Chapter 5: The Fight for Central Saipan1
On the evening of 21 June, the day before the attack northward was scheduled to begin, Northern Troops and Landing Force reported its combat efficiency as “very satisfactory,”2 in spite of the 6,165 casualties incurred since 15 June. During the fight for southern Saipan, the 2nd Marine Division had suffered 2,514 killed, wounded, and missing, while the losses of the 4th Marine Division totaled 3,628. The 27th Infantry Division, which had not taken part in the costly assault landings, lost 320 officers and men in overrunning Aslito field and seizing the approaches to Nafutan Point. General Harper’s XXIV Corps Artillery and the provisional antiaircraft group had yet to lose a man. Force troops had suffered two casualties, both men wounded in action.
The Attack of 22 June
Numerous as these casualties had been, General Holland Smith believed his two Marine divisions were capable of advancing a maximum distance of 4,000 yards by dusk on 22 June. The 2nd Marine Division was to move forward a few hundred yards along the western coast, to seize Mount Tipo Pale in the center of its zone, and on the right to capture Mount Tapotchau, some 3,000 yards forward of the line of departure. While General Watson’s troops wheeled past Mount Tapotchau, General Schmidt’s 4th Marine Division would keep pace by securing the series of ridges along the division boundary, driving the enemy from Hill 600, and capturing the two terrain features which lay southeast of Mt. Tapotchau that later bore the ominous names of Death Valley and Purple Heart Ridge. If the divisions became extended over too wide an area, Holland Smith planned to commit the 27th Infantry Division, less the regiment which was in action at Nafutan Point. Uncertain where the Army troops might be needed, the corps commander directed Ralph Smith to select routes over which his men might march to the assistance of either frontline division. A total of 18 artillery battalions was to support the main attack.
At 0600 on 22 June, after a 10-minute artillery preparation, the Northern Troops and Landing Force offensive got underway. In the 2nd Marine Division zone, the 2nd Marines stood fast along the coast, while the 6th and 8th
Marines plunged into a tangle of brush-covered ridges and deep gullies. Attacking in the center of the division zone, the 6th Marines had to maintain contact with the stationary 2nd Marines on the left as well as with the advancing 8th Marines. To solve this problem, Colonel Riseley let the progress of the 8th Marines, which had a greater distance to travel, determine his pace. No resistance was encountered until early afternoon, when the 6th Marines began advancing up the slopes of Mount Tipo Pale.
One rifle company sidestepped a ravine strongpoint near the base of the hill and moved unopposed to the summit. The remainder of 3/6 followed the same route to the top of the 1,100-foot peak, but a sheer drop, not shown on the maps, and accurate enemy fire prevented the battalion from moving down the northern slope. While 3/6 made its ascent, the strongpoint below was proving more powerful than anticipated.
The 6th Marines’ scout-sniper platoon was the first unit to attack the ravine which 3/6 had bypassed. These few Marines soon discovered that the Japanese had tunneled into several steep bluffs separated by ravines which extended like fingers from the massive hill. The earlier action had disclosed only one of several mutually supporting positions. A rifle company from 2/2, still attached to Riseley’s command, took over from the scouts the task of reducing the strongpoint. After destroying a few Japanese emplacements, the unit found itself caught in a deadly crossfire and had to withdraw. The enemy would cling to these formidable positions for two additional days before retreating to the north. The presence of this band of determined Japanese caused Riseley to bend his lines back along the fringe of the strongpoint, so that 2/2 faced more to the east than to the north.
In the 4th Division zone meanwhile, General Schmidt, prior to launching his attack, selected an intermediate objective line drawn near the base of Hill 600. Here the regiments could pause to reorganize before advancing the final 2,000 yards that separated them from the day’s objective chosen by General Holland Smith. The rugged terrain as well as the distance to be covered compelled General Schmidt to employ this additional means of controlling the advance.
The 4th Marine Division moved forward with Colonel Batchelder’s 25th Marines on the left, Colonel Hart’s 24th Marines along the east coast, and Colonel Jones’ 23rd Marines in reserve. In front of Batchelder’s troops lay the most jumbled terrain in the division zone, a series of four ridges that had for control purposes been labeled as O-A, O-B, O-C, and O-D. The last of these coincided with the intermediate objective. Fortunately, the regimental frontage was narrow enough to permit Batchelder to attack in a column of battalions, a formation that gave him a great degree of flexibility. Should he have difficulty in keeping contact with adjacent units, he would have enough reserve strength to extend his lines.
Lieutenant Colonel Chambers’ 3/25 led the column, occupying O-A by 0630. While the unit was reorganizing, the enemy counterattacked, triggering a violent fight that cost the Japanese 90
dead. Three successive commanders of Company K, the Marine unit hardest hit, were either killed or wounded, but the American attack quickly rolled forward. O-B, only lightly defended, was captured, and by 1400, 3/25 had overcome increasing resistance to seize O-C. During the advance, Colonel Batchelder had committed Lieutenant Colonel Hudson’s 2nd Battalion to seal a gap on the regimental right flank.
As Chambers’ men approached O-D, each of the two assault companies kept physical contact with elements of the flanking battalion, but not with each other, thus opening a hole in the center of the line. The battalion commander inserted his reserve into the gap, but he soon had to call for additional help, a company from Mustain’s 1/25, to extend his line still farther to the right. The attack on O-D was halted short of its goal by fire from caves dug into the ridge itself and from a patch of woods just south of the objective. The 3rd Battalion had gained almost 2,000 yards during the day.
Late in the afternoon, an ammunition dump exploded near Chambers’ observation post. The battalion commander was stunned by the blast, and Major James Taul, the executive officer, took over until the following day when Chambers resumed his duties. The major launched another attack toward O-D, but his men were unable to dislodge the Japanese from the woods at the base of the objective.
While Colonel Batchelder’s regiment was fighting for the succession of ridges within its zone, Colonel Hart’s 24th Marines were advancing along the shore of Magicienne Bay. Gullies leading toward the beach and outcropping of rock slowed the unit, but Hart’s men nevertheless made steady progress. Although the frequent detours caused by the broken terrain opened numerous gaps within the regiment, General Schmidt was more concerned about the difficulty that Hart’s Marines were having in keeping contact with Batchelder’s troops. At midday, he ordered the 23rd Marines, the division reserve, into line between the two regiments.
At 1500, after marching 2,500 yards from its assembly area, Colonel Jones’ regiment attacked in a column of battalions. Lieutenant Colonel Haas’ 1/23 was in the lead; the 2nd Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Dillon, followed, while 3/23, commanded by Major Treitel, served as regimental reserve. The formidable terrain rather than the ineffectual enemy resistance slowed the advance, so that by dusk, 1/23 had halted some 200 yards south of the day’s intermediate objective.
As darkness drew near, the 4th Marine Division completed adjusting its lines to thwart Japanese attempts at infiltration. On the right, 2/24 was inserted between the 1st and 3rd Battalions, but this move did not restore the regimental line. Along the division boundary, the shift of one company from 3/25 caused Taul’s battalion to lose contact with Lieutenant Colonel Tompkins’ 1/29, on the right of the 2nd Division. A company from 1/25 went into position to prevent the enemy from exploiting the break.
