Aviation / History / Warfare

The Ghosts of Horrors Past: Suicide Island

Continuing my series on the Pacific War, today marks the seventieth anniversary of the fall of Saipan. The Japanese didn’t go down without one hell of a fight:

In the early morning hours of July 7, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel William J. O’Brien, commander of the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division, was killed in action at Saipan during a massive Japanese suicide attack. His last words were: ‘Don’t give them a damned inch! It was a gyokusai attack–a suicidal assault ordered by Imperial General Headquarters in which each Japanese soldier on the island was meant to die for the emperor and, in dying, was supposed to kill seven Americans. The Japanese were ordered to take no prisoners.

The gyokusai attack on the Tanapag plain has been described by many historians of World War II as the most devastating attack by the Japanese during the war. For his heroic conduct during that battle, Colonel O’Brien was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. One of his soldiers, Sergeant Thomas A. Baker, who was also killed in the battle, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, as well.

There was little honor in what came next:

Desperation: Saipan civilians commit suicide rather than surrendering to American troops. Around 1,000 civilians perished this way

Desperation: Saipan civilians commit suicide rather than surrendering to American troops. Around 1,000 civilians perished this way.

This sickening spectacle was Banzai Cliff, where not all jumpers were killed on impact and survivors instead were dragged from the water by U.S. Navy personnel. Survival was decidedly less likely at Suicide Cliff:


Suicide Cliff is 820 feet above sea level with most of that being a vertical drop to the rocks just behind the Last Command Post. It provides cool breezes and breathtaking views of the ocean and the hills of Northern Saipan. Suicide Cliff has a similar history as Banzai Cliff. The name came from the mass suicides of Japanese civilians at the end of the Battle of Saipan. Rather than surrender, Japanese families lined up on the cliff’s edge from youngest to oldest. Each in turn gave the one in front a push.

No water is present beneath this ridge. Nor was Suicide Cliff an isolated phenomenon—Okinawa too has Suicide Cliffs. What drove thousands to kill themselves indiscriminately?

Ghosts of 1942 Return

Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the commanding officer of the Japanese fleet at Midway (and Pearl Harbor and the Indian Ocean raid prior to June 1942) was stationed on Saipan in 1944 as commander of the 14th Air Fleet and the Central Pacific Area Fleet when two divisions of U.S. Marines and the 27th Infantry Division began landing on 15 June.

During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the 14th along with Admiral Ozawa’s carrier-based aircraft were decimated (while the USN submarines Albacore and Cavalla sank the fleet carriers Taiho and Shokaku), leaving Nagumo without naval forces to command. In concert with his IJA counterpart General Yoshitsugu Saitō, Nagumo led the bloody Japanese resistance on Saipan before Nagumo put a pistol to his temple on 6 July 1944 and fired, signaling gyokusai:

On the evening of July 6, the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 105th were dug in about 2,000 yards north of the regimental command post, roughly 1,400 yards south of Makunshka. Later that evening, the Japanese began probing the perimeter looking for a weak spot. The perimeter attacks continued all night. At about 4:45 a.m. on July 7, the Japanese launched the gyokusai attack. (Gyokusai can be roughly translated as breaking the jewel, a reference to the destruction of an entire Japanese unit. Such large-scale suicide attacks were made only at the behest of Imperial General Headquarters.) The exact number of attackers will never be known, but it is estimated that more than 4,000 Japanese participated in this last-ditch assault on the American forces near Makunshka.

The Japanese had begun to assemble for the attack shortly after dark on July 6. All wounded soldiers who were not able to walk and bear arms were killed under the orders of the Japanese commanders. The Japanese commanders themselves then committed suicide. Every man able to walk was armed with whatever weapons were available. There were not enough rifles to go around, so some of the men carried sticks, rocks or whatever they could find.

The attackers came on like madmen, drunk on sake and beer. They were led by about 200 officers waving swords and yelling at the top of their lungs. In front of the charging masses a half-dozen men held aloft a large red flag, like the vanguard in a dramatic pageant. Behind them came the fighting troops and, most incredible of all, hundreds of limping and hobbling men with bandaged heads, on crutches and scarcely armed.

Major Edward McCarthy, then in command of the 2nd Battalion of the 105th and one of the few officers of the regiment to survive the attack, described the scene as follows: It reminded me of one of those old cattle-stampede scenes of the movies. The camera is in a hole in the ground and you see the herd coming and they leap up and over you and are gone. Only the Japs just kept coming and coming. I didn’t think they’d ever stop.

