Saipan. D+2. June 17, 1944

“I do not believe that we sank lower at any time during the campaign,” wrote Lieutenant Frederic A. Stott of daybreak on June 17, 1944.[1]

The better part of the morning of “D” plus two was required for reorganization. Taking stock at that time, the physical condition of the men was poor. Despite shipboard exercise, the physical exertion, nervous tension, lack of sleep, food, and water, and the effect of numerous casualties all combined to drain away strength and seriously lessen their combat efficiency.[2]

First Lieutenant J. Murray Fox, Charlie Company’s mortar platoon leader, remembered the numbing exhaustion  years later. “[We] never got into bed, we were awake whenever we could stay awake because the Japanese assault was heavy. We crept and crawled, literally, to go from here to there…. There was nothing but killing, and there was a reason for that. We wanted to stay alive.  That was the only reason. There was so much shooting. There was no living life in Saipan and we wanted those trenches badly.  It was the only way to survive, and we had a lot of respect for a lot of things we never thought about before. We finally fought our way out of the trenches and moved our outfit forward while others had to just stand still and wait for us to get that forward movement done.”[2.5]

One of Fox’s mortarmen, PFC Norman Lucas, recalled June 17 as a red letter day. Although he had served in the battle of Namur, Lucas counted this day as “the first time I come under enemy fire.”

[They] killed one of the platoon leaders, named Bartlett… we set up our gun, they fired at us, their guys bypassed us, came past us somehow, and they gave us fire from out of the cane field, and that’s when I dropped my first Jap. I shook like a leaf every time I killed one, until I got three of ‘em. I quit shaking then.

Daylight meant that the wounded, after suffering patiently in their foxholes or at the battalion aid station for the long night, could finally be taken to the rear for treatment. Stretcher-bearers and corpsmen hustled to and fro, and men checked on their buddies. PFC Bob Tierney noticed the two dead Japanese near his friend Fred Iverson’s foxhole, but “Staten Ivy” himself was on his way to the hospital. Tierney’s squad mate, PFC Andrew Loban, was shaking uncontrollably; he was evacuated for combat fatigue. Sergeant Mike Frihauf’s demolition squad was down to 10 of 13 members; they had yet to encounter a single blockhouse or prepared position.[3]

Scores of 1/24 Marines had already been sent rearward for treatment or burial, but on June 17 they received their first replacement – and a very important one. Lieutenant Colonel Austin R. Brunelli, a decorated veteran, arrived to oversee the loose cabal of Fricke, Mundy, and Stott who were running the battalion following the death of their CO, Maynard Schultz. Brunelli’s arrival came none too soon; the order of the day was to continue the advance.

Two members of the battalion Intelligence section, Captain George D. Webster and Corporal John Hicks, set out at 0755 to establish an OP for the scouts. They were approaching one of the major goals of the operation, the airfield known as Aslito Field.[4] Webster and Hicks doubtless wondered if the airfield was occupied; discovering the answer took no scouting, as sharp-eyed Japanese anti-aircraft gunners spotted 1/24 in its position on Fina Susu Ridge. “0820: Receiving heavy ack-ack fire from the airfield,” noted the battalion’s operational journal, which was followed by “0830: Ordered C Company to move forward slowly.”[5]

This Japanese Type 96 25mm machine cannon once defended Aslito Airfield. The Marines who captured the weapon repaired it for use against its former owners.

Hard luck Baker Company, on the right of the battalion line and thus closest to the airfield, became the focal point of the gunners’ fury. Among the wounded was Corporal George P. Asack of Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The wounds were serious enough to merit a return to the United States, where Asack regaled a reporter from the Marine Corps Chevron with tales of the artillery on Mount Fina Susu, and the “AA guns shooting so that the shells fell straight down on Marines.” PFC Frank Bruile, also with Baker Company, escaped wounding by a slim margin when a Japanese solder lobbed a grenade at him. Bruile told the Chevron that the enemy’s throw was weak because he’d had “the contents of two .45s emptied into him.”[6]

It took more than an hour of glacial movement for Baker Company to clear out of their positions and link up with G/2/24. The shellfire was making infantry advance difficult, but the battalion officers had a few tricks to play. At 0945, 1Lt. Waldo Lincoln’s mortar boys were called into action, and began to drop heavy 81mm bombs on the target, slacking some of the fire; another unit declared the field secured by 1000. Meanwhile, Brunelli, Stott, and Mundy joined Captain Webster’s scouting party to formulate a plan. Soon, they were on the communications net with Major Robert Neiman (C/4th Tank Battalion) and Captain John Straub (B/708th Amphibian Tank Battalion) calling for support.

