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Photo: August 01, 1944| Cr?dits : W. Eugene Smith. Desperation: Saipan civilians commit suicide rather than surrendering to American troops.

Photo: August 01, 1944| Cr?dits : W. Eugene Smith.
Desperation: Saipan civilians commit suicide rather than surrendering to American troops.

Suicide Cliff

The Battle of the Island of Saipan is most remembered as an amazing show of US military defiance, but there was another act of defiance which took place during that bloody battle:?Mass Suicide.

Fearing the US troops would torture and murder them?mainly due to propaganda laid out by the Japanese Imperial Army?the citizens of Saipan walked into the sea, or jumped off the cliffs and drowned themselves. The most notorious scene of the mass suicide was Marpi Point, a steep 250-meter (800 ft) precipice where American soldiers witnessed entire families fling themselves into the waves. First the older children pushed the younger children over the edge, then the mothers would push the eldest children, and finally the fathers would push their wives, before jumping over the edge themselves. Thousands of civilians?died this way.

The Imperial Army drove residents from shelters, took their food, prohibited them from surrendering, tortured, and slaughtered them on grounds of suspected spying. They forced people into ?mutual killing? among close relatives, and left the sick and handicapped on the battlefield.

The Battle of Saipan was a battle of the Pacific campaign of World War 2, fought on the Island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands from 15 June until 9 July 1944. The Allied invasion fleet embarking the expeditionary forces left Pearl Harbour on 5 June 1944, the day before Operation ?Overlord? in Europe was launched. The USMC 2nd Marine Division, 4th Marine Division, and US Army 27th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant General Holland Smith, defeated the 43rd Division of the Imperial Japanese Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito.

Though not a ?home? Island, Saipan had been occupied for almost a generation by the Japanese when their struggle with America began and some twenty five thousand civilians lived there at the time of the American landings in June of 1944.

After a month-long battle American marines corralled surviving Japanese soldiers and civilians into the northern part of the island. The final act was close: if this were a ?normal? war then surrender negotiations would have been perfunctorily carried out and soldiers and, particularly, civilians would have been treated humanely.

Marines Landing Wading Ashore Beach Saipan June 1944.

Marines Landing Wading Ashore Beach Saipan June 1944.

But in Saipan there were two problems. First, there was the Japanese determination to resist to the death and to not allow the American occupiers to take either soldier or civilian alive. The greatest banzai charge?; a suicidal last-ditch attack,?of the war took place on Saipan and left thousands of Japanese soldier?s dead. Then, if this was not enough, a direct order was given by the Emperor Hirohito ordering civilians on the island to kill themselves rather than be taken alive. This order has, in the post-war period, been contested as a forgery, but the evidence seems to be in its favour.

Second, there was perhaps necessary American brutality in the battle northwards. If American marines came across an underground bunker/shelter they did not always ask whether it was a civilian or a military before bringing the flame throwers out: the fact is that civilians were potentially dangerous as well? There was also a basic lack of sympathy towards the Japanese full stop; something documented many times in the years after Pearl Harbour.

The combination of these two factors meant that when the Marines pressed into the northern pocket, where thousands of Japanese civilians were massed; there were all the prerequisites for a catastrophic failure of understanding and humanity. American loudspeaker units and American marines offered food and safe passage. But many of the civilians were not interested or were too frightened to listen: and they had, in any case, a direct order from the Emperor rattling in their heads. Some waded into the sea, some used knives, and some borrowed grenades from Japanese soldiers? Most though seem to have used a nearby suicide cliff, where whole families walked off into eternity.

Stuart Flame Thrower Tank In Action On Saipan 1944.

Stuart Flame Thrower Tank In Action On Saipan 1944.

Marpi Point is a plateau some 800 feet above a shore of jagged coral rocks. There, thousands of men, women, and children were trapped by the Marines. Fearing horrible deaths and eternal shame at the hands of the Leathernecks, the Japanese civilians began killing themselves.

