The US Navy was ready for another invasion. This time they would land around 77,000 men, about half the force that landed on D-Day in Europe. But this time they had travelled rather further than across the English Channel.
The Pacific the island hopping continued. This time it was a rather large hop. The group of islands in the Marianas lie only 1,200 miles from Tokyo. The US invasion fleet had steamed 1,000 miles from their Eniwetok supply base. They were a full 3,500 miles from Pearl Harbor.
They had brought with them daunting firepower, not just the Naval guns but massed squadrons of aircraft aboard a fleet of carriers.
Commander David Moore was with the US Navy engineers,the SeaBees, and was a spectator for most of the first day:
About four o’clock in the morning the speakers in the crowded quarters below decks of each LST (Landing Ship Tank) in the invasion fleet called for muster. It was the alarm for the approaching battle; no one had slept. Both the Marines and Seabees aboard had been looking for this long day.
Breakfast was served in winding hot lines in the galley where somber Navy cooks scooped scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, some fruit, toast, and pieces of ham touched with an occasional sheen of green on a metal tray. For those of us who survived, there would always be a strange connection with the ‘green ham and eggs’ fairy tale to the last breakfast aboard the assault LST.
The air in the quarters and on the tank deck was electrified with anxiety. No small talk, no jokes. The troops made last minute checks – adjusting the canvas back packs with its important trenching shovel, checking their rifles, picking up extra ammunition and c-rations for lunch, filling, the canteens, receiving the last word on the landing, and lowering assault boats. This day smiled on those who survived the assault, and frowned on others.
On the top deck in the moonlight, the eye could pick out an occasional flash showing silhouettes of battleships firing salvo after salvo into the coastline ahead. For two days prior to the invasion, some 2,400 16-inch shells had ‘softened-up’ the enemy. These salvos gave an awesome sound. Something like a boxcar swishing around overhead. Possible mining of the area limited the firing line to six miles offshore, and because of this distance, spotters had difficulty in pinpointing dug-in gun pits.
At sunrise our massive fleet became visible extending as far as the eye could see. Someone said there were 600 ships. The record would show Admiral Spruance had amassed for his vengeance 14 battleships, 25 carriers and carrier escorts, 26 cruisers, 144 destroyers and countless transports, truly a fleet that meant business.
When the Japanese officers, including Admiral Nagumo, the villain of Pearl Harbor, looked through their binoculars,they must have firmly believed American ghosts of Pearl Harbor had returned to haunt them. And they had.
Aboard the LST I was on, which was longer than a football field, Marines (2nd Bn., 8th Reg., 2nd Div.) and the Seabees (302 NCB) crowded toward the spacious tank deck to debark. The Marines were to take and hold the beachhead. One of the primary missons for the Seabees was to get food and ammunition onto the beach (where I worked during the battle), and another, under the direction of 18th and 121 NCB’s, was to build the bomber airstrip and bunkers. In the past, Seabees had been attached to Marine units and wore their uniform, so this arrangement was not unusual. There was comradeship and plenty of respect to go around.
The large bay of our LST contained assault amphibian tractors, called AMTRAKs, to carry troops and special amphibian tanks, which had a turret for holding a 75mm canon and a heavy machine gun to blast pillboxes.
Four pontoon barges (22 x 40 feet) , like large cigar boxes, were chained to our top deck. They were used to haul ammunition. Other LSTs carried long pontoon sections strapped to their sides, which were made into a floating pier, allowing for landing craft to unload.
Admiral Turner, rough tongued, astute and experienced in Marine assaults, was in charge, and he knew it. At 05:42 (Navy time) his orders came – ‘Land the landing force.’ Into position about 1,250 yards from the line of departure, 34 LSTs moved into line. Two huge doors on the bow of each ship opened, and dropped their ramps into the water.
Then, out of the front of these LSTs, one by one, the AMTRAKs loaded with toughened Marines clanked down the ramps and into the ocean. A massive total of 719 AMTRAKs separated into special circles at the line of departure. The American Manufacturer’s Association would have been very proud of their fine products being displayed to the Japanese that day.
This line of departure was some 4,000 yards from the beach. Before the Marines moved onto the beach, 24 light gun boats made the first sweep of the beach firing 4.5 inch rockets and 40mm canon. They turned aside at the reef. For good measure, Turner had 7 fighters strafe and 12 bombers hit the area with 1,200 one-hundred pound bombs. All of this strafing and heavy shelling from naval gunfire did not silence the dug in enemy. But this action did destroy vital communication links with their commanders.
Later Japanese intelligence reports showed the enemy believed the Marines would attack at the village of Charan Kanoa near a large sugar mill. The beaches and a limited opening in the reef made it preferable for an amphibious assault. A large Japanese force was ready, and we did not disappoint them.
The run from line of departure to the beach was estimated to be 27 minutes. H-hour for beach arrival was 08:40. The first wave, comprised of amphibian tanks, began firing heavy weapons as it closed with the beach; AMTRAKs followed in waves carrying the troops. Somehow the battle plan went slightly askew. The lagoon between the reef and shore was showered with exploding mortar and artillery rounds. The enemy had cleverly placed sighting flags to better the accuracy of their gunners.
The Army and Navy drivers were very good at maneuvering, losing only 14 units – 98 percent made it to shore – not a bad driving record. Within 20 minutes 8,000 Marines were under fire on the beach, but by nightfall 20,000 Marines were dug in.
With, this assault came a strange irony. On the ends of the long assault line were stationed two old battleships, the California and the Tennessee. Fire power from these battleships was directed by the landing party on various trouble spots. On this assault, each ship fired 100 shells from their 14-inch guns. During the day before the invasion and on ‘D’ Day, they took some non-critical hits because they were so close to enemy guns. They did not mind. Admiral Nagumo’s planes had destroyed these ships at Pearl Harbor. There, the California lost 98 and the Tennessee lost 5 sailors. On these ships, both the living and ghosts of the dead had come to even an old score with the admiral hiding in his bunker.
As darkness fell on “D” Day, the Marines were dug in expecting more trouble. At 22:00 a probing attack failed. Then, in the early hours, around 03:00, a Japanese bugler sounded ‘charge.’ With loud screams the enemy came. Star shells from the destroyers illuminated the battlefield. It was something like the Fourth of July.
The Marines kept firing. Their guns were hot. Some Marine positions were forced back. But mostly the 6th Marines, who suffered the most casualties, held their ground. They were supported by five tanks from Company B and some artillery, which made the difference. Not to be left out of this fight was no other than the battleship California. When the Marines were in trouble, they called for fire from the ships. The California and its ghosts gladly responded. With salvo after salvo, its batteries rained hell and death on the attackers. Daylight was welcome. This battle on Saipan was decisive, leaving 700 Japanese dead on the field.
Seabees on the assault LSTs were held back from supplying the Marines, until enemy fire on the beach could be silenced. More destroyed vehicles only hindered landing operations. Waiting patiently – how did the war appear from the deck on my LST? The entire coastline was enveloped in a cloud of dust. After the white water trails of the AMTRAKs disappeared into the cloud, the word came that there was a lot of shelling on the beach. Fighting was very difficult.
Read the whole account at Battle of Saipan