CDG 48-Japanese Defense of Saipan, 1944
In this Command Decision Game, you take on the role of Japanese Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito, commander of 43d Infantry Division and Northern Marianas Army Group. Your mission is to defend Saipan against the American invaders and to keep the strategically located Mariana Islands in Japanese hands as long as possible. A rapid American occupation of the Marianas not only will lift the threat to the Allies’ western Pacific sea routes but also gain for the Americans vital air bases—unsinkable aircraft carriers—placing Japan within range of U.S. strategic bombers. Therefore, you must make the battle for Saipan a long, bloody and demoralizing struggle for the enemy, even if it means sacrificing yourself and your entire command.
Saipan is one of 15 islands forming the Marianas chain. Often referred to as the "Gateway to Japan," they are just 1,300 miles from the Japanese home islands. The most important of these islands are Saipan (45 square miles); Tinian (39 sq. mi.), five miles south of Saipan, across the Saipan Channel; and Guam (200 sq. mi.), 120 miles south of Saipan.
Saipan seems an excellent choice for Japan’s main defensive bastion in the Marianas. Its population, apart from some Chamorro islanders, is primarily Japanese, who are prepared to commit suicide rather than submit to the invaders. The island is just 12 miles long by two to six miles wide, and much of its coastline—including the entire eastern coast—is comprised of sheer cliffs, making amphibious invasions impossible. However, the beaches along the southwest coast and the abutting flat terrain of the island’s southern quarter are vulnerable.
The American invasion fleet arrived June 13, 1944, three months earlier than Japanese intelligence officers had thought possible. On June 15, after two days of shelling from the fleet, 8,000 assault troops of the U.S. 2d and 4th Marine divisions—part of Marine Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith’s 71,000-man V Amphibious Corps—swarmed ashore on the beaches. The next day, Army Maj. Gen. Ralph Smith’s U.S. 27th Infantry Division and the rest of V Amphibious Corps landed.
Your troops defended fiercely, as you knew they would, but over the next few weeks the Americans clawed their way north over the island’s mountainous central spine. During the day, the invaders would make gains; at night, your men would counterattack. Thus the struggles surged back and forth, inflicting severe casualties on both sides.
You have learned that around June 24, Lt. Gen. Holland Smith, the overall commander of the Americans’ ground troops, relieved Maj. Gen. Ralph Smith, feeling that the latter was moving too slowly. You hope this will further deteriorate cooperation between the American Marines and Army, which seem to have an almost adversarial relationship between them.
By today, July 6, your remaining forces have been pushed back to the far northern section of Saipan. Your courageous defenders have inflicted 13,000 casualties on the invaders, but they still have some 58,000 men versus your 3,000—all that remains of the proud 31,000 men you led when the invasion began. This was your first combat command. It will obviously also be your last, but you intend to make the most of it.
The front runs approximately 3,500 yards, southwesterly from the east coast to a point on the west coast just north of Tanapag village (see map). Your left faces the Americans’ 4th Marine Division; your right faces 27th Infantry Division. Your force has been reorganized into three 1,000-man divisions. Most of the men are armed with Type 99 7.7 mm bolt-action rifles. Their support weapons include Type 92 light machine guns, 70 mm mortars and 50 mm grenade launchers. Your 9th tank regiment began the battle with 49 tanks; only a single platoon of Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks remains. The artillery has been reduced to one battery of 75 mm mountain guns.
Though cut off from resupply for weeks, your ammunition stocks remain sufficient for sustained combat, but food and water are in short supply. Some of your thirsty, malnourished men are literally starving.
Your opponent, on the other hand, is well supplied, superbly equipped and lavishly supported by strike aircraft, 75 mm and 105 mm artillery, M-4 Sherman tanks, and 5– to 14–inch naval guns. Their ground forces carry semiautomatic M1 Garand rifles and carbines, submachine guns, and Browning automatic rifles, plus bazookas, flamethrowers, light and heavy machine guns, and 60 mm and 81 mm mortars.
The one source of comfort you can find is the indomitable fighting spirit of the Japanese soldier. Even among the 1,500 wounded filling the caves of northern Saipan are men begging to rejoin the battle. You must now decide how to use that fighting spirit to greatest effect.
