Unlike flat coral islands, Saipan, in the Marianas, was a volcanic island whose beaches and flat lands were dominated by inland hills, with heavily jungled and jagged cliff faces, rock outcroppings, sinkholes, and caves.
Saipan, about 15 miles long, was well fortified by the Japanese, manned by 25,000 Japanese Army troops, including an armored regiment of forty-eight tanks, plus an additional 6,000 naval personnel, and an operational airfield.
Tank-mounted flamethrower incinerates a Japanese pillbox on Saipan. June 1944.
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Invasion of Saipan, 15 June 1944
From February through June 1944, Saipan was bombarded from the air and sea to prepare for the invasion. At 0700 on 15 June, 8,000 U.S. Marines moved ashore from 34 LSTs, launching hundreds of Army and USMC amphibian tractors that crawled to the beach under protective fire, establishing themselves on the southwest coast of Saipan. The invasion was commanded by Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith, USMC, Commanding General, V Amphibious Corps. A beachhead was established that held against Japanese counterattacks. The next day U.S. Army units joined the Marines on Saipan and a drive began to claim the island. On 19 June, Gen. Smith reoriented his corps to attack in two directions, with two Marine divisions and one Army regiment forming a front across the island which would drive north, while two Army regiments cleaned up the Nafutan Peninsula at the island's southern end.
Army reinforcements disembarking from LST's form a graceful curve as they proceed across coral reef toward the Saipan beach. June 1944.
At the same time on 19-20 June, the American victory in the Battle of the Philippine Sea ensured that the Japanese on Saipan would receive no help by air or sea -- they knew they would have to fight to the end unassisted.
Dissatisfied with progress, on 25 June, Gen. Smith replaced the Army commander and ordered a new drive on both fronts. By the 27th, the Nafutan Peninsula was taken in the south and the drive north captured hard-won locations named "Death Valley", "Hell's Pocket" and "Purple Heart Ridge". The drive continued toward the narrow north end of the island, finally pushing the Japanese commander, General Saito, and his troops to the last cliffs with their backs against the sea. On the morning of 7 July Gen. Saito ordered a final charge against the Americans by all Japanese who could walk. As the Army and Marines repulsed the attack, Saito committed suicide. Two more days of cave demolition annihilated the enemy and brought American units to Marpi Point, ending the battle for Saipan. The few remaining Japanese swam off the island and, with fanatical determination not to surrender, committed suicide.
Marines use explosives on Japanese position and stand ready to fire on anyone emerging. Saipan, June-July 1944.
Saipan taught tactical lessons that were new to the Central Pacific war. The battle had been one of movement over a sizable area, and it was further complicated by the numerous natural and man-made caves used as defensive systems by the Japanese, with sophisticated camouflage and steel door protection. The flame-throwing tanks proved to be the weapon that was effective against these caves, but their range had to be improved, as was done for use later in the war.
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