- D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan
The battle for the island of Saipan from 15 June to 9 July 1944 during the Pacific war was a unique experience for the US marines spearheading the invasion as, for the first time, they faced an enemy defending a large island in depth, on which there were thousands of civilians–around 25,000 Japanese and Korean settlers in addition to some 4,000 local Chamorros and Carolinians. Towards the end of the book under review, Harold Goldberg makes useful comment on the dreadful effects of the battle on the civilians– 10–12,000 perished as ‘collateral damage,’ to employ an awful euphemism-in a chapter dealing with the mass suicides of Japanese civilians at the end of the battle at Marpi Point. The thrust of Professor Goldberg’s volume is with the conduct of battle, covering the strategic level of the Pacific war, but focused especially on the operational and tactical ‘sharp end.’
To compare the invasion of Saipan to ‘D-Day’ in Europe is, perhaps, overworked, but Goldberg makes the argument that America’s breaching of the Saipan line of defense was the decisive moment in the war against Japan. What was planned as a three-day battle turned into a twenty-five day slog, into which the local Marine land commander, General Holland M. Smith, drew his reserve division, the Army’s 27th, to augment the badly depleted Marine 2nd and 4th divisions. While more could have been done to develop the Japanese side of the battle, Japanese sources are limited, not least as the Americans obliterated the defending garrison, leaving few survivors to tell their stories. Certainly, Japanese tactical systems were not good; they attempted to defend the island at the beach with a series of poorly executed tank-led assaults on the beachhead in the first few days, all of which were easily beaten off by bazooka-equipped marines. The Japanese learnt from this episode, defending islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945 with defenses fixed inland, using the power of the dug-in defense against overwhelming US firepower.
Goldberg brings to life the battle–including a neat chapter on the naval battle off Saipan in the Philippine Sea (the Marianas ‘Turkey Shoot’)–and is judicious in his examination of key issues such as whether Spruance should have been more aggressive in chasing the Japanese fleet after the battle of the Philippine Sea and, especially, why there was a clash between the Army and the Marines over the conduct of the battle. In examining the row between Holland Smith and the 27th division commander, Ralph Smith (whom H. Smith dramatically sacked during the battle for not driving on his division), Goldberg combines balance with argument, coming out in measured but firm support of the Army. His Smith versus Smith analysis–best expressed in a dedicated appendix–provides a valuable corrective to supporters of the Marines. Goldberg carefully sifts the evidence on differing tactics, local terrain problems and styles of command, weighing up the differences and showing that while the 27th division was not a top-flight division, neither was it as bad as its detractors would have us believe. With this in mind, the author recounts the fantastic episode of the Japanese ‘suicide’ charge of 7 July, in which some 4,000 [End Page 1377] Japanese overran the forward positions of the 27th division from the perspective of the Army, showing what a tremendous fight the Army put up against overwhelming odds. H. Smith emerges as a commander lacking the temperament for combined Marine-Army operations; one can only imagine how long the hard-driving Howlin’ Mad Smith would last in today’s coalition warfare environment.
This is not a cultural history in the tradition of John Dower’s War Without Mercy (1986). One searches in vain for wider debates about ‘fanaticism,’ culture, racism and war. Thus, one is left wondering whether the Japanese really were ‘fanatics...