This is the second of two postings on the lessons in history and geography we learned from studying the mosaic galleries in the Honolulu Memorial at Punchbowl Cemetery (See here for my first posting in the series). The focus here will be on the Allied Forces charge across Micronesia to the Marianas and their objective of building airbases close enough to bombard Japan and bring an end to the war.
Saipan and Tinian are the two largest islands in what is known today as the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. Japan took control of these islands in 1914 and in 1918 they were officially mandated to Japan by the League of Nations at the close of World War I. In the period between the world wars these islands were colonized and sugar plantations were established. There was also a heavy military presence as the Marianas were considered inside Japan’s defense perimeter. By 1944 there were 25,000 civilians on Saipan and another 15,000 on Tinian. And the military presence included 30,000 on Saipan and another 9,000 on Tinian.
Guam has been a possession of the United States since the conclusion of the Spanish- American War in 1902. On December 8, 1941 Japanese forces invaded Guam and the battle was over by December 10th with the island’s small defense force surrendering on that date. By 1944 there were about 19,000 Japanese military on Guam.
The native people of Guam and the Marianas call themselves Chamorro. There were 42 Chamorros on the island of Tinian in 1944 and about 3,000 on Saipan. Guam’s native population was about 20,000 and they were treated as slaves for 2 1/2 years, mostly to fortify the island. About 1,000 native Chamorros were killed during the Japanese occupation. The Saipanese Chamorros lived under Japan’s control for nearly 30 years and some of them spoke Japanese and were friendly with the Japanese who brought a lot of them over to Guam where they were paid to oversee the work done by the Guamanian Chamorro slaves.
The Japanese military on Saipan, Tinian and Guam were ordered to fight to the death. In addition, Emperor Hirohito in a letter addressed to the civilians on Saipan asked them to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Americans and promised them that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. Hundreds of civilians were executed by Japanese soldiers when they refused to commit suicide.
The Battle for Saipan — 15 June – 9 July. At the start of battle there were about 30,000 military personnel on the island. Of these 24,000 were killed, 5,000 committed suicide and 921 were captured. There were also about 25,000 Japanese civilians. Of these 22,000 were killed, and 1,000 committed suicide. Survivors were repatriated to Japan and Korea after the war. According to the Japanese census of October 1943 there were 3,926 Chamorro or Caroline Islanders on the island. The exact number of native survivors is not known. 71,000 U.S. Marine and Army personnel were involved in the Saipan invasion. The total American losses were 3,426 killed and 10,364 wounded.
The Battle of the Philippine Sea — 19 June – 20 June. The Japanese decided to send their carrier fleet from the Philippines to Saipan to attack the Allied Forces that were attacking Saipan. On June 19, 1944 they met the US fleet in the Philippine Sea about half-way between Guam and the Philippines and were resoundly defeated, losing two carriers and 385 out of 545 aircraft. Some of the US Naval pilots had their own name for the air battle: The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. The US forces lost 23 planes on the first day of the two- day battle and 100 on the second day — 20 planes were shot down and another 80 had to be ditched in the ocean because they ran out of fuel before they could get back to their carriers. The Battle of the Philippine Sea is the largest carrier-to-carrier battle in history. The Japanese had spent the better part of a year rebuilding their carrier air groups and 90% of it was destroyed in two days.
The Battle for Tinian — 24 July – 1 August. Tinian is two-thirds the size of Saipan and is relatively flat compared to Saipan and Guam with their rugged terrain. The battle lasted nine days. At the start of the battle there were about 9,000 Japanese military personnel on the island. All were killed or committed suicide except 350 who were captured and became prisoners of war. There also were 15,700 civilians (including 2700 ethnic Koreans and 22 Chamorros) on the island and most of them were either killed in the battle or executed or committed suicide. The total American losses were 328 killed and 1571 wounded.
The Battle for Guam — 21 July – 10 August 1944. The first Battle of Guam lasted only two days but it took the US forces three weeks to reclaim the island. Once again, the Japanese were directed to fight to the last man and Japanese casualties were some 18,000 killed and 485 were taken prisoner. The American forces suffered 1747 killed and 7122 wounded. Guamanians celebrate Liberation Day on July 21st every year.
After the Marianas were secured the Marines moved on to Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Philippines. Seabees (US Navy Construction Battalion) moved into Tinian and turned practically the entire island into a huge airbase for the B-29 Superfortresses. For a time it was the largest airbase in the world. The B-29s took off from Tinian to bomb Okinawa, the Philippines and even the main islands of Japan.
On August 5, 1945 a B-29 with the name of Enola Gay took off from Tinian’s North Field and headed for Hiroshima with an atom bomb in its bomb-bay. On August 9, 1945 another B-29 known as Bock’s Car left Tinian for Nagasaki.
On September 2, 1945 Japan officially surrendered aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor and the war was over.
After visiting the Honolulu Memorial we walked up what is known as the Memorial Walk to the south ridge of Punchbowl Crater and I took this shot of The Pacific American Foundation memorial, one of about 60 memorial boulders with bronze plaques on the path.
Here is what is inscribed on the plaque:
In honor of the Pacific American men and women (Chamorro, Hawaiian, Fijian, Maori, Pacific Island, American Samoa, Tahitian, Tongan) and those veterans who look to the Pacific as their ‘aina who served and continue to serve our great nation in time of war and peace.
This memorial bears witness to their leadership, courage and compassion.
May 27, 2001