Saipan 1944:
Smith vs. Smith, Part Three

By David Lippman
April 2016

The story picks up from Part Two.

Unfortunately, now the controversy moved into the public arena. The Saipan battle was huge news in the United States, particularly the ghastly Japanese mass suicides on Marpi Point, which had been well-documented by film, photograph, and reporter account. The American public was shocked by how the island’s Japanese civilians chose suicide over surrender, and by the heavy U.S. casualty toll. The command controversy was raw meat for American press barons.

William Randolph Hearst’s empire opened the ink barrage. The aging reactionary titan was a major public supporter of the flamboyant and dramatic General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the Southwest Pacific Theater. Hearst took advantage of Saipan’s high casualty lists and Ralph Smith’s firing to denounce the Navy, the Marine Corps, and their leadership.

In his flagship newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, Hearst editorialized that Army commanders used subtle, intelligent tactics, while the Marines were one-dimensional. “Allegedly excessive loss of life attributed to Marine Corps impetuosity of attack,” Hearst wrote, “has brought a break between Marine and Army commanders in the Pacific.”

In another of his major papers, the New York Journal-American, Hearst wrote, “Americans are shocked at the casualties on Saipan following already heavy losses by Marine commanders on Tarawa and Kwajalein.” Hearst accused Holland Smith of firing his Army subordinate when Ralph Smith protested “reckless and needless waste of American lives.”

Hearst had a simple solution to the controversy: put Douglas MacArthur in supreme command of the entire Pacific theater, from the Aleutians to New Guinea. Putting MacArthur in command of everything was Hearst’s answer to most controversies – in 1948 and 1952 he would back the general for the presidency – but it fueled increasing debate.

Worth a thousand words: Howlin’ Mad in his headquarters on Saipan.

The Navy had its partisans in the press war, however, most notably Charles Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, dating back to Luce’s youth as the child of American missionaries in China at the beginning of the 20th century. There, the Navy and Marines had burnished their reputation by protecting American commercial interests and citizens from the ravages of Chinese bandits, civil war, and after 1937, the Sino-Japanese conflict.

Luce also had a reporter assigned to Holland Smith. Robert Sherrod was close to the fiery Marine and went ashore with the Marines on the first day of the Saipan invasion, staying with them through the entire grim battle. Sherrod wrote highly accurate stories about Leatherneck courage and enthusiasm. Certainly the Marines had fought well and victoriously, and they made good copy.

But Sherrod never visited the Army units, and he overplayed the Marines’ disgust at the 27th Division’s perceived failures. He wrote that while the Marines made great gains against tough Japanese resistance, entire Army battalions were pinned down for hours by a single Japanese gun position or sniper.

On September 18th, 1944, Time magazine published an article by Sherrod, supporting Holland Smith, which described the 27th Division as being commanded by an incompetent. Sherrod wrote that the 27th’s GIs “froze in their foxholes,” and had to be rescued by the Leathernecks. Sherrod added, “When field commanders hesitate to remove subordinates for fear of interservice contention, battles and lives will be needlessly lost.”

Historian Geoffrey Perret wrote decades later that the humiliating article devastated the men of the 27th, and the division never recovered its toughness from the literary blow.

The debate raged on in the media and in public conversation, which annoyed Marshall, King, and Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the U.S. Army Air Force, who were now wishing the entire affair would simply go away. They were more concerned with the next campaigns, in the Palau Islands, New Guinea, and the Philippines, than in refereeing the “War Between the Smiths.” It was time to end the whole affair.

Ralph Smith was given Maj. Gen. George Griner’s old command in Hawaii, the 98th Infantry Division, when Griner (right) took over the 27th. This switch of division commanders was only temporary, though, as Marshall wanted the two Smiths separated for life.

Ultimately, Ralph Smith’s fluent knowledge of French saved his career. He was assigned as Military Attaché to General Charles De Gaulle’s Free French government, which had installed itself in Paris. Ralph Smith arrived just in time for the closing guns of the Battle of the Bulge and the opening guns of Operation Nordwind, Hitler’s “other” last-ditch offensive, this one in Alsace against the US 7th and French 1st Armies. The two-pronged German drive was threatening to cut off Strasbourg and the Americans wanted to withdraw from the city.

Unfortunately, Strasbourg’s possession was a major issue for De Gaulle – he was determined not to yield a city that had been annexed to Germany in 1870 and again in 1940 once more by the Huns. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to cut off supplies to De Gaulle’s troops if they did not withdraw. De Gaulle was obstinate. With the two allies shouting at each other, quiet diplomacy was needed to resolve the situation, and Ralph Smith did so – he convinced the French that American and French troops would fight to hold the city. Both Strasbourg and French honor were saved, a good deal of it by Ralph Smith’s efforts.

