Jun 15

Prelude to Saipan: 15 June 1944

Friday, June 15, 2012 1:00 AM

A Marine-packed LCVP bears down upon the beach of Siapan. The Marines hold their fingers aloft with the "V for Victory" sign.

Saipan was an important strategic point for the Americans in the pacific theater. Gaining the island of Saipan, which is 1,300 miles from Japan, brought the war to the Japanese home islands. The May 1947 issue of Proceedings included an article written by Pete Zurlinden describing the atmosphere among the men as they prepared for the amphibious attack.

PRELUDE TO SAIPAN: 15 JUNE, 1944 (A Stirring Hour Relived in History)
By TECHNICAL SERGEANT PETE ZURLINDEN Marine Corps Combat Correspondent
Saipan, Marianas Islands, 15 June, 1944­. This ship sleeps as we plow toward Saipan -just 1,250 miles directly south of Tokyo-­where later today American Marines will begin the struggle for the valuable Japanese­ owned Island.
Below decks, sleeping soundly just as on any night-anywhere-an elite contingent of tried, battle-toughened Leathernecks, most of them stripped of all clothing, are stretched out in their bunks.
Only the ever vigilant security watch and a few ambitious Marines who are laundering their clothing in the washrooms are awake.
Those of us above deck know that somewhere close by one of the greatest naval task forces of history is giving the Jap little peace. Though an occasional flash lights the horizon with a brilliant puff of yellow, and a few star shells can be seen floating on the rim of our vision, we know little danger immediately confronts our silent convoy.
Suddenly there is the clanging of the stentorian bell and the night’s silence is broken. “All hands-General Quarters!”
Silence again, except for the pad-pad of shuffling, running feet as the crew turns to its battle stations. A slight rattling of gear and snapping of clasps prevails for seconds only. Then deep silence again. But we know that every man is alerted and the bristling armament readied.
Somewhere dead ahead is Saipan. But we cannot see our objective until the gray of dawn has almost lifted, no matter how hard we strain our eyes.
Then, as though it had been flashed on a movie screen, the grayish pall lifts high enough so that Saipan’s mute, ghostly contours stand out in relief.
The 1,554-foot promontory of Mount Tapotchau is easily distinguishable. Likewise, to the north, the flat, snub, plateau­like Mount Marpi takes shape.
With a brilliant sunrise breaking to the east, the horizon to our starboard-due west-is studded with ships of our assault convoy, each one having stolen as silently into its prearranged position as our own.
Our straining eyes recognize no smoke, no raging blazes ashore. A thin column of smoke then begins to swell up from the southernmost extremity of Saipan.
Still plowing forward, our companion ships assume their natural shapes on the cobalt sea. We wonder what reaction this scene may have upon the enemy ashore.
A naval officer, veteran of the Sicily and Salerno landings-all made at night-steps beside me.
“That Saipan silhouette is made to order for a night landing under a good moon,” he declares. “Every natural landmark stands out.”
But then he rubs his jaw reflectively before concluding what he had to say, “Perfect, I say, except she’s coral-bound. That’s the gimmick.”
Minutes later somebody demands quite jocularly, “Well, where’s the task force?”
His question is in order, at that. Outside of the flashes we saw during the night as we approached, our immediate vision doesn’t flush up the giants of the deep.
As if it could have been the result of mental telepathy, a yellow flash of flame burgeons from the pall of smoke dead ahead; then another off the starboard quarter; a third, about 15 degrees off the port bow­each giant flash silhouetting to the ships in the transport areas the stately superstructures of the warships.
“There’s your answer,” murmured a Leatherneck captain, with a wink. “Need any more convincing?”
Now we can see the brilliance of the flashes ahead. We recognize battleships, cruisers, destroyers-all pounding mightily on the enemy’s defenses.
This indeed is American naval might literally staring down the Japs’ throats.
Glancing to the flying bridge above, we see our commanding officer grimly relishing every roar of the fleet’s guns. His eyes crinkle into a smile, but his jaw remains firm, immobile. All along the bridge Naval and Marine officers have field glasses intently poised to their eyes. Only their lips move as they pass comments.
