Saipan: The Other D-Day
by Sergeant Ken Sams Serial No. 305034
June 16th 1944. Beach Green 2. It's twenty seven hours since they dumped us on this beach and we're burrowed deep in the sand as we can get. There's no cover. We're only thirty yards in from the shore. Shells explode all around us, all day, all night. Mortars. Artillery. Tanks. Rockets. They're high above us, dug in caves, hidden behind ridges, tucked in thick foliage on hillsides, looking right down our throats with some of their spotters directing fire from trees almost above us. It's like all that pre-invasion bombardment didn't touch them. You see the red flashes from their big guns in the hills and watch the shells coming. You hear the screams and moans of men dying and some you recognize. You squint through a haze of dust and flames and debris and smoke. There are bodies, parts of bodies, torn canvas, shattered foliage , wrecked vehicles. Psychos. A guy calling for mama. A guy suddenly discovering he's blind. Rows of wounded on the beach being shot up with morphine by medics. Forward troops being shot by nervous fellow marines as they move back from the front in darkness. Black Army troops, their amphtracs destroyed running down the beach to hop on boats going out. A Marine colonel , waving a pistol, ordering them back. And the never ending thunder of a thousand guns firing from our ships behind us and a thousand more from the enemy in front of us. Explosive lightning striking at least once within 50 yards every ten minutes. Twenty seven hours since they dumped us here.
I'm crouched in a shell crater with only one thought in my mind. Why me? Why am I here where people are being blown to bits?
There's a lull in the shelling. I get up to see who's around me. I hear it coming and know this one is it. I hit the deck and two guys drop on top of me. I get shrapnel in the thigh. The guy on top of me, our wire chief, has a big chunk of his back ripped out. The guy on top of him is dead.
A medic comes by, gives me and the wire chief a morphine injection, and drags the body to a pile down on the beach. We're stretched out on the sand, the wire chief and me, shoulder to shoulder, him still bleeding a lot, me lightly, and maybe it's the morphine, maybe a psycho thing, but I start feeling like I'm not part of what's happening and I ask him is this all real or just a movie we're watching and he starts to laugh and I start to laugh and we can't stop laughing. Everything is hilarious. Marines pile out of their landing craft and rush to take cover. We laugh. A mortar splashes amongst some incoming landing craft and a boat lifts out of the water. We laugh harder. A guy's dragging a crate across the sand and yelling for somebody to help. We look at each other and giggle. An amphtrac starts skidding and can't make it on the sand so the guys jump into the water and go splash and we roar. We start pointing out scenes to each other. Look. Two medics running with a stretcher and one falls down. We laugh harder than ever. Look. Those bloated Jap bodies bobbing up and down between two beached landing craft. Ho.Ho.
Some time before dawn , the medic comes back, removes shrapnel, bandages my leg, gets my serial number (305034) and tells me I'm fit to go back to duty. They put my laughing buddy on a stretcher and take him down to the landing craft that will take him to that great White Hospital ship with clean sheets and nurses.
I wake up some time next morning, D plus 2. I see the bandage on my right leg and remember where I am. There's a burst nearby and then silence. I look out from the top of my shelter to see what's happening. The sea behind our tiny beachhead is almost deserted. The Navy which dropped us off has gone. No battleships with 16 inch guns. No carriers with planes that can reach gun emplacements our artillery can't reach. No cruisers. Just transports and a few destroyers and they're moved way out. Every American on the beach is asking the same question. Why?
We find out later how the Navy hears the Japanese fleet is heading for Saipan and Admiral Spruance (top sailor) has to make a big decision. Do I go after them and catch them off guard in the open sea where we have the advantage? Or do I stay here and fight them on less favorable terms as a blocking force protecting our troops on the ground. How about it , General "Howling Mad" Smith ,(top marine) are your marines tough enough to defend themselves while we're gone.
From their decks far away, the admirals and generals peer through their binoculars at the unending barrage of shells exploding in our midst. The admiral decides to go after the Jap fleet and leave us for six days to die in our thousands from enemy guns which can now shoot us with greater impunity.
I locate my radio pack and call my three radiomen up front with forward observers, the only guys who can target our guns. None anwer.
They could be dead, wounded or scared shitless. I don't know at the time that none of our 105mm howitzers is in commission. I make my way to the command post, which has just taken a direct hit. A couple of bodies lie tangled in canvas and partly buried in sand. One of them is a guy I know. I find the operations officer, a major. He's still half in shock from concussion. I ask him where do I find the commanding officer. He points to a dugout about ten yards away. As I look, a shell burst just yards above it.
