11 Back to Saipan

We were not real enthusiastic about going back to Saipan, especially as this was supposedly our rest and recreation area. Our first rest area, New Zealand, had been so wonderful it spoiled us for anything else. Next was Hawaii, which we thought was pretty bad, especially where we were stationed. But Saipan - it had nothing to offer. That is rather amusing today since it has become a prime vacation destination.

I had grown rather tired of Headquarters and Service Company, so I requested a transfer back into a line company. On December 18, 1944, my request came through and I was transferred to K Company, Third Battalion, Eighth Regiment.

Our camp was located near Magicienne Bay, which did not even have a beach where we could swim. At least mail came through regularly these days, including Christmas packages from home. One of the most popular presents was fruit cake, and even though some of them arrived looking much the worse for wear, they tasted mighty good compared to the food the mess hall turned out.

One of the packages I received was from a girl I had gone to school with. Not only did it contain a fruit cake, but it also had a lot of other goodies in it. One of the items was a roll of 620 film, which certainly did me no good as we were not allowed to have cameras. Then I discovered that one of our newer recruits had arrived with a size 620 camera. No one had been made aware of this, so it had not yet been confiscated. I immediately borrowed his camera, and on my first day off I wandered around the island taking photos. When I had shot the whole roll, I went to the airport where there was a photo lab for developing pictures taken from the B-29's. For a few Japanese souvenirs I got my roll developed and printed. These were the only pictures I was able to take during my entire time overseas.

Figure 64. Len explores up these steps ...

Figure 65. ... to a Shinto shrine at the top.

Figure 66. Meditating at the shrine.

Upon arrival in K Company I found they were delighted to have an experienced Marine, and I was immediately appointed an acting sergeant. Finally, I thought, I would get the promotion I had almost received over a year earlier. I remained acting sergeant for about two months during which time recruits gradually built up our strength. I knew when our company reached full strength my promotion would become effective. Our final recruits arrived, all nine of them, and all nine were sergeants! This was disappointing and was very unpopular with the men, who naturally wanted someone who had lived through three campaigns to tell them what to do in the next one. All nine of our new sergeants were fresh out of the States and not one had seen combat.

As mentioned earlier, recreation was minimal. We did have an outdoor theater which was built on a sloping hillside and had sandbags for seats. The movies were changed two or three times a week and we always saw all of them.

About the only other entertainment we had was going to the airport. The B-29's were now flying regularly to bomb Japan, and while Saipan only had one runway, it was interesting to watch them take off. The runway ended at the edge of a cliff, which dropped about fifty feet to the ocean below. The planes were loaded to their maximum with bombs and fuel as it was still a long flight to Japan and back. Most planes were barely airborne when they reached the end of the runway, and many flew directly off the cliff. Usually, those that did this would settle down a little lower as they tried to build up air speed. All of the planes had to struggle to get airborne, and even the successful ones were probably not over a hundred feet high by the time they were five miles out. Once in awhile we would see a plane jettison its bombs to reduce weight and remain airborne. Sometimes even that didn't work and the plane would just gradually keep losing altitude until we would see a splash about ten miles offshore. Pickup boats were always kept in that area when the B-29's were being launched.

One day I met a pilot who flew a twin-engine C-47 on a mail run between Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, which by now was back in U.S. hands. Some work had just been done on his engines and he was going to make a short flight to be sure they were okay. He invited me to go along and I jumped at the chance, as the only time I had been up was for about ten minutes at an air show in Roseburg a few years earlier. It was just the pilot and his radioman-navigator, who rode in a seat at the rear of the cockpit. As there was no copilot, I got to sit in his seat. We took off and climbed a couple thousand feet, then leveled off. The pilot asked if I had ever been up before, and not wanting to appear too inexperienced I said, "Sure." He then replied, "Take over." I took the wheel in both hands and placed my feet on the rudder pedals. I had always been interested in flying and had read books on the subject, which I was now trying hard to remember. At this time we were flying over Tinian and he said,"Let's see you take a turn around Tinian." He never asked if I knew how, but as I recalled from the books, I gave it left rudder and turned the wheel left at the same time, completed the turn as instructed, and leveled out again. His reply was, "Good job." With that he unbuckled his seat belt, got up and left, walking somewhere to the rear. I immediately started looking at the instruments as I knew I must be skidding, climbing, descending, or doing something I shouldn't. I never did find out as I couldn't locate all the gauges. I'm sure the pilot had not gone far, but it seemed like forever before he finally returned and took over. It was an experience I would not forget, and was so enjoyable that three years later I had my own pilot's license.

Figures 67, 68 and 69. Len and two buddies play around some captured Japanese cannons.

About this time I started having problems with my stomach. Marine Corps chow, although plentiful, was not the most tasty in the world, especially when cooked in field kitchens such as were used overseas. Even the thought of eating that greasy food got to where I was nauseous. Often, after eating I would simply lose it. I went to sick bay, but they didn't really do anything for me. I became resigned to this problem and hoped it would go away, but it was only to get worse as time went by.

One day we were practicing out at the rifle range when a Zero came into view. This was very unusual as we had not seen a Japanese plane for several months. It came diving down out of the sky followed by three U.S. planes; a Lightning P-38, an F6F Hellcat, and a Corsair. It immediately became obvious that this was more of a battle between the branches of service than it was a fight between nations. The Lightning P-38 was flown only by the Army. The F6F Hellcat was a carrier based Navy plane, while the Corsair was flown only by the Marine Corps. Most likely none of the pilots had seen combat before and this was their first opportunity. The poor Zero did not have a chance.

It looked at first like the Army pilot was going to win as his plane was the fastest and he was in front. Unfortunately, he was too fast. He shot right past the Zero and had to pull up out of his dive to avoid crashing. The Hellcat and Corsair were both on the tail of the Zero and firing their guns. We couldn't tell who got him, but the Zero crashed right at the end of our range. I'm sure both pilots claimed victory, and no doubt each was given credit for a half kill.

Some of the elements of the Fourth Marine Division stopped in Tanapag Harbor on the way to another campaign. We overheard the general commanding the Division addressing his men. He informed them that where they were going it would be rough, but they should consider themselves lucky as he also knew where those fellows were going, pointing at us, and stating that our destination would be rougher.

Figures 70 and 71. Fifty years separate the two photographs of Len taken on Mt. Tapotchau, Saipan.

A few days later the Fourth landed at Iwo Jima, which turned out to be the bloodiest battle the Marine Corps had fought during the entire history of the Corps. That didn't sound like good news to us.

Figure 72. Second Division Marines boarding attack transports in Tanapag Harbor, bound for Okinawa.
Marine Corps photo from Follow Me by Richard Johnston (1948).

By the first of March 1945, we were packing up ready to go on the offensive again. On March 25th, we were trucked to Tanapag Harbor and I went aboard the USS Newberry. The USS Newberry was a Haskell Class Attack Transport (APA158) with a compliment of 56 officers and 480 enlisted personnel. After putting out to sea, we learned our destination would be Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands.

Last Modified: 01/01/2019
One Man's View by Leonard E. Skinner (2001)