Professor Harold Goldberg's book on Saipan


As indicated by this official history of the Second Marine Division, the Battle of Saipan in June 1944 included elements that made it one of the most dramatic and fascinating encounters of the war. One factor was the presence of an entrenched and dedicated enemy force, prepared to fight for victory or die in the process. The Japanese were dug into the island in numbers far greater than the Americans expected at the time of the invasion. While Japanese tenacity was not unusual in the Pacific War, the finale of the Saipan battle included mass suicides on a scale previously unknown. For Japanese soldiers and civilians, devotion to the Emperor and Japan’s Asiatic mission remained primary, and for many of them dying for the Emperor was an honor. When faced with likely defeat or the prospect of surrender, Japanese soldiers chose death.

An equally resolute invading force of American marines and army soldiers confronted these Japanese troops, with both sides sure of victory and willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for their own cause. As a result the battle was bloody from its first day to its last; even with American victory assured, the fighting ended only when one side had been totally destroyed. American plans for a three-day commitment on Saipan turned into a three-week struggle. Based on the intensity of Japanese resistance on Saipan, the resulting carnage was predictable--on Saipan, and subsequently on Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

The intention of this book on the Battle of Saipan is to explore all of the factors that made this struggle both strategically important at the time and ultimately fascinating for history. In the first chapter the reader is introduced to some of the most important American commanders, including General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Ernest King, who clashed with each other over the best way to proceed with the attack against Japan. While MacArthur pressed for a commitment to retake the Philippines, King favored a naval campaign across the Central Pacific. In the end the Joint Chiefs compromised and allowed both MacArthur’s and King’s drives to advance simultaneously. As a result, while MacArthur moved across New Guinea toward the Philippines, the U.S. Navy pressed forward relentlessly from island to island.

Chapter Two looks at the history of the island of Saipan. The topography of this former Spanish, then German, and finally Japanese possession provided perfect cover for the Japanese defenders. The terrain included beaches, jungles, swamps, hills, mountains, valleys, and caves, and everywhere thick vegetation and dense growth. The variety of the natural environments on the island confronted the Americans with constant yet ever-changing challenges, and at the same time provided the defenders with caves, hills, coral outcroppings, and other easily defensible locations.

Nevertheless the reader learns why the natural defenses on Saipan did not help the Japanese as much as they might have. Japanese military strategy called for constant attacks against the enemy. As a result the defenders, committed to stopping the Americans on the beach, emerged from their caves and protective strongholds to pursue an offensive battle plan that allowed the marines and soldiers to destroy the Japanese soldiers, tanks, and equipment. This strategic, as well as tactical error by the Japanese, meant that the defenders wasted one of their best resources--the terrain of the island--and Japanese commanders exposed their soldiers to overwhelming and devastating American firepower. One of these Japanese officers was Vice Admiral Nagumo Chuichi, commander of the Japanese aircraft carrier force that had attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Nagumo’s death on Saipan provided American officers an additional reason to celebrate their victory on Saipan.

The next chapter, Operation FORAGER, examines the training of American military personnel on Hawaii. Both marines and soldiers worked hard for the difficult battle ahead, and all the American forces left Hawaii as well-prepared combat troops. Unfortunately one flaw in their preparation would emerge soon after the invasion began. While in Hawaii, the marines and army did not train together and did not harmonize their battle plans. During the ensuing battle, it became clear that marines and soldiers, employing different battle tactics, had not carefully coordinated their views of how the battle might proceed. Even before the invasion had begun, it was evident that the marines and the army approached the coming events from different perspectives, and this discrepancy led to an eventual clash between the service commanders during the battle.

