Saipan. D+3. June 18, 1944

From their positions on top of the O-2 ridge, the Marines looked eastward down a long, gentle slope. The ever-present cane fields were broken by treelines; the tiny village of Dandan was quiet and still, possibly still smoldering from the barrage it had received the previous day. Just a mile away, the blue waters of Magicenne Bay glittered in the sunrise, and six Japanese pillboxes squatted in the sun. It would be another long day for First Battalion, 24th Marines.

Looking down towards Magicienne Bay. The 4th Division occupied the high ridges at left; getting down the cliffs to the beach proved a real struggle.

As he prepared for a second day with the tankers, 1Lt. Frederic Stott reflected on the tactical situation thus far.

The overall picture now clearly showed the operation to require more than the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, and the 27th Army Division, landing on “D plus 2″, had moved in on Aslito Airfield and the southern portion of the island. As yet we had not glimpsed any of these reinforcements, but it was heartening to hear of their presence. And our direction of attack now shifted from the east to the north.[1]

Stott also noted that the battalion’s strength was “further depleted” and the men “unrestored physically.”[2] Only two wounded men, Corporals Leon Roquet (A) and Stanley Shemansky (C) were back from the hospital, and further reinforcements were not forthcoming. However, they could rest assured that they wouldn’t lose Lieutenant Colonel Brunelli, who received orders to formally assume command of the battalion.[3] Brunelli had proved his worth the previous day, and the battalion was glad to have him.

This map shows the American front lines at the beginning of D+3. The salient north of the airfield along the O-2 line is the approximate position of 1/24.

Rather than continuing the advance to the shoreline, the Marine line was to pivot to the left and sweep north. To perform the pivot, the 25th Marines (on the Fourth Division right flank) would have to swing around to place their own right flank on the ocean. C/1/24, tied in with the 25th Marines left flank, kept pace with their advance, while B/1/24 held fast. As the gap widened, A/1/24 was fed into the line until the 25° maneuver was complete. Thus, the division front when facing north consisted of the 23rd Marines on the western (left) flank, the 24th Marines in the center, and the 25th Marines to the east (right flank). Aslito airfield was in the hands of the 165th Infantry by 1000; everything to the south, including Nafutan Point, was now an Army operation.

This complicated maneuver took some time to execute; the battalions of the 25th were not squarely on the O-2 line, and had a long walk to catch up. Every movement seemed to draw Japanese fire. While 1/24 gradually rotated, 1Lt. Stott returned to the tanks to continue his liaison work.

While the battalion stood fast in position throughout the morning, I resumed tank liaison work (this time in the more lightly armored LVTA’s) and we furnished heavy fire support on the cliff while units of infantry advanced along the sugar cane-covered field on top.

For diversion I rode that morning in a gunner’s pit and managed to sandwich in some enjoyable machine gun firing. Once when the troops on top seemed to be lagging, I climbed out on top of the tank and semaphored to find out the cause for delay. After considerable wig-wagging, we received an answer so I climbed back in and resumed firing. It wasn’t until we pulled back out, the motors were cut, and we could talk again, that another tankman pointed out three bullet marks on my protective gun shield where a sniper had barely missed his target. From then on I semaphored less conspicuously.[4]

While Stott motored about in his LVT(A), the grunts of 1/24 began to move north. Enemy infantry hid in the burned cane fields, and although opposition was sporadic, movement was difficult, visibility limited to only thirty yards, and “the Japanese, the world’s most proficient excavators, clung to well camouflaged positions and spider traps,” wrote Stott. “It is necessary for only a handful of soldiers to hole up in in these while the attackers sweep by and then to suddenly open fire either on the troops just passed or on the oncoming support, to disrupt the assault and cause consternation.” Once again, it was Company B that shouldered most of the fighting. Barely twenty minutes into their advance, heavy rifle and sniper fire pinned down their lead platoons; five minutes later, an ominous message reached battalion headquarters: “1325.  Report fire is heavier than rifle fire request tanks.”[5]

Stott and the tankers coordinated a joint infantry-tank assault, similar to the previous day’s attack, but with more limited objectives. If possible, they hoped to get Baker Company’s left flank (also the battalion left flank) anchored on Road Junction 288, near the village of Tsutsurran.

