Oct 18

Day 5- March 21- Tinian

Thursday, October 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.

Most of you know I serve on the Governing Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an organization created at the end of WWII by Einstein, Fermi and other ”Manhattan Project” scientists who were concerned about the potential consequences of their work. As noted in our mission statement, these scientists spent the rest of their lives lobbying “with both technical and humanist arguments” for the abolition of “the Bomb.” Today the Bulletin “engages science leaders, policy makers, and the interested public on the topics of nuclear risk, climate change, and disruptive technologies” through its award-winning publications, conferences and our iconic “Doomsday Clock.”

I grew up with the knowledge that Dad served as the Executive Officer and Navigator (soon to become Commanding Officer) of LST 871, one of the small group of ships in the initial task group that went into Nagasaki in late September 1945, the first Americans in Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped there on 9 August. One of my greatest fears as a kid was Dad’s exposure to the radiation at Nagasaki would shorten his life. Thankfully, my anxiety was a waste of energy as he and I poise to make our trip to Tinian.

Tinian is one of the epicenters in the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While the American military was making its way up the Pacific, planning was well underway for the invasion of the Japanese homeland in Kyushu for late 1945. A $2 billion ultra-secret project code-named the “Manhattan Project” was developing the first controlled nuclear chain reaction under the football field at the University of Chicago and the construction of several atomic bombs at Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. On the afternoon of 15 July 1945, at Hunters Point in San Francisco Bay, a large wooden crate and metal canister were loaded aboard the USS Indianapolis, the canister was welded to the floor in one of the officer’s cabins.

After the successful Trinity test in the New Mexico desert early the next morning- the first successful nuclear device exploded in history- the go-ahead order was given for “Operation Centerboard” and under the command of Captain Charles McCoy the USS Indianapolis steamed at flank speed for Tinian Island, 5,700 miles away.

Brief flashback:

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July 1942- Dad starts at Officer’s Training School at Columbia University- around 118th and Broadway in Manhattan.

The Past-24 July 1944, 16,000 men from the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions and the 147th Infantry Regiment storm ashore on White Beach II, a 60 yard-wide swath of coral and sand on Tinian Island, headed for the northern airfields. In the course of a week U.S. troops overwhelmed the Japanese garrison of 9,000 soldiers. The commander of the Seabees, noted that the island is shaped like Manhattan and laid out a grid with names lifted from the New York City map. The island has its own Central Park, Wall Street and Riverside Drive. The main north-south road: Broadway.

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The Present- Today we ferried from Saipan in 8-seat prop planes across a narrow body of water to land at Tinian International Airport and head off in a van up Broadway.

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First, why Tinian?

Saipan established a secure beachhead towards the north end of the Marianas Islands from which to attack Japan. Yet Saipan’s geography is hilly whereas Tinian is a very flat island of 16 square miles. Additionally, the Japanese on Tinian created the threat of attack on Saipan. Further, and most critically, the Japanese already built two 5,400 runways running parallel to each other on the north end of Tinian and controlling them would give the U.S. a critical airbase. The U.S. spent over $1 billion on the development of the B-29 bomber and desperately needed a forward airbase with which it could both launch attacks on mainland Japan as well as having a base that damaged B-29s could use to land returning. The survival statistics on B-29s was bleak and many were forced to crash into the ocean on their return so a closer airstrip was essential. What the men coming ashore that day could not have known was that they were also setting the stage for a dramatic climax to the war.

After the American military secured Saipan it turned to Tinian. At 16 square miles and with less than 1,000 native inhabitants, the U.S. invaded on 24 July 1944. In one of the most daring raids of the war, the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions and the 147th Infantry Reg. stormed White Beach 1 and White Beach 2. We visited White 2. It is a 60 yard-wide swath of sandy beach and coral. The sandy part makes up about half the space- the rest is rugged, sharp, deep coral- where I am standing below atop the axle of an LCVT- a Landing Craft Vehicle Track- that didn’t quite make the shore. About 25 yards off to the left from where the troops came in sits a heavily-reinforced pillbox with a narrow slit from which the Japanese were blazing a machine gun at the soldiers. The view below is from that slit.

