Assault on the Marianas




11 JUNE 1944

After the horrific bloodletting on Tarawa, Major General Holland M. Smith urged Nimitz to reconsider Operation Flintlock—the invasion of the Marshall Islands—scheduled for 1 February. The plan Nimitz had approved called for simultaneous landings on Maloelap, Wotje, and Kwajalein atolls. Smith, joined by Admirals Spruance and Turner, insisted that the central Pacific forces were inadequate to seize all three Japanese bases at the same time and that a protracted period of “softening up” the three targets—with sequential assaults—would yield the same results with fewer American casualties.

Navy code-breakers and occasional long-range reconnaissance flights by PBYs flying from the Ellices, Tarawa, and Pearl Harbor confirmed what Smith, Turner, and Spruance feared. The Japanese had held the Marshalls since 1935 and were now hastily improving the defenses on all three atolls and their other outlying bases in the Marshalls: Jaluit, Mili, and Majuro. By January, there were already 5,500 Japanese troops on Kwajalein atoll and more were on the way from the Marianas and the Home Islands. Tokyo apparently believed that the Americans intended to seize the Marshalls next—and the Japanese planned to make any U.S. invasion as expensive as possible.

Nimitz was already under pressure from Washington to advance his timetable for seizing the Marianas. The Joint Chiefs wanted to use the islands as a base for a new generation of long-range bombers now coming off production lines in the U.S. The big Boeing B-29 “Superfortresses,” with a 20,000-pound destructive potential that had no other rival in the air, could make the trip to Tokyo from the Marianas in under six hours.

Realizing that he would have to take the Marshalls before moving on to the Marianas, Nimitz countered his critics with a concept of operations that was even bolder than his original plan. The increasingly powerful 5th Fleet would simply bomb and isolate the Japanese garrisons on Wotje, Maloelap, Jaluit, and Mili and go straight for lightly defended Majuro and heavily protected Kwajalein atoll. Once these two bases were secured, the 5th Amphibious Force would seize Eniwetok.

This daring strategy notwithstanding, Operation Flintlock succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, save perhaps those of Nimitz himself. Starting in early January, Admiral John Hoover’s land-based bombers, flying from the Ellice Islands and Tarawa, began systematic raids on all the Japanese bases in the Marshalls. Well before the end of the month, no Japanese aircraft remained east of the Marianas.

Meanwhile, Admiral Ray Spruance’s 5th Fleet—more than 350 ships, 700 carrier-based aircraft, and 53,000 assault ships—was deployed to conduct the invasion. A small Marine combat team would secure the lightly defended Majuro. The Army’s 7th Infantry Division was tasked with taking Kwajalein, and the new, untested 4th Marine Division was assigned to seize Roi and Namur at the northern end of the Kwajalein atoll.

The Marines remembered the lessons learned at Tarawa: The islands of Roi, Namur, and Kwajalein were hit with more than 15,000 tons of bombs. Then, for three days before the assault forces went ashore on 1 February, battleships and heavy cruisers battered the landing beaches and anything above ground on the target islands.

Hastily deployed Navy underwater demolition teams (UDTs) reconnoitered every beach. New armored amphibians equipped with 37 mm howitzers and machine guns took the assault waves across the coral reef and then ashore. LCMRs equipped with rockets and 40 mm cannons raked the landing beaches under covering fire from close-in destroyers. The USS Appalachian and USS Rocky Mount, recently arrived amphibious command ships standing close offshore, coordinated the landings and the delivery of supporting fire over new, more capable, waterproof radios used by the assault commanders.

Though inadequate training and rehearsal marred the Marine landings on Roi and Namur, the Army assault on Kwajalein was flawlessly executed. And because nearly half the Japanese defenders were already dead from the massive pre–H-Hour bombardment and shelling, all of the objectives were secured by 4 February. More than 5,000 Japanese were dead at a cost of 177 American lives and fewer than 900 wounded. Before the assault troops were completely backloaded, Seabee bulldozers and graders had the runways, taxiways, and aprons on Roi and Kwajalein fully operational.