You have summoned your staff to your headquarters, a cave near the village of Makunsha on the northwest coast. You have also asked Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, the experienced commander who led the airstrike on Pearl Harbor, to join the discussion. He is now an admiral without ships or planes, but you value his counsel and advice.
Course of Action One:
"Gentlemen," you begin, "we all understand the grave situation we face. It is unlikely any of us will survive the battle. However, as my first course of action will demonstrate, we can ensure that we meet our deaths in the glorious tradition of Japanese fighting spirit by killing as many of the invaders as possible. I propose we launch our remaining troops, tanks and artillery in an all-out attack against what I believe is the weakest sector of the American line, along the beaches and flat terrain just north of Tanapag. We will strike before dawn so that darkness protects us from the Americans’ airpower and observed naval gunfire."
Major Kiyoshi, one of your staff officers and a real firebrand, exclaims, "General, this is exactly the plan many of us have been waiting for! It will allow us to severely punish the invaders with our remaining combat power. A concentrated attack will break the American line, allowing us to sweep into the enemy’s rear area and inflict even more damage."
Admiral Nagumo, with a concerned look on his face, says quietly. "But General Saito, Japan’s principal concern at this stage of the war is time. While an all-out attack will certainly inflict many casualties on the Americans, it cannot buy our country more than a few days in which to prepare defenses on other islands."
Course of Action Two:
DEFEND AND DELAY
Nodding in deference to Nagumo’s comments, you respond, "Admiral, buying time is the focus of my second course of action. I propose that we deploy our remaining forces—including tanks and artillery—throughout northern Saipan’s many caves and tunnels, thereby forcing the Americans to painstakingly clear every strongpoint. Instead of capturing Saipan in a matter of days, they will spend weeks rooting out all of our defenders."
Appearing quite pleased, Adm. Nagumo declares, "General, this is a wise plan and I fully support it. Although we do not know where the Americans will strike next—perhaps the Philippines, Formosa, Okinawa, or even Chichi Jima or Iwo Jima to the north—your gift of time to the commanders who are preparing defenses at these locations will be priceless."
Colonel Suzuki, your division logistics officer, stands to speak. "General, while I do not disagree with this plan’s intention, I must advise you that our meager supplies of food and water will not last much longer. Already our men are malnourished and many are starving. I fear that weakness from hunger will prevent them from mounting a staunch defense for the weeks that this plan envisions."
Course of Action Three:
DISPLACE TO TINIAN
"My third plan," you explain, "is highly unorthodox, but if it succeeds, it will allow us to extend our control of the Marianas even longer than we would if we delay the enemy here. Under cover of darkness tonight, we will embark our fittest soldiers on the remaining troop transport barges and ferry them across the Saipan Channel to Tinian. There they will join the 8,000 troops already in position and help them create another ‘island fortress’ that the Americans will be forced to invade and conquer. The troops, tanks and artillery we leave behind on Saipan will continue to fight from caves to delay the Americans’ capture of the island as long as possible."
Colonel Suzuki interjects, "General, although water supplies on Tinian are as low as they are here, the garrison there does have more food supplies than we do. Since we will leave behind our heavy weapons, our men will be able to carry adequate amounts of small arms ammunition to fight effectively. My judgment is that this plan is logistically supportable."
Admiral Nagumo, to whom you give the honor of having the last word, says thoughtfully, "General Saito, this is a bold plan. But as one who has experienced the awesome power of the U.S. Navy firsthand, I must point out that our slow-moving troop barges are at risk of annihilation by the American warships patrolling these waters. Although the channel is only five miles wide and our movement will be cloaked by darkness, if the invaders discover our barges, they will sink most if not all of them."
Ending the meeting, you thank everyone for their comments and tell them you will inform them of your chosen plan within the hour. You realize this likely will be the last command decision you ever make—you hope it will be the correct one.
General Saito, which of the three courses of action will you follow? Or has yet another suggested itself to you?
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This text is an abridged version of Command Decision Game #48, written by Andrew H. Hershey. The full text appears in the January 2012 edition of Armchair General magazine, where you’ll also find additional interactive articles based on Roman Legionnaires in Teutoburg Forest and George Washington vs. Charles Lord Cornwallis, 1777. On newsstands now.
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