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D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan

D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan

by Harold J. Goldberg

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In June 1944 the attention of the nation was riveted on events unfolding in France. But in the Pacific, the Battle of Saipan was of extreme strategic importance. This is a gripping account of one of the most dramatic engagements of World War II. The conquest of Saipan and the neighboring island of Tinian was a turning point in the war in the Pacific as it made the


In June 1944 the attention of the nation was riveted on events unfolding in France. But in the Pacific, the Battle of Saipan was of extreme strategic importance. This is a gripping account of one of the most dramatic engagements of World War II. The conquest of Saipan and the neighboring island of Tinian was a turning point in the war in the Pacific as it made the American victory against Japan inevitable. Until this battle, the Japanese continued to believe that success in the war remained possible. While Japan had suffered serious setbacks as early as the Battle of Midway in 1942, Saipan was part of her inner defense line, so victory was essential. The American victory at Saipan forced Japan to begin considering the reality of defeat. For the Americans, the capture of Saipan meant secure air bases for the new B-29s that were now within striking distance of all Japanese cities, including Tokyo.

Editorial Reviews

Spencer C. Tucker

"The book's great strength is its collected recollections of U.S. participants, chiefly former Marines. This alone would commend its publication." —Spencer C. Tucker

Col. Joseph H. Alexander

"The bloody seizure of Saipan by US amphibious forces in 1944 spelled certain doom for Imperial Japan. Harold Goldberg's riveting story of this conflict brings the dead back to life by blending rigorous research with dramatic narratives by hundreds of survivors. He has written a superb account of a pivotal, little-known, and heart-breaking battle." —Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (ret.), author of Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific

From the Publisher
"The book's great strength is its collected recollections of U.S. participants, chiefly former Marines. This alone would commend its publication." —Spencer C. Tucker

The Journal of Military History

"[U]sing recent interviews he conducted with extant US veterans, [Goldberg] skillfully develops the soldiers' view of the battle for Saipan in an engaging, clearly written and interesting volume that should be recommended to all students studying the Pacific war." —The Journal of Military History, October 2009

Product Details

Indiana University Press
Publication date:
Twentieth-Century Battles
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D-Day in the Pacific

The Battle of Saipan

By Harold J. Goldberg

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2007 Harold J. Goldberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34869-2



By 1943 the United States knew that the road to Berlin ran through France. Although the exact timing of the Normandy invasion would not be set until late that year at the Teheran Conference, there was no doubt that an invasion of France was a necessary component of eventual victory in Europe. Such certainty was not at all the case for the war in the Pacific. In fact, American military strategists had not decided which route would lead to Tokyo. Different services proposed alternative invasion plans: the army favored a land route across New Guinea aimed at the Philippines, while the navy supported a water route across the central Pacific. The rivalry between the services was intense.

Already subjugated to a policy of "Europe first" and the commitment to a cross-channel landing in France as a priority, American forces in the Pacific had to battle for their fair share of men and materiel. In general, the European theater received about 85 percent of the American war allocation, leaving the remainder for the war in the Pacific. This allotment of resources reflected the American view that Germany's defeat would inevitably result in the defeat of Japan, while Japan's surrender would not necessarily bring about the end of the war with Germany. At the same time, the United States and Britain had to placate Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in order to keep the USSR in the war, and that also mandated the commitment of more resources to Europe. Basically, the United States and Britain agreed that Germany was the more dangerous of the two enemies and that the Pacific war effort would receive resources as quickly as practicable. Ultimately, given the productive power of the United States, American forces in the Pacific were able to obtain materiel sooner than originally anticipated. Nevertheless, given the unequal division of resources, American accomplishments in the war against Japan should be viewed as remarkable and ranked with the world's greatest military accomplishments.

