Saipan: D-Day. June 15, 1944

“It hit the fan when we hit Saipan.”

The fleet arrived off the western coast of Saipan in the pre-dawn darkness of 15 June 1944. The blacked-out ships slid quietly through the water, peeling off and taking their designated stations a few thousand yards from beaches codenamed Yellow, Blue, Green, Red, and Scarlet.

“Beach Diagram No. 1” of Saipan showing the planned landing beaches. Black, Orange, Brown, Purple, and White Beaches were secondary landing sites and ultimately were not used. Map saved by PFC Bernard C. Elissagaray (A/1/24). Author’s collection.

Belowdecks, thousands of nervous Marines checked and re-checked their equipment, blood singing through their ears. Some had seen combat before; others, new replacements, had only the advice of veterans and half-remembered newsreel footage to shape their imaginations. Reveille at 0200 wakened those who grabbed a few winks of sleep as the smell of steak and eggs wafted from the galleys. The cooks went all out with pancakes, red beans, fruit, and toast; coffee was in high demand.[1] There were the usual jokes about the “condemned man’s breakfast” and the “last meal.” Some wolfed down the hot food and went back for seconds; others, suffering from nerves or believing a full stomach would make abdominal wounds harder to treat, preferred to go hungry. In the background, the rumble of the bombardment grew more intense.

While the enlisted men and junior officers made their preparations, the senior staff anxiously awaited the findings of the Underwater Demolition Teams’ mission of the previous day. The report arrived at 0400 – no significant or unexpected obstacles, natural or man-made, would hinder the approaches to the designated landing beaches.[2] he assault waves would come in under fire, but nobody expected an unopposed landing. Dawn was beginning to break behind the smoke-shrouded ridges of the island; to correspondent Robert Sherrod, Saipan looked like “a low-lying prehistoric monster” partly hidden by clouds. Even at daybreak, the mercury rose above eighty degrees.[3] It would be a hot, clear day.

With everything in readiness, or at least as ready as it would be, Admiral Richard Kelly Turner gave the order to “Land the landing force.” It was 0542. Operation FORAGER had entered the assault phase.


“We Might Miss Out On The Fight.”

As the assault troops from the 6th, 8th, 23rd, and 25th Marines clambered down nets into flat-bottomed landing craft or choked on diesel fumes in LVT passenger bays, other ships maneuvered into position. Transport Divisions 10 and 30 were just approaching their designated area (Transport Area Six) near Tanapag Harbor. The troops aboard (Regimental Combat Teams 2, 24, and BLT 1-29) were the floating reserve.[4] However, they also bore a secondary designation: the Demonstration Group.

The USS Calvert, with BLT 1-24 embarked, arrived on station at 0640. The sun was well on the rise, and the Calvert was in full view of the Japanese ashore – but that was the entire point. She had ten boats lashed to her rails, with crews at the ready for action. When their moment came, they moved like a well-oiled machine. The Demonstration Group’s “Land the landing force” order came at 0644; within seven minutes, Calvert had seventeen boats in the water. The crews idled by the ship just long enough to give the appearance of loading troops, then hustled off for a marshaling area. The other transports of the force did the same, and soon a sizable flotilla of landing craft circled off Tanapag.[5]

Diagram for the “assault” of the Demonstration Group as drawn up by the USS Calvert.

The Demonstration Group was living up to its name. The elaborate landing operation at Tanapag’s Scarlet Beaches, complete with naval bombardment, was a ruse to draw Japanese ground forces away from the southern beaches. At 0725, the first wave of empty boats peeled off and headed toward the beaches at full speed.[6] A second and a third wave joined in as observers on the transports watched anxiously for the Japanese reaction. When the first wave was 6,000 yards from the beach, they abruptly turned about and headed back towards their mother ships. Calvert started recovering her boats at 0833, and within forty minutes, all hands were back aboard. The Japanese ashore were silent; the success of the feint was not immediately apparent.[7]

Meanwhile, the 24th Marines “waited aboard ship and listened anxiously to radio reports of the progress made by the assault forces.”[8] Saipan was their second operation; for the First Battalion, it was the second time they’d been held in reserve, and they followed every update with great interest and concern. “These reports indicated that progress was excellent,” commented 1Lt. Fred A. Stott, “and briefly, the thought flashed that possibly we might miss out on the fight. We had experienced the same thought on Namur, and with far more justification.”[9]

The reports might have been heartening, but the scene ashore was desperate for the average Marine, soldier, or sailor trying to get to, over, or away from the landing beaches. At 0812, as the Demonstration Group conducted their phony landing, the flags on the control vessels dipped, signaling the go-ahead for the real assault. Scores of amphibious tractors took off for the Green, Red, Blue, and Yellow Beaches.[10] An officer of the 25th Marines described the prevailing attitude in his LVT:

You could hear bolts of rifles go back and push a round into the chamber. The boys in my tractor asked me if they could smoke another cigarette. The rules say no smoking in the boats, but we all lit up. The smoke was short, for we were on our way, and the spray from the bow soon put all our cigarettes out. I put a round into the chamber of my .45 and then put another in the magazine. That gave me nine shots before a refill. Did the same with my rifle. I know that officers are to carry carbines, but I still like that M1 rifle. When I shoot a Jap, I want him to stop right there.[11]

The untested Second Armored Amphibian Battalion (Marine) and the 708th Amphibian Tank Battalion (Army) were in the vanguard of the assault; their novel swimming tanks were to provide close-in fire support for the infantry. It took nearly half an hour to cover the 4,000 yards to the beach. The assault troops were trapped in a defenseless limbo as huge shells from the fleet roared overhead, reminding them of freight trains passing by. As the tractors lurched onto the coral reef and rumbled along the rough surface, Japanese shells began to fall among the LVTs. Range flags were visible fluttering along the reef, and the gunners ashore were talented. Their high-angle shells made a whistling sound, which occasionally ended in a roaring explosion when they found their mark. Tractors exploded or sank slowly beneath the waves as heavily laden Marines tried desperately to shed enough gear to swim away. Losses were worse in the following waves: thirty-one of sixty-eight armored vehicles were smashed to wreckage in the 2nd Marine Division’s sector alone. Meanwhile, the naval gunnery continued, and swarms of Navy fighters and dive bombers raked the beaches, trying to take out the menacing artillery.[12]