On 22 June, General Holland Smith decided to commit his corps reserve, the 27th Division. His operation order for that date fixed the next day’s
objective. This line included the village of Laulau on the east, the central stronghold of Mt. Tapotchau, and a point on the west coast about 1,000 yards south of Garapan. General Ralph Smith’s soldiers were to pass through the lines of the 25th Marines and at 1000 on 23 June attack toward this line. When the objective had been taken, the division would continue its effort upon order from Northern Troops and Landing Force. Since the corps commander was releasing the 106th Infantry to division control, General Ralph Smith elected to attack with two regiments abreast, Colonel Ayres’ 106th on the left and Colonel Kelley’s 165th on the right.
Holland Smith, on the afternoon of 22 June, decided that a single battalion should be able to clean up Nafutan Point. Ralph Smith felt otherwise, expressing belief that the Japanese might pierce the thin American line to storm Aslito field. Nevertheless, he prepared to execute the decision of his superior commander. At 2100 on 22 June, he issued a field order to 2/105, which was at that time in corps reserve, directing that unit and its attached tanks “to continue operations to mop-up remaining enemy detachments in the Nafutan Point area.” After the Nafutan pocket had been reduced, the battalion would, read the Army general’s directive, revert to corps control as corps reserve.
At 2330 on 22 June, the division CP received a practically identical order from the corps commander. It included the subject of reversion to corps control. There was just one difference between the two directives: Holland Smith indicated that the attack would begin “at daylight,” whereas Ralph Smith omitted those words. The corps commander subsequently objected that the Army general had issued an order to a unit not at the time under his tactical control. A relative fact was that the division commander had not been granted authority regarding use of the corps reserve.
This was Ralph Smith’s second mistaken order to a unit not under his tactical control, the previous instance occurring on 21 June and also involving the 105th Infantry.
While preparations to resume the Nafutan Point mop up were underway, Colonels Ayres and Kelley were already selecting the routes which their regiments would follow to move into the front lines to the north. In the south, 2/105 extended its lines, while the remainder of the regiment reverted to corps reserve.3
On 22 June, the two Marine Divisions had advanced half the distance to the day’s objective at a cost of 157 casualties.4 The Americans, however, now faced General Saito’s main line of resistance. Here, the enemy had concentrated some 15,000 men, two-thirds of them from the 43rd Division and the remainder either sailors or stragglers whose “fighting ability is reduced by
lack of weapons.”5 When the NTLF attempted to overcome these defenders, the number of Americans killed and wounded was bound to soar.
At Nafutan Point, most of the day was spent in adjusting the front line. As a result of the shifting of its components, 2/105 had to yield some of the ground it already had captured. Opposing the reinforced battalion were approximately 1,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians, a force about equal in numbers to the Army unit.
On the morning of 22 June, Army Air Forces fighters (P-47 Thunderbolts) of the 19th Fighter Squadron landed at Aslito field. The planes, which had been launched from escort carriers, were refitted with launching racks and armed with rockets by ground crews already at the airstrip. By midafternoon, eight of the P47s had taken off on their first support missions of the Saipan campaign.6
By Saipan standards, the night of 22-23 June was comparatively quiet. Four Japanese who attempted to infiltrate along the division boundary were killed in a hand-to-hand struggle. The 14th Marines and 106th Infantry were shelled by enemy batteries located near Mount Tapotchau, and artillery pieces on Tinian damaged an LST off the Green Beaches before they were silenced by counterbattery fire.
Japanese aircraft also saw action. Late in the afternoon, a torpedo plane scored a hit on the Maryland, forcing that battleship to steam to Pearl Harbor for repairs. A night aerial attack on the Charan Kanoa anchorage did no damage to American shipping.
23 June: Increasing Resistance
The corps attack of 23 June was a continuation of the previous day’s effort. Once again, the 2nd Marines served as pivot for the 2nd Marine Division. In the adjacent 6th Marines zone, Lieutenant Colonel William K. Jones’ 1/6 also held its ground to enable 3/6, commanded by Major Rentsch, to come abreast. The 3rd Battalion advanced about 400 yards, but the pockets of resistance on Tipo Pale could not be eliminated. During the day, 2/2 was pinched out as the frontage became more narrow. This unit was returned to Colonel Stuart’s 2nd Marines in exchange for Major Hunt’s 2/6, which was reunited with its parent regiment.
Colonel Wallace’s 8th Marines benefited from an aerial search by observation planes of VMO-2 for routes leading to Mount Tapotchau. The reconnaissance disclosed a suitable supply road, but the observer also discovered that the only feasible avenue by which to approach the summit, a ridge near the division boundary, was dominated by a towering cliff not yet in American hands.
Resistance in the 8th Marines zone proved light at first, but the attack had to be halted at 1130 because the adjacent 106th Infantry had not yet crossed its line of departure. Until the Army regiment began moving forward, Tompkins’ 1/29 would be unable to advance. At 1345, General Watson ordered the
8th Marines to continue its attack. Colonel Wallace shifted Chamberlin’s 2/8 to protect the exposed flank, and the Marines surged forward. Although 1/29 easily secured the cliff that barred the way to Mount Tapotchau, Lieutenant Colonel Hays’ 1/8 collided with a force of 30 Japanese supported by six machine guns. These defenders, entrenched in a ravine at the left of the regimental zone, succeeded in halting the battalion advance.
As dusk approached, Chamberlain visited Major Almerin C. O’Hara at the 2/106 command post in an attempt to establish contact with the Army unit. General Ralph Smith soon arrived on the scene and permitted Chamberlin to borrow O’Hara’s Company F in order to post it on the right flank of the 8th Marines. The officers involved reasoned that the Army battalion could more easily maintain contact with one of its own companies than with a Marine unit, but such was not the case. Although the additional company gave added protection to Wallace’s flank, O’Hara could not extend far enough to the left to seal the opening, and for the next few days F/106 fought as a part of the 8th Marines.
The NTLF operation order for 23 June called for the 27th Infantry Division to assume responsibility for the center of the corps front by relieving the 25th Marines. The Marine regiment would then pass into Northern Troops and Landing Force reserve. The two Army regiments, the 106th and 165th Infantry, selected for the relief marched from their assembly areas at 0530, 4½ hours before the offensive was to begin. Within an hour, however, elements of the 165th Infantry had cut across the road over which the other regiment was marching, and the approach had to be halted until the tangled units could be sorted out.
In spite of the confusion, 2/165 and 1/165, Colonel Kelley’s assault battalions, were in position by 1000 in the right of what had been the 25th Marines zone. The colonel recalled that one of the Marine officers judged the combination of terrain and enemy within the zone to be “about the worst he had run into yet.”7 To the front was a series of ridges and gullies that were dotted with camouflaged weapons positions. With the zone of the 106th Infantry on the left and parallel to the division line of advance was a steep slope, overshadowed by Mount Tapotchau and honeycombed with caves.8 The 165th Infantry launched its attack against this formidable defensive network at about 1015, but the adjacent Army regiment was not yet in position. Colonel Ayres’ unit, arriving one company at a time, did not move forward until 1055.
Throughout the zone of the 27th Infantry Division, the enemy made a determined fight. Colonel Kelley, like Colonel Wallace of the 8th Marines, suspended his advance to enable the 106th Infantry to come abreast, but Colonel Ayres’ soldiers were stopped at the strongpoint dubbed Hell’s Pocket. Although 2/106 was ordered into line on the regimental left, Ayers could not maintain physical contact with the
company dispatched to the 8th Marines. The 165th Infantry, however, enjoyed some success, nearing the southern extremity of Purple Heart Ridge before being fought to a standstill.
