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William J. O'Brien - Battle of Saipan

William J. O'Brien - Battle of Saipan American History Social Studies Tragedies and Triumphs World War II Visual Arts

William J. O'Brien was a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army on the 6th of July, 1944.  He was the commander of the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry, 27th Division on the night the Japanese launched the worst banzai attack of the war.

According to an official military account:

The night of 6-7 July was to be long-remembered. It produced the most devastating banzai attack of the entire war. Compared with the stroke that was launched against the 105th Infantry, all other Japanese efforts during the night take on an extremely pale color. And yet, carrying the comparison further, these "pale" attacks were more violent than any that had gone before, and for those individuals who found themselves in the midst of one of these, even the smallest conflict may assume elephantine stature.

The banzai assault happened in the area of Tanapag Plain, on the northwest side of Saipan, where soldiers of the 1st and 3d Battalions, 105th Infantry (27th Division) were separated from each other by a gap of about 300 yards.  With no way to close the gap, the troops could not fight together as a single force:

In their reconnaissance-in-force missions the [Japanese] patrols poked and prodded the lines, seeking vulnerable points and goading the soldiers to open up and reveal positions. These explorations, no doubt, divulged the 300 yard gap between the 1st and 3d Battalions, 105th Infantry.

Each person launching the banzai charge "was determined to kill seven Americans."  (Hell is Upon Us: D-Day in the Pacific, June-August 1944, by Victor Brooks, page 220.)

The blow fell at 0445. First and hardest struck were the isolated positions held by the 1st and 2d Battalions, 105th Infantry. The attack on these units hit from front, flank and, after moving through the gap, the rear. Almost as soon as the attack was launched, communications to the rear were cut. It was then simply a matter of two isolated battalions of soldiers fighting for their lives. This they did and did well. Some of the soldiers stacked so many dead Japanese forward of their positions that it was necessary to move to get fields of fire.

The attack was unbelievably horrific.

Major McCarthy, commanding the 2d Battalion, described the onslaught:

    It reminded me of one of those old cattle stampede scenes of the movies. The camera is in a hole in the ground and you see the herd coming and then they leap up and over you and are gone. Only the Japs just kept coming and coming. I didn't think they'd ever stop.

Bill O'Brien refused to give up the fight, earning a posthumous Medal of Honor.  Among other things, his citation (scroll down 40%) notes the following acts of bravery during his final day:

On 7 July 1944 his battalion and another battalion were attacked by an overwhelming enemy force estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000 Japanese. With bloody hand-to-hand fighting in progress everywhere, their forward positions were finally overrun by the sheer weight of the enemy numbers.

With many casualties and ammunition running low, Lt. Col. O'Brien refused to leave the front lines. Striding up and down the lines, he fired at the enemy with a pistol in each hand and his presence there bolstered the spirits of the men, encouraged them in their fight and sustained them in their heroic stand.

Even after he was seriously wounded, Lt. Col. O'Brien refused to be evacuated and after his pistol ammunition was exhausted, he manned a .50 caliber machinegun, mounted on a jeep, and continued firing.

When last seen alive he was standing upright firing into the Jap hordes that were then enveloping him. Some time later his body was found surrounded by enemy he had killed.

The photo above - featured in the USMC Historical Monograph, Saipan:  The Beginning of the End (by Major Carl W. Hoffman, USMC), page 224 - bears this caption:

LIEUTENANT COLONEL WILLIAM J. O'BRIEN, US Army, 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry, posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for refusing evacuation after he was seriously wounded during the Tanapag Plain banzai attack and instead manning a jeep-mounted .50-caliber machine gun until his death.

The banzai charge at Saipan was "one of the most devastating single battles of the war."  (All quoted passages above, unless noted otherwise, are from Chapter 6 of Saipan:  The Beginning of the End.)


Media Credits

Photo of Lt. Col. William O'Brien, commander of the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry, 27th Division, from Saipan:  The Beginning of the End (a USMC Historical Monograph by Major Carl W. Hoffman, USMC) - at page 224

Online, courtesy HyperWar Foundation, hosted by ibiblio at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

 

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