Joseph Miles Griggs, Jr., H Battery/3/10
World War II Veterans from Ponchatoula
by Mark Griggs
Second Marine Division: Guadalcanal, Tulagi, Tanambogo, Gavutu, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, and Okinawa
Guadalcanal August 7, 1942-February 10, 1943
My father Joseph Miles Griggs, Jr. served in the Second Marine Division in the South Pacific during WWII. I have been researching his experiences for a few years and the following is a synopsis:
My Dad died on March 16, 1976 at the age of 51. A year to the day before he died he and my brother Jay and I were sitting in Oschner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans the night before he was to have a massive tracheotomy due to throat cancer from smoking all his life. He was very calm and unconcerned that he was about to have a permanent hole cut in his throat and have his voice taken away for the rest of his life. I asked him how he could be so relaxed. He took a long drag on his cigarette and told me that every day of his life since July 5, 1944 had been a gift to him and that he should never have survived. He would not elaborate on what happened that day. Nor did he ever say much about his experiences in World War II.
In 1995 my mother sold our old house on Sixth Street where we had grown up and where she had lived for 50 years. In the course of cleaning out 50 years of junk in the attic I came across an old sealed cardboard package that had been sent to Dad by the United States Marine Corps postmarked 1948. It had never been opened. Opening it I found a book called "Follow Me" that was basically a diary of the Second Marine Division's trek through the South Pacific during World War II. Through this book and others, discussions with my uncles who had been in the service at the time, I became fascinated with finding out just what had happened during that mysterious period.
After an eight-month wait I finally received some partial unit information from the National Military Archives in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time of his departure to Guadalcanal from San Diego in July of 1942 he was officially attached to H battery, 3rd Battalion, 10th Regiment SECMARDIV, ATO SF. Or in the military vernacular of the time, H of 3/10 SECMARDIV. H Battery was a 105 MM artillery platoon consisting of about 28 men, or boys, he was 17 at the time. They were all marine grunts and carried an M-1 rifle.
At 0740 on the morning of August 7, 1942 H of 3/10 and the rest of the Second Marine Division became the first American troops to land on enemy-held soil in World War II. The division landed on a three-island group in the Solomon Islands across Sealark Channel from the Island of Guadalcanal. The channel would later be referred to as Iron Bottom Sound or "The Slot". The three islands were Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo. There was great resistance from the Japanese on Tulagi where the 3/10 landed and after three days the Japanese dead were counted at 1400 with 59 Marines KIA and numerous wounded.
At midnight of the third day all hell broke loose in the waters northwest of Tulagi, around little Savo Island. Flares lit the horizon and the sound of heavy naval guns came rumbling over the sea. There were flashes and explosions and then new salvos. No one on the beach had a clue as to what was happening, but the general mood was dark and ominous. The marines' intuition was correct. The Japanese had come down "The Slot" undetected and had destroyed two Allied cruiser and Navy destroyer groups acting as a screen for the transport and supply ships that were supporting the Marines. It was the worst US naval defeat since Pearl Harbor. The remaining supply ships were left unprotected and were immediately ordered to evacuate to Esperitu Santos in the New Hebrides Islands 557 miles away. The Marines experienced a most lonely feeling the next morning when they looked out on an empty ocean, devoid of their only lifeline to civilization and possibly survival itself. The next 23 days were pure hell for the Marines left on Tulagi. In addition to fighting the Japanese, they began to starve and 100% of the men contracted malaria. They had landed three days earlier with 72 hours of rations and fresh water and that was already gone. My Dad would not eat coconut or allow coconut in any way shape or form in our house when we were growing up.
By mid-September, the division had been resupplied, the Japanese neutralized on Tulagi, Gavutu and Tanambogo, and the Division transferred across the Slot to Guadalcanal.
The 3/10 ended being one of the first few groups to land in the Solomon Island group and the last grunt infantry to leave in February of 1943. In October, Dad volunteered with twenty-five other marines and a captain who was a USC football star to go out on a patrol to engage the Japanese in the jungle near the Matanikau river. The Japanese ambushed the patrol and 22 of the 25 Marines were killed, including the football star. Dad was one of three to make it back to his unit. He related to one of my uncles after the war that he learned a valuable lesson from that patrol, one that grunts are told by more experiences soldiers, "Never volunteer for anything unless it is a direct order."
