Their-Backs-against-Sea-Largest/dp/030682471X">Their Back Against the Sea: The Battle of Saipan and the Largest Banzai Attack of World War II
By Bill Sloan
(Da Capo Press, 278 pages, $27)
To the extent that Americans know much about the island campaigns in the Pacific Theater of World War II — which isn’t nearly as much as they should — some campaigns are better known than others because they’ve received more attention from authors, documentary makers, TV history film producers, and feature movie makers. Probably the best known are Coral Sea and Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. All of these victories were critical Pacific turning points, all purchased at great cost in the lives of Americans and those of our allies.
Less well known than those listed above are the bloody campaigns for Saipan and Tinian. The relative neglect is hardly justified by the Islands’ military importance. Air bases on Saipan and Tinian put Japan itself, just 1200 miles away, within range of America’s new super bomber, the B-29, with its amazing-for-the-time range of 3300 miles. The strategic bombing campaign that did so much to convince Japan to surrender began from these islands. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which finally put paid to Japan’s militaristic domination of the Pacific, were delivered by B-29s flying out of Tinian.
“When we lost Saipan, hell was upon us,” Fleet Admiral Osami Nagano, supreme naval adviser to the Emperor, said. Vice Admiral Shigeyosh Miwa, commander of the Japanese submarine force that attacked Pearl Harbor, was even more precise after the war: “Our war was lost with the loss of Saipan. It meant that the United States could cut off our shipping and attack our homeland.”
The landings at Saipan took place on June 15 of 1944, a little more than a week after the allied D-Day landings in Normandy. It took until July 9 for the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions and the Army’s 27th Infantry Division to dislodge the 30,000-man Japanese force on the island. Much longer than Marine and Army intelligence estimated it would take to secure the island against a much larger force than was thought to be there.
American losses in the campaign were high, Japanese losses even higher. Deaths among the civilian inhabitants of the island were also high as the Japanese used them for human shields and they lied to the natives about horrific things Americans would do to them if they were captured. Because of this many of them committed suicide by jumping off high cliffs onto rocks below rather than be taken and protected by Americans.
Japanese soldiers, including those on Saipan, were well trained, tenacious, and under orders to fight to the bitter end. They did. Of the 30,000 defenders, only 921 were taken prisoner. Many of the Japanese were killed in pointless Banzai attacks on July 7 and 8. Pointless because by then the Japanese military situation on the island was hopeless. But they were ordered to attack anyway, in the certain hope of death and defeat. Many American Marines and soldiers paid the ultimate price for this suicidal exercise in Japanese honor.
While American Marines and soldiers were capturing Saipan, a second event took place that put an end to Japan’s ability to engage in major naval air actions. In what is known formally as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, informally as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, American Navy fighters, mostly Hellcats, shot down more than 400 Japanese planes to the loss of fewer than 100 American planes (most of these lost because they had to ditch in the sea after running out of fuel returning from a long mission — only about 20 could be identified as being shot down by Japanese aircraft). American planes also sank three more Japanese aircraft carriers. As a result of the crippling Japanese losses in this two-day battle, the Pacific was ever after essentially an American pond. The “mop-up” after these signal victories took a year and was bloody. But the ultimate outcome was never more in doubt, absent the miracle that never came for the Japanese.
After Saipan was secured, the battle of Tinian was also brutal, but shorter and against a smaller Japanese garrison. Within a few weeks after American forces landed there, about 500 B-29s were operating out of the island.
Through the use of official records, individual’s diaries and correspondence, as well as interviews with some of the survivors, author and journalist Bill Sloan paints a vivid big- and small-picture account of those hellish days. We see the campaigns through the eyes of individual G.I.s, from privates to generals. Sloan has written more than a dozen books, including five about the Pacific theater in World War II.
On the week that we celebrate when America established itself, perhaps it’s a good time to read about and celebrate those who have given up so much to ensure that we stay independent.