SAIPAN BANZAI CHARGE FAILS TO EVICT GIs

Saipan, Marianas, Central Pacific · July 6, 1944

The Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19–20, 1944) was a pivotal U.S. naval victory, effec­tively elim­i­nating Japan’s ability to both con­duct large-scale carrier actions and rein­force its gar­ri­sons to the east in the Mari­anas. The most impor­tant islands in the Mari­ana chain were Guam (an Amer­i­can ter­ritory cap­tured by Japan on Decem­ber 8, 1941), Tinian, and Sai­pan (two Japa­nese World War I man­dates). Am­phib­i­ous U.S. Marine and army divi­sions had landed on Sai­pan begin­ning June 15. On this night in 1944 on Sai­pan, three thou­sand Japa­nese troops—real­izing that they could not defeat the in­vaders—hurled them­selves against Amer­i­can lines in the largest ban­zai charge of the war. Led by Japa­nese offi­cers swinging swords over­head, the sui­cidal charge of able-bodied men in the front ranks, the lame and wounded in the rear, some armed only with rocks or knives mounted on sticks, left most Japa­nese attackers dead and battle-hardened Marines and sol­diers shaken to the core. The self-inflicted slaugh­ter was not over. The next day brought another suicidal ban­zai charge and mass sui­cides, in­cluding that of Emperor Hiro­hito’s hero at Pearl Harbor and Mid­way, Vice Admiral Chūi­chi Na­gu­mo. Two U.S. Army regi­ments were almost de­stroyed, losing 650 killed and wounded in this last-ditch charge on July 7. Hund­reds of Japa­nese civil­ians jumped off cliffs, drowned them­selves, or blew them­selves up with gre­nades. All told, 29,000 Japa­nese mili­tary and 22,000 civil­ians (half the popu­la­tion of the island) died ver­sus 3,426 Amer­i­can dead and 10,364 wounded, making Sai­pan the most costly vic­tory to date in the Paci­fic war. News that Sai­pan had been lost caused Japa­nese Pre­mier Hideki Tōjō and his cabi­net to resign later in the month. Until Sai­pan’s capture the Japa­nese popu­lace con­tin­ued to believe that suc­cess in the war remained pos­sible. Now Japan’s leader­ship was forced to begin con­sidering the reality of defeat. Marine General Hol­land M. “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, ground com­man­der of the assault on Sai­pan, declared that the U.S. victory “opened the way to the home islands” by pro­vid­ing secure air bases for the new long-range heavy bombers that were now within striking dis­tance of all Japa­nese cities. Four months later one hun­dred B‑29 Super­for­tresses departed Sai­pan’s new U.S. air­strips for their first massive air raid over Tokyo.





Saipan, 1944–1945

Marines, Red Beach, Saipan, June 16, 1944 U.S. Army 27th Infantry Division, Saipan, June 1944

Left: U.S. Marines take cover on Red Beach, June 15, 1944. The inva­sion fleet of hun­dreds of ships carried more than 70,000 Marines and sol­diers. Shelling the pistol-shaped island began on June 11, 1944, and lasted for more than three days. Landings began on the west side on June 15 when the 2nd Marine Divi­sion hit Red and Green beaches and the 4th Marine Division hit Blue and Yellow beaches.

Right: Soldiers of the U.S. Army 27th Infantry Divi­sion, green rein­force­ments, dis­em­bark from LSTs and pro­ceed across a coral reef on the ex­treme south­west coast of the Saipan. Photo from June 16 or 17, 1944.

Marines and M4 Sherman, Saipan, July 8, 1944 Marine with pistol, Saipan 1944

Left: Marines take cover behind an M4 Sher­man tank while clearing out the northern end of Saipan island, July 8, 1944.

Right: Holding a Colt 45 pistol, a Marine moves cau­tiously through the Sai­pan jungle, July 1944, as he and his pla­toon fer­ret out the enemy. Out of a 30,000-strong garri­son, less than 1,000 Japa­nese were taken pri­soner. The sui­cides and ban­zai charges were called gyokusai, which can be roughly trans­lated as breaking the jewel, a refer­ence to the destruc­tion of an entire Japa­nese unit. Gyokusai can only be made at the behest of Imperial General Head­quarters.

Marine and Chamorro family, June 1944 Isley Field on Saipan, mid-1945

Left: Marine Lt. Robert B. Sheeks, an Intelli­gence and Japa­nese Lan­guage Offi­cer, coaxes a ter­ri­fied island native (a Cha­morro woman) and her chil­dren into aban­doning their hiding place, c. June 21, 1944. Using a com­bina­tion of sur­render leaf­lets and ampli­fied voice appeals, Sheeks per­son­ally ended up saving the lives of hun­dreds of Japa­nese civil­ians and service­men by being able to talk them out of the many caves in Sai­pan’s and Tinian’s vol­canic land­scape during com­bat in 1944.

Right: Isley Field on Saipan is filled with B‑29 Super­for­tresses in this mid-1945 photo. The Mari­anas were desired by the U.S. as bomber bases to reach the Japa­nese main­land, with Sai­pan attacked for that reas­on even before the U.S. moved to reca­pture Guam. Once cap­tured, Sai­pan and Tinian were used by the U.S. Twen­tieth Air Force because the islands finally put main­land Japan within round-trip range of B‑29s. In response, Japa­nese air­craft attacked the bases on Sai­pan and Tinian from Novem­ber 1944 to Janu­ary 1945. Both the Enola Gay and the Bocks­car (which dropped atomic bombs on Hiro­shima and Naga­saki, respec­tively) flew their mis­sions from Tinian’s “North Field.”

June 1944 Invasion of Saipan by 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and 27th Army Division