9 Sapian

The pre-dawn darkness of the morning of our arrival was shattered by the gunfire of six battleships and cruisers as they pounded beach defenses. Actually, the Navy had been shelling Saipan for four days already, and our carrier based planes had been bombing it. Additionally, we had a new weapon. This was a specially built ship called an LCI (landing craft, infantry). These ships had been armed with rockets, the first I had ever seen.

They had shallow draft and could go fairly close to shore where they would fire volleys of rockets at installations on the beach. All of this combined fire, along with continuous bombing and strafing by aircraft, raised a cloud of smoke, dirt, and other debris over the beach. One would believe no one could live through this, and the recruits among us thought we would be able to go ashore without a shot being fired. We veterans knew better.

The Eighth Regiment was designated as part of the assault troops. The line companies went ashore in the first two waves. That is when we found the Saipan landing was going to be different. Saipan is a fairly large island, being seventy-two square miles in total. Most of the Japanese troops had been drawn back from the beach, so all of our bombardment had done very little damage. The enemy had a lot of artillery and mortars, and as each wave headed in, the Japanese were exploding a shell every twenty-five yards, every fifteen seconds, along the beach and its approaches. Our first two waves were having very heavy casualties, and were moving inland without seeing many of the enemy or finding targets for their light weapons.

In mid-morning I went ashore in the third wave, our destination being Green Beach I. Unlike our landings in the Solomons, we now had amphibious tractors (amtracs) to take us ashore. These vehicles consisted of a large open cargo space with a small cab in the front. They were all metal and the hull was solid all the way around. When on land the top of the open bed was about eye level. Entry was gained by climbing over the side. A door permitted the driver and one other person access to the cab. They were propelled by means of a full track running the length of the vehicle, similar to that of a tank, only lighter. Cleats on the track would move the vehicle in water, and upon reaching the beach the amtrac could emerge and continue on dry land. Our unit was in two amtracs. I reached shore safely, but our other amtrac received a direct hit and all were killed or wounded, consequently we were reduced fifty percent before even reaching the beach. Those of us who were left immediately started providing support to the front line troops, moving supplies up to their positions a short distance inland. Trying to keep the front lines supplied with food, water, and ammunition would be my job during this campaign.

Figure 50. Coming ashore in amtracs on Green Beach 1. U.S. Marine Corps photograph.

Normally, the front line is the most dangerous place to be, becoming progressively safer the farther one is to the rear. For the first few days on Saipan there was really no difference as our casualties were from shell fire, not rifles or machine guns. Officers of higher rank, lieutenant colonels and majors, are battalion commanders and their aides. They are usually well to the rear. D-day on Saipan set a Marine Corps record in the number of officers of such rank being killed or wounded. In my regiment, every lieutenant colonel and almost every major was hit the first day of the invasion.

The Japanese had an advantage in that they held Mt. Tapotchau near the north end of the island. Observation posts near the summit permitted them to keep our positions under scrutiny throughout most of the operation. In addition, they had pre-sighted their artillery so their fire was very accurate. On D+2 (two days after our landing), I was unloading an amtrac near the beach when we came under heavy fire. I jumped into the nearest shell crater and was hugging the ground when suddenly there was a loud roar and crash of a large Japanese shell landing in the crater right beside me. The impact threw me into the air, and when my feet hit the ground they hit running. It turned out the shell was a dud, but my first thought was that it might be a delayed action round. If it had been, I would probably not have heard it as I left the crater about as fast as the shell had come in!

A grove of coconut trees separated the beach and the Charan Kanoa fighter airstrip, which was located a couple of hundred yards inland and which ran parallel to the coast. A tank trap, which consisted of a trench about ten feet deep, had been dug in the grove of trees and was about the same length as the mile-long airstrip. This tank trap gave us problems on D-day as it stopped the amtracs. One of the first things we did was fill in some places so we could cross.

On D+3, I was in an amtrac gathering supplies to take up to the front. It was just the driver and myself. We stopped at the water dump and I loaded several five-gallon cans of drinking water. We then proceeded to the ammo dump which was located in a small grove of trees just across the airstrip. When we arrived we found another amtrac being loaded. As there was just room for one at a time, we paused on the edge of the runway to await our turn. The driver stepped into the rear where I was and started to get a drink from one of the cans of water when suddenly Japanese artillery opened up on us. The first salvo hit the ammo dump and the whole thing started exploding. The driver spun around a couple of times as if he couldn't find the door back into the cab so I gave him a shove inside. He landed in the driver's seat and the amtrac leaped forward at the same time.

He made a turn on the runway, ran full speed down the airstrip, then turned into the grove of coconut trees. He was still going full speed when we hit the tank trap. We dove into it and hit the bottom nose first. As I was in the open bed, it catapulted me into the air, and it seemed like I flew an incredible height and distance before landing in a shell hole right on top of another Marine who had taken shelter there. My airborne excursion should have wrecked me, but the adrenalin was flowing so fast I did not feel a thing. Both the other Marine, who didn't know what had hit him at first, and myself huddled in the hole for another half hour until the bombardment let up. The driver had been injured and the amtrac was destroyed, but my lucky star was still shining, or perhaps it was the little ivory elephant hanging around my neck.

