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Mariana Islands Mark Anniversary of World War II Battles - 2004-06-17

They are small islands, mere dots in the huge Pacific Ocean. But 60 years ago, they were bitterly contested by the United States and Japan. Thousands of soldiers died, before the United States captured the island that would be the launching pad of the war's final strike.

The conquest of the Northern Mariana Islands of Saipan and Tinian 60 years ago this month gave the United States the land base it needed to launch massive air strikes against Japan.

Norman Owen is a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. He says that, although the war had already turned in favor of the United States, these small Pacific islands became stepping-stones, allowing the United States to move troops closer to Japan, and to decisive victory. "Beginning right after Pearl Harbor, where the U.S. forces moved little by little across the Pacific, moving toward what would have been the eventual invasion of Japan itself," says Mr. Owens.

Over the past several days, dozens of veterans, both Japanese and American, have returned to the Marianas, now part of the United States, to recall the bloody battle that began on June 15, 1944. Most of the former soldiers are in their 80s, and this will be their last visit to islands that are now tranquil tourist destinations.

The fight for the islands was in many ways overshadowed by the Allied invasion of France, which took place just a few weeks earlier. But, historians say, the U.S. invasion of the Marianas was as essential to defeating Japan as the landings on Normandy were to ending the war in Europe.

Jessica Jordan is coordinating the 60th anniversary celebrations on Saipan, where the guest of honor is 89-year-old Brigadier General Paul Tibbets. General Tibbets piloted the airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan.

Ms. Jordan says General Tibbets and the 50 other visiting American veterans are being treated like celebrities, with children asking for their pictures and autographs. "They feel welcome. They feel like they're appreciated," she says. "They feel like people here and in Tinian understand and appreciate the sacrifices that were made to an extent that they have never experienced on the mainland [of the U.S.]."

The U.S. role in the war began in December 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base in Hawaii. By mid-1942, the Japanese controlled most of China and had captured much of Southeast Asia, including the British colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore, and the U.S.-ruled Philippine islands.

By the time the United States attacked the Marianas, its forces and its allies already had battled across the Pacific, fighting and beating the Japanese on dozens of islands.

The battle for Saipan was one of the deadliest in the Pacific theater. The island was heavily garrisoned with Japanese troops, who fought the Americans hard for every inch of their advance. Three-thousand Americans, 30,000 Japanese and 900 civilians lost their lives.

This reporter's father, Don Hansen, was a young Marine with the First Defense Battalion, shipped to Saipan in 1944 to secure the island. He says his job was hunting for snipers and otherwise protecting troops building landing strips.

"It was quiet. Everybody was real busy," says Mr. Hansen. "Everybody was working. There was very few snipers."

Japan had governed the Mariana Islands since the first World War, and they were among three island chains the Japanese considered crucial to the defense of their homeland. Controlling them allowed Japan to dominate the sea near its main islands.

The United States wanted the Marianas, because they needed a base from which the Army Air Force's new long-range B-29 bombers could strike at Japan. Saipan is about 2,200 kilometers south of Tokyo, and the bombers could make the trip without stopping.

At one point after the Marianas were captured, an airfield on Tinian was the busiest airport in the world, with planes taking off every 45 seconds for Japan.

Four days after U.S. troops landed in Saipan, Japanese and U.S. troops fought a massive air battle, known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea. It was a decisive victory for the United States, which lost fewer than 30 airplanes compared with a Japanese loss of more than 400.

U.S. and Allied forces gained naval and air supremacy in the Pacific throughout 1944 and 1945. Finally, they reached Okinawa, the southernmost chain of Japanese islands. The battle of Okinawa was the climatic one in the Pacific.

But the blow that ended the war ultimately came from the Marianas. On August 6, 1945, then-Colonel Tibbets and his crew took off from Tinian in his B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay. They flew to Japan to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

A few days later, another plane left Tinian, and dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. On August 14, 1945, Japan surrendered.