Forced to divide the 15 percent dedicated to the Pacific, the army and the navy jockeyed for position and prominence throughout the Pacific theaters. This interservice strife erupted in planning meetings as the two branches argued over future targets. Personal rivalries and ego clashes exacerbated these conflicts, with General Douglas MacArthur confronting Admiral Ernest King in a struggle for supplies and ascendancy. The perpetually enraged King was a good match for the imperious MacArthur.

MacArthur was one of the most famous American commanders of the period, and despite his lackluster performance in the Philippines early in the war he retained his position and reputation. His goal subsequently was to return to the Philippines, an obsession that was based on both strategic and personal reasons. In staff meetings in 1943 he argued that resources should be funneled to his command for use in New Guinea, the first step in the drive back to Manila. In this regard, MacArthur lobbied the American Joint Chiefs for additional military equipment for his personal road to Tokyo—from New Guinea through the Philippines and then on to Japan itself. MacArthur was a brave and perhaps even brilliant soldier, but he also swaggered with an arrogance and sense of self-importance that often annoyed his colleagues and overshadowed his talents.

Despite his constant attempts to seek maximum support for his own operations at the expense of others, MacArthur did not always get his way in staff and planning meetings. He met his match in Admiral Ernest J. King, chief of naval operations during the war. In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor the U.S. Navy was reorganized, with King appointed commander in chief, U.S. Fleet (CINCUS, soon changed to COMINCH; King did not like the implication of the acronym CINCUS, which could be pronounced "sink us"). He was also a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

E. B. Potter, biographer of Admiral Chester Nimitz, described King as "imperious, often caustic ... hard-nosed ... rough, tough," and Time magazine reporter Robert Sherrod repeated the legend that King shaved with a blowtorch. At the same time, General Holland Smith praised King as "a brilliant man ... dynamic, energetic." He was impatient and often angry with those who did not perform up to his standards, but he was straightforward and would tell a colleague to his face what he thought. Most importantly, if King believed he was right on an important point, he was willing to defend his position even against solid opposition. He held his ground against MacArthur.

At the Casablanca Conference in Morocco in January 1943, King argued in general for greater resources for the Pacific war and specifically in favor of a campaign in the central Pacific, with the Mariana Islands as the eventual target. At that meeting he asked the Combined Chiefs of Staff (American and British Joint Chiefs together) to establish a formula for dividing materiel between Europe and the Pacific. King considered the 15 percent of Allied resources devoted to the war against Japan insufficient to prevent the Japanese from reinforcing and consolidating their positions. He claimed that allowing this trend to continue would give Japan the time to strengthen its defenses and would only make the eventual assault against Japanese targets more difficult as the war progressed. In subsequent discussions with the Combined Chiefs, King reiterated his call for moving toward the Marianas and aiding China in its struggle against Japan. In contrast, MacArthur's aides (the general did not attend the conference) insisted that all resources in the Pacific should be concentrated in the army's drive through New Guinea toward the Philippines. King clearly did not support MacArthur's demands; he argued that an advance across the Dutch East Indies aimed at the Philippines would be too slow and difficult.

King's opposition to a push toward the Philippines put the admiral in direct opposition with MacArthur and illustrated the interservice rivalries at work at the highest levels in the U.S. military. In the end, the Casablanca Conference's final report left all attack routes open as possible options. The Allies reiterated their "Europe first" strategy and committed themselves to an invasion of Sicily and Italy. As far as the Pacific was concerned, the communiqué contemplated movement across New Guinea toward the Philippines as well as naval action in the central Pacific in the direction of the Marianas. Neither King nor MacArthur had prevailed on this issue, but each had received some of what he wanted. Indeed, neither King nor MacArthur would ever be totally successful in this struggle.

