The beaches of Normandy and the sands of Saipan
By John S. Reed. Previously published in VALOR, May 2019.
In both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operations, June 1944 marked the turning point of U.S. ground combat operations in World War II.
Of the two D-Days, the landings in Normandy are far better known. The Western Allies had hoped to conduct a cross-English-Channel invasion of France earlier, but numerous organizational and logistical constraints made an earlier amphibious assault impossible. In the interim, American, British and Commonwealth forces cleared North Africa of the Italian and German militaries, occupied Sicily, and fought partway up the Italian peninsula, liberating Rome at the same moment as the landings in France. On June 6, United States and Allied troops assaulted German-occupied coastal France; eleven months later, in May 1945, U.S. troops met the Red Army along the Elbe River and Nazi Germany ceased to exist.
In the Pacific, a combined U.S. Marine and Army force attacked and secured the Mariana Islands: Saipan, Tinian and Guam, beginning with Saipan on June 15. The seizure of the Marianas enabled the Army Air Corps to build a complex of airbases capable of operating B-29s to mount a strategic bombing offensive against the Japanese home islands.
However, the closer the United States came to victory over both enemies, the more costly that victory became, with 69% of all fatal U.S. combat casualties occurring in the war’s last 14 months.
In the European Theater
The assault on Nazi-held France was an enormous strategic effort
It required, among other resources, 142 assault transports and cargo ships, and 3,780 landing craft, many of which were large enough to cross the Atlantic. These vessels, along with anti-submarine ships ranging from smaller “jeep” aircraft carriers to 173-foot submarine chasers, were built in brand new American shipyards. Although the U.S. Army stood in the limelight during the invasion of France, it could not have been deployed to Great Britain without the lift-capacity and convoy protection of the U.S. Navy counterattack.
U.S. Army Air Forces in Britain included 3,000 heavy bombers (B-17s and B-24s) and 6,500 other combat aircraft, including medium bombers (B-25s, B-26s and A-20s) to isolate the landing beaches from German counterattacks, and fighter aircraft (P-38s, P-47s and P-51s) to establish air superiority and prevent the German Luftwaffe from interfering. This required the construction of over 110 new airfields in southern England.
By the eve of the invasion, over 1.5 million U.S. troops had arrived in Great Britain, whose induction, training and organization into combat units had stretched back to mid-1942. Eventually, 68 of the 89 divisions activated by the U.S. Army during the war served in the Mediterranean and European Theaters. Twenty of these were in England by late May 1944, and three were selected to make the initial combat assault of June 6, 1944, on two beaches: the 4th Infantry Division on Utah Beach, and the 29th and 1st Infantry Divisions on the western and eastern halves of Omaha Beach. To the east were the British beaches of Gold and Juno, and the Canadian, Sword beach.
The Overlord assault kicked off at 0200 hours, when the parachute infantrymen of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions jumped in to secure the inland exit corridors behind Utah and Omaha beaches. However, a combination of factors caused them to be widely dispersed, so their immediate tasks became those of getting oriented, moving towards their drop zones and killing any German troops they encountered along the way. Aerial bombing of beach defenses began at 0315, direct line-of-sight naval shelling at 0550, and the first waves of infantry and supporting engineers approached their sub-beaches at 0630. The assault on Utah beach achieved better surprise, moved inland faster and suffered fewer casualties than the landings on Omaha. Company A of the 116th, 210 men strong at 0600, contained only two unwounded men at 5 p.m.
While progress inland towards planned phase lines was initially much slower than had been expected, Adolph Hitler gave the Allies a critical gift, by insisting on believing that the Normandy landings were an enormous deception operation. The allied deception operation that was mounted created 19 unmanned “phantom” airborne and infantry divisions that conducted false radio traffic indicating that they were intended for a Pas-de-Calais attack in several weeks. Taken in by the allied deception, Hitler held back critical German armored units that would otherwise have immediately counter-attacked the beach lodgments. By the time he understood his error, U.S. and British/ Canadian tactical airpower had destroyed all tank-usable bridges approaching Normandy.
After very intense fighting in close hedgerow terrain, the U.S. Army broke out of the Normandy lodgment on July 25. However, the costs to break out into Northern France had been severe: the final total of Army battle casualties in the Normandy Campaign, ground combat and air force units, was 63,360, of which 16,293 were fatalities.
In the Pacific Theater
The U.S. maintained two separate axis of advance toward Japan
The Southwest Pacific Area, commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose divisions fought their way along the northern coast of New Guinea and eventually liberated the Philippines; and the Central Pacific Area, commanded by Navy Adm. Chester Nimitz, whose six Marine divisions, augmented for specific operations by five Army divisions, “island hopped” through the Gilbert, Marshall and Mariana islands, at each step establishing naval and air bases to cover the next jump west.
Nine days after the landings in Normandy, the U.S. Marine V Amphibious Corps assaulted the Island of Saipan in the Marianas. Shipping shortages meant that the three major islands had to be attacked in sequential order with Tinian and Guam to follow Saipan. As had occurred on several previous islands, the Japanese fiercely resisted the initial landings, which kept the Marine landing beaches under intense mortar and artillery fire for six days, but once U.S. forces broke into the interior of the island, the Japanese were doomed to eventual defeat.
The Marianas were quickly transformed into a network of aviation facilities to support the U.S. Army Air Corps XXI Bomber Command, with five bombardment wings: the 58th (Tinian), 73rd (Saipan), 313th (Tinian), 314th and 315th (Guam). These five organizations executed the urban fire-bombing campaign against Japan, and were, on the eve of the atomic bombings, preparing to shift their targets to the remaining Japanese transportation network, using a new range of electronic aids for navigation and “blind” bombing.
U.S. losses on Saipan were high, with 20% of combined Marine and Army combat personnel becoming casualties. This was roughly the same levels as were suffered on Tarawa and would be suffered on Peleliu later that year. The entire Japanese garrison of 30,000 was killed. Another group, an estimated 800 Japanese civilian workers, male and female, with children, who had been relocated to the island, died by suicide: a new phenomenon in the Pacific War. Most of these deaths occurred at “Suicide Cliff,” a sheer escarpment at Northern Saipan’s Marpi Point. Fortunately, 90% of the non-Japanese civilian population of Saipan survived the fighting.
On Saipan and later, Tinian, an 18-year-old Marine enlisted man, Guy Gabaldon, single-handedly talked over 1,500 Japanese soldiers and civilians into surrendering. Gabaldon, a Mexican- American street kid who had run away from his parents and been taken in by a Japanese-American family, stated that most American interpreters spoke a variant of formal “court Japanese,” unintelligible to Japanese peasant soldiers. Whereas, the Japanese language he learned living with his surrogate family and running with a Los Angeles youth gang worked much better.
Although current historians differ as to its significance, one consequence of the battle for Saipan was the “Saipan ratio” of one U.S. death for every seven Japanese soldiers killed, a grim metric that only became grimmer during the Marine Corps’ seizure of Iwo Jima in February 1945, where the ratio was one-to-one. Whether or not the Saipan ratio became an official planning metric, the continued fierceness of Japanese resistance posed a dark future for the high school graduating classes of 1945 and 1946, who were, at that moment, the strategic reserve of the United States military. Regardless of its disturbing moral aspects, the path to the use of “the bomb,” which ran through Saipan, was clear.
John S. Reed is a retired professor from University of Utah, having taught courses in U.S. political, economic, foreign relations and military history. He did not serve in Vietnam, but served for 26 years as an Army reservist with one deployment to Iraq, as a staff officer 2007-08.
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