Just as U.S. Navy pilot, Commander William I. Martin, dropped his bomb payload over an airfield on the Japanese held island of Saipan, he felt his aircraft shudder under the impact of enemy antiaircraft fire. Martin and his crew of two enlisted men were participating in a pre-invasion bombing raid in the central Pacific Ocean, over the strategically located Mariana Islands chain.
Miraculous free fall
Martin screamed for his two crew members to bail out. They never made it. But, as his aircraft began to tumble, he managed to extricate himself from what was now a falling coffin. Free of the plane, Martin suddenly realized that he was too low for his parachute to open. In a split second his mind flashed to his wife and two sons, then to the immortal words of the 23rd Psalm, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want....” In the midst of his free fall, he remembered the story of how, earlier in the war, a pilot from the aircraft carrier HORNET had amazingly survived a drop of some 2000 feet without the aid of a chute. Copying the HORNET pilot’s actions, he kept his feet and toes pointed downward and, in a moment, found himself miraculously alive and well in the waters just off Saipan.
Under almost constant fire from the shore, Martin managed to swim for over 1000 yards, cross a barrier reef, and then inflate his survival raft. Using part of his parachute as a makeshift sail, he navigated in the general direction of the American fleet, where he was eventually rescued by a float plane that landed in the water near him. Within two days Martin was back in action, flying in support of U.S. Marines coming ashore in the same general area in which his plane had crashed and he had been divinely dropped from the sky into the sea.
The Marianas campaign, while largely forgotten today, was one of the most important offensives of the entire war in the Pacific. More on the occupation of the Marianas later.
Summer of 1944
The summer of 1944, 75 years ago, was an incredibly encouraging season, a time in which America and her allies seemed to be gaining momentum and ground everywhere. It would mark the last full summer of war in Europe, although the conflict in the Pacific would stretch through the summer of 1945.
On the American home front, faithful citizens continued to sacrifice and work hard, although they were becoming increasingly weary of war. A record 20 million victory gardens would be planted all across the land, supplying over 40% of all fresh fruit and vegetables consumed by Americans. In an election year, the popular Thomas Dewey received the Republican presidential nomination, while the seemingly invincible Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated by the Democrats for an unprecedented fourth term. In November, Roosevelt would win yet another relatively comfortable victory for the highest office in the land.
After a bitterly contested nomination process at the Democratic convention, Senator Harry Truman from Missouri, a dark horse candidate, was chosen to replace incumbent Vice President Henry Wallace as Roosevelt’s running mate. Many insiders correctly believed that, with Roosevelt’s rapidly failing health, his Vice President was likely to become President before the term was over. It is hard to imagine the liberal Wallace, and not Truman, leading this country in the critical days that marked the end of World War II and the simultaneous beginning of the Cold War.
On the battlefields and the high seas, during that momentous summer of 1944, the Allies were making huge strides toward ultimate victory everywhere. On June 4, Rome, Italy was wrested from the Germans. June 6 marked the costly, but successful, invasion of France along the coast of Normandy, a day we know simply as D-Day. Although the fighting across France and Germany would be bitter, the liberation of Europe had begun. A little over two weeks later, our unlikely allies, the Russians, would launch a sweeping offensive against the German invaders along the Eastern Front.
Out in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur and the Army would be bringing the campaign for New Guinea to a successful conclusion, and then begin preparations for the liberation of the Philippines. It was MacArthur who, after being chased from the Philippines by overwhelming Japanese forces in 1942, had said, “I shall return.”
The strategic Marianas
It was also during that fateful summer that the Americans launched, in June, and completed, in August, the Marianas campaign. The Mariana Islands, stretching out in the central Pacific for over 400 miles in a north-south direction, were of vast strategic importance to both Japan and the United States. They provided vital air and sea bases for the Empire of Japan, and represented part of her defensive perimeter for the homeland.
The Americans planned to penetrate this perimeter and to establish massive air bases on the three important islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. Recognizing full well what the loss of the Marianas would mean, the Japanese fought savagely to keep them. In the end, the U.S. prevailed. Sadly, just over 8000 Americans and nearly 70,000 Japanese perished in the fighting for the Marianas.
On the three bigger islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, the U.S. Navy’s Seabees would quickly build massive air bases. From these, the new American long-range bomber, the B-29 Super Fortress, would be dispatched in droves on missions targeting Japanese forces throughout the Pacific. Although some 1300 miles away, Tokyo and other locations throughout the homeland were now easily within range. The brutal war which Japan had begun years before had now reached her own shores.
The air base on Tinian would soon feature six runways, each as wide as a ten lane highway and each almost two miles long. Located on a small island in the Pacific, some 6000 miles from the U.S. mainland, it was simply the largest airport in the world. From the airfields of the Marianas, U.S. bombers would hasten the end of the war with Japan. The B-29s that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki departed from the immense runways on Tinian.
Following the deadly conflict which had secured the islands for the U.S., construction of the Mariana air facilities was underway in earnest by August of 1944, 75 years ago this month. As you and I breathe in the sweet air of freedom and enjoy the remaining weeks of summer, let us remember those who gave so much for us and our freedom in the Marianas and in the skies beyond.