The 4th Marine Division attacked with the 23rd and 24th Marines on line. Lieutenant Colonel Dillon’s 2/23 seized Hill 600. “This was very difficult terrain,” reported the battalion commander, “and it was hard enough scaling the hill, let alone fighting up it.”9 From the summit, Marine observers could view the whole of Kagman Peninsula, the area to be seized during the next phase of the battle. While Dillon’s men were destroying the defenders of Hill 600 with grenades and flamethrowers, Colonel Hart’s 24th Marines pushed all the way to Laulau. Because the adjacent 27th Infantry Division had been stalled, the 4th Marine Division line was echeloned to the left rear, extending from Laulau past Hill 600 to the right flank of the 165th Infantry.
The NTLF operations map was little changed from the previous day. Although the 2nd Marine Division had made gains on either flank of Tipo Pale and the 4th Marine Division had advanced about 1,000 yards along the coast, the Army division had accomplished very little. At Nafutan Point, the situation was practically unchanged. At day’s end, one platoon manned a temporary perimeter atop Mount Nafutan, but otherwise the battle position was the same as before. (See Map 18.)
“The Commanding General Is Highly Displeased”
During the afternoon of 23 June, General Watson had two rifle companies formed from among his divisional shore party units. As more of the cargo handlers became available, additional units would be formed to serve as part of the division reserve. Since the 2nd Marine Division soon would be advancing upon Garapan, the 2nd Marines removed the minefield sown to block the coastal road.
Northern Troops and Landing Force, like General Watson’s headquarters, turned its attention to maintaining a strong reserve. The 25th Marines, relieved by the 27th Infantry Division, withdrew to Hill 500 to await further orders.
The headquarters area of the 10th Marines and its fire direction center were heavily shelled during the night. The regimental executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph E. Forsyth, was killed and several key officers and noncommissioned officers were wounded. Communication facilities were badly damaged and 1/10 had to take over the direction of artillery support for the 2nd Division. It was the 27th Infantry Division, however, that saw the fiercest action between darkness on 23 June and dawn of the 24th. Five of six Japanese tanks that attempted to knife along the boundary between the Army regiments were destroyed; a later enemy attack proved more damaging. Five tanks accompanied by infantry struck the lines of the 106th Infantry, and again all but one of the vehicles were destroyed. The survivor, however, burst through the American defenses to
set fire to a stockpile of ammunition. The resultant explosions forced the 3rd Battalion to fall back until the flames had died away. An attack up the western slopes of Hill 600 was beaten off by the 23rd Marines, assisted by 1/165. Japanese aerial attacks during the afternoon and evening accomplished nothing at the cost of two enemy planes, but an early morning raid on the vessels off Charan Kanoa resulted in 18 American casualties at no loss to the marauders.
Holland Smith was angered by the failure of the 27th Infantry Division to advance. During the afternoon of the 23rd, as the attack was grinding to a halt, he had discussed the situation with Major General Sanderford Jarman, the Army officer in command of the Saipan garrison.10 The NTLF commander asked Jarman to visit Ralph Smith at the 27th Division command post to see what could be done to get the unit moving. Later Jarman recalled:–
I talked to General [Ralph] Smith and explained the situation as I saw it and that I felt from reports from the corps commander that his division was not carrying its full share. He immediately replied that such was true; that he was in no way satisfied with what his regimental commanders had done during the day and that he had been with them and pointed out to them the situation. He further indicated to me that he was going to be present tomorrow, 24 June, with this division when it made its jump-off and he would personally see to it that the division went forward. ... He appreciated the situation and thanked me for coming to see him and stated that if he didn’t take the division forward tomorrow he should be relieved.11
Both Holland and Ralph Smith agreed that the Army division would have to press its attack more vigorously.
On the following morning, the Marine general sent a dispatch that left his Army subordinate with no doubts concerning his attitude toward the recent performance of the 27th Infantry Division:
Commanding General is highly displeased with the failure of the 27th Division ... to launch its attack as ordered at King Hour  and the lack of offensive action displayed by the division in its failure to advance and seize the objective O-5 when opposed only by small-arms and mortar fire. ...
The NTLF commander then pointed out that, because the 27th Infantry Division had failed to advance, the two Marine divisions were forced to suspend offensive operations to prevent “dangerous exposure of their interior flanks.” Finally, he directed that “immediate steps” be taken to get the stalled Army unit moving forward.12
In stating that the 27th Infantry Division had been stopped by fire from small arms and mortars, Holland Smith underestimated the opposition which the soldiers had encountered. Tanks and mountain howitzers supported those portions of the 118th and 136th Infantry Regiments entrenched in front of the Army division. The strength of the 136th Infantry Regiment, which also occupied positions in the 2nd Marine Division zone, was less than 1,000 men. The other regiment, strung out from Mount Tapotchau to
Magicienne Bay, was far under its peak strength of 2,600.13
Although their ranks had been seriously depleted, the defenders were posted on terrain ideal for their purpose. Any unit attempting to push rapidly along the floor of Death Valley would be exposed to fire from the slopes leading from Mount Tapotchau on the left and from Purple Heart Ridge on the right. On 23 June, Colonel Ayres, whose 106th Infantry zone included a portion of Tapotchau’s slopes as well as part of the valley itself, had refrained from bypassing Hell’s Pocket to advance across the level ground beyond. When asked what would have happened had he attacked vigorously up the valley, Ayers responded: “My candid opinion is that the regiment would have disappeared.”14
Death Valley, then, was ringed with strong defenses, and the task facing Ralph Smith’s division was more difficult than the corps commander realized at the time. Yet, the 27th Infantry Division commanding general, who had toured his front lines on 23 June, accepted Holland Smith’s criticism, as reported by General Jarman, and admitted his own displeasure with the actions of some of his subordinates. Ralph Smith apparently believed that the fortifications to his front were strong but not impregnable. The next day’s attack, he had vowed, would be both promptly and vigorously executed.
On the ground overlooking Death Valley, the Japanese were equally determined to stop the renewed attack. General Saito’s line was threatened in three places—around Tipo Pale, at the mouth of Death Valley, and along the shores of Magicienne Bay. In spite of this pressure from the front and the increasing bombardment of rear areas, General Saito was confident that his men would make the best possible use of the rugged terrain of Saipan. “The 43rd Division units, with the firm decision to hold out until the last,” the Saipan headquarters reported, “expect to smash the enemy.”15
The Battle Renewed
The next objective of Northern Troops and Landing Force was a line extending from the southern part of Garapan due east to the opposite coast of the island. Between the present front lines and this distant objective lay Mount Tapotchau, Death Valley, Purple Heart Ridge, and the whole of Kagman Peninsula. The 2nd Marine Division was to enter Garapan, advance some 2,000 yards beyond Mount Tipo Pale, and overrun Tapotchau. The 27th Infantry Division, would continue advancing on the 2nd Marine Division right, while the 4th Marine Division would pivot to the east, capture Kagman Peninsula, and then pass into corps reserve. Thus, when the objective line was reached, the battle would enter a new phase, with two-thirds of Saipan in American hands and two divisions moving forward to secure the remainder.
On 24 June, the principal components
of Northern Troops and Landing Force were to begin their drive toward the objective. Colonel Batchelder’s 25th Marines would remain in the area of Hill 500, sending out patrols to eliminate the Japanese lurking around Lake Susupe. At Nafutan Point, 2/105 was to continue its operations against the isolated Japanese pocket.