The victory was so swift and lopsided that Nimitz urged Spruance to press his attack on Eniwetok without returning to Pearl Harbor for refit, rest, and replenishment. Spruance agreed and raised Nimitz one by dispatching Marc Mitscher and his Task Force 58 fast carrier groups to destroy the Japanese naval and air bases on Truk, the forward headquarters of the Imperial Combined Fleet. Spruance himself joined in the attack with his flagship, the brand new battleship Iowa, and her sister, New Jersey, accompanied only by two heavy cruisers, four destroyers, and ten submarines.

In thirty hours of coordinated nonstop air, surface, and underwater attacks starting at dawn on 17 February, the Americans sank fifteen Imperial Navy combatants and sent nineteen Japanese military cargo ships, five tankers, and more than fifty smaller vessels to the bottom. Mitscher’s pilots, flying new radar-guided TBM-1C Avengers, Helldivers, Hellcats, and Corsairs, destroyed over 230 Japanese aircraft at a cost of twenty-five U.S. planes. The carrier Intrepid, hit by a Japanese torpedo launched from a Nakajima B6N “Jill,” was the only American ship damaged, and she managed to limp back to Majuro for repairs.

While Truk—the Gibraltar of the Pacific—was being pummeled, Turner’s 5th Amphibious Force assaulted Eniwetok atoll. The 22nd Marine Regiment quickly cleared its two objectives—Engebi and Parry islands—and then crossed the lagoon to assist the lesser-trained regiment of the 27th Infantry Division, which had become bogged down on Eniwetok Island. The entire atoll was declared secure on the afternoon of 20 February. Nimitz was now ready to take on a much tougher target 1,000 miles to the west, in the Emperor’s back yard: the Marianas.


Though the Joint Chiefs in Washington were more than pleased with the pace Nimitz was setting across the central Pacific, Douglas MacArthur was not. Declaring the Gilbert and Marshall Islands operations “diversions,” he urged that more forces be allocated to his southwest Pacific drive and all but demanded that his advance on the Philippines be given priority as the main attack against Japan.

The Joint Chiefs, deeply engaged in the final preparations for Operation Overlord—the invasion of France—responded by curtly reaffirming the “dual advance” strategy advocated by Nimitz and ordering MacArthur to be ready for an assault on the Philippine island of Mindanao by November. Nimitz was directed to seize Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the summer, secure the Palau Islands in September, and be prepared to support MacArthur’s return to the Philippines when needed. The decision satisfied both strong-willed leaders—particularly since their respective commands were promised the men and matériel necessary to accomplish their difficult tasks.

One of the reasons that Washington could make such a commitment was the overwhelming response of American industry. By the spring of 1944, despite having more than ten million men already in uniform, American shipyards, airplane plants, and arsenals were churning out sufficient ships, planes, tanks, and weapons to fight a two-front war. There was no way for the Japanese to keep pace.

The statistics were staggering. In 1942, America produced 214 warships; Japan built 37. In 1943, America launched 414 ships to Japan’s 57. The same disparity was evident in every other category of war matériel. And worse, from the Japanese perspective, American submarines were choking off their flow of oil and strategic materials from Southeast Asia and the East Indies, even coal and steel from Manchuria. By the time Nimitz was ready to send his 5th Fleet against the Marianas, U.S. submarines were sinking Japanese merchant ships faster than they could be replaced.

Admiral Soemu Toyoda succeeded Admiral Mineichi Koga after Koga was killed in action.


MacArthur, anxious to take advantage of the Japanese shortages and impatient to wrap up operations on New Guinea, started a series of rapid advances west on the island’s northern coast. On 22 April, with support from Marc Mitscher’s fast carriers, his 84,000 troops at Hollandia and Aitape bypassed Japanese garrisons at Wewak and Madang. Tens of thousands of Japanese troops were killed or left to starve to death in the fetid jungles of New Guinea. In each case, MacArthur’s engineers built or improved existing airstrips for his growing fleet of 5th Air Force fighters and bombers.

