It’s a fair bet that neither the name nor the facts of the military campaign whose story unfolds in this spellbinding film is likely to sound familiar to a television audience today. Smithsonian Channel’s “The Pacific War in Color: The Enemy Underground” concerns the battle for Saipan, begun in June 1944 as part of the U.S. effort to drive the Japanese back across the Pacific. The Americans had by then put behind them the prolonged stretch of military reverses they experienced in the grim months following Pearl Harbor. Taking Saipan would lead to the loss of Japan’s inner defense ring—a fact that ensured that this would be a battle to the death for the island’s Japanese defenders, and so it turned out to be.
The Pacific War in Color: The Enemy Underground
Sunday, 8 p.m., Smithsonian Channel
But the Saipan campaign encompassed more than the story of one of the costliest American victories in the Pacific. It included matters like the frequently bitter relations between the Marines and the Army, not to mention the scathing comments Marine Gen. Holland Smith directed at Army Gen. Ralph Smith—vituperation so extreme it earned newspaper coverage.
Strife of this kind, needless to say, was of little relevance to the battle ahead, whose tensions we can feel building in the unbearable way they do in wartime, in the hours before an invasion. It’s impossible to look at the footage of these Americans packed into the landing craft headed for the shores of Saipan, and the massive Japanese forces awaiting them, without a growing sense of fear—exactly the kind evoked by the forever-haunting famous pictures of the troops crouched behind the ramps of the boats ferrying them to the D-Day beaches. The landings at Normandy on the sixth of June—the only invasion to which the term D-Day is unalterably connected—had taken place only nine days before the landings at Saipan.
The film’s creators well understood the power of that evocation and it shows, in the detailed focus on the D-Day of this story—the June 15, 1944, invasion of Saipan, and all related D-Day bustle: movement of men, cargo and general excitement. In addition to the remarkable footage, the film draws on the testimony of combatants. One remembers his company commander shook hands with each of his men before the journey began, and added a brief thought—which was “Unfortunately, we know that by this time tomorrow, some of you won’t be here.”
There was reason to expect that this invasion would come at a high cost. The Japanese commanded the heights over the beach. Battered by mortar and artillery fire, the first waves of Americans were unable to move forward—one battalion fought an hour to advance 12 yards. Still, the Americans would win the beachhead by the end of the day.
A related struggle would shortly take place at sea, when the Japanese launched a massive attack on ships of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, on its way to support the American invasion of Saipan. This encounter, known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, resulted in complete and irremediable disaster for Imperial Japan, which lost three aircraft carriers and 300 planes under an American onslaught. The film’s chronicle of this battle, sometimes called, for obvious reasons, the Marianas Turkey Shoot, is dazzling in its detail.
Still no details are equal to the power of those of the battle for Saipan, which ended in a Japanese surrender roughly three weeks after D-Day—a battle whose cataclysmic effects are on vivid display here. Not least among them count the hundreds of islanders who committed suicide, as directed by Emperor Hirohito, who advised them that this would be preferable to surrender. The Japanese military did its part via propaganda assuring the native population that it could expect only torture, rape and murder at the hands of the Americans. The Americans witnessed the mass suicides to their enduring horror. One veteran tells his interviewer, “I wish I couldn’t see it anymore—but I still see it.”
The Saipan chapter (producers
) is the fourth in the Smithsonian Channel’s eight-part series on the Pacific War—documentaries of extraordinary depth and unfailing drama. The three previous installments will air again immediately before Sunday’s premiere.