Life on Guadalcanal for the next few months consisted of focusing on one main theme, survival. The objective of the Marines at Guadalcanal was to eradicate the Japanese from the island and that happened to be the exact objective of General Hyakutake and the Japanese command with regard to the Marines. It is a serious issue when your opponent will die before relinquishing his objective and the Marines quickly adopted a policy of "no prisoners." In addition to bloody daily confrontations in battles such as "Blood Nose Ridge", the battle for Tenaru River and the first, second and third battles for Matanikau, the 3/10 and the rest of the Second Marines endured nightly artillery barrages around Henderson field from the "Tokyo Express" that patrolled "The Slot."
On November 11 the Japanese sailed their battleships and cruisers into the waters near Savo Island and opened up on the Guadalcanal beachhead. No Marine who lived through that night would ever forget it. No Marine who did could fully imagine it, or have it adequately described. All that can be said is that the Japs bombarded for eighty minutes with everything they had, from destroyer's five-inch guns to the fourteen-inch rifles of the battle ships, and that waves of bombers came over at the same time, and that the heavy artillery west of the Matanikau River also was zeroed in on the Henderson field area. The morning after, the Marines were bloodied, dazed and shaken.
Volumes could and have been written about the remaining months for the soldiers of 3/10 and SECMARDIV on Guadalcanal but by January of 1943 the ranks of the Japanese soldiers on the island had been decimated by fighting and by disease and starvation. Japan decided to give up the fight and by February 1 the battle for Guadalcanal was over. The Second Marines, who had been ashore in the islands longer than other unit made ready to leave. They boarded Higgins boats and proceeded to waiting transports. They Navy didn't bother lowering the gangway planks for the exhausted, disease riddled Marines and they had to climb the cargo nets with their gear to board the ships. The Second Marine Division departed for Wellington, New Zealand on February 10, 1943 where they would spend the next nine months. Unbeknownst to them their next objective would be Tarawa. Afterward, it would be widely referred to as "Bloody Tarawa."
Tarawa: "Utmost Savagery" November 20, 1943-November 23, 1943
Tarawa: "Utmost Savagery" November 20, 1943-November 23, 1943
In the past few years there has been a lot of interest generated about World War II through movies like "Saving Private Ryan", Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" books and the mere fact that we are losing this generation at an alarming rate. One of the most interesting things about World War II is how it touched everyone who lived during that period. It was truly a World War literally affecting ninety percent of the humans on the face of the earth. Growing up in Ponchatoula, I remember stories about Mr. Will MacMitchell, who lived on fifth street, winning the Silver Star in the battle for Okinawa, Mr. Hartwell Fletcher, our Boy Scout leader, being in the 82nd. Airborne and jumping behind enemy lines into France on D-Day and Harry McKneely, the funeral director, always a little bitter that he was declared 4F because of a foot problem that kept him out of the War. These were people that lived and worked and died in small towns like Ponchatoula all over the United States. These are also the men and women who saved the world.
My Dad rarely spoke of his service in World War II and after spending some time reading and researching the campaigns of the Second Marine Division and other combat units during the war it is understandable. One of the many questions I pestered him with, as a kid was "Did you ever kill anyone?" Of course he ignored the question but as an adult with children and now having some minimal knowledge of what he experienced in the war I realize how painful a child's questions must have been.
On November 1, 1943 the convoy carrying the Second Marine Division left Wellington, New Zealand, where they had spent the last nine months recuperating from their brutal six-month ordeal on Guadalcanal.
My Mom related a brief story he told about a girl he'd met In New Zealand. She was beautiful, they hit it off, and he promised he'd come back after the war to marry her. (He may have had other motives) After Tarawa he received a letter from her while he was in Hawaii and she explained that she had had some dental problems and had to have all her teeth pulled out. She went on to say that she was greatly anticipating his return so they could pursue a life together. He had one of his fellow marine grunts write back in condolence that he had been KIA at Tarawa.
The convoy stopped for a few days at Efate in the New Hebrides Islands and headed north toward the Gilbert Islands. Their destination, they learned after being safely at sea, was a tiny bird-shaped island called Betio (pronounced Bay-sho). About two miles long and a half-mile wide at its widest point, it was the westernmost island in a sand and coral atoll called Tarawa, by, which name it would forever be known.
Tarawa lies within those latitudes where tides are quite unpredictable. The Navy and Marine Corps had little knowledge about the island. The tides, or lack thereof, would play a major factor in the vicious encounter that was about to unfold.
