Members of the Lizama (Batitang) family after the Battle for Saipan, July 1944
(Courtesy of Scott Russell, CNMI Humanities Council)
On this day 70 years ago, the Battle for Saipan came to an end.
It started with the American invasion on the morning of June 15 along the western beaches of Saipan, from Agingan Point up to just beyond Oleai. Prior to the invasion, the island was "softened" by American bombardment. The wailing of the evacuation sirens got civilians - Japanese, Okinawans, Koreans, Chamorros and Carolinians - to pack their essentials and head to the eastern side of the island, where the difficult terrain made an American landing less probable.
Many Chamorros traveled at night and avoided the trails, thinking the darkness of night and the wilderness provided more protection. People ate what they could find. When water from small streams, puddles and bo'bo' (little springs) was not available, some even resorted to drinking sea water. Luckily, Saipan was covered in sugar cane fields and it was also lemmai (breadfruit) season so a number of Chamorros were able to eat those, though many could not find even that.
Babies and newborns were often the most vulnerable, and many of them died. Some mothers were so traumatized by the bombing that they could not produce enough breast milk for the babies.
Being a small island, with the Japanese populations, both military and civilian, in close quarters with everybody else, it was hard for American bombs and bullets to find only Japanese bodies. Chamorros, and other non-combatants, were wounded and killed as well. Some families had to leave the dead bodies of their loved ones behind, finding them later for burial and sometimes finding nothing when they returned.
MEETING THE AMERICANS
Japanese propaganda told the Chamorros that the Americans would do the worst things possible to the Chamorros if caught, because the Chamorros had been under the Japanese. The majority of Chamorros did not believe this.
They already knew some things about the Americans. Some had relatives on Guam, and had even visited Guam and seen Americans. They knew that Americans were, for the most part, Caucasian and Christian, just like their beloved priest, Spanish Father Tardio. They just could not imagine Americans being as cruel as the Japanese said they were.
But a few Chamorros were inclined to follow the Japanese to the northernmost cliffs of Saipan and die with them, either from American bullets or through suicide, but none of them did. Their family members convinced them not to.
Chamorros met Americans, most for the first time, in a number of ways. Some American soldiers stumbled on Chamorros hiding in caves. Many Chamorros would come out with hands up, or carrying religious objects like crucifixes, and say, "Pås Chamorro." "Peace! I am Chamorro!" They needed the Americans to know right away that they were not Japanese.
A few Chamorros had even learned the English word "peace" and said that when they first encountered the Americans.
A few older Chamorros could speak Spanish to some Hispanic American soldiers, and some Chamorros who had been close to the Spanish Mercedarian sisters could also say a few things in Spanish. It was better than saying nothing at all, since most American soldiers could speak neither Japanese nor Chamorro, and few Saipan Chamorros could anything at all in English.
Some American soldiers had to exhort the Chamorros to leave the caves, blowing whistles and ordering them out.
Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, a Japanese soldier used Chamorros in acts of desperation. One veteran of the Battle for Saipan told me that he spied a cave and whom he thought were Chamorros. A Chamorro man did come out, holding up high a poster picture of the Sacred Heart. But the veteran did not let his guard down, and thank goodness, because behind him, all of a sudden, came the Japanese soldier charging out. He was shot dead. The Japanese soldier thought the sight of a Chamorro holding up a poster of Jesus would persuade the Americans to lower their guns. They didn't.
As soon as they were in American hands, they were given food and water and the wounded attended to. Eventually they were all gathered in Susupe in their own camp, separate from the Japanese, Korean and Okinawan civilians and the Japanese soldiers who survived battle.
American soldier, Spanish sisters and Chamorro/Carolinian civilians at Mass in Camp Susupe
A HUGE IMPACT
The fall of Saipan into American hands was a huge disappointment to the Japanese. It was the first time that a pre-war Japanese territory, which had been under the Japanese since 1914, was lost to the enemy. Also, the fall put the Americans within distance to bomb Japan using their planes based in Saipan. Later, Guam and Tinian would also be used for the same purpose.
Such a catastrophe was the fall of Saipan for the Japanese that Prime Minister Hideki Tojo resigned, as well as his entire Cabinet, on July 18 - nine days after the fall of Saipan.