The Japanese troops swept down the narrow tracks of the railroad, which skirted the beach, and smashed into the dug-in soldiers of the 105th with a vengeance. The Americans fought well and with tenacity, their weapons positioned so that the Japanese had to climb over their own dead in order to get at them.

Still the Japanese soldiers came on, overrunning the two battalions of the 105th as well as the 10th Marine Artillery battery, which had been placed in the rear of the 105th Regiment’s position. The Marines fought hard, but they were outnumbered and were forced to abandon their fieldpieces to the enemy. The following day a number of Marines were found on the field, killed in hand-to-hand combat.

The fighting was furious. O’Brien, who was idolized by his men, took the lead in opposing the Japanese attack. Left-handed, he always carried a pistol in a shoulder holster under his right armpit. According to the division historian, O’Brien was without doubt responsible for the great stand made by the men of his battalion when the Japanese first hit the perimeter. He stood his ground with a pistol in each hand, encouraging his men to hold off the enemy. He was seriously wounded in the shoulder but refused to be evacuated.

O’Brien ran up and down the line, exhorting his troops to hold. When the Japanese broke through, he grabbed a rifle from a wounded man in a foxhole and fired on the enemy until he was out of ammunition. He then manned a .50-caliber machine gun on an abandoned jeep, firing on the Japanese until once again he ran out of ammunition. When last seen alive, O’Brien was surrounded by saber-wielding Japanese officers and the bodies of the Japanese he had killed. At least 30 dead Japanese soldiers were found near his body.

An eyewitness to the battle, Sergeant John G. Breen of Company A, 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry, stated that Obie was one of the boys that day. He died right on the front line with us. His last words–heard over the shrieks of the charging Japanese, the cries of his wounded soldiers and the deafening gunfire–were, Don’t give them a damned inch.

Sergeant Baker was also a hero in that battle. Although seriously wounded, he refused to be removed from the battlefield and insisted that he be left to die rather than risk the lives of his buddies. He asked to be placed in a sitting position against a small telephone pole and was given a cigarette and a fully loaded pistol. Two days later, Baker’s body was found in exactly that position with eight enemy soldiers dead in front of him.

Sea Runs Red with Blood

The Marines’ own account of the charge tells of American soldiers left to fight and die alone:

The official history of the 27th Infantry Division recounts sadly the reactions of its fellow regiments when the firestorm broke on the 105th. The men of the nearby 165th Infantry chose that morning to “stand where they were and shoot Japs without any effort to move forward.” By 1600 that afternoon, after finally starting to move to the relief of the shattered 105th, the 165th “was still 200 to 300 yards short” of making contact. This tardiness was unfortunately matched by “the long delay in the arrival of the 106th Infantry” to try to shore up the battered troops of the 105th.

The extraordinarily bitter hand-to-hand fighting finally took the momentum out of the Japanese surge, and it was stopped at last at the CP of the 105th some 800 yards south of Tanapag. By 1800 most of the ground lost had been regained.

It had been a ghastly day. The 105th Infantry’s two battalions had suffered a shocking 918 casualties while killing 2,295 Japanese. One of the Marine artillery battalions had 127 casualties, but had accounted for 322 of the enemy. A final count of the Japanese dead reached the staggering total of 4,311, some due to previous shell-fire, but the vast majority killed in the banzai charge.

But the civilian massacre was far more horrifying:

Along the coast there were bizarre spectacles that presaged a macabre ending to the campaign. The official Marine history pictured the scene: 

The enemy pocketed in the area had destroyed themselves in suicidal rushes from the high cliffs to the rocky beach below. Many were observed, along with hundreds of civilians, wading out into the sea and permitting themselves to be drowned. Others committed hara-kiri with knives, or killed themselves with grenades. Some officers, using their swords, decapitated many of their troops.                                  

D+24, 9 July 

It was to be the final day of a long, grueling campaign. The 6th and 8th Marines came down from the hills to the last western beaches, while the 4th Marine Division, with the 2d Marines attached, reached Marpi Point, the northern end of the island. 

There a final drama of horror was played out. Lieutenant Colonel Chambers watched, amazed: 

During this day as we moved along the cliffs and caves, we uncovered civilians all the time. The Jap soldiers would not surrender, and would not permit the civilians to surrender. I saw with my own eyes women, some carrying children, come out of the caves and start toward our lines. They’d be shot down by their own people. I watched any number of women carrying children come down to the cliffs that dropped to the ocean. 