Chapter Four describes the morning of 15 June, D-Day for the Americans. The marines of the 2nd and 4th Divisions awoke early, were served an unusually elaborate breakfast, collected their equipment, and said their prayers. While they tried not to think about it, many of them knew that they or their closest friends would become casualties of the invasion. An amphibious landing is always dangerous and difficult, and the Japanese had all of their guns trained on the landing beaches. Nevertheless the marines moved on schedule toward their landing vehicles--amtracs--for the anxiety-laden run to the beach. For the admirals and generals, the invasion was a total success, as twenty thousand Americans were onshore by the end of the first day. For the marines caught in Japanese crossfire, success was tempered by sadness that had no time to be expressed over lost buddies.

The next chapter focuses on the landing of the 2nd Marine Division on beaches designated Red and Green. As amtracs crossed the reef for their final approach to the beaches, intense Japanese fire and difficult tides drove several battalions away from their designated landing zones. The result was unplanned crowding in one area, providing a target for Japanese artillery and mortars. The marines took their casualties, held their ground, and pressed forward. That first night the Japanese, intent on driving the marines off the beach and back into the ocean, attacked in force with infantry and tanks. The marines withstood the attack and destroyed most of the Japanese tanks used in the offensive. The 2nd Marine Division accomplished its goal of holding the west coast of the island in order to allow the 4th Division to land just to its south and then swing around them, like a gate on a hinge, first toward the east coast of Saipan and then northward.

The landing of the 4th Marine Division on Blue and Yellow beaches, explored in Chapter Six, did not include the crowding and difficulties that the 2nd Division had encountered. Nevertheless the Japanese defenders also had those beaches well in sight and the marines suffered heavy casualties during the landing. These marines had two immediate objectives--seize control of the airport and then cross to the east coast--in effect cutting off the bottom third of the island and isolating the Japanese defenders at the southern tip. Within a couple of days the first task had been turned over to the army, and the second objective of traversing the island was achieved.

With twenty thousand Americans on Saipan by the end of the first night, the Japanese position had become desperate. Tokyo had been planning for such an eventuality and was ready to commit a major portion of its navy to this battle. In fact the Japanese had been anticipating another major sea confrontation with the Americans ever since the Battle of Midway in June 1942. With a large part of the American fleet anchored near the Marianas, the Japanese military saw an opportunity for a decisive battle that would turn the war’s momentum in their favor. The Japanese plan, called Operation A-Go, had been designed for just this moment, and a huge Imperial naval force moved out from the Philippines in the direction of Saipan. Chapter Seven analyzes the disastrous result for Japan as the Imperial Navy lost over four hundred airplanes. The overwhelming American victory, dubbed the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, left Japan without the pilots and planes necessary for success in the war. It can be argued that this fight, concurrent with the land battle on Saipan itself, sealed the fate of the Japanese empire.

The next two chapters examine the advances by the 2nd and 4th Divisions during the succeeding two weeks. While some units of the 2nd Division moved up the west coast in the direction of the capital city of Garapan, other assault battalions were assigned the crucial task of taking the highest peaks on the island, Mt. Tapotchau and Mt. Tipo Pale. In control of those mountaintops, the Japanese had been able to target the marines on the beaches and other areas of the island. The marines had to take those summits and did so only after brutal and bloody campaigns. When the Americans had achieved their objectives, the Japanese lost the advantage provided by control of the strategic highlands and were pushed toward the northern tip of the island. While elements of the 2nd Division completed their mission, the 4th Division moved north along the east coast of the island. This phase of the battle also proved to be long and difficult--whether it involved crossing sugar cane fields that gave the Japanese a clear line of sight or cleaning out caves and hills that provided the defenders with good protection and shelter.

The next chapter departs slightly from the narrative to look at the life of a marine involved in this battle. Marines operated in a world of brutality. In addition to normal combat, they attempted to navigate through Japanese traps, tricks, and ambushes. Day after day marines fought in the same clothes, ate the same food, fought off the ubiquitous flies, and hoped for a few hours of sleep. The focus was on survival.

