Saipan Landing II

The volume of incoming fire grew; neither the aircraft nor the naval fire support had an answer for what the Japanese had installed on Saipan’s reverse slopes. “There was a loud explosion to our right,” Robert Graf wrote, “and we saw one of our craft exploding, bodies flying through the air.”

Carl Roth said, “Unlock your pieces. Good luck. Keep low, and get inland as fast as you can and get off the beach. They’re zeroing in on it.” Turner had overestimated the threat of beach defenses—pillboxes with machine guns, fire trenches, antitank trenches, and the like. Artillery and mortars located inland were the problem. He had underrated them. The clouds obscuring the early reconnaissance photos hid the guns from Nimitz’s analysts. They revealed themselves against the first waves.

Control officers off Blue and Yellow beaches reported the first waves of the Fourth Marine Division ashore at 8:43. Five minutes later an air observer reported the Second Marine Division’s amtracs piling onto Red and Green beaches, though not always in the right place. Heavy fire poured into the first wave from the shrub-topped bluff behind Red Three. Heavier fire enfiladed them from Afetna Point, far to the right. The volume of it startled the drivers, and even the slightest flinch at the wheel caused them to veer left, carrying in the Sixth Marines farther north than they were supposed to be. The same problem beset the Eighth Regiment, only worse, owing to a northward-carrying tide. Both of its battalions landed on Green One, causing congestion and a dangerous massing of forces there, as well as a void on Green Two, just to the south. The architect of the Second Marine Division’s confusion was a battery of heavy machine guns and antiboat guns on Afetna Point. Having somehow survived the morning bombardment by the Birmingham and Indianapolis, it enjoyed a run of terrible glory. Head still down, filled with silent prayer, Robert Graf heard the smooth tenor of the engine change as his tracks bit into the ground. His platoon was on the beach.

As the critical hour began ashore, the naval fire support shifted inland, leaving the amtracs to their own devices. The bow gunners trained their fifties on the thin ribbon of sand and scrub ahead as the mortars and artillery continued their incessant high-angle fall. General Saito’s artillerymen and mortar teams were in impressive form given the plastering that had been leveled upon them from air and sea. Lofting shells on tall parabolas from crevices, ravines, and the back sides of hills, they began taking a toll on Turner’s force. The beach where Easy Company of the 2/23 went ashore, Blue Beach Two, took a particularly brutal deluge. “More and more shells came pounding at us and more tractors were hit,” wrote Graf. “Bodies, both whole and in pieces, were scattered about.” He saw men mortally wounded but still alive, floating with the aid of life jackets. The Marines left no man behind, except by necessity at H Hour, when the imperative to get off the beach was existential. The whole operation depended on it. Already, with the arrival of the second wave, the boat lane was a bottleneck, with a huge inflow of machines grinding through it.

Amtracs had their appeal, foremost their armor plate, which was proof against all but the closest artillery rounds. But many veteran Marines preferred the old LCVPs with their bow ramps, which when dropped allowed them to make a quick low rush forward out of the hold. Amtracs, in contrast, required them to stand up and dismount over the side, and that meant exposing themselves to enemy fire. When Donald Boots hit the beach, enemy gunners were waiting. The platoon sergeant and gunnery sergeant of his pioneer company were shot dead along with a few other men. As bullets zipped overhead, his platoon, deprived of their leadership, dropped to the beach and pressed themselves into the crushed coral for cover. Boots moved left, bounding into a large shell crater with several other men as machine gun fire whipped overhead. When the mortars came, Boots didn’t think he would survive.

“It was really tragic to watch the effect of this mortar fire on our own troops,” said Captain Inglis.

The Japanese were extremely accurate, and as they walked this shellfire up the beach, this shellfire falling at about ten yard intervals, our Marines at first stood up under the fire without flinching, continued their operations of sorting out and transporting to front lines the equipment which had been landed and which was lying on the beach. After the first two or three shells had fallen it was quite apparent to us that the Marines were beginning to flinch under the fire and at first they threw themselves on the ground and then eventually, after this fire was continued, broke and ran. Through high powered optical instruments we could almost see the whiskers on men’s faces, and the whole impression that I received was something unreal, something that you might see in the London Graphic, for instance, as sketched in the imagination of an artist. It seemed almost too dramatic and too close to be realistic.

Though the largest Japanese coastal guns had been easy for the Navy to destroy, as they were sited conspicuously in fixed emplacements vulnerable to direct fire, and beach positions evaporated quickly in the initial barrage, the inland positions were trickier even when ship commanders could see where the fire was coming from. “The mobilization of that mass of field artillery and mortars on the reverse slope of the hills back of the beaches was a complete unknown to us when we landed,” Hill said.

Captain Inglis felt a mounting frustration. “We tried our best to determine the source of this fire, but the Japanese, being past masters in the twin arts of playing possum and camouflage, had very successfully concealed their batteries from observation and the source of the fire could not be determined from observation from the ship, or from the spotters ashore, nor from observation from aircraft, nor from photographs taken by aircraft.” There were many eyes on D Day, but none were all-seeing. It remained to the assaulters to push forward and deliver themselves from death.

