U.S. Marine Corps photo

Sacrifices of U.S. WWII Soldiers at Saipan

When American forces stormed ashore at Saipan on June 15, 1944, they knew they were in for a fight.

When American forces stormed ashore at Saipan on June 15, 1944, they knew they were in for a fight. Saipan was strategically important to both the Americans and the Japanese. It is the largest island in the Marianas chain and close enough to the Japanese mainland for American B-29’s to launch bombing missions.

Though it is often overshadowed by other battles, the battle of Saipan was the most costly operation for the Americans in the Pacific up to that point. 31,000 Japanese stood ready to defend the island from some 71,000 Americans of the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and the Army’s 27th Infantry Division.

Saipan, Army, WWII

Army reinforcements arrive in Saipan, June/July 1944. (U.S. Army photo)

Through June and into July, American forces made slow but steady progress across the island. Brutal fighting occurred in places that earned names such as “Death Valley” and “Purple Heart Ridge.”

By July 6, the situation was desperate for the Japanese. With the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, there was no hope of rescue or reinforcement for the remaining defenders on Saipan.

Gen. Saito, the Japanese commander on Saipan, ordered all remaining defenders, wounded or not, and even civilians on the island to conduct a massive banzai charge against the American positions. “There is no longer any distinction between civilians and troops,” Saito said. “It would be better for them to join in the attack with bamboo spears than to be captured.”     

Saito would not join his troops in the attack, though. After transmitting an apology to Tokyo for his failure, he committed ritual suicide.

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The aftermath of a banzai charge on Guadalcanal, 1942. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

At 0445 on July 7, 1944, a human wave of Japanese soldiers descended on the positions of the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division. It was the largest banzai charge of the Pacific war.

Leading the way were soldiers carrying a massive red flag, followed by sword-wielding officers and the rest of the infantry. Behind them came the wounded and what civilians decided to join the attack. There was an insufficient number of rifles for all, so many wounded came with bamboo spears, rocks, or anything else they hoped could do damage.

As some 4,000 Japanese swarmed over the American lines, intense close quarters combat broke out.

Leading the 1st Battalion was Lt. Col. William O’Brien. Since the first days his unit had landed on Saipan, he had shown his bravery and skill as a commander. O’Brien had personally led several assaults to reduce Japanese strongpoints while continually exposing himself to enemy fire.

When the Japanese came at the 1st Battalion that morning, O’Brien was once again in the thick of the fighting and leading from the front.

As the enemy swept over his lines, O’Brien steadfastly held his ground and rallied his men. Like a modern-day Call of Duty character, he dual-wielded two .45 caliber pistols and shouted encouragement to his men as he blasted the onrushing attackers.

As the attack continued, O’Brien received a painful wound to his shoulder but refused to quit. When his pistol ammunition was exhausted, he picked up a discarded rifle and continued to fight. When he again ran out of ammunition, he manned a .50 caliber machine gun and poured fire into the advancing Japanese.

O’Brien was last seen alive surrounded by sword-wielding Japanese, blasting the .50 caliber machine gun and yelling at his men, “Don’t give them a damn inch!”

Elsewhere on the 1st Battalion line, one Thomas Baker, a private in A Company, was also giving the Japanese hell. Like O’Brien, from the early days of his unit’s involvement on Saipan he had exhibited tremendous bravery in fighting the Japanese.

As the Japanese rushed his position, Baker delivered deadly fire with his rifle. When he was wounded he refused to be evacuated and continued to fight on. With his ammunition exhausted, Baker turned his rifle into club and desperately fought off the Japanese attackers until his weapon was battered beyond use.

U.S. Marines take cover as Japanese snipers attack. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

At this point, a fellow soldier withdrew him from the line, but in carrying him from the field was himself wounded. Baker refused to be taken any further due to the risk to his friends. He made a simple last request — to be left propped against a tree, facing the Japanese, with a .45 pistol with eight shots.

When friendly forces retook the position in the following days, they discovered Baker’s body, just as they had left it, with eight dead Japanese laying in front of him — each killed with a single shot from his .45.

Further down the line from the 1st Battalion, the 2nd Battalion was having problems of its own. Japanese forces had breached the perimeter and were attacking the battalion aid station just behind the front lines.

Seeing Japanese soldiers bayoneting wounded Americans, the battalion surgeon, Capt. Benjamin Salomon, sprang into action. Salomon, a former infantry soldier and the regimental dental officer, had volunteered to take the original battalion surgeon’s place when he had been wounded. Letting his former infantry training take over, Salomon began to fight back.

Saipan, WWII, USMC

U.S. Marines secure their first hold on the beach of Saipan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

As Japanese continued to infiltrate his aid station, Salomon, with the help of wounded soldiers, expertly dispatched them until he realized the situation was untenable. Ordering the wounded to make their way back to the regimental aid station, Salomon joined the defenses and manned a machine gun.

Salomon was later found slumped over the machine gun, his body riddled with bullet and bayonet wounds, with scores of Japanese dead in front of his position. It was later determined that he had been wounded over 20 times and had moved the machine gun four times in order to get a clear field of fire around the bodies before he was overcome.

The battle for Saipan would be declared over two days later. Afterwards, O’BrienBaker, and Salomon would all be awarded the Medal of Honor.

