Saipan Landing I

During the night, on final approach, all hands in Kelly Turner’s four transport divisions had been impressed by the flashes of bombardment silently lighting the horizon ahead. Drawing closer to Saipan, they whiffed its acrid waste, sharp on nostrils and tongues. On June 15, the eastern sky was brightening over the light southeasterly swells. Each transport division embarked a Marine regiment, approached Saipan’s hundred-fathom line, and entered the outer transport area off the western shore.

An officer in one of the transports, a veteran of Sicily and Salerno, looked at the black form of Mount Tapotchau, backlit by twilight, and said, “That silhouette is made to order for a night landing under a good moon. Every natural landmark stands out. Perfect, I say, except she’s coral-bound. That’s the gimmick.”

The Fifth Amphibious Force, having finished its oceanic transit, prepared to make its power felt on land. On board the LCI gunboats, the smallest commissioned ships in Turner’s task force, all hands turned to, unpacking and loading their abundance of rockets. Marines in the transports and amtracs and LSTs checked their weapons, breathed deeply to calm their nerves. Draper Kauffman and his UDT reviewed the results of their lagoon reconnaissance. Kelly Turner signaled to Harry Hill, “TAKE CHARGE. GOOD LUCK.” In the dawning daylight of “the other D Day,” transports began lowering boats.

The drone of radial engines manifested over Saipan before six A.M., when the commander of the Enterprise air group, Bill “Killer” Kane, arrived on station to serve as air coordinator of the day’s flying circus covering the assault. His first order of business was to direct an air strike set for H Hour, 0830. With him: a dozen Hellcats to provide combat air patrol over the landing force and eight Avengers to encourage Tojo’s submarines to keep a respectful distance.

Surveying the armada below—the transports bearing three divisions, battleships worthy of Jutland, the sheer numerosity of Turner’s tractor fleet, dropping from davits and gathering in the assembly areas—Kane had little sense that his day would come to an early end. As he flew over the transport area, the air bursts began. Anxious gunners in Turner’s invasion fleet had his range. One of the shells was close enough to fill Kane’s cowling with steel. Riddled by friendly fire, his engine began to smoke and he began spiraling down to the sea. He had enough horses to keep his nose up and manage a water landing. He would be rescued later and returned to his carrier. But his forced relief from duty by that spooked antiaircraft crew served to promote James D. “Jig Dog” Ramage, skipper of Bombing Ten, to Kane’s post as air coordinator. He would look after the H Hour air strike and the subsequent close support of the troops. Circling at two thousand feet, in awe of the spectacle below, he, too, kept a respectful distance.

Though Harry Hill had immediate command of landing operations, Kelly Turner made sure to retain certain privileges of overall command. He had thought through the location of every ship in the plan. His talent, his admirers said, was a meticulous, hands-on approach to crafting a war plan; in Washington, at Main Navy, he had practiced the state of the art at the level of high strategy. The invasion of Saipan marked his return to the tactical; his talent poured forth into crafting the plan. “He carried it in his own mind,” Hogaboom said. “He rarely had to refer to the plans, although the plans were voluminous. He supervised, himself, the actual maneuver and the actual position of the ships as they approached a position at D Day. He was determined to meet his D Days. He was determined to meet his H Hours.” What followed from there would be up to the Marines.

It wasn’t yet six when Turner issued the order he always deemed his due: “Land the landing force.” The dispatch set his numerous assembly into motion. The bow ramps of LSTs swung open, releasing amtracs to roll forward. LSDs opened their stern gates and began disgorging LCMs bearing waterproofed tanks, which, tightly packed in the well deck, slid down the ramp and entered the sea, bouncing once or twice, then motoring smoothly atop the swells. After reporting to the control officer at the line of departure of their assigned beach, they would stand by until they were needed, on call, not belonging to any particular wave. The amtracs approached the transports, cargo nets draped over the side, and Marines began mounting up.

North of the main assembly area, another group of transports milled at sea. Carrying a regiment from each of the two Marine divisions, they were assigned to make a feint, a diversionary landing that Turner hoped would freeze Japanese troops in place and prevent them from moving south from Tanapag into the Charan Kanoa landing area.

#

At 6:30, two hours before H Hour, the transports of the diversionary force began hoisting out their boats off Tanapag. More than a hundred LCVPs formed in the assembly area and then came alongside the transports to simulate the embarkation of troops of the Second Regiment of the Second Marine Division, and the 24th Regiment of the Fourth, as well as a battalion of the 29th Marines. For several minutes the boats remained alongside the transports, rising and falling beside the nets, then shoved off for the rendezvous area while smoke boats and control vessels took positions near a plausible line of departure. The setup consumed more than an hour, in the hope that the Japanese were watching from shore. On a signal from the commander of the control group, the charade ended. The landing boats reversed course and returned to the transports to be hauled back aboard. Generals Watson and Schmidt would use them as their floating reserve.