In May 1943, in order to elaborate and give specificity to some of the discussions held at Casablanca, British prime minister Winston Churchill traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Trident Conference. Following talks among the Combined Chiefs on plans for Sicily, Russia, China, and Burma and the proposed invasion of northern France in 1944, Admiral King summarized the various options in the Pacific from his perspective. The recovery of the Philippines could be attempted from several different lines of attack, he said, but "the Marianas ... were the key to the situation because of their location on the Japanese lines of communication." While the Trident meeting is generally remembered for setting 1 May 1944 as the date for the cross-channel invasion of northern France (the invasion was later postponed until June 1944), it should also be recalled as one of the moments when King's personality and determination helped push the Pacific war to the forefront of Allied concerns.

Following the conclusion of the Trident Conference, King traveled to San Francisco at the end of July to confer with Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC). Unlike King, Nimitz was easygoing and amiable; like King, Nimitz was a competent leader. Despite occasional differences, the two admirals respected each other and worked well together. In this meeting they discussed various scenarios for future action, with King returning to the theme of the importance of the Marianas. He hoped to use an offensive in the central Pacific to cut Japanese communication lines, possibly force Japan into a major sea battle, and establish American bases for the bombing of Japan. King again described the Marianas as "the key to the western Pacific." In all of this maneuvering, he was the primary advocate of an assault on the Marianas.

In mid-August 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs met in Quebec at the Quadrant Conference. Several of the themes from the Trident meeting were revisited, with the date of 1 May 1944 reiterated for the cross-channel invasion of Europe. King, as usual, used the opportunity to argue for greater investment in the Pacific war. In the end the meeting reaffirmed the Gilbert, Marshall, Palau, and Mariana islands as targets in the central Pacific during 1943 and 1944 and also accepted the two-pronged strategy that included MacArthur's advance in New Guinea.

The Joint Chiefs' decision to advance in the Pacific with a two-pronged attack was a compromise intended to keep both the army and the navy happy. One prong, under the direction of MacArthur and the army, would originate in the southwest Pacific and drive through New Guinea toward the Philippines. The other, led by the navy, would push across the central Pacific and attack Japanese island bases in the Gilberts, Marshalls, and Carolines. This dual approach satisfied the conflicting demands of the military services, each of which desired to lead the offensive. Again, neither side received all that it wanted, but each won sufficient concessions to be satisfied for the moment.

In late September 1943 King met again with Nimitz, this time at Pearl Harbor, along with Vice Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and Admiral William "Bull" Halsey, the latter in command of U.S. naval forces in the South Pacific. They reaffirmed the Gilberts and Marshalls as their next objectives and reviewed their coordination with Halsey's actions in the South Pacific. The admirals ironed out a few differences concerning which specific islands would be targeted, first in the Gilberts and then in the Marshalls.

The first step in the navy's contribution to this grand strategy was the attack on the Gilbert Islands in November 1943. The units named for the assault included the 2nd Marine Division, chosen for the landing on Tarawa, and the army's 27th Infantry Division, selected for the attack on Makin. In 1943 intelligence information accurately indicated that it would be more difficult to take Tarawa than Makin, but even that prediction severely underestimated the situation. On Tarawa, the 2nd Division faced a tough and blistering Japanese defense and suffered heavy casualties. "Bloody Tarawa" entered the Marine Corps pantheon.

While the island of Makin was not as heavily defended as Tarawa, the Japanese forces stationed there fought well. Nevertheless, when the 165th Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division took three days to secure Makin, Marine Corps major general Holland M. "Howlin' Mad" Smith lost his temper and lambasted the army for not moving quickly enough. Not officially in command at Tarawa, Smith was present as an observer. He was disappointed with his limited role and resentful that he was kept on board ship throughout most of the fighting. He directed much of this anger toward the army. His dissatisfaction with the army troops and with their leader, Major General Ralph C. Smith, was communicated to Vice Admiral Spruance and Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner. While this incident faded without further repercussions, all of the leading officers would be involved at the Battle of Saipan when interservice rivalry and tactical disagreements emerged again. Holland Smith carried his resentment against the army from the Gilberts to the Marianas.