At 0843, the first Marines went ashore on Saipan. RCT-6 and RCT-8 (2nd Marine Division) hit the northern Red and Green Beaches, while RCT-23 and RCT-25 (4th Marine Division) landed on the Blue and Yellow Beaches to the south. The tractors were supposed to carry the Marines inland as far as possible, and some did manage to drive over the beach and a few hundred yards into the trees. However, when Japanese gunners found the range and began hammering the beach itself, most men preferred to hop out of the conspicuous, slow ‘tracs and take their chances on foot. “They sure came to life to meet the fourth and fifth waves,” quipped Lieutenant Masterson of the 25th Marines.[13]

Less than 20 minutes after the first tractor made landfall, an astonishing 8,000 Americans were ashore and fighting for their lives.[14] Men watched helplessly as friends and comrades were pierced by flying shell splinters or simply disappeared in explosions. Officers and squad leaders made conspicuous targets; unit command began to fall apart. The lucky wounded could be dragged to cover, while others just lay where they fell. A strong northerly current carried LVTs into the wrong landing zones. Tractors and tanks went up in flames, and the line bulged in areas and constricted in others as Marines fought their way towards their first objective line 500 yards inland. In a scene with ugly overtones of Tarawa, BLT 1-25 was fought to a standstill only 12 yards from the water. The 23rd Marines, landing on Yellow Beaches 1 and 2, fared somewhat better and moved through their objective of Charan Kanoa virtually unopposed. Upon hitting the far outskirts of town, though, they came under severe artillery fire and were brought up short.

For hours, the battle ebbed and flowed around the living, the bleeding, the dying, and the dead.

A Marine wounded in the first waves of the landing receives blood plasma from a Navy corpsman. The front lines are just ten yards away. USMC photo.

“Commence Debarkation.”

With the feint attack complete, the Calvert weighed anchor and steamed south to Transport Area Three for her second mission. As “Priority Ship Number One,” she was in a state of “on-call readiness” to dispatch her reserve troops at a moment’s notice. She made good on that responsibility. Calvert reported her arrival in Transport Area Three at 1100; at 1105, she was ordered to boat BLT 1-24.[15] For Lieutenant Stott and others who fretted at missing the battle, the notion was “quickly dispelled” as the ship’s PA system crackled to life. “In the space of a moment, the loudspeaker called out, lay below for debarkation; prepare for debarkation; commence debarkation.” he wrote. “We crammed sandwiches in our pockets, grabbed our gear.”[16]

PFC John C. Pope had his ears pricked for the loudspeaker all morning. At the first command, the designated boat guides – two dozen trustworthy PFCs and NCOs, including Pope – hurried off to their designated davit, hatch, or net. Pope was assigned to the fifth boat in the fourth wave (Boat 4-5), which was stowed for the voyage on one the Calvert’s forward hatches. On the second command, the decks came to life as platoon-sized teams shoved and hustled to stand by their stations. Thirty-five men of the 81mm mortar platoon gathered beside Boat 4-5, including assistant platoon leader 1Lt. James R. Donovan, section leader Sergeant Woodrow Barfieldtwo full squads lugging their heavy weapons, telephone operators with their comms equipment, and ammo carriers dragging two-wheeled carts laden with high explosive. At the third and final order, the loading started. Some Marines swung their legs over the Calvert’s rail and climbed down cargo nets, while others had the comparative luxury of loading on deck to be lowered by davits.[17]

Pope was thoroughly pleased to have a davit boat assignment – climbing down the nets with heavy weaponry was dangerous, and a mechanical winch sounded like “fun” by comparison. Everything went smoothly until the crew went to release the lowering hook.

It got caught on the ramp cable on the way back up and lifted the boat full of Marines by one corner almost high enough to dump the entire platoon in the ocean before they could get it stopped.

Boy, that would have been as bad as it gets. The entire platoon would have drowned in a matter of seconds. No chance of rescue because we were dressed in full battle gear, which would take even the strongest swimmer under before he could shed any part of that weight. We never wore life jackets in the landing boats.

When the boat settled, the coxswain gunned the engine and raced off to the assembly area, “just as if nothing had happened.”[18]

PFC David C. McEwen took a few moments to look around as he waited to embark. “The whole Navy was there,” he said, “and I thought of getting ready, getting my rifle ready, and so forth. I said, boy, this must be it! The battleships are blasting now; you can hardly hear your conversation with friends. They were big shells, as big as they can make ’em, and they’re landing on Saipan.” Soon it was his turn to go down the cargo net. “Of course, the boat was bouncing off the ship and back, ten, fifteen feet. I was concerned about getting between the ship and getting my leg hurt, getting my body damaged, but I got down. We went about ten or twelve men at a time, got into the landing craft, and said goodbye to the Navy. What a wonderful place it is, you’ve got lunch and dinner and a bed every night, I’ve got nothing!”[19]

Landing operations aboard the USS Calvert off the coast of Saipan. Marines shown are members of 1/24. Note empty boats launching and returning from the diversionary effort. From original 16mm footage shot by Chaplain Paul Elliott.

The Calvert launched four waves of boats – six LCVPs carrying 200 men with all of their assault equipment – with an average time of 25 minutes per wave. All boats were away by 1215 and headed for an assembly area, where they milled about, “circling endlessly, awaiting orders as to where and when to land,” griped Lieutenant Stott. “Four tedious hours of pitching and rocking passed before we were ordered ashore.”[20] The twenty-four boats carrying the assault troops were joined by nine others. Four LCMs carried anti-tank guns from the Regimental Weapons Company; four LCIs packed a mix of signal, medical, and naval personnel. A “free boat” served as the miniature flagship of the battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Maynard C. Schultzwho was free to land at his discretion.

