“The Japanese military logic behind Banzai attacks cannot be explained,” complained the Fourth Marine Division’s report of the Saipan operation. “These fanatical and suicidal thrusts always occur during hours of darkness and are generally directed frontally at a defensive position.”
The Marines on Saipan had experienced banzai charges before. Nearly every battalion, especially in the earlier days and especially among the regiments of the 2nd Marine Division, faced at least a limited attack and knew what it entailed: a gradually building crescendo of noise to their front as the enemy psyched themselves up for the charge and hurled insults at the Americans. (In many cases, tremendous numbers of empty sake and beer bottles were discovered in the wake of these attacks, leading to the not entirely unfounded belief that the Japanese were blind drunk during their precipitous charges, bolstering their courage but destroying what little efficiency remained.)
After sufficient time to steel their nerves—sometimes several hours, sometimes under thirty minutes—the cry of “Tenno haika! Banzai” would be taken up, and a mob of screaming Japanese would run headlong into the Marine defenses. Then it was a matter of keeping up the fire until the targets ran out, hoping the defenses would hold. Marine and Army accounts of banzai attacks invariably take place at night, illuminated by flares, and are described as wild, swirling melees, utterly terrifying and impossible to fathom until their sudden end and the realization of the massacre.
One rifleman from the 23rd Marines provides this harrowing account:
Suddenly there is what sounded like a thousand people screaming all at once, as a hoard of “mad men” broke out of the darkness before us. Screams of “Banzai” fill the air, Japanese officers leading the “devils from hell,” their swords drawn and swishing in circles over their heads. Jap soldiers were following their leaders, firing their weapons at us and screaming “Banzai” as they charged toward us. Our weapons opened up, our mortars and machine guns fired continually.
No longer do they fire in bursts of three or five. Belt after belt of ammunition goes through that gun, the gunner swinging the barrel left and right. Even though Jap bodies build up in front of us, they still charged us, running over their comrades’ fallen bodies. The mortar tubes became so hot from the rapid fire, as did the machine gun barrels, that they could no longer be used.
Although each [attack] had taken its toll, still they came in droves. Haunting memories can still visualize the enemy only a few feet away, bayonet aimed at our body as we empty a clip into him. The momentum carries him into our foxhole, right on top of us. Then, pushing him off, we reload and repeat the procedure.
Bullets whiz around us, screams are deafening, the area reeks with death, and the smell of Japs and gunpowder permeate the air. Full of fear and hate, with the desire to kill…. [Our enemy seems to us now to be] a savage animal, a beast, a devil, not a human at all, and the only thought is to kill, kill, kill…. Finally it ends.
This same Marine went on to explain the paradox of looking forward to a banzai, as “when it was over, that sector was Jap free.” Most Americans would trade a few hours of pure terror to several days of dragging the enemy out of caves and crevices. Indeed, surviving accounts of Peleliu and Iwo Jima—when the banzai was all but abandoned—tell of Marines actively hoping for a massive charge to wipe out the enemy garrison.
Two tales from 1/24 veterans can perhaps suffice to represent the countless close calls and terrifying nature of a banzai attack. Neither has a date attributed, but both are believed to have occurred early in the campaign.
One night I was on the gun when the firing pin broke. We were out of action till I replaced it with a new one. Those old World War One machine guns had a floating firing pin which was easily broken. We had spent countless boring training hours practicing how to change one in a matter of seconds, even while blindfolded. We carried several spares in our pocket just for such occasions. It was imperative that we get the guns back in action quick if the Japs were doing one of their suicide acts.
Bob Sherrill was on the gun with me and had the shotgun ready, but he had looked away for a second when a man came out of nowhere only a few feet in front of us. He had a wild, scary look and murder on his mind. Since I was behind the gun, I was his target. He had a bayonet on the end of his rifle pointing right at me and yelled, “Banzai!” I remember thinking, “Bobby, pay attention!” as I stood up and stepped back. I stumbled over my feet and fell on my back. For a second I thought I was going to have a bayonet through my chest, so I doubled up my knees to protect myself.