It's a well-dug foxhole about four feet deep and big enough for two people. I set my radio pack on the ground and look down. The CO is crouched over on his knees, his head down between his legs. At first I think he's been hit. I climb down beside him. His body is quivering. He lifts his head to see me, pauses a moment, and then says, "Kneel with me and pray, Sergeant Sams." I hesitate. He's my CO. Is he giving me an order? He looks up again. I shake my head and lift myself out of the hole.
I arrange for one of my guys to man the radio at the command post. We synchronize frequencies. I shoulder my carbine and radio pack and make for the ridge about 600 yards ahead where I find my radioman and forward observer. For six days I'm up there , radioing enemy positions, helping lay wire, tracking down spares, anything to keep our howitzers firing. I'm up there, away from a CO I don't want to think about.
In these six days I move around a lot. What I see I have to blot from my feelings. Bodies along every pathway, stinking, bleeding, dismembered, grotesquely postured, some hanging in trees. Rows of bodies. Ours. Stacks of bodies. Theirs. Marines. Soldiers. Sailors, Japanese. Thousands dead on a tiny beachhead less than five miles square. Thousands more wounded. Lots of guys in shock. Supplies running low. Nobody getting any sleep. All we can do is survive with what we got on the ground, mainly our howitzers, until the Navy comes to our rescue.
Such is the chaos of battle that when the 27th Army Division is sent in to reinforce us, it suffers 2000 casualties in two days and the Army General Smith and Marine General Smith clash over Army versus Marine ways of fighting a war. Marines say if you don't know the situation, attack and the situation will reveal itself . The Army says don't move till you know what's ahead and you lose less people. The Army general ends up fired in disgrace on the battlefield in the midst of our most critical battle.
June 22 1944. Like cavalry, the Navy comes to our rescue just in time. Back from a great naval victory where they sink five Jap vessels and knock out 402 planes. Lucky for us, the naval battle didn't go the other way. Now a thousand guns on warships blast the enemy's fortified mountainside. Hundreds of bombers from carriers accurately smash gun emplacements as close as 50 yards in front of us. We suddenly possess the firepower that can make the difference. Enemy fire slows, then ceases. We're saved. We can finally get some rest. And just in time.
I don't see my CO again until July 8th when the battle for Saipan is almost over. Our battalion is standing down. Our side of the island is quiet. My radio crews are all back except my guy at Marpi Point. I'm talking to him on my radio about coming to pick him up. Bad connection. Lots of static. He's excited and talking too fast but I get his message. Jap mothers and fathers stabbing and strangling their kids and throwing them off the cliff. Mass suicide. The guys crowd around. What's that all about? I start to tell them and they listen avidly.
"Sergeant Sams." It's the CO. He's across the road from us, about ten yards away, too far to hear what I'm saying, close enough to notice the rapt attention I'm getting.
We turns towards him and half come to attention. He walks as he shouts over to us, "What kind of lies are you telling them, Sergeant Sams?" And then, without even pausing, he walks on by.
There's an embarrassed silence at first. They're wondering what kind of lies I'm telling them. He's their CO, I'm only their sergeant. I know right away what he's thinking. He sees me talking to my guys about Marpi Point and he thinks I'm telling them about him and his prayer in that foxhole. "Kneel with me and pray, Sergeant Sams." Words which stand between disgrace and glory. They've been on his mind all this time. But my guys, they're confused. There is nothing I can say to them.
I am deeply hurt. In battle, what counts most are the guys around you, the ones who see you close up, the ones whose eyes you look into. Yet with a single utterance by my CO, the bond between me and my guys is broken.
I have to get away. I throw my carbine and pack in the back of my radio jeep. I head for Marpi Point, a mile north, where the surviving Japanese, mainly civilians, are cornered. I need to pick up my radioman but mostly I need to get as far away from my CO as I can. I'm on the same road our infantry guys used on their unopposed rush to Marpi Point.. I'm in a manic mood. I'm speeding, braking, swerving , all over the track. And over and over those words in my head: "What kind of lies are you telling them, Sergeant Sams.?"
I'm racing across a wide open field and I suddenly realize I'm all alone. No people , no vehicles. Just me. There are vehicle tracks , deep ruts, empty gas cans, wooden crates, garbage, but not a dead body in sight. I'm alive. I made it. I'm still here. That's what counts. What does it matter about some screwed up lieutenant colonel? I feel much better. And suddenly as loud as my voice will go, I start singing. Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plain.
And while I'm singing and driving along this deserted battlefield, just over the ridge, less than a mile to the west of me, the most bizarre battle of this war is taking place. That's why there's nobody in sight. They're all over there, every last enemy soldier, getting ready for the final banzai.
