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Posted on Aug 4, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Along the Beaches on Saipan!

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Objective

There were 15 islands with the Mariana group. Saipan, Tinian, Guam and Rota were the primary targets. These were the islands Magellan had called Los Ladrones (The Thieves). A Spanish priest had renamed them the Marianas to honor the Queen Maria Anna. Except for Guam, a United States possession since the Spanish-American War, the islands had been mandated to the Japanese after World War One. The United States had dutifully followed a treaty with Japan and not fortified Guam . It fell easily to the Japanese on December 10, 1941.

Saipan was the first and principal objective for the attack force. It is the largest island, with every type of terrain imaginable, including larger towns. The codename for the entire Mariana operation was "Forager." It was believed that about 20,000 Japanese defenders were located on the island. This was a serious underestimate. In reality, there were almost 30,000 under a divided command of Admiral Nagumo of Pearl Harbor fame and General Yoshitsugo Saito of the Japanese Army. Nagumo exercised control of the ground naval forces. Saito commanded the Japanese army troops, thus forming two separate and not too friendly command structures. These two leaders did not get along very well, and this would create defensive problems later.


Japan had throughout the war suffered a heated interservice rivalry that probably exceeded that which exists in all other countries. The defense of the Central Pacific area was no exception. Premier Tojo was an army man and was under constant scrutiny by Japanese naval leaders. In order to appease both sides in the issue of command, two separate forces were established in the Marianas, both under different commands. The lack of unified leadership and affable communications between Saito and Nagumo proved to be a constant detriment to the defensive operations both prior and during the US attacks on the islands.

The bulk of the defenders on Saipan were army troops. They numbered over 20,000. After April of 1944 practically no further reinforcements could get through to the islands. American submarines had formed a steel ring around the Marianas and blasted any transports trying to run the gauntlet. As late as June 6 th, seven transports made a frantic run towards Saipan . The submarines Shark, Pintado and Pilotfish intercepted them. In a five day running attack, the American ships sank five of the transports with the Japanese losing nearly 2,000 soldiers and some much needed supplies.

So the Japanese leaders would make do with what they had. The army forces included most of the 43 rd ( Nagoya ) Division, the 47 th Independent Mixed Brigade and over 60 tanks of the 9 th Tank Regiment. Under the command of Admiral Nagumo was the Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Force, some Naval Guard troops and the men and planes of the 22 nd Air Flotilla. His units numbered about 6,700.

Air bombardment began on June 11th; naval gunfire on June 13th. On the 15th landings began. The Marine 2nd Division moved into the northern half of the landing area on the left, and the 4th headed in on the south. A diversionary force had already moved toward Garapan to the north, but Admiral Nagumo did not fall for the ruse. The landings were about to occur precisely where he thought they would.

Smoke and haze obscured the view of Saipan from the sea. The island did not seem all that menacing. The Japanese, however, had carefully hidden their artillery on Mount Fina Susa, facing the beaches. They had thoroughly prepared for an invasion on the west coast, and the guns had been pre-registered with little colored flags in the water to mark the range.

Getting Ashore

As the invasion fleet drew closer, accurate counterbattery fire opened up on the larger ships. The battleship Tennessee took hits. More shells burst on the decks of the cruiser Indianapolis . The American warships lashed back. Then over 160 Navy aircraft shrieked downward to plaster the mountainside. LSTs moved to the rim of the surrounding coral reef and disgorged nearly 800 amtracs. Among them the newer models, such as the LVTA4 with an open turreted 75mm-assault gun. The purpose of this amphib was not to transport troops, but to provide protection for the other LVTs. It would form the advance wave, then move inland with the troops, much like a light tank. Some of the transport LVTs also moved into the trees ringing the beaches, carrying troops much like a personnel carrier. Accurate artillery fire, as well as satchel charges being tossed into the open LVTs soon discouraged such tactics. The Marines would get out and walk.

The Marine divisions had landed on either side of Aetna Point, and soon had swept along both sides of it. This formed a salient in the American lines that had to be neutralized. As more waves of troops moved in, antiboat guns from the point opened up on them. Soon a number of amtracs were either burning or sinking, with dead or dying Marines spilled into the waters of the lagoon. Destroyers moved in close and fired into the hill. The battle raged all during the day, but by its end, over 20,000 men were on shore and attempting to consolidate their bridgehead.

Back at the Beach

Still on the beaches of Saipan at the end of this day, there are still things to be seen. At the edge of the beach, a deserted Amtrak smokes from a hit it has taken. In an amateurish style, the name "Beast of Denver" has been painted on its side. A small white goat has taken refuge under its bow. Some 50 feet to the right is an abandoned Japanese 70mm howitzer, mounted on wagon wheels. Beside it are two ammunition wagons. Further to the right, about 200 feet away, is another LVT, this one bearing the strange name "Abatoir." Its right track extends behind, much as though the vehicle has been disemboweled.

Between the two amphibious tractors, there are seventeen dead marines, still waiting silently to be covered, loaded onto departing Amtrak’s, and sent home. The total silence of the dead stands in sharp contrast to the lively cracks of automatic weapons in the distance.

Under a small tree that looks something like a cedar, someone has planted a tiny American flag, which flutters bravely in the evening breeze. Its appearance there, in such an unlikely place, seems to salute the heroic American dead still lying on the beaches of Saipan . They had paid the ultimate price so that a small piece of brightly colored cloth could wave here. Other marines will also die before the night is over. Perhaps both the living and the dead deserve a salute before the tiny flag to show a profound appreciation for their efforts and sacrifice.

This is how the beaches at Saipan looked toward sunset on the first day of the invasion. And it was only beginning.


Delivered from Evil, Leckie

To the Marianas, Hoyt

Strong Men Armed, Leckie

The Marine’s War, Pratt

Campaign in the Marianas, CMH

About the Author

Wild Bill Wilder, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, was introduced to modern warfare as a tot in World War II when his father and uncle went off to war in the USAAF. It was an experience that influenced him greatly throughout his life. After graduating from Toccoa Falls College in 1962, he spent the next 10 years in public service in various countries in Central America. He then worked in public transportation until his retirement in 1999.

Wild Bill now has even more time to dedicate to his passion – wargaming. In 1997 he formed a group called "Wild Bill’s Raiders." From small beginnings the Raiders expanded into five separate web sites and gave top-notch coverage to a number of popular wargames.

Bill has also been a vital part of the production of 13 different games, including SPWAW, Combat Mission, The Operational Art of War, and John Tiller’s Squad Battles series. He has authored over 1300 scenarios and campaigns for these and other games over the last nine years. At age 68, Bill is also a prolific writer, with his primary focus on warfare of the 20th century. To quote him, "Wargaming is a passion that never dies with the passing of the years. Instead it only intensifies as new and better wargames are produced. It is in military history that one finds often written in blood the glory and the grief of mankind!"

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