To change the pin, I had to take the bolt out of the gun, shake out the broken piece and insert the new pin being careful not to let any dirt get on the bolt. I was clutching the bolt in one hand and a new firing pin in the other, holding them up out of the dirt, when Bobby turned around and fired the shotgun, almost touching the man with the end of the barrel. When that buckshot hit him that close he changed directions all right, thank the LORD. I still have an image in my mind of him going backward in the shape of a horseshoe. The full charge had hit him in the stomach and lifted him completely out of my sight.
I remember yelling at Bobby, “What took you so long? ” If that man had decided to pull the trigger instead of using the bayonet on me, I would not be alive now. You don’t dwell on things like that.
The first time I used [my sidearm] was in Saipan, on a banzai attack when a Japanese tripped over my machine gun in the dark. Needless to say, somebody killed him. I don’t know whether I did or not. I fired at him with that .38. I know I had it going at him because it was close quarters. I couldn’t get the machine gun on him, but whether I or somebody else did it, I kinda thought maybe I did it, but then it’s nothing to brag about, taking a man’s life. They was there just like we were, probably didn’t know any more than we did. Anyway, that’s life…
The writer of the 4th Division’s official account was perhaps mistaken in believing that the banzai had a strictly military purpose. Although Saito did set a goal for his attack—to break through the American line, tear through the beaches, and destroy Aslito Airfield on the way back to Nafutan Point—this was far from realistic. Even his staff knew it; one admitted to his diary “I did not think that the plan, as General Saito conceived it, would work under these conditions.” Major Kiyoshi Yoshida, captured on Saipan, “admitted the counter-attack was not intended to serve any tactical purpose.”
He said: “They knew at the outset they had no hope of succeeding. They simply felt that it was better to die that way and take some of the enemy with them than to be holed up in caves and be killed.” It is believed that the motivating spirit of the attack was the idea which the Japanese military seek to instill into their troops, namely, “dying gloriously for the Emperor.”
Some were reluctant to join the attack. Yamauchi Takeo was a university student whose socialist leanings led him to study Russian; at 23, he was drafted into the Army, briefly trained, and packed off to Saipan with the 136th Infantry Regiment (part of the Japanese 43rd Division). He arrived on May 19, less than a month before the Americans landed, and by his own admission spent much of his time retreating. He had already made one charge early in the battle–probably the general attack on June 16–and had absolutely no desire to try again.
The Americans got to within eighty meters of us. We were firing at them from our trenches, which were behind rocks at the top of a slight slope. At about two P.M., a vice-commander from battalion headquarters, a second lieutenant, ordered me to attack. This adjutant stood right behind me, demanding, “Why don’t you charge?”
I told him I hadn’t received orders from my platoon commander. “Everyone else has charged! I order you to charge!” I didn’t sense any of the other squads going forward, but he drew his sword, took a violent pose, and again shrieked his order, “Charge!” I was in terrible trouble. Finally I announced, “We will now attack the enemy position!”
I gave directions to each man, then I ordered “Charge! Advance!” It was so obvious that we’d be mowed down. I burst forth from my hole and slid in amongst the small rocks in front of me. Next to me was Goto, a bachelor. PFC Tsukahara, the machine gunner, was on the other side. Nobody else. I was terrified. Bullets were ricocheting off the rocks in front of me.
I fired at an American soldier who seemed practically on top of me. I suddenly felt something hot on my neck. Blood. I’m hit, I thought. But it was just a graze. I was too petrified to move. I couldn’t even shoot anymore.
With Goto dead, Tsukahara wounded, and the rest of his squad apologizing for their disobedience, Yamauchi resolved to surrender as soon as possible and go home alive. Circumstances conspired against him, and for the next month the former student was swept up in the chaos of the retreat. On July 3, he and two comrades reached Paradise Valley, then made their way to the coast. “I was fed up with the jungle,” he said. “I thought, it’s all right to die. I just wanted to stretch out on that wide beach.” Yamauchi’s little group found a dugout in which to hide for the next few days. Then Saito’s order was passed among the survivors, and the attack force began to assemble.
