Warfare History Network
When Japan Lost This Battle It Lost World War II For Good
In the predawn hours of June 15, the U.S. attacking force was poised a few miles off the beaches. Time-Life correspondent Robert Sherrod later wrote: “[Saipan] was a shadowy land mass, purple against the dim horizon. Set against the reddish tint of the morning sun, it seemed unbelievable that this island paradise could prove to be so menacing.”
Peering through his binoculars, Vice Adm. Chuichi Nagumo was in awe of the nearly 800 ships from Vice Adm. Raymond A. Spruance’s 5th Fleet. Just three years before he had led the carrier force at the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that initiated hostilities between Japan and the United States. But this was no time to gloat over past victories. As he lowered his glasses, Nagumo realized that the Americans must be stopped here. If the invading forces captured Saipan, their Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers could easily reach Japan itself.
Saipan, about 85 square miles in size, is the southernmost island in the Marianas chain. It was the next important step in the Allied planning to conquer Japan. One of Saipan’s dominating features is Mount Tapotchau, over 1,500 feet high, situated near the center of the island. Also, a ridge runs from the southern end all the way to Mount Marpi at the extreme northern tip. To make things worse, steep cliffs dominate the region and a plateau is located in the southern area.
“Saipan combined everything that the Americans had learned to hate about fighting the Japanese,” wrote historian Brian Blodgett in his paper “The Invasion of Saipan.” “The island was comprised of varied landmasses with swamps, sugarcane fields, jungle-covered mountains, and steep ravines.”
American forces had their work cut out for them.
And the Japanese had not been idle. They had been fortifying the island’s defenses since the mid-1930s. The military had constructed airfields, barracks, radio direction finders, artillery positions, lookout stations, and ammunition dumps. On the southern tip of Saipan was Aslito Airfield, the major airstrip in the region. Another aerodrome was located at Charan Kanoa on the island’s southwest coast. Tanapag Harbor, on the western coast, near the town of Garapan, also served as a seaplane base. It was also used as a refueling stop and supply station for the Imperial Japanese Navy.
“The Fate of the Japanese Empire Depends on the Result of Your Operation”
Sharing command on Saipan with Nagumo was Lt. Gen. Yoshitsugu Saito. He was in charge of the Army contingent. Even the Japanese prime minister, Hideki Tojo, realized the importance of Saipan when he told Saito: “The fate of the Japanese Empire depends on the result of your operation.” Although in poor health, Saito accepted his fate. He knew it would be a struggle to the death.