While MacArthur marshaled strength for his next leap up the New Guinea coast—and while Nimitz was finalizing plans for the Marianas campaign—the strategic picture changed. In early May, their Imperial Japanese opponent—Admiral Mineichi Koga—was killed in a plane crash en route to inspect the construction of naval facilities in the Palau Islands designed to replace the bases on Rabaul and Truk. His replacement, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, was far more aggressive and assured the General Staff in Tokyo that he would “hold the line” and prevent the loss of the Philippines or the Marianas. He set out to surprise the Americans with a plan that he called A-Go.

MacArthur was the first to see and feel the effects of Toyoda’s leadership. On 17 May he invested Sarmi against relatively light opposition. But on 27 May, his 7th Fleet Amphibious Force landed on the island fortress of Biak. Toyoda, anticipating the move, had reinforced the island garrison and its strength now stood at 11,000. With MacArthur’s landing force heavily engaged ashore, Toyoda called for a surface raid by Japan’s two largest battleships, Yamato and Musashi. Escorted by cruisers and destroyers, the battleships were to knock out MacArthur’s transports and then decimate the American invaders from the rear with their heavy-caliber guns while the Japanese garrison counter-attacked.

But on 11 June, as Toyoda’s battle group prepared to sortie from the Moluccan Islands, Nimitz began his attack on Saipan. Learning of it, Toyoda called off the Yamato/Musashi counter-offensive and sent the battleships north to defend the approaches to the Philippines. MacArthur’s invasion of Biak was saved by the move he hadn’t wanted Nimitz to make.




18 JUNE 1944

Saipan, the first American objective in the Marianas, is roughly the size of Manhattan Island and had been seized by the Japanese the same day they bombed Pearl Harbor. But by the spring of 1944, Tokyo had declared it to be part of their “National Defense Zone” and posted General Hideyoshi Obata and a 27,000-man garrison to hold it “at all costs.”

To wrest control of the island from Obata’s troops, Admiral Spruance had assembled an armada of nearly 550 ships. It included 30 aircraft carriers, 1,000 aircraft, 14 battleships, more than 120 destroyers, and the amphibious shipping to carry the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions and the 27th Infantry Division, totaling over 100,000 men.

Spruance embarked in the 5th Fleet flagship, the cruiser Indianapolis, and had departed the Marshalls on 6 June as 150,000 young Americans were storming the beaches of Normandy, France, half a world away. On 11 June, he sent Marc Mitscher’s carrier aircraft on ahead to knock out any Japanese aircraft they could find in the southern Marianas. Once the Japanese air threat was eliminated, three battleships joined in pounding known and suspected targets on Saipan and stayed at it through the arrival of the amphibious force.

On 14 June, in an effort to further isolate the Marianas, Spruance dispatched two of Mitscher’s fast carrier groups to the north to work over enemy airfields on Iwo Jima and Chichi Jima. That same afternoon, the rest of the battleships and heavy cruisers of his amphibious force arrived off Saipan and began blasting the fourteen-mile-long island with more heavy guns.

But the naval aviators dropping the bombs and the gunners pumping their sixteen-inch and eight-inch shells at targets ashore quickly learned that not all the lessons learned at Tarawa were still applicable. Unlike the flat atolls of the Gilbert and Marshall islands, Saipan and the rest of the Marianas were jungle-covered, mountainous coral islands, honeycombed with natural and man-made caves. The Japanese made good use of all the cover, concealment, and protection the island offered against the American onslaught.

While the bombers and large-caliber guns did their work, Navy UDTs confirmed that there were no mines on or off the landing beaches that Admiral Turner and General Smith had chosen on the southwest side of the island. Any celebration of this good news was quickly dampened by the impact of high-caliber rounds fired from Saipan that struck the USS California and one of her destroyer escorts, causing casualties on both. Clearly the pre–D-Day bombardment hadn’t been as effective as hoped.

Among those watching the awesome pre-landing bombardment was Corporal Don Swindle. He had enlisted from Indiana and was still a teenager when he headed off to recruit training in San Diego. On 15 June 1944, he was a rifleman in the 4th Marine Division, preparing to invade Saipan.