We saw some of our men heading off, single file, in the same direction. “Where are you going?” we asked. “We’re assembling at Garapan to attack,” they said. “The Americans took Garapan a long time ago. You can’t get there,” I shouted back. “It’s an order!” Fujigaki and Ueda turned to me. “Squad Leader, what shall we do? Don’t we have to go?” I told them, “Don’t you remember? We went through that already! We don’t have to go again.”
The three of us remained in our dugout…. In those days, Japanese soldiers really accepted the idea that they must eventually die. It you were taken alive as a prisoner you could never face your own family. They’d been sent off by their neighbors with cheers of “Banzai!” How could they now go home? “General attack” meant suicide. Those unable to move were told to die by hand grenade or by taking cyanide. The women and children had cyanide. Those who didn’t jumped off cliffs. Ones like me, who from the beginning were thinking about how to become prisoners, were real exceptions….
On the night prior to the attack I told my two men that there was no point starving and dying here on Saipan, that Japan would lose in this war, that there would be better days ahead for us. I never brought up my Communist beliefs. But their only response was, “Squad Leader, you’re talking like a traitor. Behave like a military man!” I had been rebuked by my own subordinates, a farmer and a city man who’d only graduated from elementary school. They were unflinching. [8.5]
Thus it was that hundreds of Japanese troops began to assemble in the depression called “Paradise Valley” by the Americans, and the “Valley of Death” by Saito’s troops. Any who could run, walk, stumble or crawl were ordered to participate; grenades were distributed to those too badly wounded to move. Major Yoshida estimated that 500 set out from Saito’s headquarters, but were joined en route to the starting point by many others; he estimated 1,500 soldiers and sailors, armed with everything from light machine guns and rifles to bayonets, homemade spears, and bare hands began to rush forward at around 0400 on the morning of July 7. Later studies doubled the number of participants, and estimates eventually reached the range of five to six thousand desperate Japanese soldiers and civilians bent on the glorious annihilation of gyokusai. They were aimed directly at the lines of the 105th Infantry.
“Ours is not the publicized version of this frenzied, last ditch, and sake-influenced rush,” wrote Lieutenant Frederic Stott after the battle was over. “The feature story and the main power centered on the flat terrain to the north of Tanapag, which was held by some army units.” Yet, from their position on the high ground east of the 27th Division, 1/24 had not only an unparalleled view of the attack but also had a sharp fight of their own. It began in the usual way. “Throughout the night there was scattered fire as an occasional Jap attempted to slip through, or previously unnoticed soldiers and civilians emerged from their hiding places. This was not unusual, but the publicized pattern of the “banzai” attack grew clearer when below us we heard the jumble of many voices around 0400. Soon came the rattle of machine guns and we were convinced that the expected attack was materializing.” As the sounds grew louder, even the most experienced Marines felt a growing fear in the pit of their stomachs.
The Japs had a way of making a suicide charge early in the mornings and so we had to take the high ground before dark. Sometimes it would only be a handful of men but sometimes it would be an organized assault. A big question in everybody’s mind was how many? What are our chances of being overrun and killed with a bayonet or bullet?
I would look around at what we called the front lines and they looked awfully thin. Bobby [Sherrill] was few feet to my right, Jim Pritchett a few feet on the other side, and so on. Men were usually about five paces apart, depending on the terrain. Right behind us was the reserve company ready to move up at a moment’s notice if necessary. When attacked we shot first and fast at anything or anyone that moved. As we advanced each day, the enemy fell back and set up a new defense line and waited for us to come into sight at which time we would have a firefight and maybe followed by a counter attack. After it quieted down they fell back again leaving their dead and wounded where they fell.
It was now suicide time for their wounded. I do not recall ever seeing a Japanese soldier stopping to aid one of their wounded. The worst kind, and this was not at all unusual, some of them would lie down amid the wounded and dead and wait for a Marine to come close enough to kill before we could stop them.
The attack hit 1/24 shortly before dawn. Company A, on the left of the battalion and closest to the epicenter of the charge, had the busiest morning—and Corporal Robert Williams, as the left-most man, was busiest of all. “It was still dark when somebody came around to tell me to take my men and move them around and spread them out,” he remembered. “They expected the enemy to come through. I took my men and went around a corner, placed two men and put myself on the furthest exposed position.” Williams was still moving towards his position when a Japanese soldier got the drop on him.
