Saipan 1944:
Smith vs. Smith, Part One

By David Lippman
April 2016

The ferocious battle for Saipan was followed by an almost equally ferocious battle between the US Army and the US Marine Corps, when the top Marine general on the island, Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith, relieved the top Army general, Maj. Gen. Ralph Smith, from his job as commanding officer of the 27th Infantry Division, in the middle of the fighting. The abrupt dismissal set off fireworks at flag rank and in the media, and a controversy that still does not rest.

At the center of the dispute was Ralph Smith (right), who led the 27th Infantry, a New York National Guard outfit, with many of its men drawn from the state’s farming and mountain country, others from New York City’s tough neighborhoods. Ironically, Ralph Smith was not a New Yorker. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1893, and attended Colorado State College. He enlisted in the Colorado National Guard in 1916, was commissioned second lieutenant, and promoted straightaway to first lieutenant. Taught by Orville Wright to fly, Ralph Smith gained the 13th pilot’s license in the history of the United States, signed by Orville Wright himself.

Ralph Smith graduated from Officers Training School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1917, and served on the Mexican border with the 35th Infantry Regiment. He was sent to France with the 16th Infantry Regiment, part of the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division. He saw a lot of action, including the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, earning a Purple Heart, and a Silver Star with Oak Leaf Clusters.

On returning home, Ralph Smith served in the usual peacetime army roles: adjutant of the 2nd Infantry Brigade in Kentucky . . . French instructor at West Point . . . training and instructing at the Infantry School . . . going to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth in 1927, graduating the following year.

Next up was a tour at the Presidio in San Francisco, then returning to the Command and General Staff School as an instructor. In 1934, he entered the War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and graduated the following year. He was then chosen to study at the prestigious École de Guerre in France.

In 1937, Ralph Smith returned to the United States, and gained the eagles of a full colonel in 1938, serving as Chief of the Operations Branch, Military Intelligence Division of the War Department General Staff. By 1940, he was Chief of Plans and Training Branch of the G-2 Division. The following year, Ralph Smith received his brigadier general’s star. All who knew him regarded Ralph Smith as gentle man and a gentleman.

In early 1942, the 27th Infantry Division was moved from New York to Hawaii to defend the islands against Japanese attack. The 27th had a proud tradition – one of its units was the 165th Infantry Regiment, which, in its World War I incarnation, had been the legendary “Fighting 69th” commanded by “Wild Bill” Donovan in the Argonne. Ralph Smith was given command of this division.

Ralph Smith’s chief antagonist was a ferocious Alabaman, born in 1882. Holland McTyeire “Howlin’ Mad” Smith (right) was the son of a prominent Alabama attorney. While attending the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, (later renamed Auburn University), Holland Smith read Napoleon and decided to become a career officer. He graduated from API and then went to law school at the University of Alabama, where he was a better sprinter than scholar but still gained a law degree and was admitted to the bar.

When Holland Smith sought an Army commission, he went to Washington to plead his case to his congressman, but the Army turned him down. That may have, some historian suggested, giving him a lifelong dislike of the Army. A congressman suggested that Holland Smith try his luck with the Marines.

“What are the Marines?” Holland Smith asked, in all candor, and he found out on March 29th, 1905 when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Corps. He was soon nicknamed “Howlin’ Mad,” a play on his name and initials, and went to France with the 8th Marine Regiment in 1917. He earned a Croix De Guerre with Palm in combat. Between the wars, he became one of the Marines’ pioneers of amphibious warfare.

In March 1937, by now a colonel, Holland Smith became director of operations and training at Marine Headquarters in Washington, D.C. In September 1939, he gained his general’s stars and command of the 1st Marine Brigade. This was doubled in size under his leadership, and became the 1st Marine Division. In June 1941, Holland Smith took command of the Amphibious Force, Atlantic Fleet.

A short, heavy-set man with a moustache, and round, thin glasses, a hard face and a cigar, Holland Smith resembled an elderly business tycoon, not a poster general. Aged 60, his appearance and girth troubled a medical board, which found him physically unfit for combat service due to a diagnosis of severe diabetes. The diagnosis proved to be a mistake, and Holland Smith headed to the west coast to oversee amphibious training as the Marines prepared for Guadalcanal.

There, Holland Smith prepared Leathernecks for their impending ordeal in the Solomons and Army troops for the Aleutian campaign. While his duties were vital, Holland Smith like most line officers fretted about not getting into combat, and beseeched Adm. Chester Nimitz for a battle role. Nimitz gave Holland Smith one: Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force Pacific, and Holland Smith took up his duties on September 5th, 1943.

Holland Smith headed the invasion of Tarawa and its nearby islands, Makin and Abemama, and under his command was the 27th Infantry Division, under Ralph Smith. In the assault on Makin Island, the two Smiths first clashed.

The 27th Division’s 165th Infantry Regiment assaulted Makin on the 20th, under Col. Gardiner Conroy, and faced fierce defenders. On D-plus-2, Holland Smith went ashore to check on the battle. He found the corpse of Col. Conroy lying in an open area. Conroy, walking erect on the beach on D-Day, had been shot between the eyes by a Japanese sniper, and the body had not been retrieved.

Holland Smith was angered that the colonel’s body had lain for two days “in full sight of hundreds of men,” a detriment to morale. Worse, when Conroy had been killed, the Army troops had withdrawn their tanks, mortars, and machine-guns, without firing a shot. The 27th Division’s seeming lack of aggressiveness, poor training, and weak discipline irritated the fierce Holland Smith. He later wrote, “Had Ralph Smith been a Marine I would have relieved him on the spot.” He also called the 27th’s capture of the island “infuriatingly slow.”

This innovative headgear did little to reduce Marine casualties.

Meanwhile, the Marine landings on Tarawa, despite suffering heavy casualties, were more successful, burnishing the reputation of the Leathernecks and their tough-talking commander.

The Smiths were united again for an amphibious assault on Eniwetok in February 1944, and once again Holland Smith was unhappy with Ralph Smith’s performance.

On March 15th, 1944, Holland Smith became the Marine Corps’s second three-star general, with command of the 5th Amphibious Corps, and with great reluctance, accepted the 27th Infantry into his command for the invasion of Saipan.

When the 27th Infantry came ashore to take its part in the invasion of Saipan, the actual landing was close to a farce. The GIs landed by night, their landing craft moving through waters jammed with Navy vessels. Holland Smith’s corps staff didn’t tell the Navy that the Army was coming ashore.

Communications broke down, and Navy officers yelled through loud-hailers at the Army officers, demanding to know who these people were, and where they were going, while training machine-guns on them. The infantry officers had to wheedle and beg to get their men ashore. Once aground, the men of the 165th Infantry Regiment were exhausted and seasick, before they even met the Japanese. The 105th Infantry Regiment lacked its vehicles, rations, and ammunition.

But Ralph Smith did his best, getting the 27th off the beach and into battle, headed for Mount Topotchau. A former Fort Benning infantry instructor, Ralph Smith used the tried-and-true Benning methods to approach the mountain: probe until enemy strongpoints were unmasked, hit them with accurate artillery fire, and use patrols to find ways to outflank the main positions. Frontal assaults up valleys were only acceptable in an emergency.

But Ralph Smith’s methodical probing irritated Holland Smith, who favored the aggressive violence and direct action that was the Marine hallmark. Personalities as well as tactical methods were now clashing on the rocky island. The Army made little progress.

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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist and graduate of the New School for Social Research, has written many magazine articles about World War II. He currently works as a public information officer for the city of Newark, N.J. We're pleased to add his work to our Daily Content. A version of this article originally appeared in World War II magazine.