4th Marine Division

Off Saipan, Mariana Islands

15 June 1944


It’s noisy as heck. And if you ever get the battlewagons in front of you or close to you, when those sixteen-inchers go off, it feels like it’s pulling your Amtrac right out of the water. You can actually see a sixteen-inch shell go by if you’re behind it.

After they fired for three days, you look to see, and you say, “Surely there can’t be too many left.” They hit what looks like everything. But most of the time the Japs really dug in and they had good bunkers.

We got about halfway in and our second battalion wave was hit. I was in the second or third wave, I think. We were receiving small arms and machine gun fire, but we were only able to take out one light machine gun.

I had two Bangalore torpedoes at the bottom of my Amtrac and I had a grenade box. I was supposed to blow barbed wire in case we ran into it. But we didn’t.

And although the others got knocked out on each side of us, our Amtrac got through. It was a rough ride and we bailed out as soon as we got to the beach.

Then a sniper cut loose on us, evidently with a rifle, because he was firing single shots. He fired about five times at us.

I was scared all the time. But that thought never entered my mind then. We had talked about this quite a bit before. None of us ever thought we were going to die. But a lot of us did.


At dawn on 15 June, more than 8,000 Marines of the 2nd and 4th Divisions embarked in armored amphibians and armed LVTs. They were landed in under twenty minutes after a massive final bombardment. It wasn’t enough. The assault waves were greeted on the beach by furious artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire from the dug-in and well-prepared defenders. By dark, the 20,000 Marines who had come ashore were well short of their intended objectives and more than 10 percent of them were already casualties.

The next morning, General Smith committed a portion of his reserve, a reinforced regimental combat team of the Army’s 27th Infantry division. Soon, they too found themselves having to fight for every inch of ground against 20,000 tenacious Japanese defenders who had pledged to the emperor that they would “push the Americans into the sea.”

One of those the Japanese tried to push back into the sea was an eighteen-year-old Marine PFC, Rick Spooner, a native of California. For the next three and a half weeks he would experience a particular kind of hell.



Saipan, Mariana Islands

Pacific Ocean

17 June 1944


We’d heard of Guam, but we didn’t know where the Mariana Islands were. When our lieutenant briefed us, he said, “You’re going to land on Saipan.” Navy and Marine aircraft had pounded Saipan for days. So we were surprised the next day, when we went ashore, that the shelling hadn’t really bothered the Japs too much.

I was in Fox Company. We headed in toward the island; there was a lagoon and a barrier reef around it. The Japanese had registered their artillery, anti-boat guns, and heavy mortars on the barrier reef. Going into the beach, we lost twenty Amtracs and there were some bodies and body parts floating in the water.

We were on the first wave and had to get off at the first beach. But there were too many people there already.

There were a lot of dead Japs on the beaches, and a lot of dead Marines, too, with more and more as we went along.

The problem was that the Navy had laid down a heavy smoke screen, for which we were delighted at first, because that would mask our landing. But it also blinded all the landing craft drivers. So we wound up on the wrong beach.

I was a young PFC and I was scared to death, but I hoped no one around me knew it.

After leaving the beach, we were supposed to take a little Japanese fighter airstrip, secure it, and then dig in and wait. We managed to get across, but not everyone made it. There was no cover, no concealment. You had to run like hell and there was some fire, but we got across.

Our next objective was to be at Lake Susupe. We all knew where it was—we’d seen it on the maps, but sometimes maps are very deceiving. Lake Susupe turned out not to be a lake, but a swamp. And it was bristling with Japs.

We got up to the edges and took some casualties. Later on that same day we had to fall back to straighten out the regiment’s lines. You know, Marines don’t like to fall back when they’ve spilled blood. They don’t like to give terrain up, but whoever made the decision was smart. They did the right thing because pulling back probably saved a lot of lives.

We were almost back to the beach but away from the swamp. There were places on that island that were coral, and the little entrenching tools we had were not really designed to go through coral; we needed jackhammers. But you know, when you’re scared, and someone’s shooting at you, it’s amazing how powerful you can be and what you can do with an entrenching tool.

The first night there was a lot of artillery and we got some of our 10th Marines in. I heard 1,786 as the number that we lost those first twenty-four hours. By the time the campaign was over, we had more than 3,100 dead Americans just on Saipan.

