When Soldiers Kill Civilians: The Battle for Saipan, 1944

The American soldiers who fought their way through the islands of the Pacific during the Second World War encountered fierce Japanese resistance but few local people. That all changed with the invasion of the Mariana Islands, says Matthew Hughes.

When United States marines landed on  Saipan, the second largest of the Pacific chain of Mariana Islands, on June 15th, 1944, they faced a challenge beyond defeating the Japanese garrison of 30,000 men: how to deal with the island’s 25-30,000 civilians. The minority – around 4,500 – was local ‘native’ Chamorros and Carolinians; the majority was Japanese and Korean settlers, all of whom would now be caught up in the battle that would rage until July 9th when US forces declared the island secured. The Japanese civilians were mainly poor peasant migrants from the southern Japanese island of Okinawa who worked Saipan’s sugar-cane plantations. They were looked down upon by mainland Japanese as second-class subjects. A contemporary US military observer, Frank Hough, noted that these civilians were a ‘novel feature’, as hitherto US troops in combat had only encountered ‘scattered handfuls’ of local peoples, ‘semi-savages who had no special stake’ in the outcome of the war. Now, on Saipan, the US had to deal with civilians, an ‘unknown quantity’ whose reactions to invasion ‘no one could predict’. ‘At best, if they remained entirely passive, they would still present a problem utterly alien to our experience to date.’

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