In the 2nd Marine Division zone, General Watson ordered Colonel Stuart’s 2nd Marines to take the offensive. After a swift initial advance, the regiment encountered more vicious fighting as it neared the town. Lieutenant Colonel Kyle’s 1st Battalion, on the right of Major Harold K. Throneson’s 3/2, soon collided with a Japanese outpost located on a ridge southeast of Garapan. Fire from mortars and 105-mm howitzers enabled the Marines to gain the crest, but the enemy promptly counterattacked. Fortunately for the Americans, the north face of the ridge was so steep that it was almost impossible to scale. “Difficulties notwithstanding,” one observer has written, “the Japanese made the effort; but, with two hands required to scale the slope and another to throw grenades or wave sabers, they were one hand short from the outset.”16
After beating back the counterattack, the Marines began digging foxholes overlooking Radio Road in the southern part of Garapan. The 3rd Battalion was in the midst of its preparations for the night when seven enemy tanks, unprotected by infantry, charged from the ruined town. Medium tanks and self-propelled 75s destroyed six of the vehicles and sent the seventh fleeing for cover. The arrival of the two-company provisional battalion that had been formed from among the shore party gave added depth to the regimental defenses.
In the center of the 2nd Marine Division zone of action, 1/6 advanced 900 yards over comparatively open terrain, but 3/6, on the regimental right, was slowed by cliffs and ravines. The pocket north of Tipo Pale defied efforts to destroy it, but the southern and eastern slopes of the mountain were by now secured. Because the broken ground on the right had caused such uneven progress, Major Rentsch’s 3/6 ended the day holding a 1,500-yard frontage. Since a rifle company from 2/2 and another from 2/6 had joined its three rifle companies on line, the 3rd Battalion was able to establish contact throughout its zone.
On the division right, where the 8th Marines were battling toward Mount Tapotchau, Lieutenant Colonel Hays’ 1/8 again attacked the pocket of resistance that had stopped the previous day’s advance. While infantrymen attempted to keep the defenders pinned down, engineers armed with demolitions, rocket launchers, and flamethrowers crawled across the jagged coral to seal or burn enemy-infested caves. By late afternoon, the strongpoint had been reduced, freeing the battalion to continue its advance.
While Hays’ men were eliminating the strongpoint within their zone, Major Larsen’s 3/8 and, on the far right, Tompkins’ 1/29 were approaching Tapotchau as rapidly as the terrain and the need to protect their flanks would permit. Tompkins’ unit was pushing along an uneven plateau, a coral
formation that resembled a stairway leading toward the mountain. Trees and vines choked a part of the battalion zone, and, as happened so often during the Saipan campaign, the unit became overextended. Colonel Wallace then ordered 2/8 to protect Tompkins’ flank and also posted his 37-mm antitank guns along the ridge separating the 2nd Marine and 27th Infantry Divisions.
As the 2nd Marine Division surged forward, General Ralph Smith launched an attack which, he believed, would redeem the failure of the day before. The results, however, were disappointing. On the right, Colonel Kelley detoured 3/165 through the area already overrun by the 23rd Marines so that the battalion could take up a position on the eastern slopes of Purple Heart Ridge. Although the Army regiment gained little ground, it was now in position to exert pressure from two directions against the formidable ridge.
In spite of pressure from the division commanding general, the 106th Infantry again failed to penetrate beyond Hell’s Pocket. The action was much sharper than before. Prior to its relief during the afternoon, 3/106 suffered 14 killed and 109 wounded, more than twice the number of casualties it had endured on the previous day. In summing up the action of 24 June, Colonel Ayres stated that his regiment had been “thrown back onto the original line of departure.”17
Having for two days bloodied his fists against the gates of Death Valley, Ralph Smith now decided upon a new approach. By making an attack along Purple Heart Ridge, he hoped to knife past the valley and establish firm contact with the Marine divisions, leaving one of Ayres’ battalions to contain the bypassed Japanese.18 Holland Smith however, simultaneously issued orders to continue the attack up the valley.19 Before the two men had resolved this conflict, Ralph Smith had been relieved. General Jarman, the new commanding general, would decide to try the scheme of maneuver proposed by his predecessor.
While the main body of the 27th Infantry Division was hammering at the defenses to its front, the battalion at Nafutan Point was making little headway. On 25 June, 2/105 was to continue its attack under the command of Colonel Geoffrey M. O’Connell, chief of staff of the island garrison force. Responsibility for reducing the stronghold now rested with the Saipan Garrison Force.20
On 24 June, General Schmidt’s 4th Marine Division began pivoting toward Kagman Peninsula. The 23rd Marines, on the left, moved around an enemy outpost near Hill 66 to advance onto the peninsula itself. This turning movement, carried out against moderate resistance, exposed the left flank of the unit, which was separated by almost 1,000 yards from the positions held by the adjacent 165th Infantry. The 24th Marines, turning on a shorter radius, kept pace, so that by dusk the
division front lines formed an arc that encompassed almost one-third of Kagman Peninsula.
To the weary Japanese, the oncoming Marines seemed invincible. General Saito’s chief of staff reported that “300-400 troops along with four or five tanks have broken through Chacha in the area of the eastern foot of Tapotchau [near the base of Kagman Peninsula] .” He went on to confess that, though the 43rd Division was doing its best, the forces in the area were “reduced to the condition where we cannot carry out this plan [holding the cross-island line] with our present fighting strength.” The enemy officer then repeated a call for reinforcements which he had made on the previous day.21
The Relief of General Ralph Smith22
In his conversation with General Jarman, Holland Smith had predicted that summary relief of an Army officer, if such an incident should take place, was bound to stir up a controversy. On 24 June, however, the corps commander decided, come what may, to embark on “one of the most disagreeable tasks I have ever been forced to perform.”23 The Marine general, in a conference with Admirals Turner and Spruance, stated the problem, and Spruance, the overall commander, directed Holland Smith to replace Ralph Smith with Jarman.24 “No other action,” the Fifth Fleet commander later observed, “seemed adequate to accomplish the purpose.”25
In requesting authority to relieve Ralph Smith from command of the 27th Infantry Division, Holland Smith stated that such action was necessary to give the corps commander “sufficient authority to cause Army units within landing forces to conduct operations in accordance with his own tactical orders.” As examples of his subordinate’s failure to follow orders, the Marine general cited the two instances, on 21 and 22 June, when Ralph Smith had issued instructions to units under corps control and the fact that the attack of 23 June had been delayed because of the late arrival of components of the 27th Infantry Division.26 The basic reasons he stressed, however, for this drastic action were the “defective performance” of the Army division and its need of “a leader who would make it toe the mark.”27
No sooner had the relief been accomplished than the expected storm of
controversy began to break. Although not included in the chain of command for the Marianas operation, Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson, Jr., ranking Army officer in the Central Pacific, apparently was angered that the change had been made without his knowledge. When Ralph Smith reached Hawaii, Richardson appointed him, as a gesture of confidence, commanding general of the 98th Infantry Division. The Army lieutenant general also convened a board of officers to inquire into the circumstances surrounding what some of his fellow officers considered “the slur on their service implied by the relief of Ralph Smith.”28
The board, headed by Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, Jr., could examine only those reports contained in Army files and hear testimony only from Army officers. Yet, in spite of its ex parte nature, the Buckner board concluded that Holland Smith had the authority to relieve his Army subordinate and that he issued in a proper fashion the orders effecting that relief. The investigators, however, objected that the Marine general, unaware of the resistance that the 27th Infantry Division had encountered, had taken action that was “not fully justified by the facts.”29 The report of the board proceedings also contained recommendations that Ralph Smith’s future assignments not be adversely affected by the Saipan incident, that the senior Army commander be fully informed of theater and JCS policies concerning command relationships, and finally that “when it is necessary to combine elements of two or more services into one major unit, the most careful consideration be given to the personality and qualifications of the senior commanders concerned.”30 The Army board thus implied that Holland Smith, though his action was legally correct, had been more vigorous than circumstances warranted. The Marine general, the board members appear to have believed, was singularly lacking in tact.