Marines were not the only American combat personnel in this battle. The army played a large role in the fight for Saipan and in the ultimate victory. The succeeding two chapters look at the role of the army on the southern end and in the center of the island. In the south elements of the 27th Division held the airfield and cut off the remaining Japanese defenders in the rocky and coral laden fields of Nafutan Point. At the same time the main army force moved north between the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions. The soldiers encountered major Japanese defensive positions as they dealt with some of the most difficult terrain on Saipan. The army made slow progress, and as a result an impatient Holland Smith blamed and removed Ralph Smith, the army commander.

Chapter Thirteen describes the subsequent dispute between the marine and army generals. While no one questioned Holland Smith’s authority over Ralph Smith in the chain of command, army officers resented the way in which Holland Smith handled the situation. When certain partisan newspapers in the United States picked up the story for their own political purposes, the controversy exploded and threatened inter-service cooperation in the midst of the war. Fortunately the potentially damaging quarrel between the army and marines led to a compromise in the island invasions of 1945. But Holland Smith was never allowed to lead army troops into battle again.

On Saipan the desperate Japanese soldiers were determined to kill as many Americans as possible before their inevitable defeat. During the night of July 6-7, several thousand Japanese moved against the American lines. In the process two army battalions were overrun. Despite heroic efforts by their officers and enlisted men, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 105th Regiment were decimated. Elements of Headquarters Company of the 105th as well as the 3rd Battalion, 10th Marines also fought valiantly to stop the Japanese advance. In the end the Japanese lost thousands of troops while American sacrifices led to the awarding of well-deserved medals of honor to a few fallen soldiers and marines.

The next chapter relates the story of what should have been a routine mopping up, but nothing about the Battle of Saipan was routine. Instead Japanese soldiers performed their final act of resistance. With the battle over and American victory assured, hundreds of Japanese soldiers threw themselves, and in some cases their wives and children, off of the appropriately nicknamed Suicide Cliff or Banzai Cliff. These gruesome suicides provided a horrific end to a fierce struggle in which neither side recoiled from the slaughter of close battle. For many years thereafter this grisly scene on the northern end of the island haunted marines, soldiers, and sailors who had witnessed it. 

The last chapter and the Conclusion look briefly at the consequences of the Battle of Saipan--the resignation of Premier Tojo Hideki, the American invasion of Tinian, and the larger implications of the American conquest of the Marianas. Clearly, June 1944 was the decisive year of the war.

Despite all of the dramatic elements involved in the Battle of Saipan, most Americans remain unfamiliar with it. This crucial and bloody battle in the war against Japan has been largely forgotten, eclipsed by better known events in Europe and by other struggles in the Pacific. Guadalcanal achieved fame as the first major amphibious assault by the United States against Japanese forces. Tarawa, at the end of 1943, became notorious for its high casualty count in only three days. The struggle for the Philippines, in the fall of 1944, featured the gigantic personality of General MacArthur, and in the last year of the war Iwo Jima and Okinawa received vast coverage and recognition as American forces moved inexorably toward the Japanese home islands.

Saipan was sandwiched between these battles and took place in the shadow of the landing in Normandy in June 1944. While the United States Navy crossed the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Saipan, in many ways a more difficult journey than its English Channel counterpart, the American public watched the situation in France more closely. Just as the European war demanded the preponderance of American resources during World War II, so too the fighting against Germany received the greatest press attention. Throughout June 1944, newspapers in the U.S. closely followed American progress in France, with Saipan appearing as a secondary feature. It is ironic that while events in the Pacific brought the United States into the conflict, the resources of the American government and the focus of the American population remained Eurocentric throughout the war.

With Germany nearing defeat, American attention shifted toward the Pacific in time to celebrate the heroic flag raising on Iwo Jima. Simultaneously, Americans were riveted and repulsed by the slaughter on both Iwo Jima and Okinawa, the futile sacrifice of the kamikazes, and the fanaticism of the Japanese soldiers. By the time those two battles ended, few in the United States doubted that only a bloody invasion of the home islands would force Japan’s surrender. The dropping of the atomic bombs seemed to be a logical extension of the ferocious battles of 1945.