A 4th Marine Division infantry unit advances supported by amphibious tanks.
A 4th Marine Division infantry unit advances supported by amphibious tanks.

The situation began to unravel almost at once. The attack, scheduled for 1530, was hit immediately by heavy Japanese mortar fire from undamaged positions on Nafutan Point—nearly a mile to the Marine rear. Able Company was pinned in an open cane field and took a handful of casualties; the attacking companies stalled, regrouped, and surged forward again at 1600. Objectives were taken quickly, but now the Japanese had the range. Battalion HQ reported enemy mortar fire hitting the lines at 1605; at 1615 an infantry counterattack commenced, and at 1630, a hospital jeep carrying a stretcher party was demolished by Japanese artillery. Stott and the tankers, having turned back to refuel and rearm, ran directly into the sights of an enemy gun that was clearly connected to a spotter nearby.

[We] were returning with open hatches when the fire commenced, so the hatches then slammed shut instantly. The shooting was top-notch, and with the first three rounds, three amphibious tanks in a row suffered hits and stopped. Ours was the third in line, was struck in the back, disabled, and set ablaze. Given the word by the tank commander to abandon the tank, we flipped open the hatches and leaped, all in one motion, and despite what seemed like a hail of machine gun bullets we landed safely in a ditch. Weaponless all, we took turns running from cover to cover, and by these short dashes we eventually made out way to safety.[6]

A 708th Amphibian Tank Battalion LVT(A)1, similar to the one Stott rode in, sits destroyed on Saipan. Still from USMC combat camera footage, via http://www.ww2gyrene.com

The Japanese gun was quickly spotted and demolished by alert Marine tankers. Stott, for his part, was transported back to the battalion aid station “where several liberal doses of Doc Porter’s Nipponese whiskey proved a quick restorer.”[7] His time as a tank liaison was over but had not gone unnoticed; Frederic Stott would be awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts on June 17 and 18.

stott_NCF. A. Stott with the Navy Cross.

From Headquarters, Stott could hear distressing reports coming in from the front lines. Two Japanese tanks, cannily waiting until the American armor retired, charged towards the Americans at 1641, spraying machine gun and cannon fire. Marines with bazookas fired back gamely, driving off the tanks but losing 15 men in the process.[8]

Baker Company, so badly battered over the past four days, reached their nadir on June 18, 1944.

This excerpt from the 1/24 war diary illustrates how quickly the fortunes of war could change. Notice, however, that Baker Company not only rallied but managed to call in artillery on one of the Japanese guns far behind them on Nafutan Point (1735).
This excerpt from the 1/24 war diary illustrates how quickly the fortunes of war could change. Notice, however, that Baker Company not only rallied but managed to call in artillery on one of the Japanese guns far behind them on Nafutan Point (1735).

Despite the chaos, some men maintained their composure. One such individual was a teenaged corpsman, HA1c Anthony Marquez. “[The] company received heavy machine gun and 37mm fire from Japanese tanks attempting a counterattack. In the period of a few minutes many casualties were suffered,” wrote one of his officers. “With complete disregard for his own personal safety, [Marquez] immediately and unhesitatingly went forward and began administering first aid to the wounded.” Although the tanks were shooting directly at his position and the situation was “desperate,” Marquez was the picture of poise as he “calmly and efficiently treated and directed the evacuation of the casualties.” The brave young man was recommended for a medal. [8.5]

The break in Baker Company’s line left the rear echelons vulnerable to Japanese soldiers who were quick to take advantage. The battalion’s four 81mm mortars, always a prime target, were especially vulnerable as they were currently leaderless. After losing lieutenants Waldo Lincoln and James Donovan, the “tubes” were under command of an unreliable NCO. PFC John Pope’s machine gun was providing security for the mortars, and he was shocked tosee the mortar sergeant “crouched down against a tree stump with his knees tucked under his chin and his arms locked around his legs. Tears were running down his cheeks and he was trembling as he mumbled something about being killed.”[9]  The danger of being overrun and slaughtered was very real—until Sergeant Woodrow Barfield stepped up to take charge.