On D+5, I had another interesting experience on the airstrip. By now we had finally got our trucks ashore so we were using them instead of the amtracs. These were standard military trucks with dual rear wheels. Detachable canvas tops covered the truck bed, but we never used them in combat as they slowed loading and unloading. Again, it was just a driver and myself and we had stopped on the edge of the runway to wait for an opportunity to load some drinking water. I was standing in the open truck bed, facing toward the rear and leaning against the cab when I saw an airplane approaching with its wheels down preparing to land.

This was highly unusual as the runway had not been used since our landing because it had many shell craters in it. The approaching plane was a SBD dive bomber, which carried a crew of two - a pilot and rear gunner. As I found out later, the gunner had been seriously wounded and the pilot had decided to land on Saipan for medical help as his carrier was a long distance away.

The truck driver was totally unaware of the approaching plane as he was facing in the opposite direction. In fact, he was in the process of lighting a cigarette just as the aircraft touched down, probably not more than fifty yards away. As the wheels hit the runway, the left one dropped into a hole, spinning the plane around and heading it right toward us. I dived over the side of the stake-bed truck and was still in mid air when the plane struck us. I was looking over my shoulder and saw the fuselage go right by the opposite side of the truck, with the wing going over my head as well as over the truck cab. The pilot had landed tail down as in a carrier landing. The leading edge of the wing just cleared the cab, while about halfway to the trailing edge it hit. The impact just tipped the truck cab forward and tore the whole thing off, windshield, roof and all, with the wing just clearing the truck driver's head. Everything happened so fast I had not even time to shout a warning and the first thing the driver knew was a roar, a crash, something huge shooting past him, and he was sitting in a convertible. As long as I live I will never forget the look on his face, which had turned instantly white with a cigarette frozen halfway to his lips. He did not even receive a scratch, although the wing could not have been more than an inch or two over his head.

After hitting us the plane left the runway, went into a large shell hole, flipped completely over, and slid to a stop upside-down in a battalion aid station. That pilot wanted medical help and he sure got it as it was a doctor who slid the canopy back, unbuckled the gunner, and lowered him onto a stretcher. The pilot was also a lucky man and appeared to be uninjured.

For the most part the truck drivers were a bunch of characters. One in particular I often rode with took his truck to impossible locations. He used to tell me to hang on and help him watch for communication wire as that was the only thing he would try to avoid. In those days the radios we had were very undependable, so the communication section would follow the front line companies and unroll wire onto the ground from a reel carried between them. This permitted telephone communication between the front line and the rear echelon units and was more reliable.

Since the Solomon Islands, the Marine Corps no longer used the old and obsolete 1903 Springfield rifles, but had replaced them with modern, eight-shot Garand semi-automatic rifles. That was the weapon I was issued, but as it was quite heavy I exchanged it for a lightweight carbine which was easier to carry on the truck. We never rode inside the cab but stayed outside where we could watch for snipers. If there was just one of us and the driver we would ride in the back so we could see to both sides as well as to the rear, as a favorite trick of snipers would be to allow the truck to pass, then step out into the road and fire at it.

Often there would be two of us in addition to the driver, in which case the second person would usually sit on one of the large front fenders so he could help watch ahead. This became increasingly important as the front lines moved forward, as we would have an area near the beach where a number of Marines were located, and a second large number of Marines on or near the front lines. In between were now several miles of no man's land and, although the area had been swept, many Japanese had been by-passed or had since infiltrated.

On one occasion we were traveling down a dirt road and I was riding on the left front fender, sitting cross-legged with my carbine in my lap. I glanced down and saw a land mine in the road just as the wheel I was sitting above went over it. I thought, "Here we go," but nothing happened. I yelled at the driver to stop, and even though we were not going very fast, the rear wheels had also gone over the mine before the truck came to a halt. A recent rain had washed the dirt enough to partially expose the mine and the plunger was clearly visible. Our front wheel had just missed it, while our rear dual wheels had straddled it. I cut a stick and drove it into the ground, attaching some cloth to it like a flag, so the mine could be avoided until it was taken care of. Very likely we had been the first vehicle to use the road since the mine was planted.

About this time we were moved to a location roughly halfway between the beach and the front lines. This was an area that was mostly open, flat land. I dug my foxhole under some trees and set up a Japanese machine gun so as to cover the field in front of me. This was not a choice location as a battery of 155 MM guns were also brought in. These were the largest guns in the Marine Corps inventory and were choice enemy targets. Fortunately, much of the Japanese artillery had been knocked out by now or we would have been shelled incessantly. The nearest gun was not over fifty feet from my foxhole, and of course it made a terrible noise every time it was fired. A harassing gunfire would last sporadically throughout the night to keep the Japanese awake. Unfortunately, it had the same effect on us.

