Since World War I, the Marianas Islands, along with the Caroline Islands and the Palau Islands had constituted Japan’s main line of defense and were heavily fortified. In 1943 and for some time in 1944, the Allies conducted successful campaigns to capture many of the Island chains in the Pacific: The Solomon Islands, the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands. This line had to be broken in order to begin operations directly against Japan and the Philippines.
The Boeing B-29 Superfortress, recently introduced into service, had a range of 1,500 miles, and as such needed a fairly close base of operations for targets in Japan, and the Marianas Islands filled the need perfectly. Thus Admiral Nimitz’ Central Pacific Command were ordered to take the Marianas. The bombardment began on Saipan on 13 June 1944, with around 160,000 shells fired from fifteen battleships.
By 0700 on 15 June 1944, 8,000 Marines landed on Saipan’s west coast. The Japanese had placed flags in the bay to help them estimate range and with this advantage they were able to destroy around twenty amphibious tanks, but by the end of the day the Marines had established a beachhead. The next day the Army’s 27th Infantry Division landed and began the struggle for the Aslito airfield. The Japanese counter-attacked at night but were repulsed with heavy losses, and on 18 June the commander of the Imperial Japanese Army, Yoshitsugu Saito, abandoned the airfield.
Saito expected the Americans to attack the Caroline Islands first, and had prepared an operational plan – A-Go – to provide naval and air superiority and reinforce their garrisons there. When they recovered from their surprise, they attempted to use the A-Go force to counter-attack the US Naval forces around Saipan. However, the disastrous battle of the Philippine Sea caused the loss of three aircraft carriers and several hundred planes, and as such, the Japanese garrisons in the Marianas were isolated and beyond help. There would be no hope of either supplies or reinforcements.
As hopeless as it was, the Japanese nevertheless organized a fairly effective defense and were determined to fight to the death. Saito organized his troops around Mount Topochau in the central region of Saipan’s mountainous area, from which they defended the island. The fighting was very intense, and the Japanese utilized the same techniques later seen on Iwo Jima, hiding in the many caves during the day. At night they emerged to carry out raids against the Americans, and they eventually developed tactics to utilize flame-throwers to clear the caves.
Saito ordered his remaining soldiers forward on a suicide charge, then committed hiri-kiri, killing himself. Several hundred Japanese civilians jumped from cliffs to kill themselves rather than be captured, and efforts to stop them were unsuccessful.
Saipan was the setting for the movie “Hell to Eternity,” starring the late Jeffery Hunter as PFC Guy Gabaldon, an Hispanic from Los Angeles, California who was raised in a Japanese-American household and as such was fluent in Japanese. PFC Gabaldon was credited with taking more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners during the campaign, and was awarded the Navy Cross.
Once Saipan was taken, it was made into a base for further excursions into the Marianas as well as the invasion of the Philippines that October.
The Japanese forces invaded the Philippines from the north at Luzon in early 1942, and by April 9, Bataan fell, but the campaign was yet incomplete because of the Allies’ occupation of Corregidor. As long as it was in American hands, the Japanese would have no access to Manila Bay, a natural harbor with obvious strategic advantages, because of its position guarding the bay. Thus Corregidor was a significant obstacle to Japan’s 14th Imperial Army, commanded by Lt. General Masaharu Homma. The island was very well defended, and General Homma was acutely aware of the necessity as well as the daunting task of its capture.
Two miles away from Bataan, Corregidor is the largest of four islands located at the mouth of Manila Bay, ideally situated to protect the bay from attack. Shaped like a tadpole, its topography is such that the widest and most elevated area, the “head” is known as Topside, and is where the bulk of the artillery was installed. Middleside is a smaller plateau with barracks and more artillery and Bottomside is an even lower ground with docks, close to the civilian town of San Jose. Further east is Malinta tunnel, where MacArthur’s command post and a hospital was located.
After America’s loss at Bataan, the garrison at Corregidor received reinforcements who were assigned to the 4th Marine Division upon their arrival. Few if any of them were trained or experienced in ground combat, but at any rate, by the end of April 1942, the personnel count was around 230 officers and almost 3800 men, not counting the artillery crews or the attached Filipino troops.
