

A 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. Baker.

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 island.

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.

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