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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Battle of Saipan: Beginning of the End

Another memorable battle that the Montford Point Marines were known for was the Battle of Saipan. The Battle of Saipan on June 15, 1944, marked the beginning of the end of World War II in the Pacific Campaign. This pivotal fighting resulted in an Allied victory and heavy casualties. The Battle of Saipan also marked the first time that African American Marines saw combat in WWII. Lamentably, mass suicides among the Japanese occurred in levels never seen before in modern warfare.

Saipan is one of the three largest Marianas Islands located in the Pacific Ocean. The other two are Guam and Tinian. Saipan was considered a prized possession because of its proximity to mainland Japan. Here, the United States forces would have access to the Aslito airfield to launch their sizable B29 bombers. states that over 20,000 Japanese troops were part of a garrison on the island. Japan occupied Saipan since 1920. Without question Saipan was a valuable island; Japanese forces from the south would essentially be cut off from Japan once the US seized the highly desirable island.

Fast Facts*

  • Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner
  • Lieutenant General Holland Smith
  • approx. 71,000 men deployed
  • 3,426 Americans dead
  • 13,000 wounded
  • Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito
  • Admiral Chuichi Nagumo
  • approx. 31,000 men deployed
  • 30,000 Japanese died (action and suicide)
  • 20,000 Japanese civilians (action and suicide)

On the morning of June 14,1944, 8,000 Marines landed on the treacherous beaches of Saipan. The beaches were fortified with barbed wire placed by the Japanese defenders. Lying in wait for the 2nd and 4th Division Marines were trenches and machine gun posts. The Marines successfully established a beachhead with a width of six miles by nightfall. Viewing this, the Japanese Lieutenant General Saito decided to launch a counterattack at sea, called the Battle of the Philippine Sea. The move proved disastrous, as the Japanese lost three aircraft carriers and aircraft, rendering Japanese forces unable to become resupplied and reinforced. (

Montford Point Marines at Saipan

What were the early morning hours of June, 1944, like for a Marine first descending on the beaches of Saipan? 800 African African American Marines participated in combat for the first time in World War II. The first one of the Montford Point Marines to die was Kenneth Tibbs, an orderly to the 20th Depot Battalion commander. He was instantly struck shortly after landing the beach. Kenneth Rollock of Harlem, NY was a member of the 3rd Ammunition Company. According to

 "We got caught in the early part of Saipan in the Japanese counterattack. About a quarter mile from the beach, they came out screaming, and we just opened up. Anything moving we shot at."
 Rollock said later he would never forget the sound and sight of the enemy force closing on him and his comrades. (

Montford Point Marine Private Vincent Long of Hempstead, NY recalled: 

"There was one guy, I think his name was Tibbs, who was no farther from me to you,  All of a sudden, I realized he wasn't talking anymore. He'd been hit. I never saw him again. It was tough going and everything was coming down on us. I picked up a Browning automatic [machine gun] and started shooting like everyone else. Until then, I'd never had any one's blood on me before." (
 Montford Point Marines taking a break during the invasion of  Saipan.

Flamethrowers and Caves
Meanwhile, upon discovering that the Japanese could not be resupplied, General Saito had his men fight in mountainous areas of the island. The terrain of the island was a plethora of caves, which provided easy cover for the Japanese defenders instructed to fight to the end and not surrender. states that the American forces had to use flamethrowers to eliminate the Japanese from the caves. Flamethrowers was a new technology at the time.
. described the intense fighting around Mount Tapotchau, Saipan's highest peak. Battle areas were given names such as "Death Valley" and Purple Heart Ridge."

Japanese Family Holding in Cave

Mass Suicides and Suicide Cliff

With the situation in Saipan basically grim, Japanese General Saito instructed his men to undergo the largest Banzai Attack in World War II. Thousands of soldiers participated in this assault along with Japanese civilians. Banzai attacks or charges make for imminent death. The assault lasted for fifteen hours and American forces were able to regain strength.

As the Americans were making significant progress on the island of Saipan, Japanese officials turned to the civilians and urged them under no circumstances to surrender to the American forces. Civilians were promised an elite status in the afterlife, raising their social class rank. The civilians of Saipan were told that the Americans would do heinous things to them if they surrendered, thus instilling fear. Emperor Hirohito made a direct order to the civilians to commit suicide, and approximately 1,000 Japanese can be seen in Army footage films jumping to their deaths off of cliffs, appropriately named "Suicide Cliff." By battle's end on July 9, 1944, Japanese leaders Saito and Nagumo both committed suicide.

Montford Point Marines Considered Marines
A vital and strategic battle, the Battle of Saipan proved to be monumental. It marked the beginning of the end of the war in the Pacific Theatre. 800 African American Marines, the Montford Point Marines, saw combat for the first time, and the first casualty was Kenneth Tibbs. 
Time's war correspondent in the Central Pacific, Robert Sherrod, wrote: "The Negro Marines, under fire for the first time, have rated a universal 4.0 on Saipan." 4.0 is the Navy's highest ranking. And Commandant of the Marine Corps, Lieutenant General Alexander A. Vandegrift  declared: "The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period." (The Right to Fight)

 Staff Sgt Timerlate Kirvenand and Cpl. Samuel J. Love, Sr.They received Purple Hearts for wounds received in the Battle of Saipan Source: National Archives

The Battle of Saipan was the first time that flamethrowers were used to eliminate Japanese defenders from caves. Furthermore, the world was mortified to learn that thousands of Japanese civilians took their own lives by jumping off of "Suicide Cliffs." This was after a decree by Japanese Emperor Hirohito.

Japanese soldiers were bound by the honor code to die before surrendering. Many allowed themselves to be killed rather than to face shame. In fact, historylearningsite reports of holdouts who refused to surrender until December 1945--months after the war ended. News of the suicides disappointed the Japanese people. They thought the suicides represented defeat rather than "spiritual enlightenment." The Battle of Saipan indeed signified the beginning of the end of World War II for the Pacific Campaign.
Marines landing on the beaches in the Marianas.

What are your thoughts about the Battle of Saipan? Feel free to leave your comments in the comment section.

See Also: 
The Battle of Peleliu Originated the Thousand Yard Stare


Banzai Attack-a mass attack of troops without concern for casualties; originated by Japanese who accompanied it with yells of `banzai'. Source,

Guy Gabaldon- Also noteworthy at the Battle of Saipan was a Mexican American soldier who was praised for his ability to speak Japanese. Private First Class Guy Gabaldon, of Los Angeles, spent part of his life with a Japanese family growing up, allowing him to have a familiarity with the language. Gabaldon effectively convinced 1,000 Japanese enemy troops to surrender, and he was later awarded a Navy Cross.

Navajo codetalkers were instrumental in directing naval gunfire onto Japanese positions.

Right to Fight

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