With the victories at Tarawa and Makin the war seemed to be going well for the United States, with one rapid victory after another. Beneath the surface, however, and certainly unknown to the American public, serious antagonisms were developing within the services. This situation would explode at Saipan, and Holland Smith was a central figure in this story. The Gilbert Islands offensive exposed Smith's views regarding "his" marines versus the army. Disappointed with the progress of the 165th Regiment at Makin during the Gilbert Islands attacks, Smith claimed that "any marine division" would have taken the island in one day, whereas the army took three. He complained that he was "very dissatisfied with the regiment's lack of offensive spirit," but he felt that it "probably was not the fault of the men." The marine general blamed the officers of the 165th Regiment and specifically the division commander, Ralph Smith. Howlin' Mad told Nimitz: "Had Ralph Smith been a marine I would have relieved him of his command on the spot." Howlin' Mad would eventually make good on this threat during the Battle of Saipan.

Further, in his own account of the events on Makin, Holland Smith related the story of an army company that was "firing indiscriminately right and left" and disrupting other military operations. Smith got out of his jeep to reprimand the lieutenant in command, telling the young soldier that "any damn fool can see there aren't any Japs up there.... If I hear one more shot from your men in this area I'll take your damn weapons and all your ammunition away from you." Smith acknowledged that he was "howling mad" at this point. In contrast, when the 4th Marine Division landed on Roi-Namur and spent the night firing indiscriminately at sounds in the jungle, Smith remarked only that the marines, "like most new troops ... had fallen prey to a trigger-happiness only exceeded by what I had seen at Makin." Despite this lapse, Smith asserted that the "division as a whole had acquitted itself well, manifesting the dash and offensive spirit which I regard as essential and characteristic in Marine Corps units." Apparently, Smith did not become "howling mad" at the trigger-happy marines. In fact, he may have indulged in some trigger-happy behavior himself. While on Makin, the army and marine generals were conferring, with Howlin' Mad "nagging" Ralph Smith on the progress of army troops. An army officer ran into the command post to report that Japanese snipers had the area surrounded. In accordance with proper military procedure, Ralph Smith immediately called for rifle companies to move in that direction to deal with the threat. Colonel (later General) S. L. A. Marshall recalled that "Holland Smith picked up his carbine and stalked into the bush. He was gone for about five minutes, and then returned, rubbing his hands. 'Well, I took care of those bastards.'" Marshall called Holland Smith's action "about as ridiculous a grandstand play as I have ever seen by a general officer, which is saying a lot. The sniping continued for about twenty minutes following his boast." Overall, the marines and the army forces on the Gilberts had done their jobs well under the circumstances, but Howlin' Mad's view toward the army was already apparent.

The conquest of the Gilberts took a lot of American lives. The army lost only 66 killed and 185 wounded, but marine casualties at Tarawa numbered closer to three thousand. While Tarawa was not the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war, it attained notoriety because the high casualty count occurred in only a few days. The numbers reflected not only the strong Japanese defenses on Tarawa but also the inadequate and insufficient American landing vehicles that left the marines wading ashore directly into devastating gunfire.

At the same time, the battles for Tarawa and Makin revealed a fundamental difference in marine and army tactics. The marines employed a method of direct assault, seeking to attack each target frontally and as quickly as possible. During the war the marines were often criticized for this method. Newspapers and parents back in the United States complained that marine leaders took unnecessary risks and as a result suffered too many casualties. The army preferred a slower, more methodical offensive action, with artillery clearing the path for the ground troops that advanced behind the barrage. These variant tactics would again emerge on Saipan, contributing to the infamous marine-army bureaucratic battle.


Excerpted from D-Day in the Pacific by Harold J. Goldberg. Copyright © 2007 Harold J. Goldberg. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Spencer C. Tucker
"The book's great strength is its collected recollections of U.S. participants, chiefly former Marines. This alone would commend its publication." —Spencer C. Tucker

Meet the Author

Harold J. Goldberg is the David E. Underdown Distinguished Professor of History and Chair of the Asian Studies Program at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

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