The second night was the most horrific night of the campaign, I think. We could hear all that noise, and of course we were scared of what was coming at us. The Japs had forty-eight tanks, with infantry, and came down toward the beaches. At that point, we had a new weapon—the bazooka—the little 2.36 rocket launcher. Colonel Willy K. Jones picked one up from a scared private that was our bazooka man, told the assistant gunner to load him, and he fired at a tank at very close range, right into the belly of that tank. He made his men believers in the bazooka.

The next day, after that horrible attack, we counted twenty-four hulks of tanks knocked out by those Marines. Along with the tanks, there were about 1,200 enemy infantry troops killed. The Japanese had devastating losses.

There’s no way anyone who’s ever been in combat can glorify war. It’s the most horrible experience and one of the worst things that a human being can live through. The sounds are bad—like an amphibious landing covering fire—and the smells are worse.


While the Marines and Army were thus engaged, U.S. submarines patrolling far to the west detected two large Japanese naval formations passing through the Philippine Sea, headed east. Concerned that he would be unable to protect transports offloading in two locations, Admiral Spruance postponed the assault on Guam scheduled for 17 June and ordered Mitscher’s carriers and the battleships to form up west of the Marianas and head off the anticipated counter-attack. Spruance, aboard Indianapolis, departed Saipan to direct the battle.

Captured Marianas airfield


On the morning of 18 June, while his 103-ship armada, deployed in five task groups, raced west to engage Admiral Toyoda’s mobile fleet, Spruance received word that the Marines had taken the southern portion of Saipan and had seized the airfield. That evening, code-breakers and radio intercept operators in Pearl Harbor pinpointed his opponent 350 miles west of his position. Spruance went to his sea cabin that night knowing that 19 June was going to be a very busy day.

At 0500 the following morning, Spruance had his seven battleships, fifteen aircraft carriers, and 900 aircraft ready to face Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa’s nine carriers and 430 aircraft, which had linked up with Admiral Matome Ugaki’s five battleships. Though Ozawa knew that he was outnumbered, he anticipated help from land-based Japanese aircraft flying out from Rota and Guam, not knowing that Hoover’s land-based bombers and Mitscher’s carrier pilots had all but eliminated the aircraft on those two islands and so badly cratered the runways in both places that the airfields were virtually unusable.

Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, Japanese commander in the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”


What few aircraft that could launch from Guam were quickly dispatched by Mitscher’s fighters, and when reinforcements from Truk were detected by U.S. radar, they too were all shot down. Before noon, the only planes available to attack the American fleet were those flown by inadequately trained aviators aboard the Japanese carriers.

The resulting battle was so one-sided that it quickly became known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” U.S. aircraft and submarines ranged over and under the Japanese fleet. Ozawa’s flagship, the carrier Taiho, blew up and sank with 1,600 of his sailors when it was hit by a spread of torpedoes from the USS Albacore. Another American sub, the Cavalla, sank the carrier Shokaku. Of the 335 Japanese fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes launched against the Americans, 242 of them were downed.

Twenty-three-year-old Chicago native Alex Vraciu was flying that day from the deck of the USS Lexington. He already had thirteen kills over the Pacific waters, and in the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” he got eight more.



Aboard USS Lexington

Central Pacific Ocean

20 June 1944


While we were at the Marianas, I was on one of the hops, where a couple planes were shot down. We learned what they had done to some of our pilots: The Japs gouged their eyes out, cut off their ears, and worse. A lot of us had made up our minds what we were going to do.

I had a mission “beyond darkness” on 20 June, the next day. Because it was late in the afternoon, some of our search planes discovered where their fleet was. It was beyond the safe range and it wasn’t till 1620 that we knew that we would be hitting them about dusk.

Most of the guys out there weren’t qualified for night landings on carriers. We knew it was going to be tragic. But they launched over 200 of us. I was part of the squadron of nine fighter planes, nine torpedo aircraft, and fifteen bombers that were sent over to meet the Jap fleet. We knew that some of the planes would likely be half out of fuel before they got there.