It was seven A.M. when the LST group carrying the two assault regiments of the Fourth Marine Division stopped outside the rendezous area and began launching amtracs. Crabbing down the nets from the transports, armed men filled the tractors. The sense of it was vivid, the feeling of starting in. Robert Graf checked his cartridge belt, heavily loaded with ammo; shifted the straps of the weighty bandoliers that pinched his shoulders; vetted his first aid kit and two canteens of water; tested his pack, loaded with items he might never use or that might save a life, one could never tell which. With all its useful things, the pack was heavy enough that, under fire, it might plausibly claim his own. On his right leg were a Ka-Bar in its sheath and a throwing knife holstered like a gun. His gas mask went over the shoulder, its bulk hanging in the way as he reached for his rifle, checking its action, and grabbed a life belt. He looked up from his kit. “Now our group was standing, waiting to start.”

Lieutenant Carl Roth came over and looked him over as his quadriceps burned, spun him around to survey his gear. Like all platoon commanders, Roth wore no insignia—it only encouraged snipers—and was underarmed, carrying a carbine instead of an M-1 Garand. Roth led his men into the hold of the LST-84, where they found their amtracs. They were Army vehicles belonging to the 708th Amphibian Tank Battalion. The tractors were ready for them, engines running, fumes fouling the air. The Marines piled in and took their places. Waiting and listening, then waiting some more, they finally heard the grinding of gears, telling them at last that they would soon be on their way. They heard the crash of the bow doors opening and the propulsive sensation of rolling forward. Down they went, out the ramp. Nosing down, the LVTs dropped into the Pacific. The coxswains raced their engines, whose whining revolutions belied their pedestrian’s speed toward the line of departure.

The Army crews were largely veteran tankers, hastily retrained as demand for amtrac personnel surged. The one hundred LVTs of their battalion had been hastily refitted, up-armored with extra steel plate at the destroyer base in San Diego—half an inch on the bow and cab, a quarter inch on the sides and the ramp. It was seven o’clock when the amtracs carrying the 25th Marines were underway to the assembly area. Ten minutes later, the LSTs embarking two regiments from the Second Marine Division dropped ramps and released their alligators.

#

Looking toward shore from the line of departure, three thousand yards out from the reef, each coxswain drew a bead on the major landmarks that showed him the way. Three in particular stood out. There was Mount Tapotchau, straight ahead to the east. The pier at Garapan was up the coast to the left; the dock at Charan Kanoa jutted out between Green and Blue beaches, fronting the town and its gable-roofed buildings. As they drew closer, details came into focus. The beach, a ribbon of crushed coral just ten to fifteen yards deep. Shrubs atop the beachfront bluff. Groves of trees on higher slopes farther inland. A coastal road and a narrow-gauge rail line that connected Saipan’s west-coast towns, Charan Kanoa, Garapan, and Tanapag. The clearing behind the Green beaches held an airstrip, and three high towers of a radio station sat to its north.

The Sixth and Eighth regiments of General Watson’s Second Marine Division would go ashore on the left, north of Charan Kanoa, at Red and Green beaches. The 23rd and 25th regiments of the Fourth Division, under Schmidt, would land on the right, south of the town, on Blue and Yellow beaches. Each of the regiments’ battalion landing teams was responsible for a six-hundred-yard section of beach, this being the width deemed optimal for the delivery of a Marine battalion’s concentrated force as well as its lifeline of waterborne supply.

#

The largest units of troops—divisions and regiments—were governed abstractly, maneuvered by generals on rubber topographic models and seldom seen in person unless embarked on board ship or arrayed for review. An infantry regiment had about thirty-three hundred men. Its basic unit of maneuver was the battalion. Fortified with heavy weapons companies and engineers, a battalion landing team, under the command of a lieutenant colonel, had thirty-three officers, two or three Navy surgeons, and forty corpsmen. The key line officers were the captains of the two-hundred-fifty-man companies, and their principals in turn were the lieutenants leading the forty-six-man platoons. Below them—arguably of even greater importance—were the sergeants of the thirteen-man squads and the corporals of the fire teams of four. Companies, platoons, and squads, large to small, were the units that most powerfully shaped and held the fortunes and memories of individual men.

