On August 6th, 1945, just before dawn, Paul Tibbets Jr. climbed into the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber that he named after his mother. He took off from Tinian Island and headed to Japan. As he piloted the plane, the rest of the crew of the Enola Gay prepped their payload, which had been nicknamed “Little Boy”. As the Enola Gay flew over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, they released “Little Boy” and changed the world forever – the first atomic bomb had been dropped.
Before the Enola Gay could take flight from Taipan, the United States and Japan would spend two months battling for the Mariana Islands, leaving almost 40,000 people dead, a fair portion of them civilians who took their own lives.
When it was decided the atomic bombs would be carried by B-29s, the US knew that in order to get the bombs to Japan, they would need control of the Mariana Islands. The Japanese, knowing full well that these islands would make for a great spot to attack Japan from, had already fortified the area, putting thousands of troops on the islands. Everyone knew that taking the area would be a long, bloody battle. It started on June 13, 1944.
For two days, US battleships bombarded the island of Saipan from 10,000 yards. Fifteen battleships were used, firing 160,000 shells onto the island. At 7AM on the 15th, 8,000 marines were deployed to the island, taking 2 hours to reach the beaches while avoiding mines. The battle for the beachhead lasted into the night, with the Japanese suffering heavy casualties.
On the 16th, a two day battle began for the Ås Lito airfield, ending with the Japanese forces giving up the area. At the same time, the Japanese navy opened a sea battle with US forces that cost them dearly – along with three aircraft carriers, the Japanese lost any hope of being able to resupply or send reinforcements to Saipan. The Japanese soldiers on the island were trapped, still Lieutenant General Saito Yoshitsugu was determined to fight, knowing full well that he would be leading his men to their deaths.
With a better understanding of the land, General Saito moved his forces into the mountains on Saipan, using the caves as cover and ambushing US troops. The three major battles in the mountains became known as “Hell’s Pocket”, “Purple Heart Ridge” and “Death Valley” so, you know these were full on terrible battles leaving hundreds dead on both sides. The Americans gained the upperhand when they changed the game plan – instead of inspecting the caves and getting caught in ambushes, US soldiers would stand at the cave entrances and use flamethrowers to kill anyone hiding inside. After the flamethrower was done, they would use artillery and machine guns to clear out anyone who escaped death by fire.
The fighting continued for weeks, with the US taking control of more and more of the island. On July 7th, General Saito and his remaining forces had nowhere else to go – the little area they still controlled of Saipan would soon be overrun by the American forces. Saito put together a banzai attack, expecting he and his men would all die, but they sure as shit were gonna take as many Americans with them as they could.
At dawn, 12 Japanese soldiers carrying red flags led the way. Behind them came the remaining able-bodied Japanese soldiers. Behind that group of 3,000 men were the wounded, many on crutches and unable to carry a gun. Along with the wounded were the civilians of Saipan, carrying bamboo spears. The battle lasted 15 hours, leaving 650 American soldiers dead or wounded, and 4,300 Japanese killed.
With the battle for Saipan over, US crews began to clean up the destruction to make way for more troops and the coming B-29s. Prison camps were built for Japanese soldiers and any civilians who fought against the US. This is when the true horror of Saipan was discovered.
The Japanese knew that Saipan was lost to them after the failed naval battle, but Emperor Hirohito was less concerned with losing the island than he was with losing the support of the Japanese citizens on the island. In Japan’s caste system, the people of Saipan were, to put it nicely, on the low end. The island had only become part of Japan at the end of World War One, but the poorer residents of Japan had taken to it quickly – by the time World War Two started, there were 25,000 Japanese citizens living on Saipan. Hirohito believed that these lower caste civilians may reject Japan if the US soldiers treated them well, giving the US a powerful propaganda weapon to subvert his influence over the people of Japan in radio broadcasts.
By the end of June, as Saito and his men were doing all they could to hold the mountains of Saipan, Emperor Hirohito sent out an imperial order commanding the Japanese civilians of Saipan to commit suicide, promising that any who followed the order would be given an equal spiritual status in the afterlife as the soldiers who died fighting.
As the fighting on Saipan continued, Japanese citizens headed to the Northern tip of the island, chose two specific areas, known today as Banzai Cliff and Suicide Cliff, and jumped to their deaths. The majority of the suicides happened in the last four days of fighting, between July 8th and July 12th.
By the end of the fighting, 24,000 Japanese soldiers were dead, 5,000 by their own hands, including General Saito, who was found dead in a cave alongside Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the naval commander who lead the Japanese carriers that attacked Pearl harbor. Even worse, 22,000 of the 25,000 Japanese civilians were dead as well, almost all of them had taken their own lives.
With Saipan under US control, the battle for Tinian started on July 24th, and lasted nine days. At the end of the fighting, 4,000 civilians were dead, though it was unclear how many were suicide, how many were killed by Japanese soldiers, and how many were killed by US soldiers.
Today, Saipan, along with Tinian and 13 other islands in the area, is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Suicide Cliff and Banzai Cliff have both become hotspots for tourists – they are ranked together as the 6th most popular sightseeing location for the Commonwealth on TripAdvisor.com, with 83 of the 183 reviews marking the locations as “Excellent”. These locations of mass suicide do have one “Terrible” review though, given by Mike M. who says “I give it one circle simply because it is a place of so many tragic deaths and I can’t seem to put stars on that.”
I agree, Mike, it is hard to put stars on a place of such great tragedy.