This enemy soldier jumps up, and he’s throwing a hand grenade. I started shooting at him and I hit the deck, I turned around to look and the hand grenade is laying right next to my leg. They used to tell us there were two things you could do. You could run and try to hide, or you could pick up the grenade and try to throw it back. I thought “no way am I picking up that grenade.” I saw there was a bomb crater right alongside of me, so I got up just enough and made a dive for the bomb crater.
Just as I hit the edge of the crater the grenade went off. I don’t know how it hit me, I didn’t even know I was hit until I got down in the bottom of that crater. [I thought] “Whoa, if he’s throwing any more grenades, this is no place to be. I’ve gotta get out of here.”
I grab my rifle and get up and start running out of the crater, and I look down—uh oh, what’s going on? Looks like a piece of rope flopping around.
Oh my God, that’s my arm.
I have no feeling, no pain… I thought, I’m wounded, I’d better start heading back, and the corpsman starts yelling, “Stay there! Stay there! Get down!” I said, “No way, I’m coming in!” and he finally got me to sit down. That’s when they cut my jacket off me, put my arm in a sling, and gave me my morphine. Took two times, but I got my Purple Heart.
PFC Bob Tierney was on the opposite end of the company line. “I was on the right flank, on guard, while my foxhole partner was sleeping. It was about 0530. The sun was just coming up, everything was quiet, and there was a slight fog.”
All at once, I heard a sugarcane stalk break. As quiet as it was, I altered the line. Then, only a minute later, the Japanese were charging our position. A hand grenade landed in Bob Wynne’s and my foxhole. We jumped out and only received a couple of pieces of shrapnel in our legs. Our whole line opened up and our bazooka man put a couple of shells in the small building. Close to 100 Japanese were killed in there. The rest were charging our line, but with our firepower, they did not stand a chance.
“In a period of 15-20 minutes we killed 319 Japanese,” said Tierney. “The only casualties on our side were Bob Wynne and me, with a few small pieces of shrapnel in our legs. The Corpsman put a couple of small bandages on and we stayed with the company.” Tierney’s squad leader, Sergeant Michael Frihauf, distinguished himself during the charge. When his platoon began to falter, the sergeant led a counterattack that “pushed the enemy back with determined aggressiveness, breaking the abortive counter-attack and annihilating sixty Japanese soldiers. With the enemy effectively disorganized, he quickly advanced his men is a relentless drive, yielding no quarter and routing the entire Japanese force in his company’s zone of action.” Frihauf’s officers recommended him for the Silver Star medal.
Lieutenant Stott made a slightly more conservative count, estimating that Able Company disposed of “close to a hundred,” while “piling them up in countable rows of six and eight.” From his position in the greying dawn, Stott could see “the fringe of the attack whose main effort was directed along the low level ground toward Tanapag.”
Mortars, 37s, grenades, machine guns, and small arms stopped some 30-40 Nips in front of “C” Company before they could finish their “banzai” as they plunged into a hail of lead. In particular, I recall one begrimed squatty nipper, shrieking and arms outstretched, whose guts disintegrated as a 37mm canister shell caught him squarely in the chest not twenty yards from the muzzle of the gun.
The Marines held their ground, but the GIs of the 105th Infantry had a 500 yard gap in their front line. The soldiers planned to cover this with fire, but overwhelming numbers of Japanese soldiers simply funneled through the open area. Nearly 2,300 Japanese were gunned down, but the 105th lost more a third of their strength. With absolutely no help coming from their sister regiments, the 106th and 165th Infantry, the “Apple Knockers” of the 105th broke under the pressure of the Japanese wave. Behind the Army lines were the artillerymen of the 10th Marines, who fought the Japanese to a standstill with point-blank fire from their heavy artillery. PFC Dwyer Duncan, a mapmaker with HQ/1/24, later wrote of seeing the impact of the banzai attack.
While on a scouting mission with a radio man on Saipan I noticed a large number of Japanese on foot with only light arms advancing toward the 27th Army [Division] from New York. The 27th had been called in to cover our left flank while Marines pushed Japanese to the North….. The Japanese that I saw were in the wide open, running on foot toward the 27th. The Army had Sherman tanks, jeeps and other vehicles with men on foot. As one, without firing a shot, the Army broke and ran. Soldiers ran into the ocean where many small boats picked them up. Men jumped from tanks and jeeps to run to our rear.