On November 19 the U.S. fleet had assembled around Tarawa and consisted of over 200 ships including 17 carriers, 12 battleships, 8 heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, and 66 destroyers. The carriers held over 900 planes. For the invasion, 36 transport ships carried the 2nd Marine Division and elements of the 27 Infantry Division.
Reveille sounded aboard the troop transports about forty-five minutes past midnight on November 20, 1943. Deep in the bowels of the ships, groggy and cursing, the marines roused themselves from their sacks and stood in long lines at the troop mess for a breakfast of steak, eggs and potatoes. It would be the last meal for scores of young marines.
Before dawn the battleships, cruisers and destroyers unleashed their awesome hell on the tiny island. Correspondent Robert Sherrod wrote of how it looked: "The sky was filled with the orange-red flashes of the big 16 inch guns. A flaming torch…that was a high explosive shell…arched into the air and sailed far away into the dark, slowly, very slowly, like an easily lobbed tennis ball. There was a terrific explosion on the land that was Tarawa as the shell found it's mark, and a wall of flame shot hundreds of feet into the air. That was only the beginning. We cheered as other battleships breathed the brilliant breath of death. Then the cruisers joined in with their eight and six inch guns, and the destroyers with their five-inch seeming to fire as rapid as machine guns. The sky at times was brighter than noontime on the equator." The marines boarding the amtracs and Higgins boats were pleased and relieved to see the tons of shells rain down on the island. For two and a half hours the warships continued their bombardment.
Under the weight of a rifle, ammunition, helmet, bayonet, combat knife, full canteen, map case, lifebelt, and combat pack containing a poncho, three changes of socks, and underwear plus three days rations and several packs of cigarettes, they struggled down the swaying cargo nets in near darkness to the bobbing landing craft below. There were more than a few casualties in the transition from ship to landing craft. As soon as the boat was filled, the command came from the ship's deck: "Shove off, Coxswain, you're loaded!" The Navy crewmen gunned the motor of the landing craft and moved off to rendezvous with the other boats and await orders.
As related to one of his friends on a hunting trip during the sixties, Dad described the approach to the atoll just after dawn: "The beach was a sheet of flame backed by a huge wall of black smoke, as though the island was on fire. Every marine in the boat was sickly white with terror. Half of the crew was seasick from bobbing around in circles and the floor of the landing craft was awash in vomit. Heavy Japanese artillery and mortars were raining down on the Higgins boats and amtracs from the island and Marines were getting hit constantly. A Higgins boat about ten yards in front took a direct hit from an artillery or mortar shell sending bodies, body parts flying and a red rain down on them. Screams were heard briefly as our coxswain focused on continuing our macabre journey toward the island. We piled out of our thin skinned crafts as they got stuck on the coral reef and began to slug through waist high, and sometimes deeper water amid blue-white machine gun tracers and bullets toward shore. Thousands of marines were walking head-on into the Japanese machine gun and mortar fire with their rifles overhead in a delicate balancing act trying to keep their weapons dry and their heads and bodies low in the water."
The next three days were filled with the horrors of war reminiscent of the deadly Civil War battle at Antietem, the slaughter of Australian troops at Gallipoli in 1915 or the battle of the Somme in WWI where 18,000 German and French soldiers were killed in a single day. The battle for Tarawa lasted 76 hours and would go down in history as one of the bloodiest and arguably one of the most costly military blunders of WWII.
The next conscious moment Dad related after the approach to Tarawa was three days later when he was leaning against shrapnel studded downed palm tree eating c-rations. Around him lay hundreds of dead fellow Marines and thousands of dead Japanese soldiers. The hours and days since walking from the reef was somewhat of a blur filled with desperate periods of wild-eyed adrenaline fueled efforts to survive and secondly, focus on the objective of eradicating the Japanese. The islands' palm trees were mostly gone, blown away in the storm of artillery from the American ships before the invasion. The white sand beaches were red with blood, littered with bodies, burned out Higgins Boats, destroyed amtracs, carnage and death.
The Defenders: 5000 Japanese soldiers, construction workers and civilian workers. The heavily fortified island was comprised of a network of steel and concrete pillboxes, and bristled with weapons: twenty coast defense guns plus ten 75mm, six 70mm and nine 37mm cannon. Nine light tanks mounted with 37 mm guns and the numerous anti-aircraft guns were dual purpose, which meant they could shoot at boats as well as planes. There were scores of machine guns and thousands of rifles facing the marines. The Japanese commander General Shibasaki bragged that a million men couldn't take Tarawa in a hundred years.
