The Sea Battle Around Saipan

Douglas Dauntless Divebomber From The USS Yorktown
Douglas Dauntless Divebomber From The USS Yorktown

On June 6th, 1944, the USS Enterprise, the Lexington, and the Bunker Hill set out from Najuro to Saipan. Accompanying them were 8000 Marines, at least two divisions of US Army and hundreds of destroyers cruisers, LSTs and battleships. They faced a situation not unlike Iwo Jima, where thousands of Japanese were deeply dug into the island with interconnected tunnel systems and mine fields and cross-covered fields of fire. Saipan had 32,000 Japanese who fought like Iwo Jima, to the bitter end. The Marines fought with flamethrowers, grenades bulldozers and bled for every inch.

Saipan is in the Northern Marianas Islands and Tinian is south. This invasion was even more threatening to the Japanese Government as the US had taken Midway, Guadalcanal, the Truk Islands. This was closer to the Japanese homelands than any previous battleground and it came on top of a successful invasion of the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. Thusly the US used attacks the Phillipines and the Marianas to force the Imperial Japanese Navy to fight a two front sea war.

The Japanese had just commissioned a new super carrier called the Taiho, 30,000 tons displacement, two hangar decks, 61 aircraft, an armor plated deck, 12 99mm flak guns and 51 25mm machine guns. It could put tons of steel into the air in a short period of time. Plus two refitted medium carriers Zokaku and Zuikaku were also headed for the Marianas accompanied with submarines and dozens of surface craft. The Japanese fleet under the command of Ozawa featured many of the ships that faced the Enterprise in earlier wars.

On the 11th of June, the US fleet came within striking distance of Saipan, and Iowa class battleships unloaded their huge 16-inch guns onto the beaches in advance of the Marines. Marine flyers strafed aircraft on the ground and shot down less experienced Japanese pilots. June 15th the Marines stormed the shores. It was bloody. 2000 Marines die in the first day or two of the beach invasion.

Later than day a US submarine spotted the Japanese fleet and called the position in. On the 19th, Ozawa ordered a Japanese counter attack with land based aircraft from Japan and nearby airbases. It was an epic failure. Some 420 Japanese pilots and their aircraft were downed by blooded veterans of the Enterprise and Lexington, and of course a curtain of anti aircraft fire. The Japanese pilots flying for Ozawa were inexperienced, just out of flight school. Japan could not replace its material and personnel loses as fast as the US and this played a huge role in winning the battle of Saipan. This battle took on the moniker The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

Ozawa’s carrier Taiho was hit by a torpedo from the USS Cavalla. It began a slow burning fire near the aviation fuel storage and the engineers on the Taiho were not aware of it. Another US sub sank the Shokaku with and it went down effectively leaving the Japanese fleet in the area with only a single medium sized carrier. The Taiho, later that day exploded and slipped beneath the waves.

The final sea battle around Saipan happened when Ozawa’s fleet was ambushed in the Phillipine Sea. The strike was a devastating blow to the Japanese, although the Navy lost 99 aircraft when many pilots could not find the three US carriers before sundown and ditched in the ocean.

The US fought for three more weeks and suffered 16,000 casualties, the Japanese had 21,000 dead and 5000 Japanese killed themselves, many by jumping from cliffs overlooking the ocean shoreline. Losing Saipan was a bitter pill to swallow for the Japanese high command. It was a loss of face. They could barely hold their own islands in the face of th US onslaught and I’m sure the Japanese were counting the days when the curtain would fall on their imperial experiment.

{ Personal aside: When I was a kid growing up in DeKalb County Georgia, we lived a little less than a mile from a strip mall called Toco Hills. It is now fairly large and up scale, but not so when I was there. There was an “Old Sarge” military surplus store. A guy, about in his late forties worked there, a roly poly guy with a thick Brooklyn accent who had been a Marine on Saipan. He sold me a Katana, which I still have. He found it on a dead Japanese Naval officer. “I had to bring it back in my duffel bag because by the time we were through with it, there was nothing left on the island to wrap it in.”}

Sources:

Goldberg, Harold J. (2007). D-day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan. Indiana University Press.

http://www.marines.mil/news/publications/Pages/THE%20BATTLE%20FOR%20SAIPAN.aspx

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