Mariana Islands Campaign and the Great Turkey Shoot
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
The Mariana Islands were made up of the islands of Saipan, Tinian, Aguijan, Rota, and much to the soreness of the American military, the island of Guam. Admiral Chester Nimitz had long waited to launch his Operation Forager to reclaim Guam and defeat the Japanese garrison at these islands. From the airfields at the Mariana Islands, future operations against the Philippine Islands, Taiwan, and even the Japanese home islands would be supported from the skies.
13 Jun-7 Jul 1944
The island of Saipan was defended by two officers of equal rank. Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito represented the Army, while Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo represented the Navy. Nagumo was the former victorious commander of the Mobile Fleet, but since had lost his face at the major defeat at Midway, and demoted to lead this local flotilla. Bearing with his shame, Nagumo mainly allowed Saito to make all the command decisions. Saito had his own 43rd division under his charge, as well as a mixed brigade, the 47th Independent, supported by various Army and Navy personnel. This group of defenders was twice the size reported by American intelligence, so that when the Americans came ashore, the resistance was greater than they had expected. Fortunately, as the Americans would later find out, most of the supplies Saito's garrison badly needed were taken away from him, thanks to the American submarine campaign and air superiority. The transport ships simply could not reach the Marianas in one piece. Regardless, Saito, as well as Tokyo, knew the importance of the Marianas. From there, 1,100 miles south of Tokyo, the new American B-29 "Super Fortress" bombers could reach the Japanese Home Islands and would have enough fuel for the return trip. A careless American operation over the Solomons resulted in a B-29 shot down, and the pilot captured and interrogated. In Tokyo, the IGHQ was starting to feel the pressure, if they had not felt it before when Americans defeated them at southern Solomon Islands, New Guinea, the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands.
The pre-landing preparations came like a thunderclap for the Japanese garrison. On 13 Jun 1944, seven American battleships fired 15,000 shells at Saipan, though to little effectiveness. On the next day, Rear Admirals Jesse Oldendorf and Walden Ainsworth bombarded Saipan and Tinian with their bombardment groups. Meanwhile, Navy divers formed Underwater Demolition Teams and scouted out planned landing beaches for the impending invasion, taking out any mines and tank traps as they were found.
D-Day was 15 Jun 1944. US 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions under the command of General Holland Smith landed their 8,000 men in 20 minutes despite heavy fire from Japanese positions some as far as three miles away. They declared the beachhead secure the next day after suffering a casualty rate of 10%, at which point a signal was sent to General Ralph Smith's 27th Army Division to begin landing operations. Piecemeal Japanese counterattacks did not break the defensive perimeter set up by the American Marines, allowing the Army to land more troops behind them. On the fourth day, the Japanese retreated into the treacherous terrain of Saipan, hoping to use the terrain against the American troops. Holland Smith ordered for a great march northward on 23 Jun; the Marines advanced on the flanks, and the Army in the middle. Mount Tipo Pale was taken, and the next obstacle came Mount Tapotchau. Ralph Smith's Army soldiers, by this time, were being slowed both by Japanese defense as well as a difference in fighting mentality. Marines, by training, advanced aggressively; Army soldiers, contrastingly, aimed for a well-rounded advance, digging in at regular intervals to ensure their supplies could catch up and their flanks were well guarded. The result of this difference in mentality resulted in a deep U-shaped line, with the Marines far ahead of the center, and this angered Holland Smith. Holland Smith, who had overall tactical command on the island, submitted his request to remove Ralph Smith to Admirals Richmond Turner and Raymond Spruance, which had repercussions all the way back to Washington. "We've had more experience in handling troops than you've had, and yet you dare remove one of my generals! You Marines are nothing but a bunch of beach runners anyway", exclaimed General George Marshal's representative in the theater. "What do you know about land warfare?" Holland Smith won the political game and succeeded in replacing the Army commander.
By 5 Jul, despite the bitter political battles that ensued, the remaining Japanese troops were driven to the northern tip of the island. With their backs to the cliff, the largest banzai charge took place. 3,000 Japanese troops valiantly charged the advancing American line, and broke through the western flank, but they were ultimately stopped by American Marines. While the banzai charge was breaking through American front lines, Lieutenant General Saito and Vice Admiral Nagumo, after giving orders for such a suicide charge, committed suicide in their respective command bunkers. When the Americans declared the island secured four days later, Holland Smith's men counted over 23,000 Japanese troops killed. Holland Smith lost 3,426 men in comparison. Unfortunately, that was not the end of major bloodshed on Saipan. Encouraged by Tokyo, thousands of Japanese civilians on Saipan committed mass suicide to avoid the shame of being ruled by the conquering Americans. Men dived off cliffs into shark-ridden waters, mothers throwing their babies against rock walls before jumping into the water to join their husbands and brothers. Even children committed suicide, holding on to grenades before they jumped off the cliffs. Nearly 8,000 civilians of Saipan died in this mass suicide. Americans watched in absolute horror, but were able to finally stop the madness by convincing fair treatment over loudspeakers. After the battle, the two sites where the mass suicide took place were named Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff as memorial to these fallen civilians.