The fleet takes on a glistening hue of slate gray, shiny and ominous even to us, like taut panthers ready to spring.
If the Japs are returning this destructive fire, you don’t know it. A giant flash goes up, deep in Tanapag Harbor, three-quarters of the way up the west coast. Black, heavy smoke plumes up thousands of feet. About a mile away another begins, the flames leaping quickly, the smoke curling slowly.
“A tanker and a fuel dump,” comes the word from the flying bridge.
The southern part of Saipan and the silhouette of the sister isle of Tinian no longer are visible. The ballooning smoke clouds have obscured them completely.
At regularly spaced intervals, the fleet’s gun flashes draw blood. Shore fires pop up like beacons and the sea panthers lose no time pouncing and pouncing on these wounds relentlessly. The blasts of the big guns, at first muffled as they came back to us over the water, are now sharp and biting. We know we are almost to our rendezvous area as the roar increases.
The first American plane I’ve seen during the attack takes form as a tiny speck straddling the long saddle between Mounts Tapotchau and Marpi. It buzzes merrily along, apparently on reconnaissance, picking out new targets-both for the surface craft and the swarm of winged hornets poised aboard countless carriers ready to augment the triple-pronged assault when the command comes.
On the deck below me, where sailors are now hoisting landing boats into position for the amphibious phase, everything is business. The tars go about their tasks silently, the winches perform faultlessly, and Marines, scrubbed and clean for the attack, begin to file out from their compartments for breakfast, their only immediate concern.
Standing above this scene, you realize that you and those in your company still are in the “wings.” The task force commands the center of the stage and will hold it until H-Hour, the time the actual land assault begins.
The Marines, moving rather languidly about below you, don’t seem to be anticipating their “cue.” To most of them, this is an old story. Their colonel knows it and has prepared a brief, 46-word message to be read just before they disembark. He says:
We have been waiting a long time for this D­Day. It has arrived. All that remains is our mission. Attack with the same spirit as before, upholding the traditions of this Regiment and our Corps. May our dear Lord give us his blessings on this day.
The Leathernecks are confident in one thing. Driven as the enemy may be by the task force bombardment, he fears most the assaulting Marine.
After breakfast, the Marines remain top­side to watch the naval blasting. They are quiet, laconic in their conversation. Somewhat later the troops are ordered below to their compartments to pull on their combat gear. Characteristically, most of them say at one time or other while slipping into their packs, “Well, this is it!”
Then comes the command, resonantly rolling through the ship’s public address system: “Lower all boats!”
It’s the Leathernecks’show from now on.

As black smoke pours from a flaming Japanese munitions dump on Saipan, American landing craft of all types head for the beaches in the initial assault on the enemy bastion, which took so many lives (Official Coast Guard Photo)

TECHNICAL SERGEANT ZURLINDEN was born in Lakewood, Ohio, October 31, 1914.
He was graduated from Lakewood, Ohio, High School and attended · the University of Dayton. He was employed as a sports writer and reporter for the Dayton Journal Herald Publishing Company and the Ohio State Journal, Columbus, Ohio.
Immediately prior to enlisting in the Marine Corps as a combat correspondent in December, 1942, he was correspondent in charge of the Annapolis, Maryland, Bureau of the Associated Press.
Zurlinden covered the amphibious operations at Tarawa and the fighting at Saipan and Tinian, in the Marianas. His stories on the Tarawa campaign were among the first to reach American newspapers.

 
 
 
  • Andy (JADAA)

    Thanks so much for re-publishing this great piece. Will be linking to it from a couple of social media sites. Is there a Naval History blog FB page?

  • MaryR

    Hi Andy,

    There is not a Naval History Facebook page but we do post some of our content here on the U.S. Naval Institute Facebook page