The actual siege began at the end of December 1941 with aerial bombardments on a fairly regular basis through January 1942, but from the start of the raids until the end of April 1942, fought tirelessly and well, costing the Japanese significant losses in terms of men and materiel. General MacArthur was evacuated at night on March 12, 1942 to Mindanao. He swore to return and that statement is remembered to this day as one of the most famous in American history. He eventually was flown to Australia where he set about organizing the recapture of the Philippine Islands.
With all the bombardment, the food supply was dwindling down to the point that the men were living on around thirty ounces of food per day, and the constant bombing played havoc with the distribution of the rations of food and water. As the bombs killed cavalry mules, the carcasses were utilized for their meat, but the men grew weaker as the days passed and were unable fully to defend the island. Meanwhile, the assault was continuous and mercilessly ferocious as the aerial bombs and artillery pounded Corregidor day and night. Estimates were that on one day alone, more than 16,000 explosives hit the island, from artillery as well as air bombardment.
The Japanese launched their final assault on 5 May, but even as weakened as the defenders were, they managed to hold the Japanese at bay for almost two days of heavy fighting. In some cases, clashes were carried out with bayonets only, due to both sides’ shortage of ammunition. However, the enemy was finally able to land three tanks, with which they eventually gained control. When they reached the entrance to the Malinta Tunnel, General Wainwright surrendered rather than risk the lives of over 1,000 wounded men who were being treated in the tunnel. Wainwright sent two officers forward with a white flag on 6 May 1942, after sending a radio message to President Franklin Roosevelt, which said in part: “There is a limit of human endurance, and that point has long been passed.” The surrender of Corregidor marked the end of resistance to Japan’s occupation of the Philippines. Wainwright had tried to arrange control over the remaining islands so that when he surrendered, the deal was only for Corregidor. However, the Japanese curtly informed him that his surrender would encompass all the islands under American control, or the new prisoners would be tortured until it did. There was little doubt that the Japanese would do exactly that, so Wainwright sent handwritten letters to General Sharp and his men to convince them to surrender. Once the organized resistance was ended, however, Philippine guerrillas continued to be a thorn in Japan’s side for the rest of the time of their occupation.
Dateline 31 December 1944: The Eighth Army Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group were part of a “maximum effort” bombing mission over Hamburg. First Lieutenant Glenn H. Rojohn was the pilot and Second Lieutenant William G. Leek, Jr. was the co-pilot of their Boeing B-17G According to Rojohn, “maximum effort” meant that everyone flies, thus hundreds of B-17s took off from England.
The risk cannot be overstated due to the heavy anti-aircraft defense effort on the part of the Germans, which played out with heavy losses of the bombers and crews. Leek stated that they flew through flak clouds and airplane parts for “what seemed like an hour.” Still they managed to drop their ordnance and turn around to head back home.
As they moved out over the North Sea, German Messerschmidt Me-109 fighters jumped them at 22,000 feet. Lots of German fighters, wave after wave of them, and B-17s started dropping out of the sky again. Rojohn said that they were flying so close he could see the faces of the German pilots as they flew by them.
In the process of trying to maintain formation for defense, Rojohn felt a huge impact and quickly understood that a collision had taken place. In fact, a B-17G below him had slammed into the belly of his fuselage, and the two planes were jammed together and could not separate. The belly gunner of Rojohn’s plane was jammed through the top of the lower plane’s fuselage and the top turret of the bomber underneath protruded through the bottom of the other one.
The two airplanes were essentially flying stuck together; seven of the eight engines were still running, but they were losing altitude. Rojohn performed several maneuvers, trying to break the two airplanes apart, but they were not successful. He instead concentrated on heading back toward land and keeping the two aircraft under control long enough for the two crews to bail out.
Rojohn and his co-pilot struggled to keep the plane under control and airborne, until only the two remained aboard, then Rojohn order the co-pilot out, but he refused. Together they struggled with the controls until the double wreck hit the ground. As incredible as the whole situation was to begin with, what happened next was unbelievable.
The bomber on the bottom exploded when it hit the ground, and Rojohn’s plane was thrown clear, forward of the point of impact. Neither Rojohn nor his co-pilot was injured seriously, and in fact several other men who weren’t able to bail out survived as well.
They were all captured immediately by the Germans and were in some extra danger due to the Germans’ fear that the double airplane was some sort of new secret weapon. When captured, they were taken to a building and a German captain entered and said something to his troops, whereupon one of the Americans fainted. As it turned out, that GI was the only one who was fluent in German and he understood the German captain when he said, “If they move, shoot them!”