After ninety minutes spent hovering in the transport area, the landing team was ordered to the line of departure. Another wait of over an hour ensued, which was torture to the nerves and stomachs of the seasick. At 1540 hours, a late-breaking change of plan decreed that instead of transferring from boats to LVTs at the reef, BLT 1-24 would land directly from the LCIs. The only way through the coral was a narrow channel, discovered and marked by UDT #7 the previous day. It was sure to be pre-sighted by Japanese guns, but there was no time to argue. The first wave of six boats began its run for the beach at precisely 1553 hours, followed by additional waves at three-minute intervals.[21]

Covering the 7,000 yards to the Blue Beaches took forty minutes to an hour – and, much to the battalion’s surprise, the trip was mostly uneventful.[22] PFC George A. “Gunga” Smith, a machine gunner with A/1/24, remembered being jostled as his boat struck a coral outcropping, but recollections of incoming fire are oddly absent from veteran recollections.[23] All eyes were on the ruined town of Charan Kanoa and the towering chimney of its bombed-out sugar factory. The first wave of BLT 1-24 – consisting of the 1st and 3rd Platoons of Able Company (1Lt. Paul J. Rossi and 1Lt. David E. Smith) and 1st and 3rd Platoons of Baker Company (1Lt. H. Francis Shattuck, Jr. and 1Lt. Charles R. Bechtollanded on Beach Blue 2 at 1624 hours.[24] Waiting to greet them were the troops of BLT 2-23 who had crossed the beach under fire earlier in the day. The beach and Charan Kanoa were secured; fighting was raging just a few hundred yards inland.

Charan Kanoa. USMC photo.

After being keyed up for so long, many Marines in BLT 1-24 found the actual landing on Saipan somewhat anticlimactic. “There was very little small arms fire,” commented PFC Robert E. Tierney.[25] “The beach landing went better than expected,” concurred John Pope. “There was some firing, but not at all what we expected. We got a foothold fairly easily.”[26] Some LCIs dropped their ramps early; PFC Edward Curylo stepped out into “water maybe a little bit more than waist-high,” but claimed the hardest part of coming ashore was “trying to keep your rifle dry and walk through water.”[27] Corporal Robert L. Williams made a dry landing – his boat pulled up alongside a pier “and we just walked into Saipan.”[28] Lieutenant Stott, a liaison officer arriving in the fourth wave, “saw numerous splashes along the beach line and six hundred yards out on the reef…. For some unknown reason, probably a lack of familiarity, we did not identify the splashes as enemy artillery and mortars.” This brief glimpse of Japanese firepower barely registered as a deterrent. “The shelling ceased as we neared the shore, and all landed safely, many without wetting their feet.”[29] However, not all landings were so rosy. The experience of PFC Robert D. Price was on the exact opposite end of the spectrum.

When our landing craft opened the ramp, and we went into two or three foot of water, the beach was littered with dead Marines, some of them still being administered by Navy corpsmen. It was a horrible deal. Well, it made me realize that this is not combat training, this is the real McCoy! And of course, seeing men die, seeing men with their bodies ripped apart – it wasn’t pleasant, and I realized very quickly that this could happen to me.[30]

Dead Marines on Saipan. USMC photo.

“Our Introduction To Unfriendly Artillery.”

“Reserve organizing along Beach Yellow and inland.” USMC photo.

In just under forty minutes, the entirety of BLT 1-24 was ashore – and, still “oblivious to what might occur,” in the words of Lt. Stott, “we formed up in a series of semi-massed companies, found all men present, and commenced to move off to our designated assembly area. In movement, we deployed, finally ending our high target priority.”[31]

Although the battalion was mostly veterans, their previous combat experience was very brief – less than two days on Roi-Namur, facing a heavily outnumbered and outgunned enemy confined to a tiny island. A handful of men had been at Pearl Harbor, the Coral Sea, Guadalcanal, and the Russell Islands, but on average, a Marine in LtCol. Schultz’s battalion had spent only about forty hours of his life under fire. Saipan would be a different story from the very first.

As they moved south through Charan Kanoa towards a designated road junction, Stott noted that “the actual ground appeared differently than it had in the aerial photographs and on the maps, and we were experiencing difficulty locating our assembly area – assigned on the map.” This snafu was a reality check. “Suddenly came the realization that it was again battle, and that this time our supporting ships and planes were not overwhelming.”[32]

The Japanese chose this moment to teach the battalion a lesson in artillery.

Marines patrol the streets of Charan Kanoa. USMC photo.

George Smith never missed the chance to crack a joke. He was somewhat notorious in the machine gun platoon of Company A, a self-described “big mouth” from Philadelphia who mugged in almost every photograph and always had something to say. In some of his wilder escapades, he’d helped blow up a bathroom stall in a San Diego hotel, stolen camp chairs from his division commander, and played “Mutiny on the Bounty” during the combat landing on Namur. As his squad ambled south from Charan Kanoa, Smith spotted a little hibachi grill lying by the side of the road. He turned to PFC Charles L. “Cease” Stafford, the assistant gunner. “Somebody had their lunch interrupted.”

In the blink of an eye, Smith was on the ground. His ears were ringing, and he was scrambling towards a little pen with a goat in it. Smith wasn’t sure where he was or how he’d gotten there. “I lost time,” he said. Cease was gone; he couldn’t see anyone from his unit, or any living thing save the goat. Smith flopped over to the goat pen, breathing hard. As his wits returned, he recognized a friendly face – his buddy, PFC Eugene R. Walsh, from Company A.

“Gene,” gasped Gunga, “you think we could milk this goat?”

Walsh took a glance at the animal’s undercarriage. “Nope. Wrong kind of goat.”

Gene pointed to another tree line across an open field. “You know the company’s all the way over there?”