The Battle of the Philippine Sea
19-20 Jun 1944
By mid-1944, the Mitsubishi Type 00 fighters, better known as "Zeros", were no longer on the cutting edge among fighter designs. Ignoring the fact that by this time the United States was out-producing the Axis in war machinery, the new F6F Hellcat was better armored and better suited for dogfights than their Japanese counterparts. Meanwhile, the Japanese Navy's pilot talent was running dangerously short, and it was becoming more common to see combat pilots with less than 50 hours of flight training.
On 18 Jun, as the American Marines secured the beachhead at Saipan for an Army landing, search planes from Admiral Ozawa's fleet discovered the American fleet. Ozawa decided to forgo the opportunity for a surprise attack, and wait until the beginning of the next day before launching an attack, despite the fact that he had numerical advantage (he had more planes available to him than the Americans) and range advantage (his Zeros had longer range than the American counterparts). He was concerned that his fighter pilots were not capable of making safe night landings on carrier flight decks. This decision proved to be fatal in hindsight: by the time he launched his fighter attacks, the Americans were already alerted to Ozawa's presence, and prepared for such an assault. Spruance, knowing very well of Ozawa's timetable at this time, launched a strike against Guam to pin down the Japanese aircraft there, as well as damaging the airfields there so that the eventual Ozawa attack would not be able to utilize Guam to augment his attack. Mitscher, at the same time, launched his aircraft against the island of Rota while sending a few to reinforce Spruance.
Ozawa had his ships in two groups one hundred miles apart from each other. The fore group had three carriers, and the rear six, each group escorted by battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. The American fleet's 11 carriers were broken up to four groups.
The battle started shortly after 1000 on 19 Jun with the first wave of 60 Japanese planes attacking the American fleet. 42 of them were shot down, scoring only one bomb hit on USS South Dakota. The second wave consisted of 128 planes, and 97 of them were lost without even making any significant damage to the American ships, although Warrant Officer Sakio Komatsu's name must be mentioned for his bravery: immediately after taking off from the Taiho, he saw a torpedo swimming straight for his home carrier. He dropped his plane and plunged into the ocean, intercepting the torpedo with his fighter. He sacrificed himself, and his carrier would be saved, for now. The third attack's 47 planes had a better casualty rate, losing only 7, but they did not make it through the American escort ships, let alone seeing the American carriers. By the time the fourth attack wave of 82 planes were sent, it was already almost 1400 in the afternoon, and 54 of them were shot down.
During the day of 19 June 1944, between Ozawa's attacks on the American fleet and the attacks on Guam and Rota, 429 Japanese planes were shot down. The Americans lost 29. This battle was commonly referred to among the US Navy men as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot". Many historians agree that this event marked the end of Japanese naval air power. Coming events would force Japan to rely on the guns of its battleships and cruisers, driving the Japanese to believe even more deeply in seeking Mahan's decisive battle with the US fleets.
Recall that Warrant Officer Komatsu sacrificed himself to save Taiho from the American torpedo. That torpedo came from USS Albacore, a submarine among others in a wolfpack, which found their way to the Japanese carriers during the confusion of battle. Moments after Komatsu's noble self-sacrifice, the Albacore launched another torpedo, and this time struck squarely on the Taiho's starboard side; the Taiho would be filled with leaked fuel vapor and a spark somewhere triggered an explosion that sunk the ship. Another submarine, USS Cavalla, fired six torpedoes into the group, sinking the Shokaku after three of them hit the Pearl Harbor veteran and caused a tremendous explosion. Ozawa escaped his burning flagship, the Taiho, after 1530, and ordered the ships to withdraw from the heavy cruiser Haguro. After losing over 400 pilots and then two precious carriers, Ozawa would finally get his small bit of luck that day as what was left of his fleet escaped American detection for two days, allow him to regroup his ships.
That luck would end, however, as Lieutenant Nelson's scout plane from the USS Enterprise found the Japanese fleet on 21 Jun, leading to Mitscher's order to launch 216 planes against what remained of Ozawa's fleet. The Japanese fleet carrier Hiyo was struck by torpedoes and sunk, and carriers Zuikaku and Chiyoda and battleship Haruna would be damaged. Although these 216 planes would return later than scheduled and lost 80 in risky night time landings, this attack would be marked as one of the most effective attacks against enemy ships in the entire war yet. By the time Ozawa made his way to Okinawa, he counted only 35 carrier aircraft in his fleet.