ByJames Elphick
Feb 21, 2017 12:15:58 pm

James Elphick is a veteran airborne infantryman of the 82nd Airborne Division having served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a Masters degree in International Studies from Texas State University and currently works for Veterans Upward Bound helping veterans returning to school.

National Archives

Serving Aboard WWII Submarines Was Brutal

Though today amenities are much improved, the sailors patrolling the oceans in World War II had a much different life than their modern counterparts.

No one has ever claimed that life aboard a U.S. Navy ship was luxurious. Even on the most advanced warships on the planet life can still be cramped. Though today amenities are much improved, the sailors patrolling the oceans in World War II had a much different life than their modern counterparts.

For one thing, the submarines of World War II were much smaller. Though only about 60 feet shorter than a modern submarine, the Gato and Balao-class submarines the U.S. Navy operated in World War II had a displacement of only about one third that of modern Virginia class submarines.

In that small space, the submariners — some 60 to 80 in all — had to store themselves, their gear, and provisions for 75 days.

us navy, wwii, world war ii, submarines, pig boat

Real World War II galley attire: T-shirt and apron over dungarees. This June 1945 snapshot is of George Sacco, a cook and baker in USS Cod (SS 224). (Courtesy of the USS Cod Submarine Memorial)

Each crewmember had only about one cubic foot of personal storage space aboard the sub. Each crewmember also had a bunk, scattered throughout the many compartments of the boat, including in the torpedo rooms. As many as 14 men crammed into the forward torpedo room along with 16 torpedoes.

A submarine of that size simply could not fit all of the necessary provisions for a long war patrol in the appropriate spaces. To accommodate, the crew stashed boxes of food and other things anywhere they would fit — the showers, the engine room, even on the deck until there was space inside to fit it all.

Also read: 27 incredible photos of life aboard a U.S. submarine

There was one upside though. Because of the dangerous and grueling nature of submarine duty, the Navy did its best to ensure that submariners got the best food the Navy had to offer. They also found room to install an ice cream freezer as a small luxury for the crew.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much time or space to enjoy that food. Most of the time the men were lucky to get ten minutes to eat as the boat’s three “shifts” all had to pass through the tiny galley in a short amount of time.

The serving of food was often times also dictated by restrictions on the submarines movements. Submarines were under strict orders not to surface during the day when they were within 500 miles of a Japanese airfield in order to avoid aerial observation and attack. In the early days of the war in the Pacific this meant just about everywhere as the Japanese were in control of vast swaths of territory and ocean.

This meant that the submarines stayed submerged during the day and only surfaced at night. In order to compensate, many crews flipped their schedules doing their normal daily routines at night. The crews called this “going into reversa.” This allowed the crew to take advantage of the time the sub was on the surface.

This was important because once the submarine dove after running its diesel engines for hours, the boat would quickly heat up. The engine room temperature could soar to over 100 degrees before spreading throughout the sub. Combine that with the 80 men working and breathing and the air inside could quickly become foul.

The men knew the air was getting bad when they had trouble lighting their cigarettes due to the lack of oxygen (oh the irony).

To make matters worse, there was little water available for bathing and on long patrols most men only showered about every ten days or so. Laundry was out of the question. Because of these conditions submarines developed a unique smell – a combination of diesel fuel, sweat, cigarettes, hydraulic fluid, cooking, and sewage.

On older submarines, the World War I-era S-boats — often referred to as pigboats — the conditions were even worse. Without proper ventilation, the odors were even stronger. This also led to mold and mildew throughout the boat as well as rather large cockroaches that the crews could never quite seem to eradicate.

us navy, wwii, grayback, submarine

The USS Grayback was one of the WWII submarines lost to enemy action during the war. (Photo: National Archives

If the conditions themselves weren’t bad enough, the crews then had to sail their boats into hostile waters, often alone, to attack the enemy.

Submarines often targeted shipping boats, but sometimes would find themselves tangling with enemy surface vessels. Once a sub was spotted, the enemy ships would move in for the kill with depth charges.

Of the 263 submarines that made war patrols in World War II, 41 of them were lost to enemy action while another eleven were lost to accidents or other reasons. This was nearly one out of every five submarines, making the job of submariner one of the most dangerous of the war.

A further danger the submarines faced was being the target of their own torpedoes. Due to issues with the early Mk. 14 torpedo that was used, it had a tendency to make a circular run and come back to strike the sub that fired it. At least one submarine, the USS Tang, was sunk this way.

Despite the dangers, American submarines performed admirably. In the Pacific, American crews sank almost 1,400 Japanese ships of different types, totaling more than 5.5 million tons.

They also rescued 504 downed airmen from the sea. Submarines also evacuated key individuals from danger areas, including the U.S. High Commissioner and President Quezon from the Philippines.

History: That time a surfacing Russian sub slammed into an American spy submarine

On special missions, submarines landed reconnaissance parties on enemy shores, and in a few cases used their 5” deck guns to bombard enemy positions.

The bravery of the submarines was well-known in World War II. Presidential Unit Citations were awarded 36 times to submarine crews. Seven submarine skippers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at sea.

American submariners in World War II set a tradition of duty and bravery that is carried on by American submarine crews today.

ByJames Elphick
Jan 13, 2017 3:12:16 pm

James Elphick is a veteran airborne infantryman of the 82nd Airborne Division having served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He has a Masters degree in International Studies from Texas State University and currently works for Veterans Upward Bound helping veterans returning to school.

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