Holy Christ, thought Smith. I was only out for a few minutes. How’d they move so fast? It would take him years to realize that the shell burst had knocked him unconscious for much longer than he thought.[33]

“We could hear the Japanese artillery coming and had only a split second to jump in the trenches or fall prone on the ground,” said Corporal Oscar T. “Buddy” Hanson. “We did some of both. There was no place to go but forward or retreat. We chose forward.”[34] PFC McEwen recalled that “when we got 75 or 100 feet into the trees, that’s when the business really started. I saw a few dead Marines damaged by the bigger shells they shot at us.” Despite the shock, McEwen’s training kicked in, and he reacted the same as Hanson. “You move forward, forward was the answer. You never retreated, you went forward.”[35]

The open field was the mistake. Stott recalled stepping out of the treeline just as “a missile whizzed by at terrific speed and exploded a couple of hundred yards away. It was our first introduction to unfriendly artillery…. After some ten minutes the fire ceased, and by detouring we managed to pass the area with light casualties, but we now realized that our position was down on the flats with the Japs in the hills and looking down with more than small arms.”[36] Glancing back, Stott could see the heights of Mount Tapotchau looming in the distance behind the towering chimney of the Charan Kanoa sugar mill, somehow still intact. A Japanese artillery spotter could hardly ask for a better vantage point.

The brief shelling also handed the battalion its first casualties of the operation. Ed Curylo, a replacement rifleman, was making his combat debut when something knocked him off his feet. His leg throbbed, and he knew a big piece of shrapnel had hit him, but his platoon was moving at the double to get out of the line of fire. “I’m laying there on the ground howling for a corpsman. All these guys going by, nobody wants to stop to help me. I finally got up the nerve, sat up and took a look – and said goddamn! The leg is still there!” Curylo was more startled than hurt and never reported the incident to a corpsman.[37] Other men were less lucky, and a handful were marked for evacuation back to the beach. They were beginning to remember the reality of combat. “It really hit the fan when we hit Saipan,” quipped 1Lt. J. Murray Fox of C/1/24. “It was really something else. We moved right into the Japanese artillery, and they could look right down at us wherever we moved.”[38]

George Smith caught up to his squad on the other side of the field, demanding to know why his buddies had left him behind. “Well, you weren’t moving,” teased PFC David W. Spohn, “so we figured you were dead, and we were finally rid of you.” The squad enjoyed a rare laugh at “Gunga Din’s” expense.[39]

The battalion also began to encounter scattered Japanese ground troops bypassed or overlooked by the first waves of the Marine assault. “As you went forward, you would meet more and more and more of the enemy,” noted PFC McEwen. “They were up in the trees shooting at you.”[40] Marines started to fall with bullet wounds; a few were killed, and there was some recklessness as their buddies aggressively went after an enemy they could wound or kill in return.

This Japanese soldier fell victim to an American grenade during house-to-house fighting in Charan Kanoa. USMC photo.

PFC John C. Pope, still moving inland with his boat team of mortarmen, kept an eye on his officer. “The Marine lieutenants sure were no joke,” he recalled. “Those people were special to us on the front lines. I never saw one hesitate to step out front and lead under any conditions.” There was a downside to this leadership style, however. “They invariably got killed or were wounded too bad to fight. When we would get a new one, we tried to keep him alive.”

1Lt. James R. Donovan, the assistant 81mm platoon leader, was new to his role and had something to prove. He served as a heavy machine gun officer in the battle of Roi-Namur, but had not distinguished himself in action. Instead, he got into an argument with an enlisted gunner, calling him “trigger happy” for promiscuous night firing. The next morning, forty dead Japanese troops lay in front of the gunner’s position. It didn’t matter that Donovan’s order was perfectly legitimate (and even wise under normal circumstances) – he made the wrong call, while the gunner received a Silver Star Medal. When the heavy weapons company disbanded after the battle, Donovan was the only lieutenant who lost command of his platoon. Correspondents reporting the story portrayed Donovan as an ineffective martinet who failed to realize a threat to his platoon. As a former newspaperman, his portrayal in the press likely stung more than anything else.[41] Donovan responded by adopting the persona of a hard-charging officer to the point where the mortarmen worried about him. “Some of us had been in battle enough to know some things you don’t do – such as act like an officer, for one,” commented Pope. “We cautioned him you are no good to us dead.

If Donovan heeded this advice, it went out the window as soon as he was back in combat. They were not far inland from the beach when Pope heard someone yell, “Look at Donovan!”

There he was, several yards out front, crouching behind a palm tree no more than six inches in diameter, with a map spread out in front of him. Oh hell! We better cover him quick. The first squad moved forward on line with him. However, we were not quick enough. A Jap sniper already had him in his sights. I stooped behind him just as a bullet hit him in the side, and he went limp.

I remember asking, “Where are you hit?” He said, “I don’t know, but I can’t feel my legs.” I pulled his jacket up and saw a bullet hole in his side just under his ribcage with a small blister of gut bubbling out. Our corpsman arrived, and I had to move on.[42]

James Donovan was quickly evacuated to the USS Pierce, but the damage was done. He would die from the sniper’s shot on 18 June and be buried at sea.


“Worry About The Ones You Don’t Hear.”

The leading squads of BLT 1-24 reached their objective at approximately 1730 hours. On military maps, they were located at Target Area (TA) 135C-D, about fifty yards south of Road Junction (RJ) #17 and 800 yards outside of Charan Kanoa.[43] This meant little to the average Marine; they were more interested in the elaborate network of trenches and dugouts. “Industrious Jap labor had constructed some deep and excellent fire trenches which served our purposes better than they had the diggers,” noted Lieutenant Stott.[44] The 23rd Marines had forcibly evicted the original occupants, and evidence of the battle was starkly evident. “The Marine I was to relieve had already dug his foxhole beside a dead Japanese soldier,” said Buddy Hanson of A/1/24. “It was not my idea of company for the night, but there was nothing I could do.”[45] Those who couldn’t find a pre-dug foxhole broke out their shovels and picks to make their own. Captains Irving Schechter and Milton G. Cokin arranged Able and Baker companies to tie in with BLT 2-23 on one side and BLT 2-25 on the other. Captain Horace C. Parks and Charlie Company took up positions in reserve, while the battalion headquarters set up shop closer to Charan Kanoa.

The approximate night positions of BLT 1-24 at Road Junction 17 south of Charan Kanoa.