The Second Armored Amphibian Battalion, a Marine outfit, hit Red Beach One promptly at H Hour. General Watson, who hadn’t wanted to use his regular amtracs as fighting vehicles on land, had his men debark from the troop-carrying LVTs immediately, to begin the fight in the footprint of the tides. As LVTs unloaded elements of the Second Battalion, Sixth Marines, high on the beach, the unit’s seventeen LVT(A)-4 amtanks sought routes inland, to serve as a sort of mobile amphibious armored striking force. Their crews were freelancers as soon as they went ashore, and thus they acquired a fearsome responsibility: to use their thin-skinned “armored pigs” to hold the exposed far left flank of the entire two-division landing beach. This meant facing off against anything the Japanese might send them from the north. Turner had anticipated this; the whole purpose of the feint he had carried out off Garapan was to let the first two battalions of the Sixth Marine Regiment get ashore and dig in before a counterattack came.

“I never will forget the concussion of the battleships’ guns and the power and compression that blew over us,” remembered R. J. Lee. The driver of his amtank was looking to push inland off the beach, but with a deep trench just behind the shrub line there was no way forward. He threw the pig into reverse and backed out to the water’s edge, where he unlimbered the 75 mm cannon and began blasting to cut a navigable lane. The Japanese had built only the simplest of defensive works, thanks to the efforts of U.S. submarines to strangle their source of supply. But their trenches, foxholes, and log obstacles near the beach were made reasonably effective by the pressure of artillery and mortar fire coming from the highlands far away. Marine amtanks on Red Beach struggled to get over the bluffs behind the beaches. Lee had gotten off perhaps four shots when Japanese artillery found his range. The open turret took a direct hit. Before the smoke washed everything black, Lee saw his platoon leader and two of his sergeants dead.

“Let’s get the hell out of here before she blows up,” another sergeant said to the five survivors. The amtank’s seven-cylinder radial aircraft engine, owing to the aviation gasoline that fed it, was always a fire hazard. They shimmied through the escape hatch into the water and turned and charged the beach, weapons held high. Lee looked to his right and saw one of his crew, Gus Evans, rifle raised over his head, take a bullet to the face and go down. He was reaching for him when he, too, was hit. Two head shots—one a ricochet, the other penetrating the helmet but somehow retaining only enough force to knock him cold. “Lights out for me,” Lee said. “I heard my four-year-old son calling, ‘Get up, Daddy, get up, Daddy,’ and by the grace of God and my son I made it back to the beach.”

On Red Three, a trio of amtanks under the command of Lieutenant Philo Pease found a path through a grove of trees and made it up onto the bluff. Crossing a narrow road, they approached a trenchworks. The lead vehicle tried to cross it but came to grief, stuck fast, treads clawing the air. According to the driver, S. A. Balsano, Japanese soldiers were “on us like flies.” There was no way forward, or back, either, for the rear amtank was stuck, too. Lieutenant Pease realized their only hope was to get moving again, or artillery would surely find them. He saw that the second amtank in his column, the one right behind him, might be able to pull the third one free of its snag. He ordered his crew to stay with their stranded lead vehicle and try to break it free while he ran outside, exposing himself in order to help the commander behind him to rig a tow cable. As a cluster of enemy troops approached, one of Pease’s crew, Leroy Clobes, stuck a light machine gun through the side hatch and leaned into the trigger, scattering them. Balsano, the driver, jammed his Thompson through the front hatch and jackhammered away. Then they realized that the foreign voices they had heard were coming from the trench beneath them.

Pease reached the amtank behind him only to find himself going to the assistance of a dead man. A Japanese soldier had drawn a bead on the other commander and shot him dead where he stood. Ducking low under fire, Pease inherited the job of attaching the cable. The enemy rifleman chambered another round and took him down next. A corporal in Pease’s amtank, Paul Durand, took command, shouting, “Shoot all the sons of bitches you can!” Nearby he spotted a straw house that seemed to harbor an enemy squad. Traversing the 75 mm gun onto it, he blew it right down. At that point a Japanese light tank appeared and put a 37 mm round through the hull of the third amtank in line, killing the driver. Marine bazookamen put the enemy armored vehicle out of business in turn, but here, exposed under merciless direct fire, was the root of General Watson’s worry all along: Amtracs were sitting ducks. Lieutenant Pease’s surviving crew were lucky. Inspecting their stranded amphibian later, one of them found a magnetic mine fastened to the undercarriage. Somehow it had failed to explode.