July 7th 1944. General Saito writes his final orders. "To officers and men defending Saipan: ... the barbarous attack of the enemy is being continued. Even though the enemy has occupied only a corner of Saipan, we are dying without avail under the violent shelling and bombing. Whether we attack or whether we stay where we are, there is only death. However, in death there is life. We must use this opportunity to exalt true Japanese manhood. I will advance with those who remain to deliver still another blow to the American devils, and leave my bones on Saipan as a bulwark of the Pacific... I will never suffer the disgrace of being taken alive, and I will offer up the courage of my soul and calmly rejoice in living by the eternal principle. Here I pray with you for the eternal life of the Emperor and the welfare of the country and I advance to seek out the enemy. Follow me."
Follow me. Three thousand men obey. The last survivors of his 30,000 man army . Hundreds are walking wounded, dragged out of field hospitals, some hobbling with sticks. Not enough weapons to give each man a gun. Many armed with only sticks and bayonets. Trapped on a piece of ground less than a square mile. Fourth Division Marines closing in from the north. 27th Army Division blocking to the south. . To the west , the ocean and the US Navy blasting him minute by minute with all its firepower. And to the east , on the ridge above them, the Second Marine Division. All our guns are trained on them, firing from all directions.
Under the cover of darkness and completely undetected, General Saito and his men slip out of their heavily bombarded trap and make their way to the beach while all our guns are pounding the hills. Freed from constant shelling , they assemble and prepare for attack. With General Saito leading, this ragtag band of shell-shocked warriors, screaming their banzais, fight their way through the lines of the 27th Army Division and penetrate 3000 yards right into the howitzers of the rear-based l0th Marines who fire point blank and cut them down in swaths. They die by the hundreds as they rush forward but they keep going. The battle goes on all night and through the next day and when it is done, almost every Jap in the attacking force is killed and 1500 of our troops lie dead or wounded. General Saito commits hari kari. The handful of prisoners we capture are too wounded to kill themselves. The fighting on Saipan is over.
July 8th 1944. Marpi Point. I'm with my radio man in my jeep about 20 yards behind our infantrymen who are lying abreast for about a hundred yards on the edge of the steep cliff which is Marpi Point . The guys's in extreme fatigue. His eyes are barely open and he mumbles half in whispers. I soon discover it's not just exhaustion. It's what's happening below that cliff, the stuff he talked about in that lousy radio connection.
I leave him to sleep by the jeep and walk up to the cliff's edge. I flop down by a couple of riflemen near a path that leads to a bend on the side of the cliff. On the beach about 200 feet below, I see women, kids, soldiers, many bandaged and bleeding, ragged, some naked, all hysterical, scrurrying amongst bodies , screaming, firing bullets into each other, forming in circles and dropping grenades in their center, crawling out of holes on the cliffside and toppling down over rocks. Abandoned by husbands and fathers who lie dead on the beach to the south after their final blaze of glory. So deranged their thoughts are but on how to make sure everybody gets killed. There are naked soldiers swimming just off the beach, yelling and gesturing for us to shoot them. None of our guns are firing yet we watch the enemy dying in front of our eyes.
I tell the guys I got to get going and when I get up I see some movement along the path. I alert them. We see the top of somebody's head moving across a rocky patch. Moving our way. A woman appears suddenly from around the bend., her face and her torn robe covered in mud and blood. She's staggering, one hand holding the cliffside and the other holding something in a blanket. She's about 20 yards away. She notices us and stops. I catch her eye. She holds my glance for a few seconds. I hold out my arms. Please , lady, we won't hurt you. The other guys put down their rifles and hold out their hands, pleading. Come on lady. We won't hurt you. She takes a couple of steps towards us and then suddenly screams and then goes toppling over the cliffside, dropping the blanket. We see a baby roll out of the blanket and follow her. And just before he leaps we see the man who pushed them.
I can watch no more. I walk back to the jeep. And for the first time I cry.
I'm driving back from Marpi Point to our battalion bivouac . My radioman is asleep by my side. It's early afternoon. Like on the drive up, I'm all alone on the road. There's a trail to my right leading up to the ridge. Maybe because I want to delay seeing my CO, I decide to pull off the road. My radioman jerks out of his snooze. Where we headed? I don't know. I keep driving to where the trail ends near the top of the ridge. I get out of my jeep with my carbine and step only yards around a corner and I'm staring at an abandoned Jap commissary built into the side of the hill. Shelf after shelf of food, mainly canned fish and cases and cases of big liter bottles. I open a bottle and take a swig. Wow! My radioman takes a swig. Wow! It's sake. We load up as much as we can get in the jeep, at least 60 bottles , and drive off.
I'm drunk. I'm holding my bottle of sake in one hand and firing my carbine in the air with my other hand. My drunken radioman and I are jointly steering. Last thing I remember is pulling the jeep into the Headquarters bivouac. In no time, most of the guys in our battery, from Sergeant Major on down are grabbing bottles, uncorking, guzzling, passing them around. I'm their hero. They cheer me . I come driving into their midst with the one thing they need to flush 25 days of madness from their minds. Smooth rich sake wine, enough to get me buzzing after only two swallows. More than enough to go around. The guys go crazy on the stuff. Things get out of control. Nobody's at their posts. They're singing, dancing, staggering, rolling around the ground on each other, lying back stoned. By the time the CO finds out, most of the guys have passed out.