The astonished Americans broadcast assurances in Japanese through loudspeakers that the victors would treat captives well, to no avail. Parents hurled their children off the cliffs and jumped in after them. Whole families waded and swam out to sea to drown themselves. A group of about 100 Japanese all bowed to the Marines watching, then stripped, bathed, donned fresh clothing, and spread a Japanese flag on a rock. One man distributed hand grenades, and one by one they pulled the pins and held the grenades against their bellies.

Time?correspondent Robert Sherrod and?Life?photographers Peter Stackpole and Eugene Smith watched the horrific scene, taking notes and snapping pictures. Sherrod wrote of the suicide of a teenager, ?On the edge of the slippery, tide-washed rocks a Japanese boy of perhaps 15, attired in knee-length black trousers, walked back and forth. He would pause in meditation, then he would walk on, swinging his arms. He sat on the edge of the rocks, then he got up. He sat down again, waiting.

?When a high wave washed the rock, the boy let it sweep him into the sea. At first he lay face down, inert on the surface of the water. Then his arms flailed frantically, as if an instinct stronger than his willpower bade him live. Then he was quiet. He was dead.?

The?Life?photographers shot pictures of a family walking up and down the Marpi Point rocks, as other Japanese begged them not to jump into the sea. For 45 minutes, the family members struggled to make up their minds. Then a Japanese sniper in a cave shot the two adults. Their bodies fell into the sea and washed away, leaving the kids orphaned. The kids fled from the scene, and several Japanese women led them to safety.

The orgy of suicides went on through July 12. Battle-hardened Marines and GIs watched in agony as Japanese civilians slammed their babies? heads against the sides of cliffs, or children tossed hand grenades to each other until they exploded. Mothers and fathers linked arms with their children and jumped into the ocean as a family unit. Many Japanese soldiers and civilians simply blew themselves up with hand grenades. Soldiers shot themselves with their rifles, officers with pistols. Some soldiers leaned against cliffs, held their rifles in both hands, put the muzzles in their mouths, and pulled the triggers with their toes.

Women calmly combed and braided their hair, dressed in funeral clothes, then walked into the water to drown. Little children in miniature Japanese Navy uniforms shouted ?banzai? and jumped into the rocks from Marpi Point.

Helping hand: A U.S soldier offers his hand to a woman leaving a cave where she had hidden with her child during the battle between Japanese and American forces

Helping hand: A U.S soldier offers his hand to a woman leaving a cave where she had hidden with her child during the battle between Japanese and American forces

But not all the deaths were voluntary. Mothers carrying babies to the edge of the cliff would change their minds, turn back, and be shot down by Japanese soldiers. Teenagers engulfed by rising water tried to swim back to shore and were gunned down by snipers. Groups of civilians who tried to bolt from a suicide circle were felled by Imperial grenades. Japanese troops, sworn to protect their civilian countrymen, turned into murderers in the final moments of the Japanese defense of Saipan.

Once in the water, the corpses floated down the coast, presenting more shocking scenes, floating bodies clustering the water?s edge. One woman had two children lashed to her.

?Why do Japanese kill themselves like this?? an officer said, in tears.

Many of them had been convinced by Japanese soldiers that ?the white man? was a race of brutal, uncaring people that would slaughter them en masse once they surrendered.? And the poor civilians, most of whom had never encountered a person of non-Asian descent, simply bought the story. And so they killed themselves.

Some people?were driven by?the perverse idea that, rather than seeing female siblings and wives being killed cruelly, it was an act of love by close relatives to kill them with their own hands.

The fear of spy hunting by the imperial army accentuated the sense of despair among residents. The imperial army?s policy was never to hand over residents who knew military secrets. To accept the protection of the US military was regarded as spying. Residents positioned between the Japanese and American military were driven to ?death?. Their hope to live was cut off by the shelling of the Islands. Knowing that there was no escape route, they anticipated a cruel death. That too was one cause of their ?hurrying to death?.

?Mass death of residents? took place when these elements joined together, causing panic that led to mutual killing of close relatives in local communities. Fear and madness overwhelmed village communities.

In the final days of battle, suicide scenes were played out in front of Marines all over the northern part of Saipan, but mostly at the northernmost tip?Marpi Point.

Survivors were taken to a tent city prison camp at Charan Kanoa airstrip, full of Japanese civilians and safety. A second such camp was created in the Garapan baseball stadium.

