By Pierre Kosmidis
Thousands of Japanese soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the Battle of Saipan that raged on the island from June 15 to July 9, 1944.
Sakae Oba, a captain in the 18th Infantry Regiment of the Imperial Japanese Army, knnown to the U.S. Troops who conquered Saipan as “the Fox”, gathered together and led 46 soldiers in the jungle of Saipan for 16 months after U.S. forces officially declared Saipan secured from the enemy.
During that time, Oba and his men also watched over an additional 160 Japanese civilians who had retreated into the jungle, teaching them survival skills and preventing their capture — while also conducting guerrilla-type attacks and confounding the 45,000-strong U.S. force still stationed on Saipan after hostilities were declared over.
Located in the Matanza district of Saipan is the site of the Battle of Saipan’s infamous June 7, 1944, Banzai Charge — or gyokusai (honorable suicide) as Japan’s wartime Cabinet Information Bureau called it.
After 15 hours of intense and unrelenting hand to hand combat, almost 4,300 Japanese soldiers were dead. Allied forces declared the island secured on 9 July 1944.
Oba took part in that suicidal attack, but survived along with 46 other soldiers who he led into the jungle, having convinced them that relief was on its way.
Oba insisted that continuing to fight for their country was more honorable than so-called honorable suicide, but because of Oba’s decision to fight on, many labeled him a coward after the war.
By 30 September 1944, the Japanese Army made an official presumption of death for all personnel of unknown status and they were declared killed in action. That included Captain Ōba, and he was awarded a posthumous” promotion to Major.
Upon his return to Japan, Oba was ceremonially stripped of his “posthumous” promotion to major — which had been awarded in the belief he had died during the charge.
Though Oba didn’t know at the time he decided to carry on fighting, the relief that he’d promised his men was on its way would never arrive.
Instead, Japanese cargo ships dispatched with a fleet of warships from the Philippines were intercepted by the U.S. 3rd and 7th fleets off the Philippines, resulting in their decimation in October 1944 in the Battle of Leyte Gulf — considered to be the greatest sea battle of World War II.
Oba, however, refused to believe reports of that maritime defeat — or later, even of Japan’s surrender in August 1945. And he dismissed photographs dropped by U.S. aircraft of devastated Hiroshima after it was atom-bombed on Aug. 6, 1945, simply as doctored fakes. The war, he believed, was still there to be won.
When medical and other supplies ran out, he would undertake night raids on U.S. camps, at the same time smuggling out POWs to gather information and cleverly replacing them with the same number of his own men.
That’s what earned him his nickname, “Fox”. He was so canny that even when the American soldiers set up an outside cinema in a field near the camp, they never knew that, among the trees behind them, Oba was taking a seat in the back row.
In September 1944, the Marines began conducting patrols in the island’s interior, searching for survivors who were raiding their camp for supplies. These patrols sometimes encountered Japanese soldiers or civilians, and when they were captured, they were interrogated and sent to an appropriate prison camp. It was during these interrogations that the Marines learned of Ōba’s name.
At the peak of the hunt for Ōba, the Marine commander devised a plan in which his men would line up across the width of the island, about two meters separating one Marine from the next, and they were to march from the south end of the island to the north.
The commander felt that Ōba and his men would have to fight, surrender, or be driven north and eventually captured. Due to this dragnet, the elderly and infirm civilians volunteered to surrender.
Although some of the soldiers wanted to fight, Captain Ōba asserted that their primary concerns were to protect the civilians and to stay alive to continue the war. As the line of Marines approached the area, most of the remaining soldiers and civilians climbed up to a concealed mountain clearing, while others stood on narrow ledges and clung to the side of the mountain.
They maintained their precarious positions for most of the day, as the Marines crossed through the area, ransacking huts and gardens when they found them. In some places, the Japanese on the ledges were less than 6.1 m above the heads of the Marines. The Marines’ search proved futile, and eventually led to the chagrined commander’s reassignment.
Captain Ōba and his men held out on the island for 512 days, or about 16 months. On 27 November 1945, former Major General Umahachi Amō, commander of the 9th Independent Mixed Brigade during the Battle of Saipan, was able to draw out some of the Japanese in hiding by singing the anthem of the Japanese infantry branch.
Amō was then able to present documents from the defunct Imperial General Headquarters to Captain Ōba ordering him and his men to surrender themselves to the Americans.
On 1 December 1945, three months after the official surrender of Japan, the Japanese soldiers gathered once more on Mt. Tapochau and sang a song of departure to the spirits of the war dead.
Ōba then led his people out of the jungle and they presented themselves to the Marines of the 18th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Company. With great formality and commensurate dignity, Captain Ōba surrendered his sword to Lieutenant Colonel Howard G. Kirgis, and his men surrendered their arms and colors.
They were the last organized resistance of Japanese forces on Saipan.
The film “Taiheiyo no Kiseki — Fokkusu to Yobareta Otoko” (“Miracle of the Pacific — the Man they called Fox.”), official English title of “Oba: The Last Samurai” follows the 1986 book by U.S. war veteran Don Jones, on which the film is based.
Jones was among the U.S. Marines on the receiving end of Oba and his squad’s nighttime forays, and his curiosity about how the Japanese junior officer had eluded U.S. attempts to flush him out of Saipan’s jungles led him to track down his former foe some 35 years after he had finally surrendered. In the process, Jones returned Oba’s sword.