D-Day in the Pacific
The Battle of Saipan
Harold J. Goldberg

Maps and Photos
Principal Military Units: U.S. and Japan
Chapter One Admiral King and General MacArthur
Chapter Two The Target
Chapter Three Operation Forager
Chapter Four Condemned Man’s Breakfast
Chapter Five The Second Marine Division Lands
Chapter Six The Fourth Marine Division Lands
Chapter Seven The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot
Chapter Eight Second Marine Division Moves Forward
Chapter Nine Fourth Marine Division Moves Forward
Chapter Ten Marines Under Fire
Chapter Eleven The Army on Southern Saipan
Chapter Twelve Into Death Valley
Chapter Thirteen The Gyokusai
Chapter Fourteen Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff
Chapter Fifteen Tojo and Tinian
Chapter Sixteen Conclusion
Chapter Seventeen Coming Home
Chapter Eighteen Holland Smith and the Army

Appendix A: Military Units: U.S.
Appendix B: Commanding Officers: U.S. 
Appendix C: Commanding Officers: Japan
Appendix D: Casualties





           1. "As I researched the death of my Marine uncle on D-day, June 15, on Saipan Island, it became clear that Professor Goldberg's well-written and documented book would be a valuable source of information...
I obtained a copy of the unit commander's letter to my grandfather which corroborated Dr. Goldberg's account...
My only lament regarding the book: I gave it away this week to my first cousin named for my uncle. Now, I have to buy another." [posted on Amazon]

2. "This is one of the best WWII books that I have read. It portrays the struggles of the individual soldiers and marines in the battle for Saipan." [posted on Amazon]

3. "D-Day in the Pacific is an extremely well-written account of the actions and politics leading up to the decision to invade Saipan (and Tinian)." [posted on Amazon]

         4. "I'm part way through my second reading of your outstanding history of the Battle of Saipan. Simply, it is an outstanding and moving account of the battle and the men who fought it." [Email to author]

         5. "I have been reading your book on the battle of Saipan and am almost finished with it. It is a great and well detailed book on this overlooked battle...your book opened my eyes on Saipan." [Email to author]

      6. "I came across your book while on a layover in Portland, Oregon. What great reading! My 2 sons have read it...Thank you for your time and for writing such a wonderful book! [Email to author]

     7. "Thank you is not enough to say for your book...My husband was in 2nd Marine Division. He never talked about that battle...We lacked 42 days of being married 61 years when he passed away...He denied having nightmares and talking in his sleep for about 3 years after we were married. I know different...All this, I hope, explains why I just had to know what he had gone through; your book explains it better than anything I have read. I do want to thank you for writing it." [Letter to author]

     8. "For all Marines who made the Saipan landing we hail you with our sincere SEMPER FI!" [Email to author from member of 10th Amphibian Tractor Battalion, part of the 4th Marine Division]


Saipan Photos Tinian

Saipan Views Tank
Japanese Tank Near Red Beach


Saipan Views Bunker 
View from Colonel Oka's Bunker


Saipan Views Tank Remains
Remains of Japanese Tank


Saipan Views Flame Tree  
Flame Tree Suicide Cliff in Background


Saipan Views Cliff
View of Banzai Cliff


D-Day in the Pacific
The Battle of Saipan
Harold J. Goldberg
“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
cloth $29.95
Indiana University Press 
00-842-6796 •

Saipan Photos Commemoration
60th Commemoration in 2004 on Saipan


Saipan Photos Underwater
Battle Debris Underwater


Saipan Photos Prison
Japanese Prison on Saipan


Saipan Photos Blockhouse
Japanese Blockhouse


Saipan Photos Tinian
Japanese Defenses on Tinian


Saipan Photos Gun
Japanese Gun Facing South