Robert Graf ducked low while waves crested the bow of his amtrac, torrents of salty spray washing over the Marines inside. The gunner up front got the worst of the sea shower. “Being low in the water, we were unable to see much of what was going on,” Graf said. “Slowly we went forward until we were in our assigned departure area. We started our circling, waiting.” He had time to think of his parents and two sisters, and of the inferno that had nearly engulfed him at West Loch. His unit, Easy Company, Second Battalion, 23rd Marines, was going ashore on Blue Beach Two. He wasn’t sure it would go well.

Overhead, carrier planes were reporting on station. Turner’s plan called for a sweep against enemy positions to take place at H Hour minus 90, and now it began, a droning horde mustered not by Mitscher but by the escort carriers of the support groups. Each of the eight small flattops in the two CVE task units put up eight FM-2 Wildcats and a quartet of Avengers, wings sagging with a load of eight five-inch high-explosive rockets and a dozen hundred-pound bombs tucked in their bellies. Specialists in troop support, they bore down fast, roaring over the amtracs, the reef, and the gentle lagoon. The Wildcats strafed the beach head-on, followed at thirty-second intervals by the Avengers, which attacked in pairs, two planes to a beach. They let fly their rockets, dropped their frags, and retired across the island.

Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito, was the commander of the army’s 43rd Division and the senior Japanese Army officer on Saipan. But Saito’s guns were still silent. There was nothing for his inland artillery and mortars to shoot at yet. Captain Whitehead, Turner’s commander of support aircraft, was eager to keep things that way. To stop a Japanese counterattack on the landing area, he passed what was known about the locations of Japanese gun and troop positions to Commander Ramage, the air coordinator from the Enterprise. But the carrier pilots struggled all day long to find targets through the cloak of smoke that rose after the naval bombardment. The Japanese had gone to ground under ingenious schemes of camouflage. The air strikes lacked the volume and sustenance required of an effective area bombing attack. Turner meant it more to demoralize and suppress the defenders than to wipe them out. His belief that planes could do what ships couldn’t might have been the optimism of a man who had never flown a strike aircraft under fire. If the enemy could not move beneath this storm of lead and shrapnel, they usually found the wherewithal to hunker down and endure, looking to survive until a more opportune hour.

After thirty minutes, the air strike ended and the planes returned to their carriers. Admiral Hill took over as preparatory naval gunfire resumed. The California drenched Red Beach with everything she had, but after pouring white phosphorus rounds inshore of Red Beach One, she ceased fire when some of her shells burst prematurely, casting smoky streaks of the incendiary chemical over the assembly area. There, a control boat dropped a flag, and a column of LCI gunboats motoring along the line of departure executed simultaneous ninety-degree turns and set out toward shore. With a dozen of them allocated to each beach, surging along in a single rank, they would offer the final salvo of preparatory fire before the amtracs went in. Diversely configured with 20 and 40 mm guns, rails bristling with 4.5-inch rockets, the gunboats were a mile and a half out when mortars and artillery began falling around them. The incoming fire surprised Captain Inglis in the Birmingham, on station with the Indianapolis on the division boundary line, firing at targets on Green Beach. Inglis had not expected so many Japanese guns to remain in action. The gunboat crews pulled the pins on their rockets, five hundred at a time, and threw the switches that armed the launchers.

On another signal from the control boat, the first wave of amtracs came to the line of departure. The first wave was anchored in the center by a seven-vehicle wedge of LVT(A)s. The amtanks were arrayed like an arrowhead pointed toward the enemy. Flanking the wedge to each side was a rank of six troop-carrying LVTs. Without fanfare, the coxswain in Robert Graf’s amtrac opened the throttle and his engine’s song went from gurgle to growl to roaring whine. Led by an LVT(A) serving as the wave guide, flying a numbered flag at the point of the wedge, the first assault wave, nineteen vehicles strong, followed the LCI gunboats in the Second Division landing area. From Red Beach One in the north to Green Beach Two in the south, the full two-regiment line consisted of seventy amtanks and forty-eight LVTs carrying eight Marine infantry battalions to shore. The second wave departed the line four minutes later, followed by the third wave six minutes after it. As Graf’s amtrac passed the Norman Scott, a voice on the destroyer’s PA system called out, “God bless you all!”

Inglis had not seen its like, this parade of ferocious small ships motoring toward the reef in formation, followed at close intervals by rank after rank of amtanks and amtracs. As he looked out to sea, the spectacle of the LCI gunboats in their rush, leading the first wave of troop-laden alligators, took his breath away. He had what he called a “$6.60 orchestra seat, close enough to see the anxious but determined expressions of the faces of the Marines in the landing craft.”