In just under two hours ashore, BLT 1-24 experienced navigation difficulties, several casualties, and the unnerving experience of artillery fire. They had seen many hurt Marines but few dead Japanese, and had little idea of where the enemy might be and how he would fight. Now two-thirds of their combat strength was occupying defensive positions with only a vague idea of what darkness would bring. “Night clamped down before we were well organized, and without a real orientation as to the situation in that sector,” wrote Lieutenant Stott. The Japanese, however, faced no such handicap. Their observers watched the Marines taking cover, and they knew exactly where the bivouac near RJ17 was located. As darkness fell, the artillery reopened on a scale which “far exceeded anything experienced or expected.”[46]

David Dempsey, a combat correspondent attached to the Marines, described the fighting around Charan Kanoa:

[It] was a battle of Japanese artillery against men who could not retreat without backing Into the sea, of Jap soldiers fighting to regain a town against Marines equally determined to hold It. It was fought amid flowerbeds and under bougainvillea trees, in the ruins of a sugar refinery, through smoldering cane fields, and amid the pigsties of Japanese farmers…. [The town] was being bombarded so heavily that we crouched deep in foxholes at the outskirts of the town. We dug in along a line that ran from the sugar mill at the north to beaches just south of Charan Kanoa. The Japanese laid hundreds of shells in the town itself and attempted to squeeze us back into a death trap.[47]

“Inferno” by William F. Draper depicts the fighting for Charan Kanoa’s sugar refinery.
Collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command, Accession # 88-189-DT.

Shells started landing in the Company A sector. Sergeant Michael A. Frihauf, the leader of Third Squad, 1 Platoon, pushed his men to dig faster and deeper. “Don’t worry about the artillery you hear,” he yelled over the din. “Those have already passed. Worry about the ones you don’t hear.” PFC Bob Tierney couldn’t tell if his sergeant’s statements were facetious or bravado, but he kept digging like hell. Shell fragments ripped Corporal Lee R. Anderson’s right ear and struck PFC Richard C. McGinnis under the right arm. Both were evacuated. Frihauf’s 13-man squad was down to eleven.

Sergeant Mike Frihauf (standing at left) with his squad before Saipan. Seven of them would become casualties in the battle. Photo by Alva Perry.

Shrapnel rained down on the front-line companies, causing dozens of wounds ranging from the superficial to the catastrophic. Near misses caused blast concussions similar to the one suffered by George Smith earlier in the day. Baker Company was particularly hard-hit by the shelling, which killed Corporal Peter Wilchinski and PFC Otto H. Becker. Corpsmen hurried to retrieve the wounded at great personal risk and suffered accordingly. Three experienced men – Pharmacist’s Mates Alex Grady, Eloy Manzanares, and Jack Mason – were seriously wounded. And HA2c John C. Heidler, Jr., the junior corpsman who joined the battalion as they left Camp Maui, was killed in action. Just five days before he had written, “Don’t worry about me, I can take care of myself” in his last letter to his parents.

While the Japanese earthworks undoubtedly saved many American lives from Japanese shells, the bombardment also took an emotional toll. “We had never been under heavy artillery fire before,” said Corporal Williams. “Believe me, it’s scary. All you can hear is those shells flying at you.”[48] PFC Howard M. Kerr, an Able Company machine gunner, regretted digging a one-man fighting position. “That first night on Saipan, everybody had their own foxhole,” he explained. “The Japanese had a lot of artillery pieces embedded in the hills – they could roll them out, fire, and roll them back in. Every time you’d hear a shell going off at night, sitting there by yourself, you’d think that one’s got my number on it, for sure! After that, we started having two men in the foxholes.”[49]

Kerr’s platoon mate, George Smith, was in a hole not too far away. Smith was still jumpy from his near miss, and almost certainly suffering the effects of a concussion. The renewed bombardment terrified him.

The shellfire that first night on Saipan was the worst experience I remember. I wanted to cry so bad. I wanted to run. If there was a place I could have run to, I would. I was going to pieces. If it hadn’t been for the guys around me…. Most of us stayed on the line because we were petrified and didn’t want to let our friends down. I was behind the gun with Cease beside me, and we could hear those rounds getting closer and closer. Thank God our batteries opened up, and the fire lifted. The next rounds would have landed right on us.[50]

Smith was far from alone in his feelings of rising panic. Blast concussion could scramble a man’s brains temporarily or cause permanent neurological damage. The sights, sounds, and smells of friends being wounded or killed could trigger involuntary physical or emotional reactions. Two young Marines in Baker Company were evacuated for mental trauma; both were diagnosed with “psychoneurosis” and one suffered so badly that it led to his discharge. Dozens more would reach a similar breaking point in the weeks ahead.

Charlie Company escaped the worst of the shelling but took some casualties, including First Sergeant Ralph C. Lilja. The oldest of the four Lilja brothers in the Corps, “Top” Lilja was an old salt whose ten years of service included China in the 1930s, sailing the seas aboard the USS Enterprise, and coaching boots at the Quantico rifle range. The next brother in line, George “Lucky” Lilja, was deployed with the 7th Marines; he’d been through Guadalcanal and New Britain without a scratch. Edwin Lilja was partway through his second hitch back in the States, safely out of harm’s way. The youngest brother, PFC Verner A. Lilja, Jr., was just a few hundred yards away, crouched in a foxhole in Able Company’s sector.

Worried as he must have been about Verner, Top Lilja had to concern himself with the men under his command – just as he had done countless times in the past. “First Sergeant Lilja was a real leader of Marines,” declared Sergeant Mike Mervosh. Sadly, the senior NCO became one of the company’s first fatal casualties when a sharp piece of metal – either a bullet or a shell fragment, depending on the source – hit him in the head. “All my men pledged to make sure his death was not in vain,” remembered Mervosh.[51] Also killed in action was PFC Raymond C. Motovidlak, whose twenty-first birthday happened to be 15 June 1944.

