Saipan 1944:
Smith vs. Smith, Part Two

By David Lippman
April 2016

The story began with Part One.

On June 24th, after consulting with his superiors, Vice Adm. Richmond Kelly Turner, and Vice Adm. Raymond Spruance, Holland Smith relieved Ralph Smith, sending a captain from the Adjutant General’s Corps with the official corps order, typed up on 5th Amphibious Corps stationery, and the additional proviso that Ralph Smith and a single aide must leave Saipan by dawn on the 25th. Maj. Gen. Sanderford Jarman, who was to command the Army base on Saipan once the island was secured, would take over the 27th Infantry Division.

Ralph Smith (right) offered to stay to help with the transition, but that offer was refused. At 5:17 a.m. on June 25th, Ralph Smith and his aide boarded a Navy PBM patrol plane and started winging back to Eniwetok, a 10-hour flight, ultimately headed for Hawaii.

“Relieving Ralph Smith was one of the most disagreeable tasks I have ever been forced to perform,” Holland Smith later wrote, adding that he personally liked the man and considered him “professionally knowledgeable.”

But at the time, Holland Smith told Time magazine war correspondent and future Marine historian Robert Sherrod, “Ralph Smith’s my friend, but good God, I’ve got a duty to my country. I’ve lost 7,000 Marines. Can I afford to lose back what they have gained? To let my Marines die in vain? I know I’m sticking my neck out – the National Guard will try to chop it off – but my conscience is clear. I did my duty. When Ralph Smith issued an order to hold after I told him to attack, I had no other choice than to relieve him.”

Holland Smith was right about the oncoming storm. When Ralph Smith arrived in Hawaii, he reported to Lt. Gen. Robert C. Richardson, the senior Army commander in the Pacific, and Richardson was outraged. He told Ralph Smith to take as much time as necessary to prepare a report to him on everything that had happened on Saipan. Ralph Smith produced on July 11th a 34-page document with annexes and copies of his communications with Holland Smith. A copy went to Nimitz. Ralph Smith urged Richardson that “no Army combat troops should ever again be permitted to serve under the command of Marine Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith.”

While Ralph Smith and his officers typed up their report, the ranking Army officers on Saipan vented their considerable displeasure over the relief and Holland Smith’s command to Richardson as well. Maj. Gen. George W. Griner, who took over the 27th Infantry Division from Jarman on June 26th, told Richardson how he had quarreled so bitterly with Holland Smith that he came away from Saipan with the “firm conviction that (Holland Smith) is so prejudiced against the Army that no Army Division under his command alongside of Marine Divisions can expect that their deeds will receive fair and honest evaluation.”

Meanwhile, Richardson ordered Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, victor of the Aleutians Campaign and son of a Confederate Civil War hero, to head a five-general board to examine Ralph Smith’s relief.

While the gravelly-voiced Buckner and his board studied the files, Richardson flew to Saipan in his capacity as commander of all U.S. Army forces in the Pacific Ocean Areas. First he bucked up the 27th Division’s morale by staging a review and presenting decorations for valor – without the knowledge or consent of Holland Smith, who was angry at this breach of military etiquette and infringement on his authority as corps commander.

Next, Richardson berated Holland Smith, barking, “I want you to know that you cannot push the Army around the way you have been doing; you and your Corps commanders aren’t as well qualified to lead large bodies of troops as general officers in the Army, yet you dare to remove one of my generals. You Marines are nothing but a bunch of beach runners anyway. What do you know about land warfare?” Faced by this verbal barrage, the normally volatile Holland Smith held his temper, but after the conversation, he stormed off to Turner’s flagship, and vented his frustration.

Turner did the next round of exploding, questioning Richardson’s right to exercise any command functions in the battle area, and even to visit Saipan. Richardson coolly said that he had permission from Nimitz to visit Saipan, and Turner angrily demanded the proof. Richardson went over Turner’s head to Spruance, who gave Richardson a “what do you expect from Turner” shrug. But Spruance and Turner complained to Nimitz about Richardson’s visit and verbal attack on Smith.