On that mission I lost my wingman, Homer Brockmeier, over the Jap fleet. We were struck by a group of enemy fighters and we had to fight for our lives. But I got the plane that got Brock. I haven’t forgotten that.

They called the Marianas “the great turkey shoot.” We were shooting a bunch of planes that you had to hurry up and eliminate before they got your carriers.

We weren’t attacking Saipan alone. We were about a hundred miles or so from the islands, waiting to see what the Japanese would be coming to do.

The Japanese not only had their nine carriers, but they were using their army land-based aircraft and maybe some navy types. They were shooting down planes at Guam. Our radar found a huge group coming in and they called us: “Come back from Guam, because the action is starting!” And if we’d known that the action was going be there, we would have already been up in the air.

In dogfights, we learned from the early guys that you can’t fight them at low altitudes. When I got to 20,000 feet, I couldn’t shift into high blower. So that meant 20,000 was my limit.

But as it turned out we were in perfect position. There was a motley group of them, not in any particular formation, that had come over 300 miles by that time. They were at 2,000 feet, below us, headed in the opposite direction—a perfect position.

We tried to keep them together because if they started scattering, we could miss the bombers in their formation. That day they had torpedo planes, dive-bombers, and some fighters in that group. There were a good fifty of them, so I pulled up on the other side and started my run.

I came down on one and burned him. Using my dive to maintain my speed, I pulled up in the position for the next round, and then I made a run on two planes in a loose formation.

I burned the first one, and as he was going down, I lowered my wing, got in position for the second one, and got him. So that made three.

Then I worked back in and brought down a fourth one. I must have hit his controls at the same time that he was on fire, because he did a wild gyration and went on down. And then I looked up ahead and saw a string of three of them.

So when I got the fifth one, another was still behind. I had to race to get that one, who’d started his dive already. I got that one and he blew up. I must have hit his bomb.

A battleship AA gun must’ve blown up the one ahead of him, because he just suddenly went up in flames.

All of a sudden, it was over as fast as it started.

Depending on which historian you ask, something like 300 planes were shot down that day as part of the “turkey shoot.”

I headed back to the fleet and felt good. I considered this my payback for Pearl Harbor.

I was told afterwards that the whole battle took eight minutes. They said I used up only 360 rounds of .50-caliber ammo. We had 2,400 in the gun. But because I was going in so close, it was only ten rounds per plane, per gun. I had seventeen kills, and eighteen when I got one the next day.

We lost a good hundred planes, for various reasons: out of fuel, battle damage, not being able to land aboard the carrier. You couldn’t believe the madness of it.


As the remnants of the Japanese fleet fled toward Okinawa, Mitscher’s pilots sank the carrier Hiyo and severely damaged two others, Chiyoda and Zuikaku. On their final sortie of the day, they plastered the battleship Haruna—killing more than 500 of her crew. By sunset on 20 June, the Imperial Fleet had lost all but thirty-six of its airplanes—to only nineteen American aircraft downed.

That night, risking attack by Japanese submarines, Mitscher courageously ordered his fleet to turn on their lights so that the returning aircraft—low on fuel and exhausted from two days of near nonstop fighting—could make it back to their carriers. Even so, more than eighty U.S. planes were lost in this night recovery than had been brought down by the Japanese. When the battle was over, forty-nine of Mitscher’s pilots had been killed.


By 24 June, Spruance and his fleet were back, standing off the Marianas and devoting their full attention to supporting the land battle on Saipan while other ships “softened up” Guam and nearby Tinian for invasion. On 9 July, the Americans pushed the remaining Japanese on Saipan into a pocket along some cliffs on the north coast of the island. There, more than 1,000 of them—including women and children—hurled themselves to their deaths rather than surrender or be taken prisoner. It was a terrible end to a brutal battle. More than 29,000 Japanese were dead, but 3,400 Americans had also been killed and another 13,000 wounded.

Just twelve days later, on 21 July, after pounding Guam for as many days with air and naval gunfire, the 3rd Amphibious Corps—composed of the 3rd Marine Division, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade, and the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division—landed on Guam, the largest island in the Marianas chain. The Marine and Army units, relying heavily on naval gunfire from the fleet surrounding the island, moved slowly across the island from west to east. They met determined resistance from 8,000 Japanese, who holed up in caves while preparing for banzai charges every night until the island was secured.