Not even Battalion HQ escaped the rain of shells, which grew so heavy that the command post had to relocate 100 yards to a new position. “The enemy [was] in A-1 condition,” wrote PFC Pennock Bowen, a radioman with the comms platoon, “and soon every artillery piece on the island and every Jap mortar was trained in on us and took its toll.”[52] PFC Dwyer Duncan, a draftsman who doubled as a command post guard, wound up separated from his company. “We were not grouped [up], so I was alone in a trench full of decomposing Japanese who had been killed by bombing and naval gunfire,” he recalled. “I spent the first night alone in the trench without sleep. If I have to pick my worst time in combat it would be the time in that shallow, sandy trench under fire with no buddy to back me up.”[53]

Corporal Robert Johnston did have a buddy to back him up – his best buddy, Corporal Robert L. Hunget. The Bobs had been close ever since the Camp Pendleton days, and their clerical work at Headquarters kept them together. However, while Bob Johnston was under fire at Roi-Namur, Bob Hunget was with the rear echelon at Camp Maui. Saipan was his first exposure to real combat conditions. The two clerks dug their hole close by the sugar refinery, but soon attracted unwelcome guests – a horde of rats, running amok and searching for food between the cane fields and the refinery. This was too much for Bob Hunget. “I can’t stand this,” he declared. “I’m getting out of here.” Over Johnston’s protests, Hunget got up out of the hole and went to sit on the open ground, protecting his flanks from the four-legged enemy.

Just then, the Japanese shifted their fire to the refinery – and purely by chance, a shell landed right on Corporal Hunget. “Man, he got a direct hit,” said Johnston. “He just got blown to pieces. There wasn’t much left but his dog tags.””[54]

The ruined sugar refinery at Charan Kanoa. USMC photo.

“Silenced Once And For All.”

Corporal Bob Williams was about to collapse into his third foxhole of the night. He was exhausted, scared, and sick of shifting positions to stay a step ahead of the bombardment, but digging another hole was better than taking a chance above ground. As he hacked at the ground, a buddy called his attention: “Hey, Bob! Look at this.” A bundle of five or six wires, all tied together, snaked through the grass where they were digging. Williams didn’t know where the wires lead, but he was sure they weren’t American. “Being a demolition man, I had wire cutters,” he said. A few quick snips and the wires went dead. The artillery never got any closer. Williams thought of the rumors about a spotter in the sugar refinery. “There’s no way of proving it, but I figure we must have accidentally found the telephone wires going underground back to their spotter,” he said. “Luckily, we cut them, and they couldn’t find us. The luck! You have to depend half on luck.”[55] With the artillery temporarily silenced, RCT-24 was able to realign its units and collect the wounded.[56]

When they weren’t dodging shells, BLT 1-24 had to keep eyes peeled for Japanese infantry. Elsewhere along the line, other units were dealing with concentrated and coordinated counterattacks from Japanese troops coming from swampy Lake Susupe and from the south near Aslito Airfield. While some of these attacks came dangerously close to breaking through, the Marine line held and inflicted more substantial losses than they received.

Things were comparatively quiet in the Charan Kanoa sector, but the Japanese were still active in small groups. Correspondent David Dempsey wrote:

After darkness, many [Japanese] infiltrated into our lines through almost jungle-like terrain outside the town. Some sneaked down the railroad tracks leading to the sugar mill, hiding among the hundreds of railroad cars piled high with sugar cane. Others came from the sugar refinery, where they had hidden throughout the day.[57]

BLT 2-23 kept security patrols active in Charan Kanoa throughout the night. Scattered rifle fire crackled through the night as infiltrators and Marines ran into another in the dark. “We had shots at us, but we didn’t quite know where to shoot,” remarked PFC McEwen. His machine gun team was situated along a narrow-gauge railway that led to the sugar refinery. McEwen was supposed to be sleeping, but his adrenaline was way too high – especially when something started moving down the tracks towards him. Somebody opened fire, and soon everyone was blazing away. “Everybody was looking, and they didn’t know what it was,” McEwen continued. “It was a cow. It must have had a million holes in it because everybody shot at the damn thing.”[58]

Corporal Oscar “Buddy” Hanson spent the night in his inherited foxhole, with a motionless Japanese soldier beside him. Hanson did his best to mimic the enemy soldier. “We had to remain perfectly quiet and as still as possible so as not to alert the enemy of our position,” he said. He was so quiet and still that he heard the impossible: a slight moan and movement from the Japanese soldier. “He was not dead at all!”

I had a short time to make a big decision. If he made much more noise, he would give away our position. If I used my gun to silence him, I would give away our position. What I was faced with was a decision that would either endanger or protect the lives of every Marine in my unit. He moved once again, and I picked up my shovel. I silenced him once and for all as quickly as I could and prayed that I had not made any noticeable noise.

“It was a long night,” Hanson concluded, “but there was no counterattack.”[59]


The Fallen

Cpl.
Robert L. Hunget
Age 22
Clerk, HQ Co.
Artillery shell
Sgt.
Armond D. Leisure
Age 31
MG Section Leader, A Co.
Gunshot, right chest
Cpl.
Carl J. Willenborg
Age 20
Fire Team Leader, A Co.
Shrapnel wounds
Cpl.
Peter Wilchinski

Age 24
Fire Team Leader, B Co.
Shrapnel wounds, lower body
PFC
Otto H. Becker

Age 21
Mortarman, B Co.
Shrapnel wounds
PFC
Robert E. Pitts
Age 19
Mortarman, B Co.
Gunshot, forehead
1Sgt.
Ralph Lilja
Age 30
1st Sgt, C Co.
Head wounds
PFC
Raymond Motovidlak
Age 21
Rifleman, C Co.
Gunshot, chest
HA2c
John C. Heidler

Age 18
Corpsman
Cause unknown

The Wounded

CompanyNameAssignmentCauseDestination
HeadquartersPhM1c Alex L. Grady
PhM2c Eloy R. Manzanares
PhM2c Jack Mason