November 20, 1943
D-Day 8:30 am
The plan was for the naval and air bombardment to continue right up until the marines hit the shore. The bombardment was to take out key Japanese defensive positions, keep the Japanese forces defending the island pinned down and provide cover for the advancing marines. However, the initial assault proved a disaster due to scheduling errors. The carrier planes arrived a half hour late; the amtracs and Higgins boats got started late so that the naval bombardment stopped long before the landing craft approached the shore. This permitted the Japanese defenders to emerge from their network of tunnels and fire on the approaching marines. A failure to adequately research the depth of the lagoon and coral reefs along it led to further disaster for the landing craft. Higgins boats became stuck on the coral reef and became easy targets for the defenders. The Japanese were waiting for them with anti-boat (converted antiaircraft) guns and machine guns. Of the 125 amtracs to approach shore in the first three waves, only 53 made it safely to the beach. Of the 500-odd men to make up the amtrac crews, 323 were killed or wounded. Marines inside them had to wade 1000 yards in waist to chest high water unprotected and under constant machine gun and mortar fire. Marines in the first wave suffered 75% casualties.
Six million pounds of explosives were hurled onto the island, 1300 pounds for each Jap ashore. It should have left them dead, wounded or stupefied. It didn't. Much of the naval gunfire struck the island with an almost flat trajectory with many of the shells bouncing off into the ocean beyond. Help from the Navy carriers was no more effective. The pilots stopped strafing while the first wave of marines was still a mile or more from the beach. Carrier bombers were a half hour late and stayed over the island only seven minutes. Dust and smoke from the naval bombardment made it impossible for the pilots to see their targets.
Twenty feet from the water were hundreds of men down behind the seawall, and the commanding officers who were still alive desperately searched for the battalion headquarters people. It came down to tremendous acts of bravery by sergeants, NCO's and grunt soldiers to eventually maintain some semblance of order. The situation was unbelievably chaotic, and the troops had no idea what to do or where to go.
Situation critical: Seeking reinforcements, General Julian Smith, commanding the marine invasion radios Supreme Marine Commander General Holland Smith, "The issue is in doubt." With his marines locked in a vicious battle barely a few yards from shore, General Smith orders all available reserve battalions into the battle. However, due to communications breakdowns the reserve units would not be ordered into battle until the next morning. This meant the depleted units on the beachhead would have to endure possible Japanese nighttime counterattacks without the help of the reserve force.
By nighttime the marines had a slim foothold along the pier and seawall a few yards from the water. Communications were down and messages were relayed by runner. With their backs to the sea, the marines dug in and prepared for a Japanese counterattack. Unbeknownst to the marines until long after the battle of Tarawa, the Japanese commander, General Shibasaki had been killed by an aerial burst during the naval bombardment on the first day. Had the General been alive to command a counterattack against the severely weakened and disorganized marines on the night of the 20th, the outcome of the battle would have been delayed and many more marines would have died. Just after dark that first day, a call went out for men to go back toward the pier and retrieve canisters of shells, which had been dumped ashore for the 81mm mortar platoons. Mr. Richard Nash, a 20-year-old sergeant and veteran of the Guadalcanal campaign, related his experience via email. He had headed back to the pier and realized he was alone: "It was fearsome. Trees, brush, bodies, and buildings were all burning, bullets seemed to be flying in every direction, and I could hear them buzzing by me. I will never understand why I wasn't hit. People were shouting; no one seemed to know where anyone else was or what was going on. I jumped into a shell crater that was occupied by a burning Japanese soldier. He briefly helped light my way as I stumbled around in the night and brought the shell canisters back. That was enough of that". He fell asleep on the beach sometime during the night and awoke at dawn on Sunday, November 21 lying in water up to his chest. The tide had begun to come in, and with it, hope.
D-Day plus 1
During the night, several suicide minded Japanese soldiers swam out into the lagoon to a grounded Japanese freighter and set up machine guns. Troops on the shore were now being fired upon from the rear and elements of the approaching reserve Sixth marine units were slaughtered as the Higgins boats and amtracs again got hung up on the coral reefs. The reserve units on the second day took over 40% casualties.
The tide finally began to roll in and with it the Higgins boats were able to bring in badly needed supplies. While the marines were still pinned down on the beaches, supplies of ammunition, medical supplies and communication equipment raised the beleaguered troops morale. With communications restored and the reserve troops bolstering the American beachhead, the marines prepared for another assault and breakout. After a brutal day of close quarter and sometimes hand-to-hand combat the marines were no longer just maintaining a foothold on the beach, they were beginning to advance.