Holland Smith got a different reward. With six Marine divisions in the Pacific now, along with 28 artillery battalions, 12 Amtrac battalions, and four Marine Air Wings, the Marines now had an army, not a corps, in the field, and it needed a Marine Headquarters to administer this force.

Holland Smith was named head of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, which was a mixed blessing for the fiery warrior: while he oversaw the entire Marine war effort in the Pacific, he did not actually command Leathernecks in battle. Nor did he command Army troops again.

The invasion of Iwo Jima was purely a Navy-Marine show, and both services suffered heavy casualties while gaining the island and glory, but when Marines were assigned to the invasions of Okinawa and Kyushu, they came under Army command.

At Okinawa, the higher formation was the US 10th Army, under Gen. Buckner. Ironically, Buckner was killed late in the battle, and Marine Lt. Gen. Roy Geiger, who commanded the 3rd Amphibious Corps, took over the 10th Army from June 18th to June 23rd, while Gen. Joseph Stilwell flew in from the United States to head the 10th Army. Geiger thus became the only Marine officer to command a U.S. Army in the field.

Marines hit the beach on Saipan, June 1944.

In the planning for “Operation Olympic,” the invasion of Kyushu, and “Operation Coronet,” the invasion of Honshu, the Marines were to come under the US 6th Army and Gen. Walter Krueger in “Olympic” and Gen. Robert Eichelberger’s US 8th Army in “Coronet.” Both invasions were forestalled by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which sped Japan’s surrender.

But the controversy continued after the war, in the public eye if not in the halls of high command. Holland Smith retired with his fourth star in May 1946, having served in the Corps for 41 years. He promptly wrote his memoirs, which were serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1948, and in book form in 1949, entitled Coral and Brass. In his memoirs, Holland Smith defended his decision to fire Ralph Smith and blasted the 27th Infantry Division for its perceived weaknesses.

The 27th Infantry Division’s official historian, Capt. Edmund G. Love, wrote a rebuttal for the Saturday Evening Post as well, and another one for the division’s history, published by the Infantry Journal. Love in turn defended Ralph Smith and his GI buddies.

The official Army and Marine Corps historians also weighed in on the controversy. The 1960 Army history, Campaign in the Marianas, by Philip A. Crowl, straddled the fence. Crowl wrote that Holland Smith’s orders were never clear, the division did fight hesitantly, and did not advance: “No matter what the extenuating circumstances were – and there are several – the conclusion seems inescapable that Holland Smith had reason to be disappointed with the performance of the 27th Infantry Division on the two days in question. Whether the action he took to remedy the situation was a wise one, however, was doubtful. Certainly the relief of Ralph Smith appears to have done nothing to speed the capture of Death Valley. Six more days of bitter fighting remained before that object was to be achieved.”

The Marine history was written in 1966 by Henry I. Shaw, Jr., Bernard C. Nalty, and Edwin T. Turndbladh, and entitled, Central Pacific Drive. “The Smith against Smith controversy,” The Leatherneck historians wrote, “was caused by failure of the 27th Infantry Division to penetrate the defenses of Death Valley. Holland Smith had told the division commanding general that operations in the area had to be speeded up. Ralph Smith, who was thoroughly familiar with the tactical situation, informed Jarman of his own annoyance with the slow progress of his unit. He told the island commander that he intended to press the attack, but he postponed making the changes in command which, according to Jarman, he intimated might be necessary. The NTLF (Northern Troops and Landing Force) commander (Holland Smith), after stating that the objective had to be taken, saw that no significant progress had been made on 24 June and promptly replaced the officer responsible for the conduct of the Army division. The Army Smith offered his subordinates another chance, but the Marine Smith did immediately what he felt was necessary, without regard for the controversy he knew would follow.”

Ultimately, Ralph Smith probably had the last word. After retiring from the Corps, Holland Smith lived in La Jolla, California, pursuing his hobby of gardening, until his death at age 84 in 1967. He is buried in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

Ralph Smith, however, became Chief of Mission for CARE (Cooperation for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) in France, retiring from the Army in 1948. After that, he was a fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, in California, and lived until 1998, dying at the age of 104. At his death, he was the oldest surviving general officer in the US Army, and had outlasted all of his critics.

Click here to order Saipan 1944 and fight like Howlin' Mad!

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.