Closing In: The Battle of Saipan

March 05, 2019

From the moment the United States decimated the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, every decision was crucial. The war had reached a turning point and one wrong move could put victory back in reach for Japan. Even in the summer of 1944, as the war entered its last year, victory wasn't guaranteed so long as the tenacious Japanese forces continued to hold strategic points across the Pacific.

In June 1944, the United States set its sights on one of those strategic assets that would put it in striking distance of Japan itself. From the island of Saipan, an American long-range B-29 bomber could reach Japan’s home islands. The push to capture Saipan was on.

To take it, though, commanders and troops would need to have a detailed plan. Throughout the war, Japan made it clear that wasn’t willing to give up land without a mighty struggle, and soldiers would fight to the death following their Emperor's orders.

On June 14, 1944, after a day of heavy bombardment, the first of the American transport ships anchored off the southwest coast of Saipan. United States Marines launched in amphibious landing vehicles that would deposit them onto the beaches. In the distance, battleships and destroyers launched attacks on key targets to clear the way for the landing force. Unfortunately, their aim was faulty, and many gun emplacements survived the bombardment, leaving the Marines to rush head-first into a blaze of machine gun fire. The Battle of Saipan was off to a deadly start.

The Invasion of Saipan

Navajo Code Takers were instrumental in directing fire on Japanese positions during the Battle of Saipan

Navajo Code Takers were instrumental in directing fire on Japanese positions

The beaches of Saipan became a battlefield as bombs exploded and machine gun fire peppered the ground. Despite Japan’s resistance force, which was made up of approximately 29,000 men, the Marines pushed forward and 8,000 managed to reach the shore.

The following morning, United States Army reinforcements arrived to help push further inland toward Aslito Airfield. Within two days, American troops were spread out across the island and the ships that had been bombarding Japanese encampments and protecting the landing forces left the area, to cut off the incoming force from the IJN sent to defend Saipan.

Japanese troops failed to stave off the American invasion, forcing them to push back to Mount Tapotchau, which gave them the high ground. Even from this vantage point, the Japanese couldn’t hold their ground and American forces slowly inched closer to taking what should have been an impregnable position. In the ensuing battle, the area the Americans had to capture became known as “Death Valley” for the number of troops lost within it. The ridge from which Japanese forces fired down on the invaders became known as “Purple Heart Ridge.”

The Conclusion of the Battle of Saipan

US Marines march through the village of Garapan, 6 July 1944

US Marines march through the village of Garapan, 6 July 1944

With the Americans pushing further inland, the commanding general of the Japanese defenders, Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito, found himself in an impossible situation. The Imperial Fleet he expected never arrived due to devastating losses at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and United States forces had him surrounded on all sides. In a final, desperate effort, he ordered his remaining troops to launch a suicidal frontal attack. Nearly 3,000 Japanese soldiers rushed the Marines, killing or wounding hundreds. The following day, July 9, Saipan was declared secured by the American commander.

Fearing mistreatment by the Americans as Japanese propaganda had warned, over 1,000 Japanese civilian residents of Saipan jumped to their deaths. Politically, the failure to hold Saipan was devastating, and led to the suicides of several of the Japanese commanders, including Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The loss also resulted in the resignation of the Japanese Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo, who had publicly promised that Saipan would not fall.

Today, several areas that played crucial roles in the Battle of Saipan are recognized as a single National Landmark District.

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