“[Barfield] started to shout orders in a voice none of us had ever heard from him before,” recalled Pope. “Instantly, every man responded and we were a bunch of fighting Marines. We turned the enemy back into a sugar cane field from which they had just emerged.”[10]

Weak-kneed relief was quickly replaced by a thirst for vengeance. PFC William Skeens, an ammo carrier for one of the heavy mortars, charged out of his gun pit with carbine blazing, dropping a handful of Japanese soldiers before John Pope, PFC Bobby Sherrill, and others joined in. The Marines stood side by side, shooting at the fleeing Japanese soldiers, paying no attention to the dead and dying enemy at their feet.

One of the “dead” Japanese turned out to be very much alive. He managed to get off a single round before Pope and Sherrill shot him down, but that single shot went clean through the heart of Billy Skeens. The counterattack was finally over; Pope and Sherrill dragged Skeens’ body clear of the field before setting it on fire and retiring back to their own lines.[11]

Once again, the battalion aid station was full to capacity, and PhM2c Frank Munski took matters into his own hands. Acting on his own volition, he set up a forward triage station, independently treating nearly fifty wounded men and saving many lives.  The former Montana rancher would later be decorated with the Legion of Merit.

Night brought an end to the fighting. The surviving Japanese melted back into the trees, and smoke from the burning cane fields blended with the gathering darkness. The headquarters of 1/24 ended up commingled with that of another battalion; together they fell back 300 yards, trailed by the 81mm mortar platoon. “Night fell on this combined two-battalion command post which had no true or clear picture of the front, and which itself had little organization until well after dark,” admitted Stott. “And the rifle troops themselves were in no condition to repulse a determined “banzai” charge.”[12]

Lt. Col. Brunelli’s first day in command of 1/24 had nearly ended in disaster, but the gallant officer took matters into his own hands and “boldly led his men against heavily fortified hostile positions and, engaging the enemy in furious combat, succeeded in gaining bitterly contested terrain. When two of his companies were reduced in strength by heavy Marine casualties and were forced to withdraw a short distance from the assigned objective after a day of continuous assault over almost impassable ground, he promptly made a personal reconnaissance in the face of savage fire and, skillfully reestablishing his lines, resumed contact with the adjacent units, thereby insuring the success of the day’s operations.”[13] Captain Milton Cokin’s Company B had lost another score of Marines, of whom four were dead. Captain Schechter’s Company A had one man wounded. In Company C, Captain Parks tallied one dead, five wounded, one sick–and one unaccounted for.

“Thompson got hit during the attack,” recalled Corporal Horace “Al” Allen in 2015. “He went down, and we had to fall back. I don’t know that anybody got to him–I was just about blind by that point, anyway.” By the end of the afternoon, Allen was on his way back to a hospital ship; he would never return to Company C. If anyone else saw PFC Robert G. Thompson fall, they did not report it; in the confusion of the withdrawal and reorganization, Thompson was evidently overlooked.[14]

Fred Stott made a final glum assessment for June 18.

We were an exhausted battalion, far under strength, and temporarily incapable of accomplishing impressive results. Our exertions had worn us out, and time and rest were needed for the creation of a new reservoir of reserve strength. Our “first wind” was gone, and the adjustment had not been made for the continuation of the attack, either physically or mentally.[15]

1/24's area of operations, June 18. Their comparatively short advance nevertheless put them on the O-3 line. Note the gap south of the night position--contact with the 25th Marines had been lost, but fortunately the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
1/24’s area of operations, June 18. Their comparatively short advance nevertheless put them on the O-3 line. Note the gap south of the night position–contact with the 25th Marines had been lost, but fortunately the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.