There were so many floating bodies that ?naval small craft were unable to steer a course without running over them,? reported one American sailor. Lt. Emery Cleaves of the US minesweeper Chief saw the corpse of a nude woman, drowned while giving birth. ?The baby?s head had entered this world, but that was all of him,? he said. He also saw that ?a small boy of four or five had drowned with his arm firmly clenched around the neck of a Jap soldier; the two bodies rocked crazily in the waves.?

U.S. forces sat below Marpi Point in boats with loudspeakers and tried, mostly in vain, to stop the madness. There was little anyone could do. Thousands of civilians died in those final days.

Battle of Saipan June 1944.

Battle of Saipan June 1944.

In the campaigns of 1943 and the first half of 1944, the?Allies?had captured the?Solomon Islands, the?Gilbert Islands, the?Marshall Islands?and the?Papuan Peninsula?of?New Guinea. This left the Japanese holding the Philippines, the?Caroline Islands,?Palau Islands and?Mariana Islands.

It had always been the intention of the American planners to bypass the Caroline and Palauan Islands and to seize the Marianas and Taiwan. From these latter bases communications between the Japanese homeland and Japanese forces to the south and west could be cut. In addition, from the Marianas Japan would be well within the range of an air offensive relying on the new?Boeing B-29 Superfortresslong-range?bomber?with its operational radius of 1,500?mi (2,400?km).

While not part of the original American plan,?Douglas MacArthur, commander of the?Southwest Pacific Area command, obtained authorization to advance through New Guinea and?Morotai?toward the Philippines. This allowed MacArthur to keep his personal pledge, made in his “I shall return” speech, to liberate the Philippines, and also allowed the active use of the large forces built up in the southwest Pacific theatre. The Japanese, expecting an attack somewhere on their perimeter, thought an attack on the Caroline Islands most likely. To reinforce and supply their garrisons, they needed naval and air superiority, so?Operation A-Go, a major?carrier?attack, was prepared for June 1944.

Being a former Spanish and then German territory, Saipan became a Mandate of Japan by the League of Nations after World War I, and thus a large number of Japanese civilians lived there ? at least 25,000.?The U.S. erected a civilian prisoner encampment on 23 June 1944 that soon had more than 1,000?inmates. Electric lights at the camp were conspicuously left on overnight to attract other civilians with the promise of three warm meals and no risk of accidentally being shot in combat.

Weapons and the tactics of close quarter fighting also resulted in high civilian casualties. Civilian shelters were located virtually everywhere on the island, with very little difference noticeable to attacking marines. The standard method of clearing suspected bunkers was with high-explosive and/or high-explosives augmented with petroleum (e.g., gelignite, napalm, diesel fuel). In such conditions, high civilian casualties were inevitable.

Emperor?Hirohito?personally found the threat of defection of Japanese civilians disturbing. Much of the community was of low caste, and there was a risk that live civilians would be surprised by generous U.S. treatment. Native Japanese sympathizers would hand the Americans a powerful propaganda weapon to subvert the “fighting spirit” of Japan in radio broadcasts.

At the end of June, Hirohito sent out an imperial order encouraging the civilians of Saipan to commit suicide.?The order authorized the commander of Saipan to promise civilians who died there an equal spiritual status in the afterlife with those of soldiers perishing in combat. General?Hideki T?j? intercepted the order on 30 June and delayed its sending, but it went out anyway the next day.

By the time the Marines advanced on the north tip of the island, from 8?12 July, most of the damage had been done. Thousands of Japanese civilians committed suicide in the last days of the battle to take the offered privileged place in the afterlife, some jumping from places later named “Suicide Cliff” and “Banzai Cliff”.

Sadly, the Pacific War was filled with these kinds of incidents, and they intensified as the war progressed. It seemed that every Island had a ?Marpi Point? or ?Banzai Cliff? of some sort.

The sites have been listed on the American National Register of Historic Places, and are now a park and peace memorial, attracting pilgrimages from Japan.

Video: Warning Disturbing footage:?Mass Suicides on Marpi Point, Saipan

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Battle Of Saipan