One by one, with tank support, flamethrowers and mortars the marines painstakingly cracked open the Japanese pillboxes protecting Shibasakis headquarters. Shibasaki's bunkers and the Japanese soldiers within them were exterminated with brutality typical of the Pacific campaign. Grenades dropped into the bunker's air vents caused scores of Japanese soldiers to scramble outside, only to be cut down by canister shot, flamethrower and rifle fire. A marine bulldozer then covered the bunker in sand, entombing the inhabitants. Gasoline was then poured into the vents and TNT charges dropped inside. Over 200 charred bodies were eventually discovered when the marines entered the bunker.
1:10 PM November 23, 1943
Tarawa is secure and the first American aircraft land on the islands airstrip.
From beginning to end, the battle lasted only 76 hours. Almost 6000 young men and teen-age boys (1,000 American and over 4,700 Japanese) had died, and another 2,000 had been wounded. All for a tiny atoll that was two miles long and a half-mile wide. In the tropical heat thousands of bloated bodies lay scattered about the island or floated half-submerged in the lagoon. The stench of rotting flesh was overpowering.
As the division prepared to leave, the survivors watched sadly as bulldozers scraped out long trenches in the sand near the airfield. Hundreds of bodies were lying along the trenches. Three chaplains walked along the rows of bodies and said prayers over the dead marines. The bodies, wrapped in rubber ponchos, were then dropped into the trenches, and the bulldozers scraped the sand back over them.
On the fourth day the troop ships pulled into the lagoon, the Second Marine Division embarked and by 5p.m. they were on the open sea headed for Pearl Harbor. It was a sad and somber trip. Six of the wounded marines had died and were sewn into sailcloth and each man was covered with an American flag. To the haunting strains of "Taps" and the "Lords Prayer," one by one the stretchers were tipped and the bodies slipped into the sea.
There would be much controversy over the decision to take Tarawa. Some later analysts argued that there was no real purpose served by the losses at Tarawa. The lower tier marines did not realize that among the planners of the operation had been some who seriously doubted the island's strategic value, but the decision was made to take it to prevent the Japanese from having an air base astride the supply route connecting the U.S. and Australia.
The Second Marine Division was not done. Six months later in May of 1944 they would head back west toward Japan to the Island of Saipan.
Saipan: War in the Canebrakes, June 15-July 9, 1944
Saipan: War in the Canebrakes, June 15-July 9, 1944
"Saipan was war such as nobody had fought before: A campaign in which men
crawled, clubbed, shot, burned and bayoneted each other to death."
Lieutenant General Holland Smith, USMC August 1944
For the weary survivors of the Second Marine Division, the 2000-mile voyage from Tarawa was a postscript to horror. The troop transports reeked of the awful smell of the island, of disinfectant, and of blood. There were no fresh clothes for unwounded Marines, and almost everyone had lost his gear in the shuffle of battle. Every day there were funerals aboard the transports, the haunting sounds of "Taps" was played and replayed over the ships' public address system and flag-draped bodies slipped into the silent seas.
The troop transports began arriving at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu on December 3rd and for many days the ambulances moved back and forth, taking the wounded to Aiea and other hospitals near Honolulu. The ships then set sail again, 200 more miles to the big island of Hawaii, where the marines hoped to settle into a comfortable and capacious camp in a gentle climate. They found neither. The campsite was sixty-five miles inland from Hawaii's port of Hilo near the village of Kamuela. Kamuela was saddled between the great volcanoes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.
In December there is snow on the peaks of the volcanoes and the barren land between is swept by high winds bearing icy fog and mist. The lightly clad marines could not get a break. Upon arrival to their "camp" they found that there was no camp. The heroes of Tarawa toiled for three grim weeks, working by day in chill rain or mist and at night they froze under makeshift shelters, lacking blankets or sleeping bags. Christmas of 1943 was not a holiday that many Second Division Marines remember with great pleasure.
The reasons for the selection of the Kamuela campsite it was later acknowledged was threefold: First, 100% of the Marines who were veterans of Guadalcanal and were lucky enough to survive Tarawa were still suffering from malaria and the hierarchy felt the cold climate would help. Secondly, the Corps command knew the next battle would be fought in mountainous territory. Finally, the initial isolation gave the Marines time to make an important adjustment-time to realize that Hawaiian residents of Japanese ancestry had no relation to the enemy Japanese they had just conquered. It also gave the island populace an opportunity to identify the Marines for what they were: brave young Americans and not "paid killers" as they had been advertised by certain detractors. This story was spread by some of the garrison troops in Hawaii, who were fearful of losing their girlfriends to the romantic "Gyrenes."