The Fallen

d_donovan d_skeens b_chambers b_thomas xz_nopic

First Lieutenant
James R. Donovan
Age 25
81mm Mortars, HQ Co.
Gunshot, chest
(USS Pierce)

Private First Class
William H. Skeens
Age 23
Mortarman, HQ Co.
Gunshot, heart
Corporal
Leslie M. Chambers
Age 21
Mortar NCO, B Co.
Cause unknown
Corporal
Ellis W. Thomas
Age 23
Rifleman, B Co.
Cause unknown
Private First Class
James A. Lewis
Age 17
BARman, B Co.
Cause unknown
  b_reynolds c_king  
Private First Class
Francis J. Reynolds

Age 20
BARman, B Co.
Cause unknown
Private First Class
Clifford J. King

Age 19
Rifleman, C Co.
Cause unknown

WOUNDED

COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Headquarters 1Lt. Thomas M. Kerr, Jr.
HA1c Francis G. Felicia
PFC William H. Hottel, Jr.
PFC Francis J. Ryan
Leader, Comms Platoon
Corpsman
Intelligence Man
81mm Ammo Carrier
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Not Evacuated
USS Solace
USS Solace
Unknown
Able Sgt. Carl F. Schott Squad Leader Unknown USS Solace
Baker Cpl. Andrew Chorzempa
Cpl. Ripley G. Judice
Cpl. Paul H. Hoff
Cpl. Robert F. Nadler
PFC Everett H. J. Eckert
PFC Robert M. Halligan
PFC Clyde H. Joyce
PFC Frederick C. Martin
PFC Robert J. McCarthy
PFC Chester L. McCoy
PFC Gilbert E. Montoya
PFC Manuel Murguia
PFC Michael E. Pitoniak
PFC Frank P. Rossel
PFC William M. Schultz

PFC James B. Shearin
PFC Everett Tackett
PFC Robert E. Watkins
Private Marion A. McFarlin
Rifleman
Rifle Squad Leader
Squad Leader
Squad Leader
Machine Gunner
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
BAR Gunner
General Duty
Rifleman
BAR Gunner
Messenger
Machine Gunner
Ammo Carrier
Messenger/Boat Guide
BAR Gunner
Fire Team Leader
BAR Gunner
Demolitions
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
Unknown
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
USS Solace
Unknown
USS Solace
Charlie GySgt. William J. Adams
Cpl. Horace F. Allen, Jr.
Cpl. Paul Brahm
PFC John R. Colgan
PFC Bill Reichenbacher
Gunnery Sergeant
Flamethrower
Fire Team Leader
BAR Gunner
Rifleman
Unknown
Unknown (listed “sick”)
Unknown
Fragment, right forearm
Unknown
USS Bountiful
Fleet Hospital #105
Unknown
USS Solace
Prov. Hospital #2

NON-COMBAT EVACUATION

COMPANY Name Assignment Cause Destination
Charlie PFC William R. Flood Machine Gunner Sick Unknown

JOINED / ATTACHED / TRANSFERRED

Action Name From To Duty
Joined Lt. Col. Austin R. Brunelli H&S/24th Marines HQ Battalion Commander
Returned Cpl. Leon H. Roquet Hospital A Rifleman
Returned Cpl. Stanley Shemansky “MIA” C Fire Team Leader

 

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 FOOTNOTES

[1] Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 6.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Carl W. Hoffman, Saipan: The Beginning of the End (Washington: Historical Division, US Marine Corps, 1950), 96.
[4] Stott, 6.
[5] Battalion War Diary.
[6] Stott, 6.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Hoffman, 102.
[8.5] “Doc” Marquez was recommended for the Bronze Star; he received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal instead.
[9] John Pope, Angel On My Shoulder (Kindle Locations 1196-1198). John Pope. Kindle Edition, (2013-11-30)
[10] Ibid.
[11] William Skeens was awarded a posthumous Silver Star for his part in stopping the counterattack.
[12] Stott, 6.
[13] Austin R. Brunelli, Silver Star citation.
[14] Horace Allen, told to the author 7 August 2015. Allen is positive that Thompson was hit on D+3, as this was Allen’s last day with the company. However, Thompson is not recorded as “missing in action” until 25 June, a full week later. The reasons for this discrepancy are unknown, but a good indication of the occasional inaccuracy of the muster rolls. In a second example, PFC Clifford King (also of Company C) was recorded on the rolls as KIA on June 22, when all other records indicate he died on this date.
[15] Stott, 6.

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