The “Buckner Board” reviewed the increasingly ugly mess, and arrived at four conclusions:

• Holland Smith had full authority to relieve Ralph Smith.
• The orders effecting the change of command were properly issued.
• Holland Smith “was not fully informed regarding conditions in the zone of the 27th Infantry Division” when he asked for Ralph Smith’s relief.
• The relief of Ralph Smith “was not justified by the facts.”

The board faulted the 5th Amphibious Corps command for not realizing that the 27th Division was facing much tougher opposition than the corps staff anticipated, and the division’s lack of aggressiveness was due to Japanese defenses, not sluggish Army leadership. The Buckner Board noted that the Marine corps headquarters team and staff work was enormously sloppy, that the senior Marine leadership had not been anywhere near the 27th Division’s sector, and simply did not know what the Army had been up against on Mt. Tapotchau.

The Army had a point: Saipan was the first time in its 150-year history that the U.S. Marine Corps had fought a corps-level action, and while the Leathernecks were fierce fighters and professional warriors, they simply lacked the experience needed at that level of combat operations.

The Navy and Marine Corps reacted with predictable irritation. Holland Smith wrote to Nimitz that the Buckner Board’s conclusions were unwarranted, adding, “I was and am convinced that the 27th Division was not accomplishing even the combat results to be expected from an organization which had had adequate opportunity for training.”

Turner chimed in, resenting the board’s implied criticism in “pressing Lt. Gen. Holland M. Smith . . . to expedite the conquest of Saipan so as to free the fleet for another operation.” He added that Holland Smith’s relief order was not “based on either personal or service prejudice or jealousy.”

Richardson added his own harsh words in his report to Army Chief of Staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, writing, “I feel it is my duty to make of record my urgent and considered recommendation that no Army combat troops ever again be permitted to serve under the command of Marine Lieutenant General Holland Smith. So far as the employment of Army troops are concerned, he is prejudiced, petty, and unstable. He has demonstrated an apparent lack of understanding of the acceptance of Army doctrines for the tactical employment of larger units.”

Jarman agreed. “It is my earnest recommendation that in future operations of any kind where the Army and the Marine Corps are employed that under no circumstances should any Army divisions be incorporated into the Marine Corps. Their basic concepts of combat are far removed from that of the Army.”

The Buckner Board findings went next to Washington, for review by Marshall, and his Assistant Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Thomas T. Handy. They believed that while Holland Smith had some cause to complain about the 27th Division’s lack of aggressiveness, “Holland Smith’s fitness for this command is open to question” because of his deep-seated prejudice against the Army, and that “bad blood had developed between the Marines and the Army on Saipan” to such a degree that it endangered future operations in the theater.

Handy advised that the two Smiths be ordered out of the Pacific, but added, “While I do not believe we should make definite recommendation to the Navy for the relief of Holland Smith, I think that positive action should be taken to get Ralph Smith out of the area. His presence undoubtedly tends to aggravate a bad situation between the Services.”

The Deputy Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, examined the Buckner Board report, and concluded that Holland Smith’s 5th Amphibious Corps staff work was below acceptable standards; there was reasonably good tactical direction on the part of Ralph Smith, but the division had poor leadership among its regimental and battalion commanders, a hesitance to bypass snipers “with a tendency to alibi because of lack of reserves to mop up,” poor march discipline, and lack of reconnaissance.

Howlin’ Mad watches over Admirals Ernest King (left) and Chester Nimitz on Saipan.

On November 22nd, 1944, Marshall gave his views to the Navy’s top seadog, Adm. Ernest J. King, expressing concern that “relationships between the Marines and the Army forces on Saipan had deteriorated beyond mere healthy rivalry.”

Marshall urged that he and King send identical telegrams to Richardson and Nimitz to “take suitable steps to promptly eradicate any tendency toward . . . disharmony among the components of our forces.” He also suggested another investigation into the Saipan affair to prevent its recurrence.

King wrote back to say that the Buckner Board findings were unilateral and suspect, contained intemperate attacks on the personal character and professional competence of Holland Smith, and he could not concur in any further investigations in which Richardson was a party because that officer had done enough damage by his “investigational activities during his visit to Saipan” and by convening the Buckner Board. That ended any further official action on the controversy.

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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.