By the end of February 1944, three months since the bloodletting at Tarawa, the marines had received hundreds of new replacements. General Smith began training the division for its' next battle. At first, the training was largely conditioning: getting sick marines well, toughening up men who had been weakened by battle, by wounds, or by the climatic change and working the new replacements into the unit so that they functioned smoothly.
The plan for the invasion of the Marianas was finalized and reached the division on April 10th, 1944. The marines knew something was up, all leaves were immediately canceled, and security around division HQ was tightened. On the 12th of May the Second Marine Division loaded onto the transport ships once again and set sail for the Marianas islands, 3500 miles from Hawaii and only 1200 from Tokyo.
The huge fleet that was assembled for the assault on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam included 535 combat ships and auxiliaries. The armada included 15 carriers, 12 battle ships, 20 cruisers, and more than 70 destroyers. The ships carried 127,570 U.S. military personnel (two-thirds of whom were Marines of the 2nd and 4th divisions). Near the island of Eniwetok, where they all assembled briefly, the ships were spread from horizon to horizon in an awesome display of deadly power. It is astonishing, even baffling, that the U.S. could muster such a huge naval force at the same time D-Day in France was occurring.
Unlike Tarawa's 5000 Japanese defenders, Saipan had a garrison of nearly 32,000 soldiers and unlike Tarawa; Saipan was considered part of the Japanese homeland with 20,000 civilians in the town of Garapan alone. Here the marines would encounter house-to-house fighting for the first time since Vera Cruz in 1914. Saipan's 72 square miles had a little bit of everything: caves like on Tulagi, mountains and ridges like on Guadalcanal, a reef nearly as treacherous as that at Tarawa, and Japanese soldiers who would fight to the death. Of the 32,000 Japanese soldiers, few would survive the brutal 24-day battle.
Seven American battleships and 11 destroyers shelled Saipan and Tinian for two days before the landings, firing 16,000 16-inch and 5-inch high explosive shells at the islands. (A sixteen-inch shell weighs slightly more than a Volkswagen Beetle). On the second day of the bombardment, eight more battleships, six heavy cruisers and five light cruisers joined the onslaught. For fear of possible minefields close to shore, the ships delivered their fire from 10,000 yards or more. Their spotters knew little about targets onshore and they tended to hit larger buildings, which turned out to be of little or no value. Thus, as at Tarawa, the naval bombardment was largely ineffective and again the marines would be counted on to do the dirty work. The end result of this was that the amtracs and Higgins boats churning toward the beach on D-Day once again encountered fierce and deadly resistance.
D-Day was June 15, 1944, following the days of naval and air bombardment and extensive UDT (Underwater Demolition Team, a predecessor to the Navy Seals) preparations. Yet Navy assault wave control officers were puzzled to discover a number of small red flags that had appeared overnight along the reef. Then as the LVT's (Landing Vehicle Tank, an upgraded version of the Amtrac, that mounted a 75mm howitzer and machine gun) and Higgins boats churned towards the coral barrier just before H-Hour, the entire reef exploded. Astonished Naval officers thought the Japanese had mined the reef at the last minute. They had not. The red flags were range markers.
The Japanese field artillery had just executed a difficult and massive time on target concentrated salvo by every gun on the island. Many rounds scored direct hits on the approaching landing craft, blowing troops and crew to bits. Near misses caused enormous geysers causing other craft to swamp spilling heavily laden marines to a watery death. The vicious plunging surf caught others with their sterns exposed as they struggled over the coral and flipped them end over end, dumping the hands into the froth.
The marines immediately lost 20 LVT's, each with a full complement of soldiers in the deadly combination of artillery fire and surf. Completely aware of the killing zone on the reef but unable to aid the drowning marines, hundreds of others struggled through the gauntlet and rumbled up onto Saipan's thick sand.
Here things took a turn for the worse. The Japanese had zeroed in on the beach prior to the invasion and gunners pummeled the marines from hundreds of unseen positions with mortars, machine guns and rifle fire. Most marines were forced to abandon the LVT's near the beach and seek shelter where they could to avoid being slaughtered. Japanese mortars sprayed the entire landing zone with hot shrapnel killing scores of marines as they scrambled for some safe place that did not exist.
