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The forgotten survivors of ‘war without mercy’ in the Pacific

Saipan: peaceful now, torn by war in the 40s. P Miller

The battle for the Pacific island of Saipan during World War II is one of those well-remembered battles between Japan and America, one made worse by the mass suicide of local Japanese civilians who jumped off cliffs, fearful of capture by the Americans.

The Battle of Saipan. US Department of Defence

Post-war US military histories focused on the heroism of the battle as US troops obliterated the Japanese military garrison on Saipan, ignoring the experience of the local Pacific Islanders and the Japanese civilians who had settled on many of the islands in the 1920s and 1930s.

On the anniversary of the battle, we need a new way of looking at the Pacific War, one that includes the social and cultural aspects of the war and not just the fighting.

Securing Saipan

The Americans declared Saipan “secure” on July 9 1944, after a battle that obliterated the 30,000-strong Japanese garrison and killed up to 12,000 of the local Chamorro and Carolinian islanders and Japanese civilian settlers on the island (Japanese settlers worked the island’s sugar cane fields).

This is what has been called “war without mercy” – battles supercharged by racial stereotypes about the enemy. Japanese soldiers hid out in the thick shrub on the island long after the battle ended, refusing to give up and attacking US troops stationed on the island. One sizeable group led by Captain Oba only surrendered in December 1945 when the war was long over.

A US Marine finds a family hiding in a hillside cave, 1944. US National Archives and Records Administration

After the war, the CIA built a secret base on the northern end of Saipan, closed off to the public, and trained anti-communist guerrillas there during the Cold War, including Tibetans who were dropped into communist-controlled China after 1949. The firing ranges used by the these secret forces for training can still be found, near to large underground caves where local civilians hid out in 1944 to survive the fighting. Flamethrowers used in the battle by US Marines have blackened the entrance to these caves.

New histories

There is a vast body of literature on the battles in the Pacific and on American servicemen’s experiences of the fighting The Pacific STAR Center for Young Writers publication: ‘We Drank Our Tears’: Memories of the Battles for Saipan and Tinian as Told by Our Elders uses local children to interview elderly relatives who survived the war. The Americans gathered Japanese settlers who survived the battle in a camp near Lake Susupe on Saipan and they were “repatriated” in 1946, going back to a Japan most had not seen in many years.

Tinian Airfields: where the aircraft carrying Enola Gay left for Hiroshima. USAF Historical Research Agency

Their memories of living on Saipan in the 1920s and 1930s have been forgotten, there being only a few untranslated memoirs from settlers such as Yoshitaro Shinozuka’s Saipan saigo no kiroku (A Record of the Last (Days) of Saipan) published in 1951 and Shizuko Sugano’s 1965 Saipan shima ni inoru (Praying on Saipan).

Saipan today

Ironically, the local tourist industry is now geared for the Japanese who are frequent temporary visitors to Saipan and the neighbouring island of Tinian, where there was also fighting in 1944, and where there is a large casino complex.

It was from the airfield on Tinian that the US air force Enola Gay and Bockscar bombers took off in 1945 to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can drive a car down the now disused, monstrous landing strips of the airfield on Tinian.

‘Suicide Cliff’, where hundreds of Japanese people leapt to their death. Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD, CC BY-SA

The Saipan Historical Preservation Office based in an old Japanese military bunker at the airfield on the island stores the local records for the war years. The Americans also have good records on the war years. Historians are now putting these to good use. The modern airfield used by tourists is on the same site as the Japanese military airfield built in 1944. The war years are visible today: not just bunkers and memorials, but rusting tanks and fighting vehicles, and mass burial sites unearthed by local archeologists. There are even US tanks visible in the water off the tourist beaches.

Thousands of Japanese settlers and soldiers died in suicide charges – there was a mass suicide charge of some 4,000 soldiers and Japanese civilians at the end of the battle – or by jumping off cliffs, civilians having been told erroneously that US troops would harm them.

Culture and war came together on Saipan and only now can we look not just at the war years but also how the war has been remembered across the islands of Pacific, many of which were military bases or were the scene of heavy fighting between 1942 and 1945. It is time now to reflect on all sides of the story.

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