The Rocks That Roared - Freed from Japanese Rule after World War II, the Islands of Saipan and Tinian Welcome Tourists with a Unique Charm and Firsthand Accounts of U.S. History

By Byrd, Laura | The World and I, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Rocks That Roared - Freed from Japanese Rule after World War II, the Islands of Saipan and Tinian Welcome Tourists with a Unique Charm and Firsthand Accounts of U.S. History


Byrd, Laura, The World and I


Many Americans don't realize that the remote Pacific islands of Saipan and Tinian in the Northern Marianas, sites of bloody battles for control of the Pacific, are now a U.S. commonwealth, the place where "America starts its day."

"My mother said it was like coming to Eden," says Ellen Ikehara, a native Chamorro and resident of Tinian. As we bump along a narrow road that winds around the twelve-mile-long, five-mile-wide island, she smiles, remembering the story. "She said there were houses with electric refrigerators in them that had real butter and milk inside. Cars were left in the streets with the keys still in the ignition. Everything my mother and father needed, the U.S. military asked them to come back here and use for our family," she says. "I was born after my parents returned here, and I love this island," Ikehara adds passionately. "It's just beautiful to me."

Beauty isn't just in the eye of Ikehara. With a landscape of palm trees shading pastoral farmland, immaculately groomed parks, and pristine, powder-white beaches, Tinian is as close to an oasis as a postcard can depict. The Pacific Ocean thins to a translucent aquamarine, making tropical fish easily visible from shore in twelve feet of water. Examined closely, the tiny bits of white sand are smooth grains of bright white coral, rivaling anything on the beaches of the Hawaiian Islands.

Unlike some islands in the Pacific, Tinian has a notorious and violent history more compelling to many of its visitors than either snorkeling or beachcombing. The B-29s that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were staged from Tinian. Memorials inscribed "Atomic Bomb Pit No. 1" and "Atomic Bomb Pit No. 2" mark the original airstrip--at 8,500 feet the longest runway in the world at the time--used by the U.S. armed forces. The bomb pits are located near the ghostly Japanese command post, its ravaged walls pockmarked with bullet holes. Numerous shrines, ruins, tombstones, and plaques honoring U.S., Japanese, and Korean wardead dot the island's landscape.

Occupied by eighteen thousand Japanese civilians and over eight thousand Japanese army and navy forces prior to World War II, the island gradually lost its indigenous people, known as Chamorros. Tinian, along with most of Micronesia, was largely controlled by the Japanese after World War I. Thousands of Japanese and Okinawans lived and worked there, tending its abundant sugarcane plantations.

Throughout the 1930s, Tinian and other Micronesian islands under Japanese rule were slowly transformed into military bases. By 1943, civilian rule and commerce had been replaced with Japanese civil and military command. By the time of the U.S. invasion of Tinian in 1944, most Chamorros had abandoned their homeland.

The capture of Tinian by the United States was part of an ambitious American strategy, known as "Operation Forager," to secure three Japanese-held islands in the Mariana Archipelago, including nearby Guam and Saipan. Tinian was the last island invaded. It raised an American flag on August 1, 1944, after only nine days of battle later described as "the perfect amphibious operation" by U.S. military. Like the two islands captured before it, Tinian was the site of mass suicides at the end of the war. Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean civilians, terrified of torture or other atrocities they'd been told the Americans would inflict on them, killed themselves en masse, jumping from cliffs onto the rocky beaches below. Entire families methodically pushed each other off while horrified U.S. interpreters pleaded with them. Starting with the youngest child, family members pushed each other off in order of age. "Japanese Surrender Tickets" distributed by aerial drops issued a lifesaving guarantee that the bearer of the card had the special right to be aided by U.S. armed forces and given fair treatment, sufficient food and clothing, and medical care. …

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