Me, I find out about all this later. Right after my hero's welcome, I pass out near my jeep and my radio guys tell me how I lay there on the grass, unconscious, flies crawling all over my face, looking like a battlefield corpse, and all the time babbling away with what one of them says is the greatest speech he ever heard. I ask him what did I say? He says you just told the truth and that's all I can get out of him. It's enough.
What puzzles them is the CO's reaction. Faced with a complete breakdown of discipline in his battalion headquarters in time of battle, he has to do something. He brings charges against the Sergeant Major who gets busted. Yet he leaves me untouched. I'm the guy who brought the sake in. I'm the cause of his dilemma. I'm personally responsible for the breakdown in discipline. Yet I get off scot-free. None of the guys can understand why.
I know. That prayer in the foxhole.
July 23 1944. Red Beach 2. Back almost where we started on the beach. Only this time in class. The Navy Seabees have prepared a rest camp for us. Showers. Hot food. Dug latrines. Tents with cots. Cold drinks. And most important, mail from the US flown in to our own airfield on Saipan.
I'm no longer with my old battalion. I get the transfer I knew was coming. I'm now attached to V Amphibious Corps. My old outfit's just 50 yards down the beach but I don't visit them. Somehow I've got no buddy feeling, no camaraderie. I skip the ceremony at the cemetery honoring the dead. I don't feel anything about them either.
Something inside me has died. Too much noise and violence, too many obscene bodies staring at me with open eyes, too much madness in too short a time, loss of faith in my leaders, weariness, maybe delayed shell shock. While the other guys are out cavorting on the beach, I'm lying on my cot alone in our tent and sometimes when I close my eyes I see the eyes of the Japanese woman with the blanket on the ledge at Marpi Point. My glance her last sight of humanity. Hers one I cannot erase from my mind. I just don't want to go through this again. Another CO. Another slaughter. I'm no Marine hero . I just want to get out of here alive and try to forget it ever happened. I am downhearted. My morale is low.
And then, my last day on Saipan, a letter from home. I'm the father of a baby boy. My spirits are lifted. I got a kid. A piece of me back home. Something to live for. This news puts my mind on a different track. The CO and his prayers. The lady and her baby. The fields of corpses. These gradually fade as a new image dominates my thoughts. My baby safe in Nebraska. Far from this horror. And I vow to do all I can to keep him from ever putting on a uniform.
After Saipan, my CO gets a Legion of Merit for courage on the battlefield. I get a Purple Heart. We never see each other again.
After Saipan, there is Tinian. After Tinian, there is Iwo Jima where I am caught in the middle of an exploding ammo dump and asphyxiated with noxious fumes and med-evaced to a hospital on Guam. When I recover I am sent back of Officers Candidates School in North Carolina on the recommendation of a truly great marine, Lt. Col. Hollis U. Mustain, who, before he is killed on Iwo Jima, bequeaths me a ticket right out of this war and helps restore my faith in American leadership.
The war ends while I'm in OCS and I leave the marines a pacifist. I figure most veterans will feel like I do and want to make sure we never have another war. But I'm wrong. Most vets love the victorious hero welcome they're getting and they blank out war's ugliness in bullshit war stories they tell each other in American Legion and VFW clubs and bars up and down the country.
By good fortune, while at UCLA in 1947, I meet a guy who tells me about the newly formed American Veterans Committee. He takes me to a meeting of the AVC chapter in Hollywood. And there I find vets who like me want no part of the American Legion and VFW and all their rituals glorifying war. We have pacifist and isolationist leanings, driven by horrific experience to make sure nobody else has to go through what we did. We're left wing. Along with Charlie Chaplin, we support Henry Wallace as the only candidate who can save America from becoming a militaristic state.
Unfortunately, one of our forty or so members is Ronald Reagan, who reportedly around that time is an FBI informer. Whatever, we end up on the US Attorney Generals blacklist and our organization dies just as America embarks on its great military crusade to save the world from Communism.
And for almost 50 years our country's destiny lies in the hands of that military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about and their cohorts in what Gore Vidal calls our "national security state". The generals and admirals and their arms suppliers embark on the biggest arms buildup in history.
And Ronald Reagan becomes President.
And he sends US Marines on a very dubious and spooky mission to Lebanon where the situation is unclear and 240 American marines die in a few minutes to tell their Commander in Chief the situation is impossible.
And like Saipan, this military debacle is swept under the carpet.
And my faith in American leadership is once more crushed..