By the early afternoon the marines had suffered over 2000 casualties. Although there were some losses in leadership including 3rd battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel "Jim" Crowe, who had become a near legend for his coolness under fire at Tarawa, the assaulting force wrested a modest slice of shell-blasted Saipan from it's defenders. General Holland Smith had 20,000 men ashore by nightfall, spread unevenly along a beachhead four miles long and maybe a mile deep.
My Dad was in H battery, 3rd battalion, 10th regiment, Second Marine Division, the 3/10. He related the following to one of my uncles after the war: "There is something definitely terrifying about the first night on a hostile beach. No matter what superiority you may boast in men and material, on that first night you are the underdog, and the enemy is in a position to make you pay through the nose." He told my grandmother and his younger brother and sister when he got back, "Never, ever approach or touch me while I'm asleep." I do not think it would have been possible to approach or touch him while he slept because he never slept. As a kid, I remember walking into to the room where he and Mom slept and he was always awake. The lights would be off, it would be quiet and I would tiptoe, crawl or slither through the door and he would calmly ask me what I was doing, no matter if it was midnight or four in the morning, I could not sneak up on him. He later told me that he could sleep while he was driving a car.
During the three-week battle of Saipan, the marines seldom slept. The consequence of a lapse in consciousness or concentration was death for many exhausted and sleep-deprived soldiers. Every night for the first two weeks the Japanese shelled the marine's positions and the marines waited for the Japs to storm their positions. The nightly shelling was relentless and seemed to come from nowhere, offering no targets, a terror against which there was no defense. All along the CT8, the front lines where the 3/10 was located, the Japanese launched a whole series of minor counterattacks to the daily artillery bombardment from the 3/10. Few of the night counterattacks would rival the massive banzai attacks later, but they succeeded in keeping the marines awake and robbing them of much needed rest.
While the marines were in their life and death struggle on the island of Saipan, the last great aircraft carrier battle of the war, and possibly human history, was fought in the vicinity of the Mariana's on June 19, 1944 when 15 U.S. Carriers and 950 planes struck a Japanese force of 5 carriers and 550 aircraft. Before the day was over the Battle For The Philippine Sea, or The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, saw the Japanese lose 240 planes and the carriers Taiho and Shokaku, as opposed to American losses of 29 planes and damage to the battleship South Dakota.
The battle for Saipan slugged on day after day as the marines painstakingly routed out the Japanese. Fire teams blasted the Japs cave-by-cave in the Tapotchau plateau, affectionately known by the Japanese as "The Valley of Hell", and house-by-house in the town of Garapan. There were many agonizing and deadly assaults up Mount Tapochau and the Division took major casualties: 26 KIA, 92 wounded on June 23rd; 36 KIA, 105 wounded on June 24th; 41 KIA, 119 wounded on June 25th; and another 150 KIA and 247 wounded before the peak was considered secure.
The 3/10 and its companion artillery battery the 4/10 were set up just behind the front line of each assault to provide interdictory artillery fire and Jap snipers took a heavy toll. The response to snipers was to fight sniper with sniper. According to my Uncle George who died last month, Dad was chosen to be one of the 3/10's designated snipers due to his expert marksman status. Or maybe he was just dumb enough to go sit in a tree with a high-powered scoped rifle and kill before being killed. He never mentioned any aspect of this to me but considering that he survived the battle, he must have been somewhat successful.
On Guadalcanal patrols often had utilized one or two members as "points of fire", usually volunteers. Now every marine was a point of fire. The Jap snipers hidden in the rocks or trees, protecting the echeloned positions, were revealed only when they shot. Marines died alone, in the hot sun, to lie for hours on the cruel rocks, before their comrades discovered their bloated bodies.
These were no longer crack Marine troops, physically fresh and psychologically eager. They had been ashore twelve to sixteen days, always under fire and never out of the front lines more than a few hours. The original units making up the battalions had dwindled. Green troops were now thrown in with the veterans of Guadalcanal and Tarawa and death and carnage were everywhere. There had been no hot meals, nor even water for washing. The marines were wearing the same ragged board stiff uniforms in which they had come ashore, eating their dismal K rations all with the accompaniment of billions of flies. More than one Saipan veteran has mentioned the flies, big blue-green maggot hatched flies penetrating and permeating everything from wounds to open mouths.
