Death Before Capture
D-Day for Saipan was June 15, 1944. Twenty thousand Marines made it to shore by nightfall. U.S. forces had come to understand that the enemy they faced did not believe in surrender. Two days before the battle ended on July 9, in one of the Pacific war's most horrifying suicide charges, 3,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors attacked the U.S. Army's 27th Division using whatever weapons they had left -- grenades, rifles, mortars and even rocks, swords and rusty bayonets attached to bamboo sticks. The Japanese preference for suicide over capture had been repeated throughout the war in the Pacific. But it was civilian suicides that would forever mark the memories of American troops on Saipan.
The civilian population on Saipan numbered close to 30,000. Twenty-two thousand were Japanese -- though most came from the prefecture of Okinawa and were ethnically distinct from other Japanese. The rest consisted of Korean slave laborers and the original inhabitants of the island -- the Carolinians and the Chamorro. As the battle of Saipan reached its final days, Japanese soldiers and panicked civilians made their way north to Marpi Point. Here, despite repeated calls by the U.S. military to surrender, civilians chose death by jumping off cliffs or drowning themselves in the sea. They had been led to believe that surrender would mean murder, rape and torture at the hands of U.S. forces.
A Lost Child
Koyu Shiroma, a Japanese civilian, was just five years-old when the battle for Saipan began. When the bombardment and enemy got too close to the family farm, the Shiromas fled north, seeking shelter and safety in caves. After a particularly heavy bombardment, Koyu and his pregnant mother were separated from his father and two younger sisters. His mother was injured and died soon after giving birth. Koyu was left alone.
"I know my mother die, but my father I cannot find, my sister I can't find. I was looking for all over.... Then bombs come again. And enemies. It's lot of bomb, unbelievable. Just, just smoke all over, fire again. But I was hungry. So still looking for sister and my father, and I see lot of Japanese soldiers dead. Maybe 100, 200, I don't know, maybe more."
To the Cliffs
Koyu followed other civilians as they made their way to the cliffs at the tip of the island. He remembered his father's warnings about the Americans.
"'...they're going to kill you. You have to die yourself.' That is, my father usually tell me, you know. American people will kill you... so I just follow people, people, and lot of people jump the cliff. So everybody jumping, so I just jump myself."
Rescue, and Hopes for Reunion
Midway down the cliff Koyu's shirt caught on a branch, saving his life. He was rescued by American soldiers, and placed with thousands of other civilians at Camp Susupe. An aunt and uncle from Okinawa found him there and took him home, but he never found his father or sisters. After more than 60 years, Koyu believes his sisters are still alive. He explains that Japanese people dream about the dead. He dreams about his mother and father, but not about his sisters:
"I'm looking for sister because my feel, somewhere they are still alive, because it's ... I don't dream them. Usually if you're dead, person's supposed to dream of them, what happened. But I don't dream them. Somebody take them from the camp, Susupe camp."
Many orphaned children were adopted from Camp Susupe. Koyu feels his sisters could have been taken to Korea, Okinawa or maybe are still in the Mariana Islands.
The Battle's Cost
On July 9, organized resistance on Saipan ceased. The costs were high. Americans suffered more than 14,000 casualties including 3,426 killed or missing. Of the 30,000 Japanese troops that defended Saipan, less than 1,000 remained alive at battle's end. Although exact numbers are not known, it is believed that close to 1,000 civilians perished at Marpi Point.
Capturing the Mariana Islands was a crucial turning point for the U.S. in the war against Japan. The victory caused the government of General Hideki Tojo, who had lead Japan into the war, to topple. American bombers were now within striking distance of Japan's home islands.
Can you help Koyu Shiroma find his sisters? Read more...
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My American Experience
Were you there for the storming of Normandy beach? The Bombing of Germany? The Victory in the Pacific? Or perhaps your friends and relatives have passed on stories of their own World War II experiences that you would like to share.