ALBANY, N.Y. (MCT) — Seventy years after Japanese fighters launched a suicidal "banzai" attack against U.S. forces invading Saipan, a 20-year-old college student is headed to the island to try to find the remains of 16 Americans, presumed lost in the bloody World War II campaign.
In the coming days, Mackenzie Waterston of Glens Falls and members of Kuentai-USA, a nonprofit group that searches for war dead, will excavate the site on Saipan where scores of Americans, including a number of Troy residents, died on July 7, 1944, in the fiercest fighting of the 24-day battle.
Waterston, 20, is slated to leave Friday and will participate in what has become a race against time. This fall, a Russian developer is expected to start building a condominium project near the site where thousands of cornered Japanese swarmed battalions of Americans in a desperate bid to hold the island. While the builder has pledged to turn over any remains found during construction, the Kuentai-USA project may represent the last, best chance at finding the graves of the 16 missing Americans, which includes six New Yorkers.
"This is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Waterston, a 2012 graduate of Glens Falls High School, said this week. "These 16 families never got to give their loved ones a proper burial."
Saipan is part of the Northern Mariana Islands, located about 1,300 miles south of Japan. The island is now a U.S. commonwealth.
During World War II, Marine Corps divisions and soldiers with the Army's 27th Infantry Division invaded the Japanese-held island to gain a foothold in the Pacific in its fight against imperial Japan. U.S. troops were ordered to dig out more than 30,000 enemy fighters from Saipan's caves, bunkers and mountains so the Americans could use the island's strategic airfields to bomb the Japanese mainland.
From June 15 to July 9, 1944, committed Japanese fighters fought the encroaching Americans in a series of counterattacks. By the end of June, the Japanese imperial Army and Navy were a depleted force. Around 4:45 a.m. July 7, about 4,000 Japanese, some without weapons, made a last-ditch charge on the position of the Army's 1st and 2nd battalions of the 105th Infantry Regiment and 10th Marine Artillery battery. The remaining Japanese were told to sacrifice their lives for the emperor and take no prisoners.
Many historians consider the suicide attack among the most devastating of the Pacific theater during World War II. The Japanese were wiped out in the 12 hours of fighting. The 105th Infantry Regiment suffered nearly 1,000 casualties, including 406 soldiers.
Lt. Col. William J. O'Brien of Troy, the commander of the 1st Battalion, took a heroic stand during the attack. As Japanese troops poured into the American line, O'Brien fired a rifle and then a .50-caliber machine gun until he ran out of ammunition. He and Sgt. Thomas Baker, also of Troy, died in the attack. Both were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — the nation's highest military award — for valor.
In total, the battle at Saipan cost the lives of 3,426 Americans, while more than 10,000 were wounded. Of the estimated 30,000 Japanese, only 921 were taken prisoner. Thousands of Japanese civilians who lived on Saipan died, including more than 1,000 who killed themselves by jumping off the island's rugged cliffs.
A lover of military history, Waterston met two Japanese researchers with Kuentai-USA this month while working as an intern in the basement of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.
Usan Kurata and Yukari Akatsuka visited the museum to inspect boxes of records, battle maps and other artifacts from the battle of Saipan so they might pinpoint where the 16 missing American servicemen were killed or buried on July 7, 1944.
With the help of Waterston, they searched through a primary collection that belonged to O'Brien's nephew Francis O'Brien, the author of a book about the battle at Saipan.
"They are trying to narrow down where the men were last seen," said Jim Gandy, assistant librarian/archivist at the military museum. "They said it was helpful, though I'm not sure how helpful."
The Japanese guests stayed three days. Impressed by Waterston's dedication, they invited her to come to Saipan to help them look for the MIAs. Using historical resources, Kuentai previously found a mass grave containing the remains of nearly 800 Japanese troops.
The researchers also discovered bones belonging to five American soldiers, at least two of whom were identified as MIAs from the 105th Regiment. Those remains were returned for burial in their home states of Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
Members of Kuentai believe up to 16 American soldiers are buried in the same area. Museum employees could not say if any of the lost called the Capital Region home.
There are different possible explanations for how American troops went missing after the banzai attack, Waterston said. There wasn't time for proper burials during the fighting, and some were buried in mass graves or in graves occupied mostly by Japanese, she said.
Waterston, a junior at Adirondack Community College, ended her internship at the museum a few weeks ago, but stayed on as a volunteer. She will fly 17 hours from Albany to Hong Kong to Guam to Saipan to participate in the search.
She's giddy about the 12-day trip, but serious about the job.
"I'm grateful, blessed to be part of this," Waterston said.
©2014 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.). Visit the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) at www.timesunion.com.
Distributed by MCT Information Services