By the beginning of July, the Japanese were beat down and were desperate. The 27th Army Division had fought it' way through "Death Valley" and linked up with the Second Marine Division on it's left. As the advance north continued and the island narrowed, the Japanese were considering their options. At this time, most of the major objectives of the battle for Saipan had been accomplished. Mount Tapotchau had been secured as well as the town of Garapan and assorted villages around the island. Many Japanese soldiers, along with thousands of indigenous natives of the island were now crowded at the north end of the island in a confused mass of humanity. The Japanese soldiers had told the civilians that the Americans would torture and kill them and their families if they were taken prisoner.
Hundreds of civilians with their children committed suicide by jumping off the towering cliffs at Marpi Point on northern tip of the island. Even the battle hardened marines were horrified to see women throwing their babies and young children over the cliffs to their deaths on rocks hundreds of feet below. The marines and naval personnel shouted in vane appeals through loudspeakers with interpreters trying to convince them that they would be unharmed.
The general feeling on the 4th and 5th of July was that the Japanese were on the run, most of the island was in American hands and soon, hopefully very soon the marines would be done with this godforsaken place. Meanwhile General Saito, who had commanded much of the Japanese forces on Saipan, was planning for an all-out, fight to the death, final banzai attack on the Marines.
The afternoon of July 4th, both the 3/10 and the 4/10 were moved north of Tanapag Harbor, to positions in general support of the 27th and 105th Army divisions.
On July 5, 1944, H Battery, 3rd Battalion, 10th Regiment, Second Marine Division was placed forward of the Division's fire direction center some fifty yards. A few hundred yards ahead of the 3/10 was the Army's 105th in a ragged line with the Army's 27th.
If there was any menace in the air, on the sticky afternoon of July 6th, it escaped the troops who most needed to sense it. The artillerymen of 3/10 and 4/10 were delivering intermittent fire on distant Jap positions. As evening came, the battalions of the 105th dug in, but left a substantial gap between them, which they planned to cover by fire. During the hours just before midnight some of the soldiers thought they heard eerie singing, in the hills ahead and to the right. Their comrades scoffed.
At 0430 July 7, 1944, three thousand screaming Japanese soldiers, some armed with only grenades or long poles fixed with bayonets, poured through the gap in the 27th and 105th's lines. The first and second battalions of the 105th were practically all killed which carried on to H Battery of the 3/10. Initially, the artillerymen snatched up their carbines and pistols to fight it out with the Japanese. There were so many, that it came down to hand to hand combat using bayonets and the 3/10 began leveling their 105mm artillery pieces and firing horizontally into the throngs of Sake fueled Japanese soldiers. Meanwhile, another Japanese spearhead had plunged south into G Battery and their brutal fire deflected this Jap force into the area where H Battery was fighting the attack from the front. All of a sudden this new "Banzai" group who they initially thought were retreating army troops was also flanking H Battery. Unlike some earlier Banzais,the attack did not end quickly.
All the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon was spent struggling with the enemy and killing them. The Army moved up the reserve battalion of the 105th and parts of the 106th. The marines of the 4/10 came to the assistance of the valiant survivors of 3/10. The bodies of enemy dead lay in clumps of five, ten, fifty or a hundred. The veteran marines walked through this gruesome field of corpses without emotion, wincing only when they saw the body of a dead marine or Army soldier among the enemy troops.
The banzai charge cost the 3/10 and 4/10 eighty-five killed and 144 wounded. But the two artillery battalions, fighting with the big guns and with rifles, with bazookas and grenades and bayonets, paid the enemy back many-fold. Most of the attacking Japanese were slaughtered and this was the last large scale action that the marines would see on Saipan.
At 1600 on July 9, 1944 Admiral Richmond Kelly declared the island secured.
Of the 71,034 U.S. troops landed on Saipan, 3,100 were killed, 13,100 wounded or missing in action. Out of the 31,629 Japanese on Saipan, approximately 29,500 died as a result of the fighting, and only 2,100 prisoners survived.Fighting between the Japanese and the Americans was by no means completely mechanized; while ships, aircraft, artillery, and tanks inflicted the largest amount of damage to the combatants, a great deal of the fighting was hand to hand. Besides machine guns, flame throwers, rifles, and pistols, deadly skirmishes were fought with bayonets, swords, bamboo spears, clubs stones and fists.
Thanks Mark for the excellent article.
Mark writes from Ponchatoula, Louisiana.
copyright 2001 Wheaton, Illinois
Created 17 February 2001