26th MEU, aboard USS Saipan (LHA 2) -- When USS Saipan (LHA 2) and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) complete their Mediterranean deployment, their Sailors and Marines will have celebrated two once-in-a-lifetime events -- the 225th birthdays of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps.
On Oct. 13, the Norfolk-based amphibious assault ship was underway, on patrol in the Mediterranean during the sea service's anniversary. On Nov. 7, the eve of their final scheduled training exercise, Marines from the 26th MEU(SOC) held a cake-cutting ceremony to honor their birthday.
Although the upcoming training evolution subdued the Marine Corps' commemoration aboard ship, nothing could subdue their pride.
"I think being here, deployed aboard ship, is what the Marine Corps is all about," said Cpl. Donald Wilcox, Sidney Center, N.Y. native and topographer with the 26th MEU(SOC). "We have an awesome history because we've always been there. We're the first ones in the action."
On Nov. 10, 1775, the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia passed a resolution stating that "two Battalions of Marines be raised" for service as landing forces with the fleet. This resolution, established the Continental Marines and marked the birth date of the United States Marine Corps. Serving on land and at sea, their service aboard ships of the fleet spans from the days of sharpshooting from a frigate's rigging.
In a birthday message to the Corps, General James L. Jones, Commandant of the Marine Corps, expressed his pride in the sacrifice and service of U.S. Marines. "Around the world, in gatherings large and small, Marines will assemble, as they have for 225 years, to honor both our history and the memory of those who have preceded us. It is fitting that we do so, for it is our profound respect for our traditions and reverence of our heritage that distinguishes us as a Corps of Marines."
In remembrance of Marines who made the ultimate sacrifice, those aboard took time out to recall the valor of those who participated in the ship's namesake - the Battle of Saipan.
Located in the western Pacific Ocean, Saipan, the largest and most populated of the Northern Mariana Islands covers an area of about 47 square miles. It stretches 14 miles long and three to six miles wide.
The 1944 Battle of Saipan marked the breaching of Japan's inner defense line and the fall of its South Seas empire capital. Amply fortified with 29,662 well-armed Japanese defenders dug into mountainside caves, an intensive attack was necessary before Marine Corps landings could take place. Surface ships began bombardment on June 13. On June 15, two Marine divisions moved ashore against stubborn opposition, suffering 2,500 casualties from heavy mortar and artillery fire. The Japanese Army resisted vigorously, and though initial beachheads were established, progress inland was stalled.
The assault's key action occurred over July 7-8, when the Japanese launched its largest suicide operation. Their battle cry on Saipan was "Gyokusai." According to the tradition of the Imperial Japanese Army, if the emperor himself ordered such a raid, it was called "Gyokusia" or "Death with Honor." Each dying soldier was to take seven Americans with him.
During that raid, the 1st , 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 10th Marines were in advance positions taking the brunt of the assault. Then Maj. Ed McCarthy of the 2nd Marine Battalion described the action in his memoir. "It was like the movie stampede in the old Wild West movies and we were the cameramen. The Japanese kept coming and coming. It didn't matter if you shot one; five more would take his place. They just kept coming and ran right over us (Marines) hiding in the foxholes."
Despite this opposition, the Marines battled back, taking the Island of Saipan after an estimated 10,437 were killed, wounded or missing in the action. Japanese losses were higher. The Imperial Army's 30,000-strong garrison was virtually wiped out.
This important victory was a key factor in ushering in the final episodes of WWII.
The Marines who took lived under the Corps' motto Semper Fidelis, or always faithful. Their testament of valor, just like that motto, lives on today in the spirit of the men and women who serve aboard USS Saipan and with the 26th MEU(SOC).