Suicide Cliffs and Selfies: Studying the Battle of Saipan - 03/24/2018
Earlier this week, our trip historian Don Farrell discussed the U.S. invasion of Saipan, one of the Northern Marianas Islands in the Central Pacific.
Spain controlled Saipan until the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the United States captured Guam to provide a coaling station in the western Pacific. The U.S. took little interest in the other Mariana Islands and allowed Spain to sell them to Germany. After World War I, however, Germany lost control of Saipan when a UN mandate turned the island over to the Japanese. According to Farrell’s book, Saipan: A Brief History, partitioning the Marianas led to a “political separation” of the Chamorro people in Guam from those in Saipan.
This separation would manifest itself in the second World War. The Japanese had established cultural and business ties with the Chamorro on Saipan, so the island was not subject to an invasion. On Saipan, unlike Guam, the Chamorro were not tortured or abused. Many Japanese moved to the island during the interwar period and even married Chamorro. In fact, Japanese bombers would take off from Asilito Airfield on Saipan to carry out the December 8, 1941, attacks on Guam. (The Japanese would seize complete control of Guam within days of the aerial bombardment.)
Farrell writes that during World War II, it was U.S. Admiral Ernest J. King who first argued that the Mariana Islands would be the ideal location for a “primary base of operations for the final defeat of Japan.” Furthermore, Farrell suggests that King believed the Marianas were “large enough and close enough to Japan to base all [our] B-29s.”
The battle of Saipan took place between June 15 through July 19, 1944. U.S. battleships shelled the island for four days before the invasion began. As was typical in the Pacific war, military intelligence underestimated the Japanese fortifications. Twenty-nine thousand Japanese troops defended the island. Only a few hundred survived the battle, including the famous Captain Sakae Oba, who avoided capture and led resistance until December 1945, four months after the war was over. Altogether, the U.S. forces took over 13,000 casualties, with around 3,500 KIA. The Battle for Saipan provided the U.S. military with a preliminary idea of how deadly an invasion of the Japanese home islands would be.
Perhaps most shocking about the fight for Saipan were the Japanese civilian suicides. As it became clear that U.S. forces would take the island, the Japanese military high command urged Japanese civilians to take their own lives by jumping from the island’s high cliffs. The Japanese forces who knew how brutal their own troops had treated the Chinese civilians at Nanking believed the U.S marines would behave with similar brutality.
Although there is no way to know exactly how many Japanese civilians killed themselves on Saipan in July of 1944, Farrell estimates between 4,000 to 8,000 perished. Not all them died by jumping to their deaths. Some were aided by Japanese soldiers who detonated grenades in their midsts. Some civilians probably shot themselves. Some simply walked into the sea. One positive note on this sad story is that some jumped but did not fall. They ended up getting caught in the growth on the sides of the cliffs and being rescued by locals.
As I stood on the suicide cliffs and Banzai Point (site of the last suicide charge), I was struck by how so many young people around me seemed oblivious to what happened there more than seventy years ago. They were all laughing and posing for selfies, like this Asian girl pictured here. One woman in our group said, “Do they even know the tragedy that occurred here?” A few others lamented that “we just don’t teach history anymore in our schools.” One other person bemoaned the disrespect on display.
My initial reaction was the same as the fellow travelers. However, in retrospect I think it may be fitting for the young to live in the happy present and for us middle-aged and older people to honor the past. Fortunately, the young woman standing next to me will look back and remember a happy, beautiful, and sunny day atop the cliffs of Saipan. The world she inhabits allows her to see the view without sorrow and fear. Had she been standing on those cliffs in July of 1945, she would not have had anything to smile about.