1Lt. James R. Donovan
Cpl. John F. Beard
Cpl. Roy Haney
Corpsman
Corpsman
Corpsman
Asst. 81mm Officer
Mail Clerk
Chemical NCO
Unknown
Unknown
Wounds to kneecap & foot
Gunshot, abdomen
Unknown (slight)
Unknown (slight)
USS Calvert
USS Pierce
Evacuated
USS Pierce
Not Evacuated
Not Evacuated
AbleCpl. Lee R. Anderson, Jr.
Cpl. Leon H. Roquet
Cpl. John R. Svoboda
PFC John M. Corcoran
PFC Richard H. Dues
PFC Richard C. McGinnis
PFC Vern J. Neeson
PFC Hamilton T. Pendergast
ACk John M. Yonkers
Demolitions NCO
Rifleman
Fire Team Leader
BARman
Messenger
Rifleman
BARman
Machine Gunner
Cook
Laceration, right ear
Unknown (slight)
Blast concussion, abdomen
Sprain, right ankle
Shrapnel, left hand
Shrapnel, right axilla
Blast concussion, skull
Shrapnel, left buttock
Sprain & contusion, back
USS Pierce
Evacuated
USS Bountiful
USS Pierce
USS Leon
USS Leon
USS Pierce
USS Leon
USS Sumter
BakerSgt. Harold D. Caudill, Jr.
Sgt. Elza R. Wallace, Jr.
Cpl. Harmon I. Chichester, Jr.
PFC Donald E. Anderson
PFC Paul A. Bloor
PFC Murray Bower
PFC Clifford A. Cederleaf
PFC Edward Curylo
PFC John K. Howell
PFC Eugene T. Langston
PFC Charles V. Nelson

PFC William J. O’Connor
PFC Lee L. Parker, Jr.
PFC Thomas T. Puckett, Jr.

PFC Charles Rospop
PFC Donald M. Rothweiler

PFC Harry R. Schueneman, Jr.
PFC Charles E. Thompson
Pvt. Robert D. Baatz, Jr.
Pvt. Raynor C. Lehman
Rifleman
MG Section Leader
Mortar Squad Leader
Ammo Carrier
Mortarman
Ammo Carrier
Basic
Fire Team Leader
Machine Gunner
Rifleman
Messenger
Machine Gunner
BARman
Messenger
Barber
BARman
BARman
Ammo Carrier
Machine Gunner
Rifleman
Shrapnel, right lumbar
Shrapnel, right leg
Gunshot, left foot
Shrapnel, right thigh
Psychoneurosis
Unknown (slight)
Shrapnel, both forearms
Gunshot, cheek
Psychoneurosis
Gunshot, left chest
Shrapnel, left leg & left arm
Blast concussion
Shrapnel, head & buttocks
Shrapnel, right cheek
Gunshot, left shoulder
Unknown (slight)
Shrapnel, neck (slight)
Laceration, left axilla
Shrapnel, left leg & testicles
Shrapnel, right hand
USS Leon
USS Callaway
USS Sumter
USS Leon
USS Pierce
Evacuated
USS Leon
Evacuated
USS Sumter
USS Sheridan
USS Leon
USS Leon
USS Leon
USS Leon
Evacuated
Not Evacuated
USS Harris
USS Pierce
USS Pierce
USS Leon
CharliePlSgt. James F. Blake
Sgt. Edward F. Vodopest
Cpl. Frank J. Burgess
Cpl. Bernard C. Nuzum
2 Platoon NCO
Squad Leader
Fire Team Leader
Fire Team Leader
Laceration, left arm
Shrapnel, right chest wall
Shrapnel, left arm & left eye
Unknown (serious)
USS Pierce
USS Pierce
USS Callaway
USS Arthur Middleton