Upon studying the Buckner report, certain of General Marshall’s advisers, though they did not approve of Holland Smith’s action, admitted that the 27th Infantry Division had not been performing as well as it should have been, principally because certain of Ralph Smith’s subordinates lacked vigor. These officers nonetheless believed that the relief of the division commanding general was not necessary.31 Once again, the Marine general’s judgment and tact were questioned rather than his right to effect a change of command.
During the hearings, General Richardson visited Saipan, ostensibly to inspect Army forces, and engaged in a heated argument with Holland Smith. The spirit of harmony that had so far characterized the Central Pacific campaign was fast evaporating. In order to remove the occasion of the friction, the War Department had Ralph Smith recalled from Hawaii and eventually assigned to the European Theater of Operations. After Saipan had been declared secured, Holland Smith assumed command of Fleet Marine Force,
Pacific, a post in which he would have no control over Army divisions. No effort was made, however, to alter the command structure for the imminent Guam operation. There the untested 77th Infantry Division would fight effectively when included with Marine units in a corps commanded by Marine Major General Roy S. Geiger.
The Saipan controversy, by no means typical of inter-service relations in the Pacific, seemed destined to be fought to its conclusion in an atmosphere of comparative secrecy. Unfortunately, somewhat distorted accounts of Ralph Smith’s relief slipped past the censors to touch off a journalistic battle that flared intermittently until 1948. The volcano of adverse publicity that erupted after the Saipan campaign, specifically the article in Time magazine that claimed the soldiers “froze in their foxholes”32 at the entrance to Death Valley, had a crushing effect on the morale of the 27th Infantry Division. The story itself caused a flood of anger, but the arrival of letters from friends and relatives in the United States, who accepted the article as completely accurate, was a cruel blow to the men of the division.33
In November 1944, after the entire Marianas operation had ended, General Marshall suggested to Admiral King that both Nimitz and Richardson, as senior representatives of their services in the Central Pacific, should thoroughly investigate the incident in order to prevent future discord. King refused, for he believed that Richardson’s previous inquiry had prolonged the strife instead of ending it. In the opinion of the Chief of Naval Operations, the record of the Buckner board contained intemperate outbursts against Holland Smith, and statements that did not pertain to the issue under investigation. The admiral was convinced that any new inquiry would degenerate into a clash of personalities, and Marshall apparently adopted a similar point of view, for no further official action was taken.34
The Smith against Smith controversy was caused by failure of the 27th Infantry Division to penetrate the defenses of Death Valley. Holland Smith had told the division commanding general that operations in the area had to be speeded up. Ralph Smith, who was thoroughly familiar with the tactical situation, informed Jarman of his own annoyance with the slow progress of his unit. He told the island commander that he intended to press the attack, but he postponed making the changes in command which, according to Jarman, he intimated might be necessary. The NTLF commander, after stating that the objective had to be taken, saw that no significant progress had been made on 24 June and promptly replaced the officer responsible for the conduct of the Army division. The Army Smith offered his subordinates another chance, but the Marine Smith did immediately what he felt was necessary, without regard for the controversy he knew would follow.
25 June: Mount Tapotchau and Kagman Peninsula
During the evening of 24 June, as the relief of Ralph Smith was taking place, Japanese planes attacked ships clustered off Saipan. Neither antiaircraft guns nor Army night fighters (P-61 Black Widows) in the first of 105 sorties these planes would fly during the campaign, were able to down any of the attackers. The Japanese bombs, however, did no damage35
Ashore, the enemy made repeated attempts to infiltrate the lines of General Watson’s 2nd Marine Division. Colonel Stuart’s 2nd Marines, which saw sporadic action through the night, killed 82 Japanese at a cost of 10 casualties. Enemy artillery and mortar fire forced Major Rentsch, in command of 3/6, to find a new location for his command post and disrupted the battalion communications. Elsewhere the night was quiet, although marred from time to time by the flash of rifle fire or the bursting of a grenade as Japanese attempted to slip through the corps lines.
Although little ground was captured on 25 June by elements of the 2nd Marine Division, General Watson’s troops dealt the Japanese a jarring blow. While the 2nd Marines stood fast on the outskirts of Garapan and the 6th Marines hammered at the Tipo Pale pocket of resistance, the 8th Marines captured Tapotchau, the finest observation post in central Saipan. During the attack against this key height, some 200 members of the shore party finished their tasks at the beaches and formed replacement units for the 6th and 8th Marines.
Some portion of Tapotchau’s bulk lay in the zone of each of the four battalions of Colonel Wallace’s 8th Marines. The western slopes were to the front of the 1st Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hays, and Major Larsen’s 3rd Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Tompkins faced the arduous task of leading his 1/29, still attached to the 8th Marines, directly toward the summit, while 2/8, under Major Chamberlain, had responsibility for securing the eastern slopes. Two routes led toward the mountain crest. Tompkins was to attack through the densely wooded valley and up the steep southern face. Chamberlain would follow the ridge in his sector until abreast of Tapotchau and then veer to the left, advancing up the eastern slope.
By 0930, after two hours of fighting, 1/29 became bogged down in the woods, halted by impassable terrain and enemy fire. On the right, however, 2/8 pushed rapidly to the cliff that marked the eastern terminus of the crescent-shaped mountain. Chamberlain ordered one platoon to scale the cliff, and this unit encountered no opposition. A smaller patrol advanced almost to the crest without being challenged. Since Hays and Larsen were maintaining unceasing pressure on the Japanese defending the western slopes, Tompkins decided to move to his right, pass through Chamberlin’s lines, and approach the summit from the east rather than from the south.
Taking with him a detachment from the division reconnaissance company, the commander of 1/29 moved through the adjacent zone of action, scaled the
cliff, and gained the summit. He then left the scouts to hold the objective and returned to his battalion. During the afternoon, Tompkins withdrew two of his three rifle companies from contact with the enemy. Companies A and C formed in single file for the march to the crest of the mountain, while Company B remained in the valley.
While Tompkins was shifting his main body, the Japanese awoke to the danger and launched a series of counterattacks against the perimeter manned by the reconnaissance detachment. During the afternoon, the enemy suffered 40 casualties and the Marines 3. The Japanese also turned upon the platoon which Chamberlain had posted atop the cliff. A violent concentration of mortar fire forced the 2/8 unit to fall back from its exposed position, but this withdrawal did not affect Tompkins’ plans.
The sun was about to set by the time 1/29 was ready to climb the mountain. The battalion 81-mm mortars blanketed the northern slopes with smoke, while Chamberlin’s mortars and 105s of 3/10 blasted possible enemy positions. Tompkins’ riflemen ascended the cliff, crossed the pinnacle at the eastern end of the hill mass, passed through a saddle, and moved up the gradual slope leading to the summit. Not a man was lost during the climb.
