You, being an astute reader of this paper, are no doubt aware that we’ve recently commemorated the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, known then and since simply as D-Day. It’s less well known that D-Day is a general term for the beginning of a military operation. Thus there were numerous D-Days during World War II. Crossing the English Channel and invading France was only one of these.
It’s important to remember that 75 years ago this summer men were fighting, killing and dying on other beaches and other battlegrounds. Crucial events in Normandy tended to dominate the headlines of the day, and they tend to overshadow some of the other desperate (and no less consequential) battles that happened contemporaneously.
One of these, coming to a conclusion seventy-five years ago this week, was the Battle of Saipan in the Pacific Theater.
Of course, the passage of time being relentlessly what it is, there are few eyewitnesses left to tell us what happened on Saipan three-quarters of a century ago. But one of the few was my friend Carlos Showalter, who passed away Tuesday at age 94. With your permission, or heck, even without it, I’d like over my next couple of columns to tell the story of Saipan (and Tinian) through the eyes of Carlos.
Carlos, a Rockingham County native and a resident of Botetourt County at the time of his death, was the usual teenage boy with his mind on other things when news of the Pearl Harbor attack shook his world. He knew he’d be in it sooner or later, and although a bit young, was ready to do his part the following spring. He was thinking the Navy, and they’d have been glad to have him. But his mother demurred. She needed to sign his enlistment papers since he was underage (seventeen); and she had been terrified by news reports of German submarines sinking American ships. No, she told her son, she wouldn’t sign for him to enlist in the Navy. But she’d allow him to join a service she naively thought safer: The United States Marine Corps. Maybe mothers know best, but they don’t always understand fully.
And so by the summer of 1942 Carlos Showalter shipped out for training at Parris Island. That fall he was assigned to Company C, 23rd Regiment, 4th Marine Division. The young Marine and history had a few rendezvous scheduled.
In January 1944 the 4th Division shipped out for an unnamed destination; if anyone had told Carlos, he wouldn’t have been any wiser. How many Virginia boys had ever heard of Kwajalein before? A baptism of fire followed, mild in comparison to what was coming afterwards.
By the way, this was, according to Carlos, the first time a Marine Division had gone directly from the U.S. mainland right into battle. Afterwards the 4th would be based out of Maui — a nice enough posting. But for subsequent engagements it would mean sea voyages thousands of miles long. The Pacific Theater, after all, was a big piece of geography — pretty much half the globe. Over the course of the war Carlos would rack up some 30,000 miles in total. And the ships transporting soldiers and Marines were not exactly luxury liners.
A few months later, while the eyes of the world were on Normandy, Carlos again found himself bound for destinations unknown. This time it would be an island in the Marianas known as Saipan. Larger, and with an indigenous Japanese civilian population, it would be no easy target. But it was an important one in getting American forces positioned for future victory.
By this point, the U.S. was ready to employ a new and terrifying weapon: the B-29 bomber, the first bomber with the range — 5,500 miles — to hit mainland Japan from the Central Pacific. Taking Saipan would put our air forces within that distance.
Although the Japanese did not expect an attack on Saipan in the early summer of 1944, they were prepared nonetheless. Carlos told me Saipan would become a “prairie dog war” with the enemy dug in and popping out to inflict significant damage on the attackers. Their tactics by this point in the war no longer aimed to stop the Americans at the water’s edge necessarily. Let them get ashore and then make it too costly to stay. That, Japan hoped, would be how to hold onto an island fortress.
Carlos’ 4th Marines, the 2nd Marines, and the US Army’s 27th Division had other ideas. I’ll tell you more about the battle and Carlos’ recollections in my next column on July 25.