Sep 18

Day 4- March 20- Saipan

Tuesday, September 18, 2018 12:01 AM

By

Lieutenant Leroy Fadem recently revisited sites in the Pacific where he saw action in the Navy during the tumultuous years of the War in the Pacific over 70 years ago. This is a journal of that recent trip as kept by his son, Steven Fadem, who accompanied Lt. Fadem on that journey of rediscovery.

The Landing Beaches, Purple Heart Ridge and the Suicide Cliffs

It is now the spring of 1944 and the Navy pushed the Japanese out of New Guinea and safely away from the southern supply lines. With the Solomon and Gilbert Islands battles behind it, the Navy is now moving in two parallel juggernauts up the South Pacific and the Central Pacific towards Tokyo. The U.S. is about to cross Japan’s red line, a must-defend zone running vertically up the center of the Pacific.

June 15, 1944: Saipan is completely occupied by the Japanese. They indoctrinated the Chamorro and Guaimian natives that the Americans will savagely rape and kill if they take control. The island consists mainly of three large sugar cane plantations, leaving little of the island open to indigenous foliage. An American Reserve Infantry Division pulls a feint on the northwestern side of the island, where the Japanese expect an invasion, and comes under heavy fire. Hundreds of Americans die as their ships are hit by artillery fire. To the south, the real invasion force comes across the surf onto the beaches but the Japanese carefully gauge distances and rain fire down on the Americans while still in the surf. The plan to come in at high tide is off by an hour so troops fully-loaded with gear must trudge over 2,000 feet through the shallow water to get ashore. Once there they are hit by Japanese sniper fire from the hills.

(Courtesy of the Author)

(Courtesy of the Author)

We start our day on Tank Beach. Today it is a lovely two mile expanse of crystal-clear water but in 1944 it was one of the sites the Japanese prepared for invasion.

It is hard to see from where we stand on the beach, but a few hundred yards in either direction the Japanese carved pillboxes out of the coral rock. They are fortified positions built into the landscape; the only sign of impending danger being a slit carved in the rock from which to fire a machine gun aimed at the legs of the unaware men. Although the Americans did not invade on this beach, it was a lesson in Japanese tactics.

(Courtesy of the Author)

Japanese pillbox (Courtesy of the Author)

 

(Courtesy of the Author)

(Courtesy of the Author)

We then explored the Japanese fortifications around the airport. They went to enormous effort to build defenses into the ground both to strengthen them from attack and hide from the enemy. The walls in a magazine store were several feet deep with double steel doors that would protect it from any attack. Notice the thickness of the doors in the photos below. Concealed by dirt and grass it looks like a hill, but in reality it stored tons of munitions.

(Courtesy of the Author)

Japanese fortifications (Courtesy of the Author)

 

(Courtesy of the Author)

Steele doors (Courtesy of the Author)

Vast amounts of armament were also left on display, including a Japanese torpedo not dissimilar from the one we saw on the USS Bowfin in Pearl Harbor, and a Japanese tank left abandoned.

(Courtesy of the Author)

Japanese torpedo (Courtesy of the Author)

 

(Courtesy of the Author)

Abandon Japanese tank (Courtesy of the Author)

A huge shout-out to Raegan Buckley, our Museum guide who did an amazing job on logistics and goes overboard to dote on Dad.

(Courtesy of the Author)

Museum Guide (Courtesy of the Author)

After a quick lunch we head to Kilili Beach where the American 2d and 4th Marine Divisions stormed the beaches. We saw a topography that heavily favored the Japanese solidly encamped in the hills to the east. The beach is long and flat with little vegetation between it and the hills. The Japanese put buoys in the water so their artillery would know the distance to each group of Americans and each tank as it came ashore. The Americans were sitting ducks but they got ashore through the concentrated fire and secured a beachhead. Standing there and seeing the hills close to the east and the open beach and expanse of ocean, I could only be awed by the bravery of the troops who came ashore that day.

We saw several partially submerged Sherman tanks 100 yards offshore, abandoned after they were hit, sticking out of the water as proud reminders of the bravery and tenacity the Americans displayed that day. Today the water is calm and blue, gently lapping against the tanks. What that day was like 74 years ago is almost unimaginable.

The Americans thought Saipan would be a quick success but the Japanese held them at bay at each point. The Americans split and drove south towards the airport and north to secure the rest of the island. Driving south was along a ridge of hills that gave the Japanese cover and the high ground. We drove by several key hills where battles for the high ground were costly and lengthy, including the aptly named Purple Heart Ridge where American casualties were high.

We drove north past the area, near our hotel, where on the night of 7 July the Japanese launched a massive Banzai attack on the Americans. They sent over 3,000 soldiers and conscripted natives armed with explosives running against the advancing Americans who, in the confusion of the darkness and the shock of the terrifying screams, lost many before defeating the Japanese in hand-to-hand combat. The losses here and on the beach were so high that many American were led by guys who days before, were privates but now elevated in responsibility by the loss of all of their commanding officers.

Our last stop of the day was the most poignant and unimaginable. It was the one Dad told me moved him beyond anything else all day.

As the Marines got close to Marpi Point, the northernmost point on the island- the site of another airfield- the terrain changed and became very hilly and rocky. It was at the site of their last command post, carved into the mountainside, the Japanese launched a massive effort to ensure no Japanese would be taken prisoner- and remembering how they indoctrinated the natives about the Americans- that the native islanders would follow them into death.

We stood at Suicide Cliffs and looked out at the most beautiful blue of an ocean any of us had ever seen. As the waves crashed against the rocks below, they created an azure color that Dad described as brilliant lapis lazuli. I was transfixed by the water. I have never seen a color as brilliant, vibrant and empowering as this blue.

(Courtesy of the Author)

(Courtesy of the Author)

 

(Courtesy of the Author)

Suicide Cliffs (Courtesy of the Author)

It was into this raging sea the Japanese soldiers threw themselves to die, after first forcing many of their local prisoners into the waters and encouraging many of the Chamorro and Guaimian natives to follow them. There are many stories of the soldiers tying people into groups and throwing them over the cliffs. Women threw their children into the sea and then followed them to death. Almost 32,000 Japanese soldiers defended Saipan against an American attacking force of 71,000. Almost none of the Japanese survived the battle or the Suicide Cliffs. Standing at a railing overlooking these cliffs and a seething sea and thinking about what they did boggles the mind. Of the 24-25 million deaths in the Pacific war, 18-19 million were civilians.

A wonderful evening lecture by the noted historian Jon Parshall helped frame the story.

One of the wonderful parts of this trip is seeing the adoration in which the WWII veterans are held. Dad was repeatedly asked for his autograph, one time on an American flag upon which the signatures of all the vets were collected.

(Courtesy of the Author)

(Courtesy of the Author)

And speaking of the American flag, for Dad’s birthday last month Rachel and Chloe (inspired by my friend David Johnston) arranged for an American flag to be flown on his birthday over the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor and presented to him. He flies the American flag on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day and other holidays and now has a special flag to fly. One of the guys on our trip- Steve Link- came over to us tonight and showed us the following picture which he took when we were on the USS Blowfin at Pearl Harbor- it has already garnered 75 likes on his Facebook page! Add another like from me!

(Courtesy of the Author)

(Courtesy of the Author)

More tomorrow!

 

Enjoy Steve Fadem earlier post here.

https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/07/24/day-2-march-17-2018-honolulu

https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/08/21/day-3-march-1718-honolulu-to-saipan-via-guam