Atop the mountain, the Marines found that their entrenching tools could scarcely dent the rocky surface. The fortunate few whose positions were located on patches of soft earth scratched out foxholes, but the rest used loose stones to build low parapets over which to fire. Shortly before midnight, the Japanese attacked from the northwest. The hastily prepared defenses proved adequate, as evidenced by the 18 Japanese dead discovered the following morning.36
In the center of the island, the 27th Infantry Division, now commanded by General Jarman, attempted to bypass and isolate Death Valley. The 2nd Battalion of Colonel Kelley’s 165th Infantry captured the southern third of Purple Heart Ridge, then yielded its conquests in order to obtain a better defensive position. Meanwhile, 3/165, poised to attack to the west from positions along the division right boundary, had been halted by a pocket of resistance. Since the 3rd Battalion could make no headway, Colonel Kelley ordered the unit to swing through the area already cleared by the 4th Marine Division in order to establish contact with the 23rd Marines. By nightfall, the Army battalion was digging in astride the division boundary just west of the Chacha–Donnay road. (See Map 18.)
Colonel Ayres’ 106th Infantry, less the 2nd Battalion which was maintaining pressure on the southern entrance to Death Valley, had the mission of circling to the right of Purple Heart Ridge and making contact with the 2nd Marine Division in the vicinity of Mount Tapotchau. Had this maneuver succeeded, the powerful strongpoint would have been isolated and an integrated corps front restored. Unfortunately, the enveloping force did not
reach its attack position until midafternoon. The 1st Battalion attempted to advance to the northwest along the road leading from Chacha across the valley, but the drive was stopped by enemy fire. The remainder of Ayres’ maneuver element, 3/106, started toward Chacha, was delayed by road traffic, and elected to return to its original assembly area south of Death Valley. The 2nd Battalion, in the meantime, pushed directly into the valley, enjoyed brief success, but finally was driven back to its line of departure.
Although Jarman’s plan had failed, the 4th Marine Division managed to overrun Kagman Peninsula. General Schmidt’s attack was delayed 45 minutes, for the supporting tanks had difficulty in negotiating the trails leading to the front lines. At 0815, the 23rd and 24th Marines crossed the line of departure to begin their surge toward Mount Kagman and the coast. Although Colonel Hart’s 24th Marines swept forward against extremely weak opposition, Colonel Jones’ 23rd Marines encountered a number of stragglers and was taken under fire by a field piece located in the 27th Infantry Division zone. After coordinating with the Army unit, the 14th Marines opened fire and succeeded in temporarily silencing the weapon.37 By late afternoon, the entire peninsula was in American hands, but the task of mopping up had just begun.
The day’s fighting in central Saipan resulted in important gains. Although the attackers had been unable to seal off Death Valley, Tapotchau had fallen and organized resistance on Kagman Peninsula had been shattered. At Nafutan Point, however, the Japanese made good use of broken terrain and heavy underbrush to stall 2/105, but not until after the battalion had pierced the main defenses. During the afternoon, the 40-mm and 90-mm antiaircraft guns assigned, on the previous day, to support Colonel O’Connell’s troops, registered to fire air bursts in preparation for the attack of 26 June.38
The night of 25 June saw the foiling of a Japanese attempt to send reinforcements from Tinian. An infantry company, moving on 11 barges toward the Saipan coast east of Chacha, was detected by the destroyer USS Bancroft and the destroyer escort USS Elden. One of the barges was reportedly sunk, while the others were frightened back to Tinian.
Except for that incident and the fight atop Mount Tapotchau, the night was quiet. The defenders had been seriously weakened by 11 days of sustained fighting. Even had the Japanese troops been rested and more numerous, the lack of communications probably would have prevented a coordinated counterattack.
During 25 June, the Japanese Thirty-first Army Headquarters could account for a total of about 950 combat troops remaining in the 135th, 136th, and 118th Infantry Regiments. The 47th Independent Mixed Brigade was believed reduced to 100 men and the 7th Independent Engineer Regiment to approximately 70 effective. The 3rd Independent Mountain Artillery Regiment
had no field pieces, and the 9th Tank Regiment only three tanks.39 These estimates took into account only those Army units in communication with Saito’s headquarters. Many other detachments, isolated from the army command post, were fighting savagely. Yet, to General Saito the destruction of the Japanese garrison force seemed inevitable. “Please apologize deeply to the Emperor,” he asked of Tokyo headquarters, “that we cannot do better than we are doing.”40
26 June: The Advance Beyond Tipo Pale
The action on 26 June centered around Tipo Pale, where the 6th Marines had been stalled since the afternoon of the 22nd. Instead of attacking along the stubbornly defended draw, Colonel Riseley’s regiment bypassed the pocket, left one company to mop up, and continued advancing to the north. Lieutenant Colonel Jones’ 1st Battalion moved into position to support by fire the capture of the next objective, a ridge that extended west from Mount Tapotchau. While crossing an open field, 2/6 came under deadly fire from the ridge and was forced to break off the action.
East of Tipo Pale, Tompkins’ 1/29 strengthened its hold on the summit of Tapotchau. The company left behind in the valley succeeded in joining the rest of the battalion, but a patrol sent to the northernmost pinnacle of the jagged mountain was beaten back by the Japanese. Elsewhere in the 8th Marines zone, progress was slow. Along the western approaches to Mount Tapotchau, the 1st and 3rd Battalions battled through dense woods to drive the enemy from a seemingly endless succession of ravines and knolls. For most of the day, these Marines clawed their way forward, dodging grenades and often diving for cover to protect themselves from the plunging fire of machine guns. East of the mountain, 2/8 extended its lines to the rear along the rim of Death Valley, but Chamberlin’s battalion, with its adopted Army company, could not make physical contact with the 106th Infantry.
At the entrance to Death Valley, the battle was beginning again. After gaining ground on the previous day, 2/106 had fallen back under cover of darkness to its original position. General Jarman decided to shift slightly the axis of his main attack, but the most difficult tasks again were assigned to the 106th Infantry. While the 1st Battalion tried to reduce Hell’s Pocket, the other two battalions, instead of circling completely around the valley, were to attack along the western slope of Purple Heart Ridge, then extend to the left in order to close the gap in the corps front. Meanwhile, 2/165 was to mop up the eastern slope of the ridge.
The attack of the 106th Infantry got off to a confused start, and for this reason General Jarman decided to entrust the regiment to Colonel Albert K. Stebbins, his chief of staff.41 By the end of the day the 2nd and 3rd Battalions occupied all but the northern tip of the ridge. The defenders of Hell’s Pocket,
however, hurled 1/106 back on its line of departure.
The 4th Marine Division, charged with mopping up Kagman Peninsula, had been pinched out of the corps line to revert to Northern Troops and Landing Force reserve. Although harassed by artillery fire from enemy batteries in the vicinity of Death Valley, the Marines wiped out the Japanese forces that had survived the fighting of 24 and 25 June. As General Schmidt’s troops were assembling at the close of day, the division, less the 25th Marines at Hill 500, was ordered to re-enter the lines. In place of the 25th Marines, General Schmidt was given Colonel Kelley’s 165th Infantry, now composed of 1/165, 3/165, and 1/105.
The 26th of June also marked the beginning of the systematic hammering of Tinian by ships and planes as well as by artillery. Since 20 June, 155-mm guns, first a battery and then an entire battalion, had been shelling the adjacent island. Now aircraft and cruisers joined in the bombardment. Tinian was divided into two sectors. Each day, the planes would alternate with the ships in blasting both portions of the island. XXIV Corps Artillery was to fire upon any suitable targets not destroyed by the other arms. The naval shelling, however, proved unsatisfactory, for the guns of the cruisers were ill-suited to area bombardment.