The Japanese set fire to some vehicles before advancing to a Marine artillery unit far back where Harmon Wilke [a friend from boot camp] was a cook. I watched all that and reported it through my radioman. I was in bushes atop a cliff overlooking the scene. I was about a thousand yards from the nearest Japanese…. The 2nd Bn, 2nd Marines came from reserve to retake the left flank.
The fight for control of the left flank would continue through the day, culminating with a final, pathetic act of defiance. The able-bodied Japanese had been the first to die; the wounded had tried to follow along in their wake. “They came down the plain hobbling and limping, amputees, men on crutches, walking wounded supporting one another, men in bandages,” wrote author Robert Leckie. “Some had weapons, most brandished idiot sticks or swung bayonets, others were barehanded or carried grenades. Behind them some 300 of their comrades who had been unable to move had been put to death. And now these specters, these scarecrows, were coming down Tanapag Plain to die. They were requited.” The sight of Tanapag Plain after the charge defied even the most eloquent writers. The sheer number of casualties, both Japanese and American, stunned those who witnessed the event.
First Battalion was spared the worst of the attack; their involvement lasted probably no more than half an hour. As the fight raged on to their left, the battalion counted noses and was delighted to find that only a handful of men had been slightly wounded. “Well pleased at the ratio, and stimulated by our success,” the battalion prepared for another day’s advance, scheduled for 0930.
Corporal Bob Williams was one of the few wounded requiring evacuation. A Jeep ambulance pulled up to the front, and Williams and another Marine were helped aboard.
Williams was loaded into the lower stretcher. He felt a slow, steady drip; blood from the man above him had saturated the stretcher and was raining down.
A stretcher-bound Marine is loaded into a Jeep ambulance. Note wounded man on top stretcher.
The route to the aid station lay along the front lines; a Japanese sniper tried to hit the driver, but the Marine riding shotgun picked him off. Soon, they were back at the aid station. Captain Schechter came over to chat with the wounded corporal; with him was a gunnery sergeant handing out chunks of bread. Williams had eaten front line chow for so long that the gunny’s gift tasted like manna from heaven. “My God, bread?” he thought to himself. “It was like eating candy and ice cream, it was so delicious.”
They brought a truck up and they loaded the stretchers on the back, three or four across. I was on the extreme right, heading back to the field hospital. The fellow alongside me, I don’t know how he was wounded, but he suddenly starts throwing up blood. I jumped out of the way, he says “Oh, I’m sorry!” “Oh, don’t worry about it!”
They didn’t change the bandage at the field hospital, but they DID finish cutting all my clothes off. The only thing I had left to wear was my shoes. The next day, when they went to put me on the hospital ship I had nothing but my birthday suit and my shoes. I was what they call “ambulatory wounded” so they gave me a blanket. There I am like an Indian chief! I get to the ship and this officer says, “Hey, he’s not supposed to be here, ambulatory goes [somewhere] – take him back down.” “You’re not sending me back down! I’m up on deck, I’m not going anywhere.” Somebody overruled him, and I stayed.”
Corporal Robert Williams was out of the war for good.
Back at battalion, the companies were reorganizing for the day’s advance. Company A was allowed to take the reserve post, while Baker and Charlie collected eight civilian prisoners and prepared to move out. “One hundred and fifty dead Nips was no cause for halting our perpetual motion,” wrote a jaunty Lietuenant Stott, “and by mid morning of “D plus 22″ we were continuing northward along the western slope of the highest ridgeline. By vigorous and sweaty movement we stretched our already considerable lead in the “Marpi Point Marathon” as far as the higher echelons thought advisable, then dug in to await flank support.”
