“The Toll of the Victory was Heavy,” June 1944

LIFE, August 28, 1944, pp. 74-5

Eyewitness Tells of the Island Fight
by Robert Sherrod
Photographs for LIFE by Peter Stackpole and W. Eugene Smith

Marines Follow Tanks Against Last Jap Defenders as Machine Gunners Keep Japs Down. Three Men Alongside Photographer Were Hit Just Before he Took Picture.

Saipan was to Japan almost what Pearl Harbor is to he U.S., except that it is a thousand miles closer to Japan’s coast than Pearl Harbor is to America’s. On this 72-square-mile island, only 1,500 miles from both Tokyo and the Philippines, one of the key battles of the war was fought from June 15 to July 8 (Tokyo time).

Naval strategists say that, from many points of view, Saipan was the most important single battle of the Pacific war since the U.S. was able to embark on the sensational offensive that started at Tarawa and moved across the middle of the ocean. Perhaps its results will be more significant than those of any previous Pacific battle. From Saipan, Japan itself is with easy range of the bigger bombers. Supplying Saipan’s airfields with the Navy’s 2,000,000-gallon tankers will be infinitely easier than the present system of hauling gasoline over the mountains from India to the China-based planes that now bomb Japan.

Many of the U.S. warships which have had to return from the western Pacific to Hawaii for supplies may now be supplied from Saipan’s naval base, even though its harbor (and Guam’s harbor) are not the best in the Pacific. Troops which will invade the Philippines or China or Japan may now be staged within a few days’ transport run of those enemy positions.

LIFE, August 28, 1944, pp. 76-7

U.S. Heroism Beat Jap Stubbornness
The beachhead assault on Saipan did not have the sudden, lightening violence of the landing at Tarawa last November, when it seemed for about 30 hours that the 2nd Marine Division might not be able to hold its slender beachhead. there was never any doubt that the Saipan landing would succeed. But Saipan’s rugged, mountainous terrain provided such excellent hiding places for Jap machine gunners and riflemen and motormen that the over-all attrition during the 25-day battle became fearsome…

LIFE, August 28, 1944, pp. 78-9

War’s Terror Struck at the Innocent
Saipan was the first target of the war against Japan where civilians were involved in any numbers. At Guadalcanal, Attu, Tarawa and Kwajalein we had found few male civilians…

There were about 25,000 civilians on the 72-square-mile island, of whom all were Japanese imported to work in the cane fields and sugar mills…

LIFE, August 28, 1944, pp. 80-1

Civilians Committed Mass Suicide
Some of the thousands of civilian suicides on Saipan killed themselves and each other with grenades evidently furnished by their own soldiers. One group which grimly tossed hand grenades at each other included children. The volcanic rocks on Marpi Point between the 200-ft. cliff and the waters edge cached hundreds of bodies of civilians who had snuggled into the jagged earth with grenades against their bellies…

LIFE, August 28, 1944, pp. 82-3

The Toll of the Victory was Heavy

Victory for his Country Meant for this 4th Division Marine an “Unknown” marker Under the Hot, Brilliant Saipan Sun. Only a Few of the Casualties Were Unknown.

The Marine battalion to which I was attached off and on, a veteran 2nd Division outfit, suffered fewer causalities than the other two battalions of the regiment. Yet at the end of the battle it had only half the men and 40% of the officers who had started with it. It lost five of its captains within the first three days. At battle’s end, Lieut. Colonel R. McCm Tompkin’s gallant battalion, which took towering Mt. Tapotchau in the center of the island, had only about 200 men.

The Japs’ first extensive use of artillery and mortars was particular hell on battalion command posts. More than 20 lieutenant colonels were casualties. Some of these were able to return to duty before the battle ended. Two army colonels, both observers, were killed. In the final, inevitable banzai counterattack two Army battalions were all but wiped out.

Two Marine divisions and the Army’s 27th Infantry Division managed to finish the Saipan job, but only after 3,500 men were dead or missing, 13,000 wounded and the crack 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions had lost approximately half their front-line troops. About 25,000 Japs were killed. Saipan, where we used three times the force used at Tarawa, cost five times as many casualties. But winning was worth the cost.

Unidentified Photographer, W. Eugene Smith on Saipan during WWII, 1944 (1583.2005)

Life’s Pictures
The capture of Saipan gave Photographer W. Eugene Smith some of his best pictures and worst moments. When the 2nd Marines smashed forward in their final push to the sea on July 7, Smith was right up front. He spent a long night in a fox hole watching traces arc overhead. Next day he was pinned down by enemy fire on an exposed slope for hours. Here he talks to Korean youngsters. For pictures Smith and Peter Stackpole took see pages 75-83. Life, August 28, 1944, page 19.

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