24 Jul-2 Aug 1944
The island of Tinian, five miles south of Saipan, was characterized for its sugar plantation. On 24 Jul, 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions landed with supportive bombing from artillery from Saipan and ships from the sea. Tinian made weapons history as it was where the first napalm bomb was used, and where the Fat Man and Little Boy would be loaded onto bombers for Hiroshima and Nagasaki a year after this battle.
Tinian was secured on 2 Aug after more than a week of heavy fighting, however many Japanese soldiers hid in the jungles and outlying small islands, such as Lieuitenant Kinichi Yamada's small garrison on Aguijian island who did not surrender until 4 Sep 1944. Immediately upon the capture of Ushi Point airfield on 26 Jul, construction crew was brought in without delay to begin work to extend the airfield to accommodate B-29 bombers.
A small handful of civilians committed suicide upon sighting American soldiers, as we have seen in Saipan above, but to a much smaller scale.
21 Jul-10 Aug 1944
Guam, gained by the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898, was the largest island in the Marianas and it was an important American base. It was taken by the Japanese days after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Originally it was to be attacked by American forces on 15 Jun but delays with the operations on Saipan and the Japanese naval attack delayed the Guam landing by more than a month. During the delay, the US Navy had little to do, and they spent their time bombarding Guam while the Marines and Army soldiers waited in the cramped transports. 28,761 heavy shells were fired on the island, devastating the Guam defenses and potentially saved thousands of lives among the landing troops. The Japanese intra-island radios were demolished, and half of their 8-inch coastal batteries were disabled or destroyed. Unfortunately, the Guam capital city of Agana was also leveled between the earlier B-24 aerial bombardment and this pre-invasion naval bombardment.
The initial landing took place on 21 Jul on its northwestern beaches, spearheaded by the 3rd Marine Division. Between initial landing at 0828 and 0900, Japanese defenders sank 20 LVTs (Landing Vehicles, Tracked), however, by that night the Marines and the 77th Infantry Division which landed immediately after the Marines were able to secure a beachhead nearly two kilometers deep. The Japanese commander General Takeshi Takashima ordered his garrison of 19,000 to launch several counterattacks, which several of them broke through American lines, however they were largely ineffective. One of the counterattacks took place at the Orote Peninsula, where the Japanese troops enraged and encouraged themselves with sake (Orote had been Japan's spirits depot for the entire region) before charging viciously into the American lines. "Within the lines there were many instances when I observed Japanese and Marines lying side by side, which was mute evidence of the violence of the last assault", observed an American. Elsewhere, at Chonito Cliff, the Japanese counterattack was so fierce that the American Marines were out of ammunition. The Americans there only was able to hold ground and then drive back the Japanese after the Japanese troops went into a state of disarray after the death of several officers.
During the counterattacks, Takashima was killed in action, and was succeeded by Lieutenant General Hideyoshi Obata. With food and ammunition running dangerously low, Obata retreated into the southern mountainous regions of Guam. The American Marines returned to the old Marines parade ground on 29 Jul, and on 10 Aug the island was declared secured with most Japanese defenders killed. Several Japanese soldiers hid in the jungles in hopes of conducting guerrilla warfare. On 8 Dec 1945, three American Marines were ambushed and killed by some of these soldiers. Most of the resistance lasted 17 weeks after Japan had surrendered. On 24 Jan 1972, Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi was discovered by Guam residents, refusing to believe that Japan had surrendered to the Allies. He had survived the 27 years in the mountains on fruit, coconut, and the occasional fish. He returned to Japan a national hero, but he deeply felt the survivor's guilt. "It is with much embarrassment that I have returned alive," he said.
The Conclusion of the Campaign
Watching from the sidelines, Germany's naval attaché to Tokyo noted the change in psyche among top ranks in the IGHQ immediately after the American landings on Saipan:
Vice Admiral Shigeyoshi Miwa, the last commander of the Sixth Fleet, put it very bluntly, "[o]ur war was lost with the loss of Saipan.... The lost of Saipan meant [the Americans] could cut off our shipping and attack our homeland...."
The Japanese pride was greatly hurt by the loss of the Marianas, particularly the fortress of Saipan which was Japanese territory before the Pacific War broke out. As Marquis Kido, Lord Privy Seal of Emperor Showa (Hirohito) noted, "The Japanese people in general had placed much expectation on Saipan. They had throught that Saipan was heavily fortified and heavily defended, but this proved otherwise, and the consequences greatly shocked the Japanese people." With the shame of Americans landing on Saipan, Prime Minister General Tojo was starting to see signs of his commanders losing confidence in him. Even before Saipan was declared secured by the Americans, Tojo's cabinet was starting to fall. Only 22 Jul, he would step down, and was succeeded by General Kuniaki Koiso.