The civilians were running out of places to hide, and started surrendering more frequently: one here, a couple there. 1/24 rescued an unprecedented eight civilians during the day’s advance; then, when preparing night positions, a scouting team reported hearing “the crying of wounded women and children” from a collection of shacks out in front. “The men pleaded for a chance to go out and bring them back,” wrote Stott. “The memory of the ruse which killed Phil Wood and Ervin had not vanished, and permission was refused. Yet the men, fully realizing the possibilities of deception, continued to beg for a chance to go. Finally we relented, and another patrol went out cautiously and retrieved the wounded.” Fortunately, this patrol met with greater success, returning with no less than 47 civilians.
They included a mother, badly hurt, with week-old untreated wounds in which gangrene had set heavily, and three less-seriously wounded children. It was clear that the mother’s life was ebbing fast, and that she had forced herself to remain alive for the sake of her children. To us, who offered all possible aid, the tragedy of this pain and suffering of innocent mother and child seemed almost as cruel as the loss of our comrades who understood the fight and were at least partially conditioned to it.
Late that night, a lone Japanese plane managed to reach Saipan. It dropped a string of bombs seemingly at random, which struck 200 yards from 1/24’s lines. The bombs did no damage, but the experience was a novel one – the only time the battalion would come under enemy aerial attack during the war.
|Private First Class
Clifford J. Cowell
BARman, B Co.
|Able||Cpl. Robert L. Williams
PFC Robert Tierney
PFC Robert Wynne
|Demolition Squad Leader
|Grenade fragments, arm
Grenade fragments, legs
Grenade fragments, legs
|Baker||PFC James D. Magill
Pvt. Ralph W. Brown
|Fire Team Leader
|Baker||PFC Kenneth N. Boyd
PFC Charles C. DeCelles
PFC George L. May
JOINED / ATTACHED / TRANSFERRED
|Returned||Cpl. Jerald J. Priest||Hospital||HQ||Telephone Operator|
 Fourth Marine Division, “Report of Operations in the Invasion and Occupation of Saipan, Marianas Islands, 6/15/1944-7/9/1944,” (4MarDiv HQ, 18 September 1944), 57.
 Captain John C. Chapin, “Breaching the Marianas: The Battle for Saipan,” (Washington DC: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994), 31-33.
 John Pope, Angel On My Shoulder, Kindle Edition (John Pope: 2013-11-30) Locations 961-975.
 This Marine, Glenn Buzzard, had a six-shot Smith & Wesson revolver sent from home.
 Corporal Glenn Buzzard in Larry Smith, Iwo Jima (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008), 84.
 Carl W. Hoffman, Saipan: The Beginning of the End (Washington: Historical Division, US Marine Corps, 1950), 284-284.
 “Report FORAGER Phase I (Saipan),” (HQ NTLF, in field, 12 August 1944), 57.
[8.5] All Yamauchi story from Yamauchi Takeo, “Honorable Death on Saipan,” in Japan At War: An Oral History edited and translated by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook (New York: The New Press, 1992) 284-289.
 Corporal Robert Williams of A/1/24 claimed, “Some people had hand grenades, some people had rifles, some people just had bayonets. They were desperate. I gather they were liquored up before they started that morning.”
 Marine historian John C. Chapin puts the number of Japanese dead at 4,311. Chapin, “Breaching the Marianas,” 35.
 Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 13.
 Pope, Angel On My Shoulder, locations 1045-1055.
 Robert L. Williams, “In My Own Words,” interview conducted by Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, March 12, 2014.
 Robert E. Tierney, “My Marine Corps Experience.”
 Ibid. Wynne was evidently evacuated later that day; he did no more fighting on Saipan.
 Stott, 13. Stott rarely resorts to such graphic imagery in his writing, illustrating just how shocking this sight must have been.
 The 105th lost 918 men during the attack, nearly the strength of a full battalion. Figures are Chapin’s.
 Dwyer Duncan, Dwyer’s Memories. Many Marines held the 27th Division in derision, but Duncan’s account seems almost unfair. Throughout his memoirs, his opinion of the Army in general is very low; perhaps understandable when one recalls that Army artillery accidentally killed his best friend Lawrence Erburu. Duncan is correct, however, that elements of the 105th were pushed into the ocean, and that the 2nd Marine Division was selected to replace the 27th on the line following the attack.
 Robert Leckie, Strong Men Armed, (New York: Random House, 1962), 351.
 Stott, 13.
 Stott, 13.