After the war ended and Rojohn was released to return home, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart, but he maintained that he owed his life to his co-pilot, who had refused to leave him alone in the cockpit. Leek knew that alone, Rojohn would never have survived. Neither of them reportedly considered themselves heroes, but their fellow airmen respectfully disagreed, knowing that had the two of them not maintained control of the jammed aircraft, none of the crew would have survived.
Leek and Rojohn met again at a 100th Bomb Group reunion in 1987, and Leek passed away the next year. Rojohn himself died in 2003.
We have many reasons to call people like these our “greatest generation.” Rojohn and Leek were two of them.
No other tale of the high seas has spawned so many novels, movies, stage plays – even musicals – as the historic mutiny of the Bounty’s crew against her Captain, William Bligh, led by First Mate Fletcher Christian in late April 1789.
HMS Bounty was originally known as the HMS Bethia, employed as a collier, and bought by the British Royal Navy on 26 May 1787 and renamed Bounty. She was a comparatively small ship with a displacement of 215 tons, armed with only four 4-pounder cannon and ten swivel guns. The Royal Navy appointed William Bligh (then 33) as Commanding Lieutenant of Bountyin August 1787.
TheBounty was purchased specifically for the mission to transport breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies, where it was hoped that the trees would thrive and become useful as an inexpensive food supply for slaves. To that end, she was refitted in June of 1787, her great cabin converted to carry the potted breadfruit plants.
Bountyset sail with 46 officers and men in December 1787, with her charted course set toward the west, planning to round Cape Horn. But bad weather stopped her, and after a month of failing to get through, Bligh turned her about and headed east, round the Cape of Good Hope. Bounty crossed the Indian Ocean, reaching Tahiti after ten months at sea. During the voyage, Bligh promoted Fletcher Christian from First Mate to Sailing Master.
The Bountyand her crew spent five months in Tahiti, collecting over 1,000 breadfruit plants and preparing them for the voyage. During this time the crew conducted “cultural exchange” with the Tahitian population. Some of the crew even had themselves tattooed like the native men, and Fletcher Christian married Maimiti, a Tahitian woman. A few of the men even deserted the expedition and rather than hang the offenders, Bligh ordered them flogged.
Bounty set sail from Tahiti in April 1789, and a little over three weeks later, the mutiny was set in motion and completed without shedding blood. Of the 42 surviving seamen, eighteen joined with Christian whereas twenty-two remained loyal to Bligh. Even so, the mutineers forced several of the loyal sailors to remain on board to help sail the ship, and Bligh and eighteen of his loyal men were set adrift in a 23-foot launch. That Bligh managed to navigate the overcrowded boat over a period of 47 days to Timor with only a sextant and his pocket watch is testamentary to his skill. He covered over 3,600 nautical miles, with the only casualty a man who was stoned to death by the natives of Tofua when they put ashore for provisions.
Christian and his fellow mutineers sailed around the southern Pacific, looking for a likely place to land and settle without risking discovery by the British Navy. They put in back at Tahiti released 16 of the crew, and took on several Tahitians. They eventually found Pitcairn Island, and stopped there. Pitcairn had somehow been deleted from the Naval charts, so they decided to settle there. They burned the Bountyin what is now known as Bounty Bay, and it is said that some of the hardware, anchors and guns can still be seen.
Lieutenant Bligh, meanwhile, reached England in March 1790 and reported the mutiny, and an expedition to recover the Bountyand her mutinous crew was launched in November of that year aboard the HMS Pandora, commanded by Captain Edward Edwards. Pandora docked at Tahiti in March of 1791 and captured and imprisoned 14 of the mutineers. Pandora then set sail again in search of Bountyand the remainder of the mutineers. After about three months, she ran aground and sank, and the surviving ten prisoners along with the rest of the crew sailed to Timor in four small launches.
Lieutenant Bligh identified four surviving men who were innocent of the crime and were acquitted; three others were found guilty but pardoned, and the remaining three men were found guilty and hanged. Ironically, Bligh was again later involved in a mutiny and accused of oppressive behavior tends to lend credence to the charges leveled at him by the mutineers, though not justifying their crime.
As for Fletcher Christian and his mutineers, an American whaler rediscovered Pitcairn Island in 1808, the sole survivor of the mutineers was one John Adams, who was eventually granted amnesty.