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On that first day, 16,000 troops came ashore on White 1 and White 2, through those narrow entryways on the beach, under fire from the Japanese. They overwhelmed the Japanese forces and established a beachhead on the island. It was an amazing start of our tour of Tinian.

We drove up Broadway and turned west at 86th Street towards a monument dedicated to the amazing work of the Seabees. After the island was secured in early August 1944 the Seabees used over one million cubic yards of crushed coral and rocks to re-enforce and extend the two runways from 5,400 feet to 8,500 feet, and added two more runways of equal length. With but a few yards to spare, they span the entire east-west span of the island. They also built hardstands alongside the runways able to accommodate over 250 B-29 Superfortresses ready to take off on bombing missions against Japan. At one point in time, a B-29 was taking off or landing every 59.

Off Runway Able is a concrete concourse ringed by the control tower and administrative buildings and deeper into the jungle was built a concrete carpet, maybe two acres in size. On either end is a concrete pit- about 20 feet by 10 feet and ten-feet deep. Today the pits have glass enclosures over them, but on the afternoon of 5 August 1945, almost a year to the day after the island was secured, Captain Paul Tibbetts backed his B-29 the Enola Gay over Pit One and a 9,000 pound bomb assembled from the components shipped to Tinian was hoisted aboard and secured. In the pre-dawn hours of 6 August, the Enola Gay used all of the available length of Runway Alpha and took off into the darkened sky. At 8:15 am, the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy” (a full-scale replica is pictured below- the blue bomb) over Hiroshima and the ensuing explosion destroyed major parts of the city and killed over 70,000 people. On 9 August, another Superfortress B-29 called Bockscar, commanded by Major Charles Sweeney, similarly loaded a 10,300 pound plutonium bomb called “Fat Man” (the yellow replica, below) and took off from the same airfield. The primary target was Kokura, but cloud cover mandated that Bockscar head to its secondary target and within hours over 35,000 people in the industrial city of Nagasaki were killed.

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We were soon driving down the almost two-mile length of Runway Able and I was struck by how long a drive it is and how amazing it was that these huge B-29s laden with these super-heavy bombs needed the entire length to take off. We stand at the end where the planes went aloft and I was filled with a sense of awe and wonder. At one time this now overgrown runway and the pit we had saw a few minutes before helped birth the dawn of the nuclear age. On this day all one could hear was the wind whistling through the brush. What it must have been like on those two days- and during those days of hundreds of B-29s idling by the runways and then taking off for bombing runs over Japan- is beyond imagination. Some days some of the planes never made it off the runways and crashed into the sea. I was in deep awe of the moment and place. It is hard to describe the feeling of peacefulness and awe wrapped into one. I picked up a few small stones to carry the place with me.

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The connection of Broadway in Manhattan and Broadway on Tinian occurred in late September of 1945 when Dad sailed into Nagasaki as the Executive Officer of LST 871. The simple, factual language of the LST’s Log Book and the Deck Log, signed by Dad, on 24 September belie the significance of the event- the first United States personnel entering Nagasaki after the bomb dropped on that city the month before.

The following are Dad’s photos from that visit to Nagasaki. The cloudiness in the pictures is the result of radiation, although the danger was not known to him at the time. The first picture is of the Mitsubishi plant; the second is Dad in front of the Nagasaki Police Headquarters; the rest scenes in Nagasaki and the last the view off the bow of the LST into the heart of the city. What he saw that day changed his life and his philosophy in so many ways. It is hard for me to visit Tinian without adding Dad’s Nagasaki experience to the prism through which I view the island.

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For those of you in Westchester, the seriousness of the above was soon broken when we left the airstrip and driving on- the Boston Post Road! In the middle of the Pacific.

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We had an Indiana Jones moment when we traveled through a lengthy overhang of trees to two immense Japanese fuel storage bunkers that were cut into a coral hillside, encased in massive concrete shells and then sealed with heavy metal doors. A huge number of barrels of oil in one ignited and exploded during the battle. The concrete was so strong it caused an implosion and the resulting tangle of steel, concrete and barrels is still there as a silent reminder of the ferocity of the fighting; the bunkers slowly being overgrown in the jungle.

