Saipan is really, really very far from the U.S. mainland. According to a stat I came across a few years ago but can’t be bothered to go back and locate, only Guam is further away and only by a hair–or, okay–maybe a hundred miles.
If the United States counts the island of Saipan (along with the other thirteen islands of the Northern Mariana chain) as one its territories, it is simply because way back in the summer of 1944 it was deemed strategic to fight to claim it. It was a hard and ugly fight and by the end of it, the U.S. had control of a few more runways out in the Pacific from which to launch air-based offensives against the Japanese mainland. It was a smart move; some say that it was so smart that it marked the “beginning of the end” for Japan during World War II.
Fast-forward to July of 2016.
Late June through early July is the season for the festivities leading up to “Liberation Day” here on Saipan. The Battle of Saipan between U.S. Marines and the Japanese infantry of the Imperial Forces lasted for less than a month and officially ended on July 9th, 1944. But when it comes to picking a date for the annual parade, the 4th of July is close enough.
The festivities in recent years are as much an opportunity to showcase the cultural diversity of the Northern Mariana islands as they are a celebration of peace. That Koreans, Japanese, American islanders, are all living harmoniously on a strip of land that was, only a few decades ago, a battlefield in one of the bloodiest fights of the War in the Pacific is a solid reason for a good party if I have ever heard one.
There may still be a few residents around with firsthand testimonies of the Battle, but this book, published about 40 years after the War, is an anthology of personal recollections, bound and recorded so that no one would ever forget.
I am not going to lie, this book is hard read.* Some inhabitants of the islands of Tinian and Saipan escaped the ordeal without significant trauma, but other families suffered tremendously. If you are looking for a compelling reason to work for peace and avoid war, this would be a good source of inspiration.
The stories are written out by the younger relatives of survivors, grandchildren, or grand-nieces or nephews. These elementary and middle-school aged students retell the stories they received from their elders along with hand-drawn illustrations of their own imagination.
The narratives offer a glimpse into how ordinary civilians experience the military invasion of a community which, because of its geographic distance from any significant continental landmass, had remained untouched by the violence raging throughout many places around the globe. Unlike many of the towns and cities of Europe, there was no progressive build-up to the violence on Saipan. Just over a week after the famed Normandy landing was getting started, over 7,500 miles away a different “D-Day” was taking place as U.S. Marines secured the waters surrounding the island, then stormed “Red Beach” with hardly any advance warning for the tens of thousands of people living their lives on this tiny strip of land.
On a hot Thursday morning in June 1944, the people of Saipan–Chamorros, Carolinians, Japanese, Okinawan, and Koreans–fled the rain of bombs and hid in the jungle or inside coral-rock caves. Just about everyone was taken by surprise.
“We stayed in the cave for about four or five days…At night, my uncles and some of the older men would go out from the cave to look for water or food nearby. They checked the nearby wells for water but there was no water in the wells, they were mostly filled with sand and other debris. So they would gather fallen banana trees, cut them into pieces and pass the pieces out to us. My mom would then squeeze the stems and strain it through a cloth, then use the juice to wet our lips.”
-Rosa Taman Maliti, age 6 during the Battle of Saipan
“While in the cave, the family survived on food such as coconuts and sugar cane. Spring water was fetched at midnight when the Japanese soldiers would be asleep, a tactic the family carefully planned.
On other nights, their tears were all they had to drink.”
-Carmen Tudela Flores, age 7 during the Battle of Saipan (as told to her grandson)
The effect of the writers’ childish voices within the text, paired with the colored-pencil images that accompany the stories, is more powerful than you would even guess.
Thankfully, most islanders lived to tell their children and grandchildren about it, and those who heard the stories thought they were reason enough for a great big celebration every July on this little rock in Pacific, where residents of dozens of nationalities and languages make their home.
This post is only about a month overdue, but even still I want to wish Saipan a very happy Liberation Day!
And may there never again be a need for a holiday like this one.
(* Several copies are available in the Children’s section of the Joeten-Kiyu Library here, but I recommend pre-screening chapters before reading portions aloud to children.)