Book Review: Their Backs Against the Sea

Their Backs Against the Sea:The Battle of Saipan and the Largest Banzai Attack of World War IIby Bill SloanDa Capo Press, 2017Historian Bill Sloan continues a string of detailed, even granular accounts of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War with his latest book, Their Backs Against the Sea. The subject here is the grueling Battle of Saipan, which Sloan characterizes as a key conflict: the island, at fourteen miles long the second-largest in the Marianas, would give advancing US forces a vital foothold, a base that was at last within striking distance of the Japanese home islands. And the Japanese forces on the island, under the command of Lieutenant General Yoshitsugo Saito, knew this perfectly well; they understood that they needed to hold the island at all costs. A large part of the significance of the Battle of Saipan derives from how literally “at all costs” was interpreted.The American command on the island was typically more complicated: the Allied effort to roll back the enemy from Saipan's dense, broiling jungles and extensive network of caves was itself riven with intense, not at all jocular rivalry between the two Marine divisions and the one Army Infantry division on the island. All the commanders involved hated each other, second-guessed each other, and undermined each other. Such a detail is likely trivial; the US forces were enormously better-fed and better-equipped, and the Japanese forces were stretched thin and cut off from all logistical support. Despite later historical enlargement – to which Sloan adds his dutiful bit – Saipan was always going to be a mopping-up exercise. The ridiculous US inter-service rivalry no doubt protracted that exercise a bit, adding a pathetic shading to its miseries, but Yoshitsugo Saito's forces could not possibly have held their ground forever, much less driven back their enemy.The long subtitle of Sloan's book, “The Battle of Saipan and the Largest Banzai Attack of World War II,” is doubly misleading, but readers should know going in that this only slightly lessens its interest. The book can't in any way lay claim to being a history of the Battle of Saipan; such histories have been written, and they include, as they must, far more background and scope than Sloan attempts in these pages. Likewise his book is not about the largest banzai attack of the war, although it naturally culminates with that attack, in which the Japanese commander ordered not only his men, not only his wounded, but all the island's civilian inhabitants, to arm themselves however they could and march out to meet death at the hands of the Americans, because, as he put it, any other fate would be dishonorable. Sloan treats this monstrous, psychotic edict with the equanimity most military historians now show toward the Japanese forces during the Second World War (Sloan mentions the approving nod the official history gives to all this bushido nonsense, as if it could in any way apply to amputees or old women or little children), but nevertheless, the attack itself only occupies a handful of pages in the book, and it's rendered as a military maneuver rather than analyzed as anything deeper.No, the book's real strength is the one it shares with Sloan's earlier works: he has interviewed veterans and carefully recorded their favorite memories and stories. We read of Lieutenant John Graves, who was struck by a grenade during a sudden push by the Japanese and blinded in his left eye. In the middle of recounting this brutal incident (with its almost parenthetical mention of the fact the Marines on Saipan hated the Army men on Saipan every bit as much as they hated the Japanese), Graves includes a tender moment that's obviously haunted him for seventy years:

“There was a crummy Japanese [this is Sloan's rendition, although Graves himself certainly used the common WWII abbreviation] air raid going on with a couple of Betty bombers while all this was happening,” he recalled. “And a doctor later on told me that they probably messed the eye up worse than it was, but they were doing their best, and it was definitely under adverse circumstances. When they'd done all they could, they put me in a little two-man tent with my head wrapped up, even over my good eye. And there was a kid Marine in the other bunk who was in awful shape. I was pretty sure he was dying. He said he was from Alabama, and he was just so glad I was a Marine and not a 'dogface Army man.'”“Would you hold my hand?” the young Marine asked. Graves reached over blindly, and the pair clenched hands. He died a short time later.

A later recorded memory involves the final assault itself, and once again Sloan mixes valuable first-hand accounting with the kind of little dramatic gesture he seldom denies himself:

“It was like the sound of bees inside a hive,” remembered Sergeant John Sildur, who was now on the front lines with the 105th Infantry's 2nd Battalion. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were positioned across the so-called Tanapag Plain along Saipan's western shore. The two battalions would bear the harsh brunt of the coming assault.“It was the sound of the enemy forming up to attack,” Sildur recalled. “If you listened carefully, you could almost tell they were repeating the same word over and over again, but it was hard to tell what it was.”It was “Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!

The Battle of Saipan ended on July 9th, 1944, after the last banzai attack had been mowed down, after the last field had been taken, and after the last cave had been flamethowered clear of occupants. The island was taken by US forces, and the big final push to Japan got underway. Their Backs to the Sea is an unfailingly interesting, albeit minor-key, addition to the tale of that epic endeavor.