Seven Lives for One’s Country42
Operations at Nafutan Point were speeded on 26 June, for O’Connell’s men already had broken the enemy’s main defensive line. Advancing against light opposition and supported by antiaircraft weapons, tanks, and naval gunfire, the soldiers secured Mount Nafutan. Late in the afternoon, the Japanese, their backs to the sea, began resisting more vigorously. Since the attacking companies had limited fields of fire, they withdrew before digging positions for the night. The American line was porous, with a gap on the left flank, and no more than a line of outposts on the right.
The enemy’s slow response to the pressure applied by the Army battalion did not indicate that these disorganized Japanese were beaten. Captain Sasaki, commander of the 317th Infantry Battalion of the ill-fated 47th Independent Mixed Brigade gathered together some 500 soldiers and sailors, survivors from the various units that had helped defend southern Saipan, and issued orders to break out at midnight from the Nafutan Point trap. The men, “after causing confusion at the airfield,” were to assemble at Hill 500, formerly the site of brigade headquarters but now the bivouac area of the 25th Marines. “Casualties will remain in their present positions and defend Nafutan Mount,” Sasaki continued. “Those who cannot participate in combat must commit suicide. Password for the night of 26 June [is] Shichi Sei Hokoku, (Seven Lives for One’s Country).”43
The enemy passed undetected through O’Connell’s line of outposts. The first indication of a banzai attack
came when a group of Japanese attacked the command post of 2/105. The marauders were driven off after killing 4 Americans and wounding 20 others at the cost of 27 Japanese dead. At 0230, the main force stormed across Aslito field, destroying one P-47 and damaging two others.44 Three hours later, the Japanese reached Hill 500, where the 25th Marines greeted them with a deadly barrage of grenades and bullets. Fragments of Sasaki’s group struck positions manned by the 14th Marines and 104th Field Artillery, but both units held firm.
On 27 June the 25th Marines mopped up the Japanese who had survived the night’s action, while 2/105 overran the remainder of Nafutan Point. The soldiers discovered some 550 bodies within their zone. Some of the dead had been killed during the earlier fighting; others had committed suicide in obedience to Sasaki’s instructions. Thus, in a burst of violence, ended the wearisome battle for Nafutan Point.
27 June: The Advance Continues
Considering the effect it had upon the Japanese in central Saipan, the Nafutan Point action might as well have been fought on another planet. If General Saito was aware that 1,000 members of his Saipan garrison had perished within the space of a few days, such knowledge could not have altered his plans. The general already had selected his final line of resistance, a line that stretched diagonally across the island from Tanapag village past Tarahoho to the opposite coast. Here the battle would be fought to its conclusion.45 (See Map 19.)
On 27 June, the 2nd Marine Division, composed of the 2nd, 6th, and 8th Marines plus 1/29, readjusted its lines. Along the coast, the 2nd Marines waited for orders to seize the town of Garapan. North of Tipo Pale, the 6th Marines repulsed an early morning counterattack, moved forward, but again was stopped short of the ridge that had previously stalled its advance. On the right, 1/29 secured the remainder of Mount Tapotchau, while 2/8 sent patrols into the area east of the mountain. During the morning, Lieutenant Colonel Hudson’s 2/25 passed to control of the 2nd Marine Division. General Watson attached the battalion to Colonel Wallace’s 8th Marines. Hudson’s men then relieved Chamberlin’s troops of responsibility for guarding the division right flank.
In the 27th Infantry Division zone, the 106th Infantry made important gains. Two rifle companies of the 1st Battalion circled around Hell’s Pocket to gain the crest of the ridge that formed the division left boundary. Meanwhile, at the northern end of Death Valley, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions succeeded in forming a line across the valley floor. On the eastern slopes of Purple Heart Ridge, 2/165 pushed forward to dig in to the right of 2/106. Although the advance of the Army division had been encouraging, the most spectacular gains of the day were those made by the 4th Marine Division. On the east coast, the 23rd Marines
bypassed a minefield and advanced against intermittent fire to overrun the villages of Donnay and Hashigoru, capture a supply dump, and gain its portion of the corps attack objective. The attached 165th Infantry, made up of 1/165, 3/165, and 1/105, fared almost as well. By dusk, General Schmidt’s lines ran west from the coast and then curved toward the division left boundary, along which 1/165 had encountered stubborn resistance. To maintain contact between that battalion and the units at Death Valley and Purple Heart Ridge, 2/24 was shifted to the 4th Marine Division left flank.
By the coming of darkness on 27 June, the gaps which had marred the corps front were well on their way to being closed. Although Japanese planes bombed both the Charan Kanoa roadstead and Aslito field, there was little infiltration during the night. A truck loaded with 12 enemy soldiers and civilians drove toward the lines held by the 23rd Marines, but an antitank gun destroyed the vehicle and killed its occupants. On Purple Heart Ridge, 2/ 165 was shelled and its commander wounded. Sporadic mortar fire fell in the lines of the 2nd Marines near Garapan, but, all in all, the night was quiet.
28 June: Maintaining Pressure On the Enemy
The Japanese, under steady pressure all along the front, were now preparing defenses to make the area north of Donnay and around Tarahoho secure. While these positions were being completed, those elements of the 118th and 136th Infantry Regiments that were opposing the 27th Infantry Division were to fight to the death. Checking the rapid advance of the 4th Marine Division was the task assigned the 9th Expeditionary Unit and a 100-man detachment from the 9th Tank Regiment.46
The tempo of action in the 2nd Marine Division zone remained fairly slow during 28 June. While the 2nd Marines conducted limited patrols, aircraft, supporting warships, and artillery pounded suspected strongpoints which might be encountered when the regiment resumed its advance. One preparatory air strike resulted in 27 Marine casualties, when a pilot mistook a puff of smoke for the bursting of the white phosphorous shell that was to mark his target and accidentally fired his rockets into a position manned by 1/2.
The 6th Marines made scant progress, for the 2nd Battalion could not drive the Japanese from the ridge to its front. The longest gain made by Colonel Riseley’s regiment was about 200 yards. To the rear, however, the bypassed Tipo Pale pocket was at last completely destroyed.
Colonel Wallace’s 8th Marines, with 2/25 again withdrawn to corps control, found itself up against a formidable barrier, four small hills, one lying within the zone of each battalion. Because of their size in comparison to Tapotchau, the hills were dubbed the Four Pimples. To make identification easier, each of them was given the nickname of the commander of the battalion that was to capture it. Thus, Major William C. Chamberlain of 2/8 was responsible for Bill’s Pimple, Lieutenant
Colonel Rathvon McC. Tompkins of 1/29 for Tommy’s Pimple, Major Stanley E. Larsen of 3/8 for Stan’s Pimple, and Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence C. Hays, Jr., of 1/8 for Larry’s Pimple. (See Map 18.)
As the 8th Marines approached the four hills, enemy resistance increased, so that darkness found the regiment short of its objective. Chamberlin’s 2nd Battalion faced an especially difficult problem in logistics. Because of the rugged terrain, eight stretcher bearers were needed to evacuate one wounded Marine. Thus, a single bullet or grenade could immobilize most of a rifle squad. The battalion, however, did not passively accept enemy fire, for 100 Japanese perished during the day.
Beyond the ridge to the right, Army units again attempted to come abreast of the Marine divisions. Major General George W. Griner, dispatched from Hawaii by General Richardson, assumed command of the 27th Infantry Division on the morning of 28 June, and General Jarman returned to his assigned duties with the garrison force. Griner’s first day of command on Saipan saw the 106th Infantry push a short distance forward in the north, at the same time crushing organized resistance in the bypassed Hell’s Pocket. The regimental gains were made costly by accurate mortar fire and by a daring enemy foray in which two tanks killed or wounded 73 members of the 1st and 2nd Battalions.
