Photo/Illutration"Banzai Cliff" on the northern tip of Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, where many Japanese civilians threw themselves off to their deaths, is one of the most popular tourist destinations. (Gen Hashimoto)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Editor's note: Dec. 7 marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the start of the Pacific War in 1941. This three-part photo series will follow Japanese and U.S. footprints of the war that remain on and around the Pacific islands today.

* * *

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands--On tropical Saipan, tourists are drawn to an infamous high bluff on the northern tip of this resort island now known as "Banzai Cliff."

Along the sheer cliff, more than 30 memorials are dedicated to some of the island's Japanese civilians, mainly women and the elderly, who chose to leap to their deaths instead of giving themselves up to U.S. forces.

They are part of the tragic toll of 10,000 civilians killed in the bloody fighting for the island during World War II.

Saipan, the largest island of the American Commonwealth here, lying roughly halfway between Japan and Papua New Guinea, formerly was a mandatory territory of imperial Japan in the Pacific.

From June 1944, the island was transformed into a bloody battlefield. Organized resistance ended July 7, 1944. Of the 31,000 troops in the imperial Japanese garrison stationed on the island, about 29,000 perished in the fighting.

Only a few hundred meters from the memorials on the cliff, relics of Japanese tanks, overgrown by trees and plants, still remain in the old Imperial Japanese Navy headquarters site.

The vehicles are a Type 95 light tank developed for scouting purposes, but deployed in Saipan on suicide missions.

According to Kunihiro Suzuki, a military vehicle researcher, the armor plating of the Type 95 tank was 12 millimeters thick. The tank's main gun could penetrate only 20 mm or so of armor, while the U.S. medium tank, the M4 Sherman, was protected with a 50-mm thick plating.

“Even if 100 Japanese light tanks attacked at once, not even one American Sherman tank could have been defeated,” Suzuki said. “The thinking to compensate the difference in national strength with mental strength further increased the number of tragic deaths.”

Neighboring Tinian island was captured by the United States in August 1944. An air base was constructed, and B-29 Superfortresses loaded with atomic bombs took off from there for Hiroshima and Nagasaki a year later.


On Pagan island, about 290 kilometers north of Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, the imperial Japanese military also set up an air base and stationed garrisons there.

The volcanic island currently remains uninhabited.

According to Japan's official war history books, the full-scale bombardment of Pagan started on June 12, 1944. An average of 20 U.S. aircraft bombarded the island every day until the end of the war.

An airfield constructed by the imperial Japanese military southwest of an active volcano on the island is still recognizable today. The east side of it has been engulfed by lava spewed from eruptions that have occurred over the ensuing decades.

Traces of the west half of the runway, now covered with green grass, are still visible from the air. Along the straight streaks appearing on the ground, the field remains dotted with numerous craters from air raids.

At the west end of the runway, a wrecked Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane was left to the elements in the midst of craters.

Relics of Mitsubishi Zero fighters can be found everywhere in the Pacific--from Saipan, Palau, the Solomon Islands and beyond.


The Japanese warbird was famed for its great mobility and long-flight capabilities realized by a thorough weight-saving design, but at the expense of defensive capabilities.

During the war, the Allies studied captured Zeros that had crashed. Through this effort, they developed strategies for their own fighters to avoid engaging Zeros in close aerial combat and tactics that turned the Japanese fighter's light weight into a disadvantage.

It was another example of the optimism of the imperial Japanese military manifested in the thinking that they could compensate for the differences in national strength at the sacrifice of individual soldiers.

Nobuhiko Sato, 59, a war history researcher, pointed out that the differences were evident not just in economy of forces and armaments.

“The effectiveness of the pilot training system and the quality of peripheral instruments onboard such as radio equipment--as well as the overwhelming gap in production capacity--meant that Japan could not withstand an all-out war while relying on a handful of talented pilots flying tricky-to-fly machines,” said Sato.

(This article was compiled from reports by Yasuji Nagai, a senior staff writer.)