Sergeant Cyril “Obie” O’Brien had enlisted in the Marines after being turned down for Officers’ Candidate School because he was half an inch too short. He had seen action as a rifleman on Bougainville, but thereafter he served as a war correspondent. When the Marines invaded Guam, he went with them, filing reports from the front for American newspapers and wire services.



2nd and 4th Marine Divisions

Guam, Mariana Islands

21 July 1944


While we were on the ships headed for Guam, Tokyo Rose announced on the radio, “Boys, we’ve got some surprises for you on the beach on Guam.”

We all wondered, “How did she know we’re going to Guam?”

Most of the Marines had been already in combat. More than half were already veterans of Bougainville.

The night we arrived off Guam I remember looking over the rail in the pitch darkness, two o’clock in the morning, as they started shelling. I remember thinking, “I’m gonna be in there tomorrow morning!”

In the morning I landed with the third assault wave. Those of us in the assault waves had one advantage. The later waves came in by Higgins boats. We came in on Amtracs. They took you right up and put you on the beach.

Nobody knows war like the guy on the front line, nobody. I was a correspondent on Guam. I don’t think even the people back in battalion HQ had the same exposure as the men on the front line.

It’s funny how the Japanese knew who was in charge. A Marine NCO came up to me and said, “Leave your pack in the shell hole, nobody’s gonna steal it.” So I left the pack there as he told me and he went and gave some orders to some other Marines.

Next thing I know, boom, right through the head. The Japs had observed us on the beach, guessed correctly that he was in charge, and a sniper killed him.

One time four or five little Japanese women came out of a cave. So the Marines went up and got them and brought them to safety. We had to cross a stream, and these Marines picked these little women up in their arms so they wouldn’t have to walk through the water. They carried them over, probably thinking of their mother, their sisters, their daughters. Isn’t that something?

I had a photographer with me, Herb Ball, and during a lull he said, “Obie, we’re gonna have to cut each other’s hair.” And I said okay. So he cut my hair and did a good job. Then I cut his hair. He looked in the mirror, laughed, and said, “Now I don’t care if get killed.”

Most of the time all I had was a pistol, a .45, and of course, my typewriter. I figured it was the Marines’ job to shoot the enemy and it was my job to write about it.

I’ll never forget the first day. I had this Hermes portable typewriter on my lap and I’m typing away and all of a sudden mortars start to come in. I got mad—not that I almost got killed, but because they were interfering with my writing!

I’m writing, and I think I’m Ernest Hemingway!

I wrote that story back in the field, took it back to division, and Ray Henry got it back to the States in about a week. It went to AP, UPI, and the like. Everybody picked it up because we were the only ones on the spot doing the story.

We celebrated Christmas of ’44 on Guam. Right afterwards, Bill Ross grabbed me and said, “Obie, you better go get ready and pack.” I asked, “What for?”

He said, “You’re leaving for the States in the morning.”

But I didn’t get to go home; instead, they sent me to Washington. When I got there, Colonel Bill McAhill said, “O’Brien, the reason we brought you here is that we’re going to attack Japan around next Christmas (1945). I want you to volunteer to cover it.”

So I said I would. But when I got home for a few days, my mother said, “Oh, you’re safe, the war’s over for you!”

I didn’t tell her I was going back to Japan!

Thankfully, I didn’t have to because Harry Truman had the courage to drop the bombs that ended the war. The planes that did it came from the airfields we had captured in the Marianas.




28 JULY 1944

On 24 July, while the battle for Guam was still being fought, the 4th Marine Division assaulted Tinian. Since so many of the Navy’s heavy guns were engaged in supporting operations on Guam 110 miles to the south, the Marines on Tinian relied on the continuous fire from more than 200 artillery pieces lined up on the south coast of Saipan. Using napalm for the first time in direct support of the infantry, Marine and Navy pilots flying from Saipan’s captured airfield flew nonstop missions against 10,000 Japanese defenders.