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FOOTNOTES

[1] Harold J. Goldberg, D-Day In The Pacific: The Battle of Saipan, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 56.
[2] Carl W. Hoffman, Saipan: The Beginning of the End (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Historical Division US Marine Corps, 1950), 45
[3] James H. Hallas, Saipan: The Battle That Doomed Japan in World War II (Guilford, CT: Stackpole Books, 2019). 90
[4] “Battalion Landing Team” and “Regimental Combat Team” (BLT and RCT) refer to battalions and regiments with additional units attached for an amphibious operation. In historical narrative, these terms are generally considered analogous with battalions and regiments, hence RCT-24 may also be referred to as the “24th Marines” and BLT 1-24 as “First Battalion, 24th Marines,” etc
[5] LtCdr. Edward J. Sweeney, “USS Calvert, Report of Saipan Operation,” (3 July 1944). Hereafter Calvert Operations Report
[6] No assault troops were actually embarked for the feint landing due to the risk of the Japanese taking it too seriously and responding with artillery fire. The regimental intelligence (R-2) section of the 2nd Marines rode along as observers. (Hoffman, Saipan, 48).
[7] It was later learned that the Demonstration Group’s efforts kept the entire Japanese 135th Infantry in the northern sector of Saipan, preventing them from joining the battle at the beachheads in the south
[8] 4MarDiv Ops Report, Annex I, “Report of RCT 24” (28 August 1944), 6. Hereafter RCT 24 Final Report
[9] Frederic A. Stott, “Saipan Under Fire” (Andover: Frederic Stott, 1945), 1
[10] Hoffman, Saipan, 47
[11] William M. Masterson (Bn-4, 25th Marines), undated and unaddressed personal letter. From the collection of Edwin and Janelle Handley
[12] Hoffman, Saipan, 49
[13] Masterson, personal letter
[14] Hoffman, Saipan, 50
[15]Calvert Operations Report
[16] Stott, “Saipan Under Fire,“1
[17]Calvert Operations Report
[18] John C. Pope, Angel On My Shoulder, Kindle eBook
[19] David C. McEwen, oral history interview conducted by Timothy McEwen, David Clark McEwen Collection (AFC/2001/001/05256), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
[20] Stott, 2
[21]Calvert Operations Report. BLT 2-24 also landed from boats, while BLT 3-24 stuck with the original plan of transferring to LVTs at the reef
[22] According to the Calvert’s log, waves crossed the line of departure at 1553, 1556, 1559, and 1602 hours; they landed at 1624, 1632, 1645, and 1702 respectively.
[23] George A. Smith, interview with the author, 2011. Smith opined that the change in plan was due to Japanese artillery targeting the areas blown out by the UDTs (meaning the areas crossed by the initial assault waves), which kept the enemy’s attention off the channel long enough for BLT 1-24 to get ashore.
[24] “Action Report: First Battalion, 24th Marines Record of Events, 15 June – 9 July 1944″ (24 August 1944), 1. Hereafter BLT 1-24 Report. This document records a landing on Beach Yellow 2 at 1730 hours, which contradicts nearly every other reputable primary and secondary source. Unfortunately, this is only the start of the Action Report’s questionable accuracy.
[25] Robert E. Tierney, “My Marine Corps Experience,” unpublished memoir shared to Ancestry.com 10 January 2013. Last accessed 17 June 2020.
[26] Pope, Angel On My Shoulder.
[27] Edward Curylo, oral history interview conducted by Brian Louwers (4 December 2013), Edward Curylo Collection (AFC/2001/001/94115), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
[28] Robert L. Williams, “In My Own Words,” interview conducted by Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, March 12, 2014.
[29] Stott, 2.
[30] Robert D. Price, oral history interview conducted by Thomas Swope, Robert D. Price Collection (AFC/2001/001/49660), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. (Saipan was not Price’s first battle; he was a veteran of Roi-Namur.)
[31] Stott, “Saipan Under Fire,” 3.
[32] Ibid.
[33] George A. Smith, 2011 interview.
[34] Oscar T. Hanson, A Survivor, Not A Hero: World War II “The Hell Of War,” (Madison, GA: Oscar Hanson, 2003), 28.
[35] David C. McEwen interview.
[36] Stott, 3.
[37] The battalion’s muster roll does not record that Ed Curylo suffered any wounds on Saipan. However, a Marine Corps casualty card indicates that he suffered facial wounds for which he was briefly evacuated. The card gives conflicting dates of Jun 15 and June 18 and provides no information as to where Curylo was treated or how long he was absent. Curylo’s interview does not provide dates, either, but this incident is mentioned as occurring early in the campaign. He received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered on Saipan on 30 October 1944.
[38] John Murray Fox, oral history interview conducted by Nicholas Elsbree, John Murray Fox Collection (AFC/2001/001/79142), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
[39] George A. Smith, interview with the author, 2009.
[40] David C. McEwen interview.
[41] In fairness to Lieutenant Donovan, wild firing was an endemic problem with green troops, and prolonged firing by a machine gun at night usually only served to make the gun position a target. Donovan repeatedly told PFC Edward DuBeck that he was shooting at shadows; DuBeck doggedly replied he was shooting at the enemy, and turned out to be correct. (DuBeck was later awarded the Silver Star medal.) This altercation was probably not the official reason for Donovan’s reassignment but almost certainly played a part as DuBeck was very popular with the men following his courageous feat.
[42] Pope, Angel On My Shoulder.
[43] BLT 1-24 Report.
[44] Stott, 3.
[45] Hanson, 28-29.
[46] Stott, 3.
[47] David Dempsey, “Fight Rages All Night: 24 Hour Charan Kanoa Battle One Of War’s Fiercest,” Marine Corps Chevron, 8 July 1944.
[48] Robert L. Williams interview.
[49] Howard M. Kerr, oral history interview conducted by Leslie Sheridan, Howard Matthew Kerr Collection (AFC/2001/001/65492), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
[50] George A. Smith, 2009 interview.
[51] Gregg Stoner, Hardcore Iron Mike, Conqueror of Iwo Jima (Bloomington, iUniverse, 2015), 44. Edwin was the only Lilja brother to return from the war unwounded. Verner was badly wounded a few days after Ralph died, and George “Lucky” was killed in action on Peleliu on 19 September 1944.
[52] Pennock Bowen, letter reprinted in “Haverford Man Writes Home Of Action Against Japanese Forces At Saipan,” Our Town (Narbeth, PA), 27 July 1944.
[53] Dwyer Duncan, “Military Career – Dwyer’s Memories,” http://dwyerduncan.blogspot.com/ posted 19 May 2013; accessed 17 June 2020.
[54] Robert Johnston, interview with the author, August 2015.
[55] Robert L. Williams interview.
[56] “Shortly after full darkness, the enemy lifted his barrage, units of the 24th Marines gradually completely reorganized and began looking for wounded personnel. Another enemy barrage in the middle of the night brought counter fire from our own mortars and was of short duration.” RCT-24 War Diary, 15 June 1944.
[57] Dempsey, “Fight Rages All Night.”
[58] David C. McEwen interview.
[59] Hanson, 29.

2 thoughts on “Saipan: D-Day. June 15, 1944

  1. The casualties would have been far worse if the the UDT’s had not have cleared the way for the landing craft. Unfortunately it seems they missed the range flags. The UDT’s; Underwater Demolition Teams, now called Seal’s were in their infancy, but served well. Lucky Six was UDT Team 6 of which my father was one that saw that day, and others like it at Guam , Peleliu, and Leyte. Very little is said in our history of these events as to the ones who were there before the invasions and cleared the way for them.

  2. My father landed on Saipan. US Army Signal Corps. After I enlisted into the Air Force in 1974 he began talking about his experience’s on Saipan. He mentioned his landing on the first day and talked of Charan-Kanoa. But, they were kind of disjointed “war stories” told as we shared conversations. It wasn’t until while I was assigned to Kadina AB, Okinawa Japan and met the mother of an Okinawan I worked with on base I really began to understand the stories My dad was describing. My friend Kokuba asked me if my father had served in WWII and I replied yes, on Saipan. He asked me where and I sail I believed it as at or near Charan-Kanoa. His mother was in the room and erupted into a long speech in Hogan Go (local Okinawa dialect). He translated for me and both he and I were surprised to learn she had lived on the Island and his father had supervised Korean workers (slaves?) in the sugar cane fields. I was so surprised I told my father as soon as I could. She said she wasn’t going to jump of any cliff just because the Japanese solders told them it was better than capture. So, she and her husband surrendered to the Americans and were treated better by them than the Japanese Solders. I was so grateful for that experience on Okinawa it fleshed out much of the stories I had heard from him. This website is a great help also, my father passed away in 1992 while I was serving in Saudi Arabia during the 1st Gulf War. However, this location has given me a link to my father I thought I’d lost.

    Charles Morris

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