On June 15, 1944, the 2nd and 4th United States Marine divisions, who had nick-named themselves the “Apple-Knockers” landed on the shores of Saipan. A few days later they were joined by the inexperienced 27th division of the New York National Guard. The three divisions were comprised of 71,000 U.S. soldiers who were charged with the task of carrying out ‘Operation Forager’. This operation was a critical strategical maneuver to the war; The intent of the attack was for Allied troops to gain control over the island.
Saipan, part of the Mariana Islands chain in the western Pacific Ocean is located 2,250 kilometers (1,400 miles) south of Tokyo. When U.S. troops arrived in 1944, the 185-kilometer sq. (71 square miles) island had only been inhabited by Japanese for one generation; Approximately 25,000 Japanese civilians were occupying the island at that time. A whopping 31,000 Japanese troops were defending the island, double the United States’ pre-envision estimates.
During World War II, U.S. troops feared Japanese civilians almost as much as the soldiers; Japanese troops would often use civilians as “decoys” in order to ambush the Allied forces. In Saipan, soldiers and civilians alike used the island’s natural caves as bunkers. When American troops approached a bunker, they would not hesitate long enough to find out whether it was occupied by soldiers or civilians; Marines were instructed to use flame-throwers upon discovery of these caves, quickly burning everyone inside. This practice led to an excessive loss of civilian life during the Allied invasion of Saipan.
On July 7th, after the Japanese and American soldiers had been engaged in a three-week-long battle, Japanese commanders ordered an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Japanese troops to conduct a “Banzai” attack. A “Banzai” is a final charge in which soldiers storm the enemy, knowing they face certain death. The Japanese soldiers formed lines and charged at the Americans with samurai swords and bayonets tied to poles. Four-thousand soldiers (both Japanese and American) were killed in this battle and it ultimately proved to be the most significant Banzai attack of WWII. US forces took surviving Japanese soldiers and civilians to the northern part of the island where Americans planned to carry out surrender negotiations. Around noon on July 9th, they broadcast a message through loud-speakers, announcing that all who were captured, including soldiers, would be treated humanely; Those who surrendered would receive food, water and safe passage. They were urged to surrender before 4:00 PM when the Allies planned to stage an all-out attack on Saipan.
American soldiers, who lacked sympathy towards the Japanese due to Pearl Harbor, had been particularly brutal towards civilians in battles to the north of Saipan; Residents of the island were well-aware of this and understandably, did not trust the U.S. troops.
Japanese Emperor Hirohito released a written statement, ordering civilians to kill themselves rather than be taken alive by the enemy. In this statement, Hirohito authorized the commander of Saipan to assure citizens if they committed suicide for the benefit of the war, they would receive the same heightened, spiritual status in the afterlife as soldiers; Post-war speculation suggests the order may have been a forgery and not in fact, written by Emperor Hirohito.
At least 10,000 Japanese civilians and surviving soldiers in Japan gathered at “Marpi Point”, a cliff 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level, located on northern edge of the island. Today, this cliff is often referred to as “Suicide Point” due to the mass suicide that took place there. As American soldiers watched, entire families lined up at the edge of the cliff standing with the youngest child in front, then the older children then the mother and father. The older children would push the younger ones off the steep cliff and into the water, then the mother pushed the oldest child in. Women were then pushed off by their husbands, with the husband finally throwing himself into the ocean after his family.
Stunned U.S. forces attempted to stop the suicides by having translators speak to the Japanese through loudspeakers from boats in the water, just below the cliff. From there, they watched helplessly as bodies piled up in the water. American soldiers who were in Saipan that day and survived the war have said the water was so thick with bodies they fouled the props of the patrol boats attempting rescues; However, this was not the only method of suicide used. Some chose to simply walk out into the water and drown. Others, still atop Marpi Point borrowed knives or guns from Japanese soldiers which they used to take their own life. Others requested to be shot by Japanese soldiers. Some groups of civilians were given hand grenades by Japanese troops; They would huddle together and detonate the grenade, killing them all at once. Although most citizens chose to commit suicide on their own, others who were reluctant were forced at gunpoint by Japanese soldiers. It is estimated that 1,000–1,500 people committed suicide at Marpi Point in the final days of Operation Forager.
Shinsho Kuniyoshi, who was twelve at the time of the suicides, came from a family of eight children. During the invasion of Saipan, he, his seven siblings and their mother and father took as much food as possible and sought shelter in a mountainous area of the island. On July 9th they had gathered at Marpi Point with approximately seventy other civilians and several Japanese soldiers. Kuniyoshi remembers his family and other adults loudly debating mass suicide. His mother was against it and wished to surrender in an attempt at survival, while his father wanted the family to die together. Ultimately, his parents decided to leave their two youngest daughters under a tree while the rest of the family was to follow through with suicide.
His family of ten, along with approximately sixty others gathered together and detonated a few hand grenades but the explosions were not strong enough to kill the entire group. Kuniyoshi’s leg was injured by one of the blasts but he and his family survived. Those who had not been killed by the grenades then jumped off of Marpi Point in a second attempt at suicide. Once again, Kuniyoshi managed to survive, barely making it back to the shore with his injury. His father also emerged from the water but Kuniyoshi’s mother and siblings had perished. Seeing he and his son were the sole survivors of the family, Kuniyoshi’s father decided to surrender to the Americans so that his son would not be left alone in the world. The two were taken to a refugee camp where they were reunited with Kuniyoshi’s two sisters who the family had left beneath a tree. Tragically, the two little girls later died of malnutrition.
Koyu Shiroma was only seven years old at the time of the Saipan Suicides. His family was one of many that hid in the island’s caves during the U.S. troops invasion of Saipan. At the time, it was all very confusing for Shiroma who recalls, “I just followed my family and we went to a cave and hid inside. We weren’t the only ones. There were other families hiding in the cave… I didn’t like it. We couldn’t do anything. A lot of bombs were coming from air and sea…all the people were dying.”.
Shiroma has vivid memories of the day that he, his mother and father and two younger sisters followed a large group of people to Marpi Point.
On their way, his mother, Yasu, was killed when a bomb exploded nearby amidst the Allied troops’ all-out attack on the island. One of the last things Yasu told her son was, “Wherever you go, you go with them [the group marching to Marpi]”. With bombs exploding all around them, Shiroma became separated from the rest of his family but remembered his mother’s words and continued following the group of people walking towards the cliff. The young boy passed several dead and dying Japanese soldiers who were pleading with him for help. Knowing he was not supposed to stop, Shiroma hopped over their bodies to keep up with the group. When they finally reached their destination, others began leaping off the edge of the cliff. Being only seven years old, Shiroma didn’t fully understand what was happening but followed them, jumping off the cliff himself. However, he did not jump far enough and ended up being suspended on a branch by his shirt. American soldiers spotted him and helped the young boy down, taking him to a refugee camp. To this day, Shiroma does not know the fate of his father and two younger sisters who he was separated from on the trek to Suicide Point.
In Japan, the Saipan Suicides received much attention and praise by the government and media. One Japanese reporter wrote that the act was, “the finest act of the Showa period” and that women, in particular, who had thrown their children off Marpai Point before killing themselves were “the pride of Japanese women”.
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