It took seven days to secure Tinian, at a cost of 385 Marine casualties. Guam, much larger and with a significant civilian population, took two weeks and cost 1,500 American deaths. On 10 August, Guam was declared secure. But even then, it wasn’t: The last Japanese defender on Guam didn’t give himself up until 1972.

Within a matter of days, the smaller airfields on all three islands were in operation as advance air bases, and Seabees were working to build the much larger air bases required for the B-29 “Superfortress” bombers that would soon start wreaking havoc on Japan’s Home Islands. Guam’s Apra Harbor and Magicienne Bay on Saipan were converted to fleet anchorages, fuel depots, and repair facilities for use by the combatants and support ships Nimitz would need to support the invasion of the Philippines and the Home Islands.

Prime Minister Tojo, seeing the inevitable, resigned on 18 September. By November, the B-29s that had precipitated the landings were launching raids over Tokyo and other Japanese cities from air bases in the Marianas. In August 1945, the two planes carrying the atomic bombs that ended the war—perhaps saving over a million lives—launched from blood-soaked Tinian. The sacrifices of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who had captured the islands had not been in vain.



10 AUGUST 1944

Seizing Saipan, Guam, and Tinian was costly for the Americans. The U.S. tallied some 27,000 Marines, sailors, and soldiers as casualties. Nearly 5,000 were killed in action or died of wounds. The rest were wounded or MIA and presumed dead. The battles for control of all three islands lasted sixty days. But when it was over, America owned them and their incredibly valuable airfields. They immediately began converting existing 4,700-foot and 5,000-foot airfields into 8,500-foot runways needed for the B-29s.

It was a strategic victory in other ways. America had severed the main flow of Japanese raw materials, reinforcements, and matériel from the Home Islands bound for the south.

The U.S. was now in a position to move on the Palau Islands, the Philippines, or even northwest toward Iwo Jima or the cost of China.

In August 1944, the entire Mariana Islands chain was back in American hands. Later in the war, Nimitz would move his headquarters from Hawaii to Guam. Three months later, the first B-29s would take off from the Marianas to bomb the Japanese mainland. The bombers hit Honshu, striking Japan for the first time since the Doolittle raid in 1942.

Losing the Marianas’ “absolute defense zone” was devastating for the Japanese. Once Nimitz seized these islands, American B-29s could hit the Home Islands of Japan. The war leaders in Tokyo were forced to begin serious preparations for handling casualties, evacuating cities, and the possibility of an American invasion.

Tojo, who had been Japanese premier and war minister, resigned three days after the landing at Saipan, even as the Battle of the Philippines Sea was ongoing. One of the members of the Japanese royal family is said to have lamented, “Hell is upon us, with the loss of Saipan.” Tojo, before he was executed for war crimes, said that he felt in his heart that Japan could never win after losing Saipan.

American military leaders began to prepare for the conclusion of the war. For Admiral Nimitz, the prospect of leading even his massive forces into the homeland of Japan was daunting, not only because of the casualties that America would have to expect, but after witnessing how even Japanese civilians seemed bound by the Bushido code and might commit mass suicide, he could see the possible destruction of an entire civilization.

Nimitz was convinced that the plans for a proposed Allied invasion in 1945 or 1946 meant that the Americans would not be fighting the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy when they came ashore in Japan, but would have to battle every civilian old enough to walk and to throw a rock or carry a club.

The cultural brainwashing of the Japanese Bushido code meant tens of millions—perhaps most of the population—would have died. Nimitz had no doubts that many others would have been caught in the crossfire and bombing raids, while millions of others would die in suicide attacks against the American and Allied forces.

Later, after Roosevelt’s death, Harry Truman was forced to consider Nimitz’s concerns. His Joint Chiefs of Staff had told him to expect 60,000 to 80,000 American casualties at the first landing in Kaishu. They also forecast more than a million Japanese fatalities, including the entire garrison of 600,000, and 500,000 Japanese civilians. Once the Americans pushed onto other Japanese Home Islands they estimated that millions more would die.

Those staggering numbers became part of Truman’s equation in deciding to use the atomic bombs to hasten the end of the war.

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