Because of the accumulated losses, Griner shifted his units. With only 100 riflemen present for duty,47 3/106 was replaced by the 1st Battalion of the 106th. Company F, which had been under Marine control, now returned to 2/106. On the right, 3/105, idle since its relief at Nafutan Point, entered the battle. With the new battalion came the regimental headquarters, and, as a result, 2/165, which was trying to destroy the knot of resistance at the northern tip of Purple Heart Ridge, was detached from Stebbins’ command and attached to the 105th Infantry.
The 4th Marine Division, which had made such impressive gains on the 27th, paused to adjust its lines. While the 23rd Marines sent patrols 500 yards to its front, the 165th Infantry occupied Hill 700 at the corner of the division’s zone of action. Neither regiment encountered serious opposition, but Colonel Kelley was wounded by mortar fragments and replaced in command of the Army unit by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph T. Hart. Along the left boundary, the attached Army regiment, assisted by 1/24 and 3/24, was unable to make physical contact with General Griner’s division. At dusk on 28 June, the 4th Marine Division lines formed an inverted L, with the 23rd Marines and part of 3/165 facing north, while the rest of 3/165, 1/105, and the two battalions of the 24th Marines faced west.
The darkness of 28-29 June was pierced by the flash of rifles, bursting of grenades, and explosion of aerial bombs. Once again enemy planes raided both the anchorage and the airfield. In a typical night action, the 6th Marines killed 10 members of a
Japanese patrol. The 23rd Marines, however, encountered an unusual situation when a 10-truck enemy convoy, lights ablaze, came rumbling toward the front lines. The Japanese realized where they were heading and beat a hasty retreat before the Marines could open fire.
Success in Death Valley
On 29 and 30 June, the corps line remained almost stationary on its flanks, even though the fighting still blazed in its center. “With the operation two weeks old, everyone on the island felt the weight of fatigue settling down,” a historian of the campaign has written. The Japanese after a succession of bloody reverses, were badly worn, and the American divisions resembled “a runner waiting for his second wind.”48
Although tired, the Marines and soldiers were determined to finish the grim job at hand. Near Garapan, this determination resulted in a cleverly delivered blow against a formidable Japanese redoubt. About 500 yards in front of the 2nd Marines lines, an enemy platoon had entrenched itself on Flametree Hill. During the day, the defenders remained in caves masked by the orange-red foliage that covered the hill. If the regiment should attempt to advance through Garapan, the Japanese could emerge from cover and rake the attackers with devastating fire. Either the enemy had to be lured onto the exposed slopes and scourged with long-range fire, or the hill itself would have to be captured, probably at a large cost to the attackers.
On the morning of 29 June, Marine artillery blasted Flametree Hill, and machine guns raked the tree-covered slope, while mortars placed a smoke screen in front of the objective. When the barrage stopped, the defenders dashed from their caves to repel the expected assault. Since rifle fire could be heard from beyond the smoke, the Japanese opened fire. Suddenly the American mortars began lobbing high explosives onto the hill, the machine guns resumed firing, and artillery shells equipped with time fuses started bursting over the trenches. When the deluge of bullets and shell fragments ended, the weapons on Flametree Hill were silent.
Another accident befell the 2nd Marines on 30 June. A Navy torpedo plane, damaged by enemy fire, crashed into the positions of 1/2, injuring seven infantrymen. The pilot escaped by taking to his parachute at an extremely low altitude.
During the last two days of June, the 6th Marines patrolled the area to its front. Colonel Riseley’s men made no spectacular gains, but the 3rd Battalion managed at last to seize the ridge from which the enemy had blocked the advance. Major Rentsch’s troops gained a foothold on 29 June and, on the following day, secured the remainder of the objective. The capture of this ridge, which lay just north of Tapotchau, placed the regiment “on commanding ground in the most favorable position for continuation of the attack since D-Day.”49
The 8th Marines devoted these two days to finding a route over which tanks could move forward to support the attack against the Four Pimples. On 30 June, while moving toward Stan’s Pimple, the 3rd Battalion captured a road which could be improved adequately by bulldozers. On the far right, Chamberlin’s 2/8 overcame light resistance and seized Bill’s Pimple late in the afternoon of the 30th. The other hills, though blasted by shells and rockets, remained in enemy hands. Prospects for the 8th Marines, however, seemed excellent, for by the evening of 30 June, Army and Marine tanks had reached the front lines, supplies were arriving to sustain the regiment, and the gap along the division boundary was being patrolled by elements of the 106th Infantry.
The 2nd Marine Division, which had suffered 4,488 casualties since D-Day, was employing all three of its regiments on line when the fight for central Saipan came to an end. Since replacement drafts had not yet arrived, support units had been organized to serve as the division reserve. A total of five such companies were available to General Watson on the evening of 30 June.
Success at last crowned the efforts of the 27th Infantry Division, for on 29 and 30 June the soldiers burst through Death Valley and drew alongside the 8th Marines. The 106th Infantry joined the 105th in overrunning the valley, a company from 1/106 wiped out the stragglers trapped in Hell’s Pocket, and 2/165 eliminated the die-hards entrenched on Purple Heart Ridge. Looking back upon the one-week battle, General Schmidt, who later succeeded General Holland Smith as corps commander, observed that: “No one had any tougher job to do.”50 In clearing Death Valley and Purple Heart Ridge, the Army unit sustained most of the 1,836 casualties inflicted upon it since its landing.
Although no further advance was attempted, the 4th Marine Division continued to send patrols beyond its positions. Marine units made only occasional contacts with small groups of Japanese. The 165th Infantry, which yielded some of its frontage to the 23rd Marines, exchanged long-range fire with the enemy.
On the 29th, the 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 24th Marines protected the division left flank, while 2/24 mopped up Japanese infiltrators. Lieutenant Colonel Vandegrift, who had been wounded two days earlier, was evacuated. Command of 3/24 then passed to Lieutenant Colonel Otto Lessing, formerly the executive officer of the 20th Marines.
By dusk on 30 June, the 27th Infantry Division had advanced far enough to relieve 1/24 of responsibility for the southern segment of the left flank. The 4th Marine Division, however, continued to man an L-shaped line, though it encompassed less territory. The 25th Marines remained at Hill 500 in corps reserve. To date the division had suffered 4,454 casualties.
Central Saipan was now under American domination. The front stretched from Garapan past the Four Pimples to the 4th Marine Division left boundary.
Here the lines veered sharply northward to Hill 700, and then extended along a generally straight line from that hill to the eastern coast. Behind the lines, the hectic pace of the first few days had slowed. Of all the supplies carried for the assault troops, all but 1,662 tons had been unloaded by 28 June. (See Map 18.)
In spite of the long routes of evacuation and the difficult terrain, casualties were being moved speedily to the hospitals established on the island. Evacuating the wounded from the combat zone was a more difficult problem after the departure on 23 June of the last of the hospital ships. Transports and cargo vessels, some of them poorly suited to the task, were pressed into service. Since the corps casualty rate declined toward the end of June, these ships, supplemented by planes flying from Aslito field, proved adequate.51
By the evening of 30 June, the Japanese had begun withdrawing to their final defensive line. During the next phase of the Saipan operation, General Holland Smith planned to thrust all the way to Tanapag. Near Flores Point, the 2nd Marine Division would be pinched out, leaving the 27th Infantry Division and 4th Marine Division face to face with Saito’s recently prepared defenses. (See Map 19.)