A 4th Tank Battalion Sherman in action on Saipan. Combined tank-infantry tactics were practiced at Camp Maui, but there was no classroom like the battlefield. Photo from http://www.worldwarphotos.info/

As Neiman’s fourteen Marine tanks moved into position, Straub’s Army LVT(A) amphibious tanks clanked their way to a spot 500 yards in advance of the infantry to provide cover and fire support. Sharp-eyed scouts reported Japanese antiaircraft in grid square 139G, and artillery in 138T; once spotted, these stationary guns were easy targets. By 1137, the battalion was calling for fire on the day’s objective—yet another ridge, designated as O-2.[7]

After the slow start, the attack progressed well, even quickly. Lt. Stott, riding as a liaison in Major Neiman’s tank, noted that “The appearance of a dozen tanks seemed to rejuvenate the long lines of weary men who followed behind a heavy blanket of fire which searched out all possible caves and defensive installations.” Noting the lack of artillery and unoccupied fighting positions, he decided that “the Japanese, having expended all available strength concentrated in the area, had retired most of their remaining troops to the slopes of Mt. Tapotchau and to the rocky ledges and woods of Nafutan Point,” and was later proved correct.[8] The previous night, a counterattack even stronger than that experienced by 1/24 hit the 6th Marines. Hundreds of Japanese soldiers were gunned down in a futile attempt to re-take a useless radio station, and 31 of the 44 irreplaceable Imperial tanks were destroyed. From June 17 on, few Americans saw a functioning Japanese tank.

Marines check out the remains of two Japanese tanks destroyed on Saipan. Note the machine gun souvenir toted by Marine at left. Photo from http://www.worldwarphotos.info

For 1/24, the remainder of the day consisted of following the tanks across one of Saipan’s large sugarcane fields. In peacetime, the cane had been carefully cultivated and sent to the refinery at Charan Kanoa; in wartime, it could be a dangerous obstacle with countless hiding places for frightened civilians and enemy snipers alike. A favorite tactic, when time and conditions allowed, was to simply burn the cane fields; this also denied an increasingly desperate enemy of a source of nutrition. Baker and Charlie companies were able to follow the road that led down Fina Susu Ridge, wary but surprised at the relative ease of the day’s attack.

Corporal Harlan Jeffery of Baker Company recalled the day vividly—it was the first time he was shot.

We were advancing forward through a cane field and into an open field. We moved across the field and [were] getting fired on from a high hill. I don’t know why, but I was the first one to go up that high hill. When I got to the top, there was a cane field. I layed [sic] on the ground at the beginning of the cane field, trying to observe any movement. After what appeared to be no movement, [I] looked to the left and then to my right, just as quickly [sic] a bullet ripped through my shoulder. As soon as I realized I could move, I rolled down the hill and back to the aid station. I finally got evacuated to the hospital ship [USS] Solace for a trip to Guadalcanal for observation and care.[9]

Harlan Jeffery (left) on Guadalcanal while recovering from his Saipan wound.
Harlan Jeffery (left) recovers from his Saipan wound at a hospital on Guadalcanal.

The 1/24 brushed the last resistance aside and gained the ridge at 1540. “There was a large ridge and a two hundred foot cliff,” recalled Bob Tierney. “And there were caves and stuff in it, and we thought for sure we were going to have a real battle getting up that cliff. Well, our company moved up and luckily, here was a path going up this cliff. Apparently the Japs had left it open and so we were able to go up that cliff and get to the top. And there was kind of a rolling hill at the top, where we dug in.”[10] The order to halt came down at 1640, and 1/24 set up their new CP at grid square 137X.

Some of the men went out exploring, and a few made gruesome discoveries. One such Marine was George Smith of Company A, who found decomposing enemy soldiers stacked in heaps in the caves.

We never saw any Japanese bodies until we hit the O-2 line. Unless we killed them, that is. They were real masters of what I guess you’d call psychological warfare, recovering their dead so we never knew how hard we were hitting them. We came to these caves, and they’d evidently been bringing the bodies back and storing them in there… I don’t know, it was satisfying in a way, knowing we were getting them back.

Smith knew he had accounted for at least one Japanese fighter – and an officer, at that.

He was swinging a sword, running right for the gun. I put three carbine shots into him, and I could see where they were going – he kept coming – luckily I held on to my .45. He not only stopped, but doubled over and backed up when I hit him with that. That carbine they gave us was worthless…. We had to carry it along with the machine gun, and it was just the right length to get in your way. And it would rust like crazy. I didn’t take the sword – I never did take a souvenir sword or anything like that. Usually we were all too busy to bother with things like that, and I never understood about taking trophies, anyway. Why would you want to remember something like this?[11]

Unfortunately, logistics and communications had suffered so that the Marine advance was characterized as much by confusion and disorganization as by courage and determination. Lieutenant Stott recalled that supplies arrived in “driblets” and only after dark, and that the battalion’s position along O-2 was “an uneven line extending out into Jap territory, with B Company on the far end.”[12] The uneven line made calling in artillery fire difficult and to their horror, 1/24 found friendly artillery registered on their lines. Green star shells – the signal to cease fire – lit up the sky above the O-2 line. Captain Irving Schechter of Company A recalled one such incident:

We ran into this friendly fire one time on Saipan while going through some cane fields. I immediately had some green star cluster fire shot up in the air, which was supposed to be the signal to our artillery to let up. Then I got on the phone with our battery commander to give him the word.