During the night of 9-10 Mar 1945, the residents of Tokyo really felt the impact of Americans making use of the Marianas for their war effort. 325 B-29 bombers dispatched from the Marianas loaded with E-46 incendiary clusters, magnesium bombs, white phosphorus bombs, and napalm flew over Japan; 279 of them targeted Tokyo. They successively flew over Tokyo during a three-hour window in the early morning of 10 Mar, their 1,665 tons of bombs destroyed 267,171 buildings and killed 83,793 civilians. Alice Bowman, an Australian nurse who was imprisoned in Totsuka POW camp some distance outside of Tokyo recalled: "Flames were caught in the swirling winds and danced upward, turning into fireballs feverishly feeding upon themselves. Explosions tortured the air and the shocking scene took on the spectacle of a volcano in violent eruption." The destruction was also observed from high above; pilots of latter waves of bombers reported detection of the stench of burning flesh as they flew 4,900 to 9,200 feet over the city. Unfortunately, although it was to be the largest carpet bombing raid against Japanese cities for the remainder of the war, it was only the start of a bombing program aimed at bombing Japan into submission. Most of these bombing missions were to be launched from the airfields in the Mariana Islands.
Bruce Gamble, Darkest Hour
William Manchester, Goodbye, Darkness
Dan van der Vat, The Pacific Campaign
Mariana Islands Campaign and the Great Turkey Shoot Interactive Map
Mariana Islands Campaign and the Great Turkey Shoot Timeline
|11 May 1944||Japanese Navy devised Operation A-Go for the defense of the Mariana Islands; it would be launched in Jun 1944.|
|15 Jun 1944||American troops invaded Saipan, Mariana Islands.|
|16 Jun 1944||US submarines detected two large Japanese fleets near the Philippine Islands, headed towards the Mariana Islands.|
|19 Jun 1944||US carrier aircraft won a decisive victory over their Japanese counterparts in the Mariana Islands, shooting down over 200 planes with only 20 losses in what became known as the Marianas Turkey Shoot, or, officially, Battle of the Philippine Sea.|
|14 Jul 1944||In the Mariana Islands, US Seventh Air Force P-47 Thunderbolt fighters based on Saipan again struck Tinian Island. At Guam, US battleships joined in on the pre-invasion bombardment while transport USS Dickerson delivered US Navy underwater demolition specialists to survey landing beaches on the island.|
|15 Jul 1944||In the Mariana Islands, US Seventh Air Force P-47 fighters based on Saipan attacked targets on Tinian.|
|16 Jul 1944||In the Mariana Islands, P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft of US Seventh Air Force from Saipan attacked Japanese targets at Tinian. At Merizo, Guam, Japanese Army troops massacred 30 civilians.|
|17 Jul 1944||US Navy underwater demolition teams began destroying beach obstacles at Guam, Mariana Islands.|
|18 Jul 1944||In the Mariana Islands, American P-47 fighters based on Saipan attacked Japanese positions on Tinian and Pagan.|
|19 Jul 1944||In the Mariana Islands, US 7th Air Force launched P-47 aircraft based on Saipan to attack Tinian.|
|20 Jul 1944||P-47 aircraft of US 7th Air Force continued to attack Japanese positions on Tinian while US Navy warships bombarded Guam in the Mariana Islands. Meanwhile, underwater demolition teams conducted their final missions to remove obstacles on the invasion beaches at Asan and Agat on Guam.|
|21 Jul 1944||US 3rd Marine Division landed near Agana and US 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landed near Agat on Guam, Mariana Islands; the landing was supported by US Navy Task Force 53. US Navy and US Army aircraft attacked Tinian of Mariana Islands, Eniwetok of Marshall Islands, and Truk and Yap of Caroline Islands as indirect support. Troops of the US Army 77th Infantry Division arrived in the afternoon; their landing was difficult due to the lack of LVT vehicles. A mile-deep beachhead was established at both landing sites by sundown. The Japanese attempted a counterattack during the night, which was repulsed.|
|24 Jul 1944||American troops landed on Tinian, Mariana Islands.|
|28 Jul 1944||US Marines captured the old US Marines parade ground on Guam, Mariana Islands.|
|10 Aug 1944||US forces declared Guam, Mariana Islands secured.|
|24 Jan 1972||Japanese Army Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi was discovered in the mountains by residents of Guam, Mariana Islands, who refused to believe that Japan had lost the war 26 years prior.|
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Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, 16 Mar 1945