Opinion: Following D-Day, don't overlook importance of Saipan invasion
The two most important battles of World War II were fought within nine days of each other 75 years ago.
The first, on June 6, 1944, was D-Day, the allied invasion of German occupied France on the beaches of Normandy. It has been accorded all the celebrations and commemorations it deserves.
The second, on June 15, 7,500 miles away, has received almost no notice, yet it was called “the most important strategic victory in the war in the Pacific.” It was the Battle of Saipan.
Saipan is part of the Northern Mariana Islands in the central Pacific. The other two main islands to the south of Saipan are Tinian and Guam. The Northern Marianas became critical for two reasons: location and the B-29 Superfortress Bomber.
The Northern Marianas are 1,500 miles north of central Australia, 1,600 miles due west from the Philippines, and 1,500 miles south of the mainland of Japan. There were no Japanese bases within 1,500 miles of the islands. This location became vital to winning the war in the Pacific because the B-29’s that were deployed to that theater of war a month before the Battle of Saipan could fly non-stop, roundtrip to the Philippines and to Japan.
Knowing the range of the B-29’s that were being developed, the United States Military Joint Chiefs of Staff made the decision to take the Northern Marianas in 1943. The invasion itself began the night before D-Day in Europe, when the invasion force of 72,000 American soldiers and marines left port heading to Saipan. It was about half the size of the 150,000 man invasion force at Normandy.
The American naval fleet was under the command of Admiral Ray Spruance while the marines and army were under the command of Lt. Gen. Holland “Howlin Mad” Smith. Fifteen battleships pounded the island for two days before the invasion. The fighting was horrific, the Japanese commanders knew how strategically important the island was and told their soldiers they had to fight till their death.
The Japanese were in a perilous position, their supply lines had been cut days earlier when Spruance’s fleet won a decisive victory in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. But the Japanese put up a courageous fight for three weeks against an equally courageous American force twice its size. The Americans secured the island on July 9th, but not before 3,000 American soldiers perished.
However, the American losses paled in comparison to the Japanese; 24,000 soldiers were killed in combat and another 5,000 committed suicide.
After securing Saipan, the Americans moved south and captured Tinian and Guam by Aug.10. The loss of these islands was the beginning of the end for the Japanese. When the battle for Saipan was over, Prime Minister Tojo, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor, resigned from office in disgrace and several Japanese generals and admirals committed suicide, including Admiral Nagumo, the commander of the Japanese fleet at Saipan and earlier at Pearl Harbor.
The B-29 made the invasion of Saipan as important to winning the war in the Pacific as D-Day was important to winning the war in Europe. Because there were no Japanese held possessions within 1,500 miles of the Northern Marianas, the allies were able to build huge airstrips on all three islands.
The new bombers were used to help Gen. Douglas MacArthur take the Philippines in October 1944 and to begin bombing the Japanese homeland starting later that year.
By June 1945, the largest and busiest airport in the world was Tinian, where hundreds of B-29’s were landing or taking off every day, flying missions over Japan. The most important of these take-offs happened at 3:45 on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, when the Enola Gay, named after the mother of the pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, took off from Tinian surrounded by only one other plane.
At 8:15 Hiroshima time, on a clear, sunny morning, it dropped an atomic bomb on that city killing 100,000 Japanese. Two days later, another B-29, Bockscar, dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki killing 60,000 more and the war was over.
It is estimated that 100,000 allied soldiers and 1,000,000 or more Japanese soldiers and civilians would have died in the invasion of Japan that was scheduled for March 1946. All those lives were saved because of the enormous loss of lives at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Germany surrendered 11 months and two days after D-Day and Japan surrendered exactly 14 months after the invasion of Saipan. Just as the two most important battles of the Civil War, Gettysburg and Vicksburg, were fought on the same days (over the 4th of July holiday in 1863), the two most significant battles of World War II in Europe and in the Pacific were fought within nine days of each other 75 years ago this month.
There were important battles before and after Normandy and Saipan, but these two invasions were the most significant. One, D-Day has been fully recognized for its importance, while the other is now largely forgotten, as history books and movies continue to place a greater emphasis on the war in Europe than the war in the Pacific.
Even Tinian, the island from which two bombers took off to drop the only atomic bombs ever used, now lies almost vacant and the runway from which the Enola Gay and
Bockscar took off has long been grown over with plant life.
Next August, there will be commemorations of the flight of the Enola Gay, but the brutal battles to take the Northern Marianas will not be mentioned. There were no presidents or world leaders on Saipan, Tinian, or Guam this month, as there were at Normandy. But the bloody battles for those islands were just as important to the end of World War II as D-Day.
Steve Mitchell is president of Mitchell Research & Communications and a student and former teacher of American history.