“Hey,” I told them, “one of our own shells has almost taken a leg off one of my men. Will you please cease fire.”

“Are you sure they’re our shells?” the reply came back. “Maybe they’re coming from the Nips on Tinian.”

This did get to me. I had no time to get into a debate so I started to shout.

“No, no,” I said, “they’re ours all right. Please stop.”

Then to my utter amazement the voice on the other end of the line said, “What size are they?”

“What size?” I bellowed. “Circumcise, that’s what size!” Then I hung up.

I wonder what he expected me to do, go out and catch one?

Anyway, they stopped the shelling, but the Japanese didn’t.

PFC Alva Perry was stuck on the front lines during the terrible night.

Both sides were giving us hell. Our own artillery was sighted in on us. There was no mistaking this as we could tell which way the shells were coming from. I was scared to death. Our company was being hit hard; men were crying for the corpsman, some were bleeding to death and begging for help by calling out to their mothers. Captain Schechter had called our artillery to ask them to knock it off. The people he was talking to never seemed to get it through their heads that they and the Japs were blowing us to pieces. Finally after Schechter lost his temper at our artillery they stopped. The Japs kept it up for most of the night. Here is a place where you are unable to do anything but squirrel as low in your hole as you can and put your fingers in your ears to stop the screaming and begging from men who are dying all around you.

The battalion adjutant, 1Lt. Herbert Hines, did his daily assessment of casualties. Once again, “bloody Baker” company had suffered the most, losing First Lieutenant Frank Shattuck and a good number from his platoon. The 81mm mortar officer, Lt. Waldo Lincoln, was down with a wound, as was another of the badly needed corpsmen, Pharmacist’s Mate Alfonso Guerra. In Company A, PFC Verner Lilja (the brother of recently deceased 1Sgt Ralph Lilja), lost a leg. Word came down that two badly wounded Marines, PFC Colon A. Pilkenton (Company C) and PFC A. D. Hobson (Company B) died aboard hospital ships and were buried at sea.[13]

pilkentonburied hobsonburied

Although a wounded Marine’s chances improved dramatically once he reached a hospital ship, some were beyond all mortal help. Both Pilkenton and Hobson are memorialized at the Tablets of the Missing, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Up on the line, Company A settled in for another long night. Perhaps recalling the fate of Frank Tucker, Captain Schechter forbade his men to fire their weapons at night at any single enemy or small group. This was good sense—the Japanese could pinpoint Marine positions by muzzle flashes—but could also backfire tragically.[14]

PFC Tierney was on watch in his foxhole. He was worried about the company’s position with the steep cliff to their backs, and was mulling over his skipper’s orders around midnight when he saw a silhouette atop the ridge. It was a Japanese soldier. At 20 yards distance, the man was an easy target for “900 Rounds” Tierney’s BAR, but the young Marine obeyed orders and held his fire.

Bob Tierney with the BAR that earned him the nickname "900 Rounds." Photo from ancestry.com
Bob Tierney with the BAR that earned him the nickname “900 Rounds.” Photo from ancestry.com

As I was on the left flank of our unit, the Japanese could not see us, but he was silhouetted against the sky and I watched him as he took a grenade and pushed the plunger against his helmet and threw it in our direction, hoping to get a response. I heard the grenade explode. Then he left.[15]

“Good,” thought Tierney—and then came the call for a corpsman. The grenade landed in a foxhole occupied by one of Tierney’s closest friends, PFC Robert Vail, and the explosion tore off the young Marine’s left leg. “The corpsman worked on him all night,” recalled Tierney. “They put ponchos over [the foxhole] so the light wouldn’t show.” Despite the corpsman’s efforts, 21-year-old Bob Vail died of blood loss and shock. “It’s one of those things that you kind of remember because I had it in my power to take the guy out,” Tierney said in 2005. “We had orders. You follow orders, regardless…. And that has always been a hard thing to live down, you know?”[16]

The Fallen

a_tucker a_vail b_obrien b_jmiller b_colgan

Sergeant
Frank A. Tucker
Age 30
1st Platoon Sergeant, A Co.
Multiple gunshot wounds