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Although the Seabees leveled the island to build up such an immense airbase, they respected a beautiful creation of nature- a 500 year-old Banyan tree that stands in the middle of the island, its multiple roots in the aggregate forming a trunk that withstood the ravages of war and mother nature, and honored by the Seabees with a road that splits around it.

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We journeyed to the highest point on Tinian- at 504 feet a hill that provides a panoramic view of Saipan, the Tinian harbor where the Indianapolis docked and unloaded its A-bomb. It gave us a strategic understanding of the order of battle and the difficult terrain the Marines and others overcame to control the island. (By the way, the earpieces we are wearing in the pictures are connected to the blue radio device we wear on a lanyard around our necks that our museum guides use to brief us as we walk around the various locations so they don’t have to shout and we can explore and stay in touch with their insights.)

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On the way to lunch at J.C.’s Cafe, our local guide inadvertently provided insight into the frustration of a native population that feels discriminated against by the U.S. government. Our government allocates resources to the Marianas Islands proportionately based on population. The small indigenous group that remained on the island seems to have barely survived, mainly employed by the local government. Unlike in Saipan, where we deduced the CIA is still a major employer (up until 1963 it secured a major portion of the island and trained Vietnamese, Laotian and Nepalese anti-Communist insurgents- we believe that similar training continues to this day and the “Voice of America” radio towers are… not), there seems to be little manifestation of a meaningful American presence on Tinian. Financial or otherwise.

As the eight-day battle drew to a close, 9,000 Japanese soldiers had been killed or driven off the island with 328 U.S. fatalities and 1571 wounded. It was described as one of the most perfect American amphibious assaults in history.

The remaining Japanese were now cornered at Marpo Point and as we drove along we saw the caves carved into the cliffs high above where the soldiers hid from the Americans. At the end of a short drive our experience the day before was repeated and we encountered another set of suicide cliffs. Sheer drops a hundred feet into coral shelves and rocks were only made bearable in their viewing by a repetition of the most beautiful blue water- similar in color to what we saw the day before. Yet the reality of the Japanese forcing innocent Okinawans who had earlier settled on the island to now take their own lives, in a suicide jump joined by the Japanese soldiers, was outside the ken of our imagination. We all stared endlessly into the swirling cauldron of water below with a sense of shock and amazement.

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As we take off for the short flight back to Saipan we fly over the North Field and the connected areas such as the bomb-loading pits. Viewed from the air with the benefit of the day on the ground, we really appreciated the strategic perspective of the field and its runways. The four parallel runways, almost two miles long each, are really a majestic reminder of the amazing forces that arrayed in 1944 to take possession of the island from the Japanese and the resources focused into making it the staging ground, a year later, for two events that would forever change the world. A plane landing in Saipan ahead of us caused our pilot to circle back around and fly again over Tinian for yet another look at the runways at North Field. They held almost magnetic attraction to bring us back for a last look. The day was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

From my position with the Bulletin, the runways and the bomb pit, slowly returning to nature, reminded me of how tenuous is our place in the universe. We are one explosion away from obliterating mankind and returning us all to the jungle. If even the jungle survives such an event.

Day 6- March 22- Saipan/Guam

We have a day of R&R at the pool to recharge our batteries before traveling on to Guam where tomorrow we revisit the site of one Dad’s most meaningful wartime experiences.

 

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

https://www.navalhistory.org/2018/09/18/day-4-march-20-saipan

 
 
 
  • Lawrence L Brady

    My father was a Pioneer (Combat engineer) in 4th Marine Division who landed on Saipan and Tinian. So thank you very much for these posts. He always felt that the Atom Bomb saved him. After surviving the horrors of Iwo Jima, he was back in Hawaii preparing for the invasion of Japan when the war ended. He truly felt that we had invaded Japan he would never had made it home. Semper Fi