On the other side of the open field in front of me, perhaps half a mile distant, were some supposedly deserted houses. Thinking it might be advisable to be certain they were empty, I took my carbine and checked them out. No enemy troops were there, but I did gather up a variety of clothing I thought interesting. I came back into camp wearing a jaunty Panama hat, a Japanese silk kimono, and for a real show stopper, a grass skirt over my dungaree trousers. I thought this might give my buddies a laugh, but it turned out a couple of war correspondents had just arrived and they found me fascinating. They took pictures and one said, "What will we call him?" The other suggested, "Let's name him the mayor of Saipan." The subsequent article appeared in newspapers throughout the United States.

Also, about this time we had our first mail call since leaving Hawaii. There was only one small bag for the entire company, but I did have one letter. I was rather disappointed when I found it was from Joyce, as I would much rather have had a letter from my folks or one of my girlfriends. At this time Joyce and I had never even met, but we knew of each other only through mutual friends, namely, my sister, Wanda, and my sister-in-law, Alice. Joyce was doing her bit by writing to the boys in the service as the government was encouraging them to do, but we had corresponded only a few times and I know both of our letters were quite uninteresting. Little did I dream I would marry her in two years.

Figure 51. Suicide Cliff, where many Japanese, both military and civilian, committed suicide.

After the first week of July we had taken most of the island and were anticipating a banzai charge. Typically, the Japanese never surrendered, and when pushed clear back and low on personnel and supplies, they would stage what they thought was a glorious attack. In truth, it was mass suicide as it was just a wild frontal charge. We would suffer casualties, too, but in the process we would just about eliminate all resistance. Consequently, we always looked forward to the banzai charge as that would signal the fighting for that island was just about over.

We moved our artillery forward to a position just behind the front lines as we were making a push the next morning, but on the night of July 7th the Japanese attacked. They came faster than our front-line troops could shoot them and our positions were overrun. They swarmed toward our artillery whose gunners were firing shells with less than four-tenths of a second fuses. That meant the shells just barely cleared the muzzle before exploding. The call came back to regimental headquarters for more ammo.

Figure 52. Banadero. The cave in the cliff was the last command post of the Imperial Japanese Army on Saipan. Lt. General Yoshitsuo Saito, Commaner of forces on Saipan and Tinian, and Admiral Shuichi Nagumo, the man who led the attack on Pearl Harbor, committed seppuku (suicide) here.

Figure 53. A now peaceful Green Beach 1. Even in 1995, a pillbox remains.

We immediately started loading the trucks, but by the time we completed that and drove to the front it was already daylight and the banzai charge was over. I was very used to dead bodies, but I never saw such carnage in my life. There was a clear hillside that was completely covered with Japanese bodies, sometimes piled two or three deep. There must have been two thousand bodies in that one field alone. I was certainly glad I had not been present a few hours earlier as we lost quite a few men.

A couple of days later Saipan was declared secure. Our losses for the Division were 1,313 killed; 4,914 wounded; and 106 missing, or about one-third of our personnel.

On July 21st, I went aboard the USS Knox to prepare for the invasion of Tinian Island, separated from Saipan by a three-mile-wide channel.

Figure 54. Yellow Beach 2 where the 4th Marines landed.

Figure 55. This photograph was taken from our luxury hotel room and shows the same beach in 1995.

In 1995, Joyce and I returned to Saipan. We stayed at the Pacific Islands Club, a five-star resort on the beach where the Fourth Marine Division landed. Ninety-five percent of the guests were Japanese as this is just a three-hour nonstop flight from Tokyo. It is especially popular with newlyweds and is called the Japanese Riviera because of its climate.

While there we visited the beach where I landed. There are still two Marine tanks, lost on D-day, resting offshore with just their gun turrets above water. Later, we drove to the location of the banzai charge. A Japanese memorial is now located there. I revisited Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff where many Japanese, mostly civilian, committed suicide by jumping over. I also got to the very top of Mt. Tapotchau where I had never been before. This mountain is actually the highest mountain in the world as measured from its base. While its elevation is only 1,545 feet above sea level, it is located by the Mariana Trench, at 38,635 feet the deepest ocean depth. This makes Tapotchau 10,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest.

Of special interest to me was visiting Banadero, the last Japanese command post. It was here that General Yoshitsuo Saito committed suicide. General Saito was commander of all Japanese forces on Saipan and Tinian. Also committing suicide here was Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor. I had heard about both of them shortly after they had committed seppuku, but I had not seen the command post before.

Figure 56. The Honorable Froilan C. Tenorio, Governor of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, presents Len with a commemorative medal recognizing his efforts in World War 2.

Saipan and Tinian, along with the island of Rota and some lesser islands, make up what is now the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. While Joyce and I were visiting Saipan, the Honorable Froilan C. Tenorio, Governor of the Northern Marianas, heard I was there and invited us to visit him in his ceremonial office at the Capitol. We did so, and he presented me with a medallion recognizing my efforts during the war. I greatly appreciated this honor.

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