Private First Class
Robert W. Vail
Age 21
Rifleman, A Co.
Infiltrator grenade
Platoon Sergeant
John J. O’Brien
Age 28
3rd Platoon Sergeant, B Co.
Cause unknown
Sergeant
John J. Miller, Jr.
Age 22
Duty NCO, B Co.
Cause unknown
Private First Class
Timothy B. Colgan
Age 19
Rifleman, B Co.
Cause unknown
b_hobson b_ortega c_bartlett c_mittuch c_carrozzo
Private First Class
A. D. Hobson
Age unknown
Rifleman, B Co.
Multiple gunshot wounds
(USS Callaway)
Private First Class
Telesfor Orgeta
Age 20
Fire Team Leader, B Co.
Cause unknown
Sergeant
Raymond E. Bartlett

Age 30
Squad Leader, C Co.
Cause unknown
Corporal
Martin E. Mittuch
Age 22
Fire Team Leader, C Co.
Cause unknown
Private First Class
Angelo B. Carrozzo

Age 24
General Duty
Cause unknown
    c_pilkenton    
Private First Class
Colon A. Pilkenton

Age 21
Rifleman, C Co.
Cause unknown
(USS Brooks)
WOUNDED
COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Headquarters 1Lt. Waldo C. Lincoln, Jr.
PhM2c William L. Baker
PhM3c Alfonso A. Guerra
PFC Edward D. Eisenhart
Leader, 81mm Platoon
Corpsman
Corpsman
Intelligence Man
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Not Evacuated
Unknown
Unknown
Able PFC Verner A. Lilja, Jr.
PFC Andrew Loban
PFC Ernest M. Jeffery
PFC Robert M. Walter
PFC Kenneth S. Wilson
Fire Team Leader
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
Rifleman
Rifleman
Traumatic amputation, leg
Combat Fatigue
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
USS Solace
USS Bountiful
USS Samaritan
USS Bountiful
Unknown
Baker 1Lt. Howard F. Shattuck
Cpl. George P. Asack
Cpl. Donald L. Fitzpatrick
Cpl. Coolidge M. Graves
Cpl. George C. Iverson
Cpl. Harlan C. Jeffery
Cpl. Salvador M. Nobile
Cpl. Joseph P. Pinciak
Cpl. George E. Quigley
PFC Raymond L. Butler
PFC Kenneth Carpenter
PFC James B. Cochran
PFC Alfred Eskildsen
PFC Billy G. Glenn
PFC Ace W. L. Harris
PFC Chester R. Hodge
PFC James A. Masterson
PFC Warren I. Nelson
PFC William A. Ultcht
Leader, 1st Platoon
Squad Leader
Squad Leader
Squad Leader
Squad Leader
Squad Leader
Ammo Carrier
Squad Leader
Squad Leader
BAR Gunner
Messenger
Ammo Carrier
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
Rifleman
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
Rifleman
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Gunshot, right shoulder
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
USS Bountiful
USS Bountiful
Unknown
USS Solace
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
USS Bountiful
Unknown
USS Solace
USS Bountiful
USS Fremont
USS Solace
USS Solace
Unknown
USS Solace
USS Bountiful
Charlie Cpl. Thomas S. Jones
Cpl. Frank V. Merchant
Cpl. Stuart K. Moss
PFC Edward P. Collins
PFC Bertram E. Heer
PFC James T. Pruitt
Fire Team Leader
Fire Team Leader
Fire Team Leader
Rifleman
Messenger
Machine Gunner
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Blast Concussion
USS Bountiful
Unknown
USS Bountiful
Unknown
Unknown
USS Feland

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 5.
[2] Stott, 6.
[2.5] J. Murray Fox, oral history interview conducted by Nicholas Elsbree, “Honoring our Marin Veterans,” June 22, 2011. Fox mentions that 1/24 used Japanese trenches extensively for nighttime cover while on Saipan, occasionally falling back to captured trenches to spend the night.
[3] Frederick D. “Staten Ivy” Iverson would not return to the battalion; he served in a rear echelon position for the remainder of the war. Andrew Loban was awarded the Purple Heart upon his return to Company A in October; he died on Iwo Jima the following February at the age of nineteen.
[4] “Record of Events, 15 June to 9 July 1944,” Headquarters, First Battalion, Fourth Marine Division [sic], 24 August 1944, 1. Hereinafter cited as “Battalion War Diary.”
[5] Ibid.
[6] Anonymous, “With Marines on World Battlefronts,” Marine Corps Chevron, 19 August 1944.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Stott, 5.
[9] Harlan Jeffery to Kyle Miller, in A Generation of Heroes. Transcript available at voicesfromthefront.org
[10] Robert E. Tierney, interview with John K. Driscoll, oral history interview, Wisconsin Veterans Museum, March 31, 2005.
[11] George A. Smith, interview with the author, November 2009.
[12] Stott, 5.
[13] Muster roll, First Battalion, 24th Marines, June, 1944.
[14] Robert E. Tierney, “My Marine Corps Experience.”
[15] Ibid.
[16] Tierney, oral history interview.

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