When the LCI gunboats were just fifty yards from the reef, the signal to fire came. Within three seconds five hundred rockets were airborne. The parade spectacle vanished in the backwash of smoke. A gray carpet covered the waters beyond the reef, and though the winds pushed it seaward, it was heavy enough to obscure the landing area from view. No targets of opportunity were apparent. All the gunboat rocketeers could do was smother their assigned sectors in high explosives. After two salvos were off the rails, five shifted from beach to bluff.

Carrier planes struck inland targets. Flying low over the first wave, fighters showered the alligator fleet with brass cartridges. When the LCIs were finished, their long single rank opened like a double pocket door, half splitting away to the left, half to the right. Through the opening came the first wave of amtracs, churning through smoke toward the reef. “As the troops came abreast and passed us,” one gunboat crewman wrote, “an eerie silence fell. All that could be heard was the whine of the amtracs.”

Lieutenant Roth told his platoon, “Lock and load your pieces. Fix bayonets.” There were crisp metallic sounds as eight-round clips went into their rifles and bolts were snapped forward, pushing the first shell into the chamber. Robert Graf turned on his safety, reached over his shoulder, took his bayonet from his pack, and fitted it on the end of his rifle, keeping the butt on the deck and muzzle skyward. As the beach drew closer, perceptions grew sharper.

In the Fourth Marine Division’s landing area, amtracs carrying the 23rd and 25th Marines moved past the Tennessee to either side. The battleship hit the sugar mill with her main battery, then enfiladed the southernmost beach, Yellow Three, concentrating on gun positions near Agingan Point. “The beaches were a mass of smoke,” Captain A. D. Mayer would write, “but the Mark Eight radar operator could effectively observe the salvo landing on the beach on his radar screen, and control same.” But pinpoint accuracy was an illusion on an A scope. Two days earlier the Indiana had put sixty-three high-capacity sixteen-inch shells into that strongpoint, but still the Japanese were in business. Tests had revealed that the burst of a sixteen-inch high-explosive projectile would shock but not destroy emplacements built from sand and coconut logs. “These bursting projectiles would have great disruptive effect but doubtful penetrating power,” Admiral Hill said. The Marines would pay the price.

To hold formation, the amtrac drivers kept an eye to their periscopes, watching ahead while also checking the line to each side. Holding steady amid the waves and slow-moving tide, worrying (but not too much) about the high-angle barrage the Japanese were sending them, the drivers consulted one another on the radio, keeping their line tight. Crawling toward Green Beach One, Marshall E. Harris was talking to his best friend from radio school, Robert B. Lewis, in an amtank nearby. He was asking him if they’d drifted too far left when Lewis’s voice vanished beneath an explosion. Harris felt a concussion, then heard another explosion. Turning his periscope to the side, he saw black smoke and fire on the water. “Flames boiled out of blackened, bent metal hatches—Bob’s tank.” His platoon commander, Lieutenant Michael, motioned to him to keep going. He never saw Lewis again.

As the cleated tracks of the amtracs mounted the reef, their hydrostatic transmissions dropped automatically into low gear, enabling the heavy vehicles to haul themselves up and over. The surf could make things dicey. Off Red Beach, large swells were crashing hard over the reef. A coxswain had to time his approach such that the wave cupped his transom and carried them onto the reef. He would have to keep moving, for the next swell would bid to roll him over or swamp his engine while he was still on the coral. As the amtracs clawed over the reef, the California, off Red Beach, and the Tennessee, off Yellow, shifted to targets farther inland, beyond the map line that Holland Smith had set as the first day’s objective for his Marines. Known as the O-1 line (for “Objective One”), it roughly paralled the beach about fifteen hundred yards inland. The Birmingham kept watch off Afetna Point while the Norman Scott, Monssen, and other destroyers moved close, released by Admiral Hill to the freelancing counterbattery missions that destroyermen relished. Two thousand yards offshore, between the boat lanes leading to Blue and Yellow beaches, the Norman Scott fired on gun positions near Blue Beach One. As her captain, Seymour D. Owens, watched the first wave of amtracs go in, an artillery shell landed close off the forecastle, wounding three men. Hammering the bluffs to keep the enemy’s heads down, the destroyers kept at it until the first amtrac wave was about three hundred yards from shore, then trained out to the flanks. Dropping into the calm lagoon waters, the amtracs began the last leg to shore.

1 thought on “Saipan Landing I

  1. As a radio operator in First Battalion, Eighth Marines in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I can tell you that the description of boarding Amtracks in the well deck of an LST remained unchanged from Saipan till my times doing it. When we did it wasn’t to storm the beaches of a Japanese held island in the Pacific, but we were very aware of the Marines that came before us and the example that they set for us. Good read, thanks for posting.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.