South of them, Green Beach One was chaos, its six-hundred-yard frontage hopelessly congested after the arrival of two full battalions. The commanders of the first wave’s amtanks tried to deepen the beachhead by driving inland. Their advance was conspicuous to the well-spotted mortarmen and artillery gunners in the hills. Coming under heavy plunging fire, several of the amtanks became bogged down in a rice paddy. Two others, driven by Sergeant Benjamin R. Livesey and Sergeant Onel W. Dickens, pushed on. Crossing the end of the single runway paralleling Green Beach, they turned up a dirt road leading north past the Japanese radio station. The road was little more than a cart path, barely wide enough for two-way traffic. Along it they clattered, fortunate to evade the incoming fire. A Japanese machine gun nest, then another, revealed themselves with spitting tracers. The armored amphibians turned the fury of their 75 mm howitzers and .50- and .30-caliber machine guns onto them, to overwhelming effect. Passing through a banana grove, Livesey realized its value as cover and stopped there as the mortars continued to fall. As the crew crouched low, they heard the chatter of small arms fire as Japanese soldiers opened up on them from down the road. “We scrambled back into our tank,” Livesey said, “and scanned ahead into the grove of trees, using our gun sight and binoculars to spot a building with some Japs moving around inside it. We opened fire with everything we had.”

Their 75 mm main gun was loaded with high-explosive and incendiary rounds. Several hits produced larger explosions followed climactic ally by a mushrooming fireball that marked the demise of a Japanese fuel dump. Livesey ordered his driver forward and shot up the area for effect. About a hundred yards on, he came upon a clearing and stopped again, breaking out water for his crew. As Dickens’s amtank rolled up alongside, Livesey and his men dismounted to talk with them. No other Marines had yet made it that far inland. “We were alone and isolated,” Livesey said, “but enjoying our success.” They were picking through the wooden crates that constituted their magazines, counting their remaining shells, when, down the road, four behemoths of foreign origin loomed into view.

The Japanese medium tanks were in a single column, moving toward the landing beach. They did not seem to see the Americans hustling to remount. Once buttoned in, Livesey and Dickens turned out after them, unlimbering their 75 mm guns and opening fire. His ammunition passers were scrambling to find armor-piercing shells when the enemy column turned and came directly at the Marines. “It was us or them,” Livesey said.

Neither side’s vehicle was a match for the other’s main gun. Livesey’s vehicle shook from a hit to its engine compartment, but June 15 was his day; the shell was a dud. Gales of machine gun fire washed over them. Though the 75s liked to jam and did, the gunners and loaders kept their breech blocks smoking, and Marine Corps marksmanship was equal to the moment. Destroying three of the enemy tanks in succession, they stopped the Japanese armor just fifty to seventy yards away. Livesey watched one of the enemy tankers pile out of his hatch and start running for the hills, a good thing given that Livesey’s ammunition passers were nearly down to smoke shells. He threw a few rounds after the enemy squirter, but as artillery and mortars in the hills began bracketing them again, he and Dickens and their crews opted to bail out. As they set out on foot to the beach, mortar shrapnel killed one of Dickens’s men, Private Leo Pletcher. The freelancing foray by Livesey and Dickens would earn each of them a Navy Cross. More important, it relieved pressure on the vulnerable Second Marine Division foothold by blunting an armored assault that might have fallen upon the beach.

The fighting on the left flank continued stiff and sharp. The Sixth Marines were able to force a shallow beachhead no more than a hundred yards deep, as far as the coastal road behind Red Beach. But pillboxes and machine gun positions checked their progress. An enemy tank on the beach that everyone had thought was disabled opened fire with its 37 mm gun on the LVTs that were bringing in the Sixth Marines’ reserve unit, the First Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel William K. Jones. One of the vehicles that got hit was carrying the staff of Jones’s boss, the regimental commander, Colonel James P. Riseley. Many of them were badly wounded. Soon after landing, Riseley learned that the commander of his Third Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel John W. Easley, had been hit, too.

As Riseley was setting up his regimental command post near the center of Red Beach Two, as many as two dozen Japanese troops charged down the beach from the north. They reached the rear area of the regiment’s Second Battalion, where wounded Americans were laid out in stretchers under tents near the beach. The Marines rallied, established a firing line, and annihilated the Japanese force. But the close-run assault proved that no one was safe in a battle of infiltration. On the day, the commanders of all four of the Second Marine Division’s assault battalions were wounded in action: Raymond L. Murray of the 2/6 (hit along with his executive officer), Henry P. Crowe of the 2/8, John C. Miller of the 3/8, and Easley of the 3/6. After nightfall, the task of closing the gaps in their lines would be a matter of life and death.

To break the pressure of the counterattack, Riseley ordered the First Battalion to pass through the Third Battalion area and renew the push toward the O-1 line. Riseley would have given the job to no one other than the 1/6’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jones. He would call him “the best damn battalion commander in this division, or any other division.” At the moment, Jones was the only officer of his rank physically able to lead an assault on that high ground. The 1/6 had taken a hundred casualties on the way to the beach. Coming ashore, the survivors had replaced their soaked equipment and gear by harvesting from those who had fallen ahead of them. Jones rallied them forward.

With units scattered and intermingled thanks to the whirligig movements of amtracs in surf and tide, and with the heavy fire urging survival ahead of record keeping, it was difficult to count the wounded. The first casualties were brought to the beach for loading onto LVTs at about 10:40. The total number of killed and wounded that day would total more than two thousand, most of the casualties inflicted by artillery and mortar fire. But an untold multitude emblematized by Lieutenant Colonel Easley refused to report to triage for fear of being removed from the company of their men at the front.

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