They were very steep, very precipitous. The women would come down and throw the children into the ocean and jump in and commit suicide. I watched one group at a distance of perhaps 100 yards, about eight or ten civilian men, women and children get into a little huddle and blow themselves up…. It was a sad and terrible thing, and yet I presume quite consistent with the Japanese rules of Bushido. 

Note: Imperial Japan bushido was the original bullshido. Samurai-era Bushido emphasized chivalrous behavior above all else. 

Lieutenant Stott in that same division witnessed other unbelievable forms of self-destruction: 

Interpreters were summoned, and they pleaded by amplifier for the civilians to come forward in surrender. No movement followed… The people drew closer together into a compact mass. It was still predominantly civilians, but several in uniform could be distinguished circling about in the throng and using the civilians for protection. As they huddled closer, sounds of a weird singing chant carried up to us. Suddenly a waving flag of the Rising Sun was unfurled. Movement grew more agitated; men started leaping into the sea, and the chanting gave way to startled cries, and with them the popping sound of detonating grenades. It was the handful of soldiers, determined to prevent the surrender or escape of their kinfolk, who tossed grenades into the milling throng of men, women, and children, and then dived into the sea from which escape was impossible. The exploding grenades cut the mob into patches of dead, dying, and wounded, and for the first time we actually saw water that ran red with human blood.

This horrific slaughter was mind-numbing, even for the battle-hardened Marines:

With this kind of fanaticism characterizing the Japanese, it is not surprising that 23,811 of the enemy were known dead, with uncounted thousands of others charred by flamethrowers and sealed forever in their caves. Only 736 prisoners of war were taken, and of these 438 were Koreans. American casualties numbered 3,225 killed in action, 13,061 wounded in action, and 326 missing in action. 

The island was officially declared “secured” at 1615 on 9 July (although “mopping up” continued afterwards). The 4th Marine Division was later awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its “outstanding performance in combat” on Saipan and its subsequent assault on the neighboring island of Tinian.                                  

Saipan’s Legacy 

The campaign on Saipan had brought many American casualties, and it also heralded the kind of fighting which would be experienced in subsequent operations in the Central and Western Pacific in the days that day ahead in the Pacific War. Holland Smith declared it “the decisive battle of the Pacific offensive” for it “opened the way to the home islands.” Japanese General Saito had written that “the fate of the Empire will be decided in this one action.” A Japanese admiral agreed, “Our war was lost with the loss of Saipan.” It had truly been a “strategic strike” for the United States. 

The proof of these fundamental judgments was dramatized four months later, when 100 B-29 bombers took off from Saipan bound for Tokyo.

NoABSOLUTELY NOT. There is a far better legacy from Saipan than the prelude to kamikazes, firebombing Japan and the Okinawan horror.

The Legacy We Can Aspire To

I previously opined that Saipan marked the death knell for the Japanese, which should have ended the war “had the Japanese not christened Suicide Cliff in blood.” The history books record the Battle of Saipan ending on 9 July 1944; I disagree with the Marines only because General Saitō committed seppuku the following day, depriving USMC General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith a counterpart from whom he could accept the Japanese surrender. This directly led to holdouts like IJA Captain Sakae Ōba, who led a resistance cell on Saipan until December 1945.

How is this an American or Japanese legacy we can aspire to? Two words: Guy Gabaldon. A Marine private on Saipan, Gabaldon spoke Japanese and persuaded between 1,000 and 1,500 Japanese soldiers and civilians to surrender, earning him a Silver Star which was upgraded to the Navy Cross the same year the movie recounting Gabaldon’s exploits, Hell to Eternity, was released.

Five American servicemen were awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry on Saipan, Gabaldon wasn’t one of them. Time to rectify that…


…close but no, not that way. Gabaldon deserves better…


…c’mon, we can do better than that…


“Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved an entire universe.”



4 thoughts on “The Ghosts of Horrors Past: Suicide Island

  1. Pingback: An Apology for Hiroshima is Unnecessary | Things That Matter

  2. Pingback: August 1945 | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

  3. Pingback: We’ve Come a Long Way Since Those Pearl Harbor Bombs – Things That Matter

  4. Pingback: The Ghosts of Horrors Past: From Forager/Slaughter by the Sea | In The Corner, Mumbling and Drooling

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