Tinian, Northern Marianas
TINIAN IN WWII Ė TEAMWORK AND EFFORT
Tinian is today the second most populated island in the US Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. For a time, while the world was in the throes of war, and the United States was fiercely fighting Japan in the Pacific, the largest airport of World War II could be found on Tinian. Seven runways, each 8,500 feet long, saw hundreds of B-29ís departing and landing to and from bombing runs around the clock. Tinianís greatest distinction would come during World War II, in the Pacific theater, when the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were loaded onto airplanes that carried out one of humankindís most terrible missions.
The capture of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Central Pacific in mid-1944 was one of the key actions in the Pacific. Air bases in the Marianas were essential in order to accommodate the new B-29 Superfortress, a US bomber that was just beginning to be mass-produced in early 1944 and which had a flying range equal to the distance from Saipan, Tinian and Guam to Japan and back -- about 1500 miles one way. The US invasion of the Marianas provoked the Japanese Fleet into a major and unsuccessful engagement known as "The Marianas Turkey Shoot". The Marianas provided the bases from which the Army Air Forces later immolated the cities of Japan. Saipan was the staging base for the attack on nearby Tinian, a few miles south of Saipan.
On 24 July 1944, Task Force Five One, commanded by Rear Admiral Harry W. Hill, and the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, under the command of Major General Roy S. Geiger, invaded the island of Tinian. Defending the island were 9,162 Japanese Army and Navy troops. The successful invasion of Tinian hinged on a fake landing staged near "Tinian Town" (presently known as San Jose village). While the 2nd Marine Division pretended to ready an attack on the southern part of the island, even going so far as to lower boats and men into the water, the 4th Marine Division was launching a full-blown invasion on Tinianís north side. The US Marine Landing Force overcame the numerically superior Japanese force on 1 August in what is considered to be the best-executed amphibious operation of the war. Marine casualties were 328 dead and 1,571 wounded. As on Saipan, many Japanese not killed by U.S. military forces opted to commit suicide by jumping off cliffs rather than being caught by the Americans.
Tinian was declared "safe" by the 4th Marine Division on 2 August 1944. Or was it? During the night of 30 January 1945 thousands of pounds of TNT exploded near the center of Tinian, jarring and shaking the ground all over the island and waking everyone asleep. Several GIís were killed in the terrific explosion that authorities believed to be the result of sabotage by Japanese soldiers still at large.
Although Tinian will forever be linked to "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" and the infamous U.S.S. Indianapolis, the island holds another, lesser-known distinction in the annals of modern war. As part of the 13-day naval bombardment of Tinian leading up to the invasion at Unai Chulu, U.S. forces utilized napalm bombs against the Japanese. It was the first time napalm bombs were ever used during warfare.
The tiny coral island of Tinian, 75 miles north of Guam, became an important operational base for the rest of the Pacific war. A prize catch, Tinian boasted three airstrips and a fourth under construction. Even before the island had been secured, aviation engineers and SeaBees were hard at work constructing the huge airbases necessary for the B-29 Super Fortress strategic bombers.
By mid-August 1944 Tinian was secure, and SeaBees began rebuilding a captured Japanese airstrip at the north end of the island in one of the largest engineering projects of WWII. Less than one year later North Field Ė West Field was the largest airbase in the world, with seven vast 8,500 feet long runways and a total of 19,000 combat missions launched against Japan.
Tinian got a face lifting which made it one of the most important bases of the war. On this remote coral rock, SeaBees of the Sixth Brigade, consisting of the 9th, 13th, 18th, 38th, 50th, 67th, 92nd,107th,110th, 112th, 121st and the 135th Battalions built the largest airfield in the world, larger even than Mayor LaGuardia's proposed Idlewild airport at Long Island which FORTUNE magazine (April 1945) had called the "biggest in the world." The total area of Idlewild wasn't even as large as one of the two parts of the B-29 field the SeaBees built. The runways at Idlewild measured at 14.5 miles. North Field was almost 20 miles long. West Field is only a fraction smaller. Width of runways at "world's biggest airport" is only 300 feet. Large enough, but Tinian's measured from 425 to 500 feet.
The Naval Construction Battalion, the fundamental unit of the SeaBee organization, comprised four companies that included the necessary construction skills for doing any job, plus a headquarters company consisting of medical and dental professionals and technicians, administrative personnel, storekeepers, cooks, and similar specialists. The complement of a standard battalion originally was set at 32 officers and 1,073 men, but from time to time the complement varied in number. Twelve complete Battalions were stationed on Tinian in early 1945.
The SeaBees did all the construction on Tinian. No Army Engineers were there, as were on many of the previous jobs that were done jointly. Battalion builders hauled, blasted and packed down enough coral to fill three times the volume of Boulder Dam. Along with the airfields came the inevitable barracks, hospitals, chowhalls, BOQs, wells, warehouses, and chapels.
The airfields on Tinian were the largest construction projects that Naval Construction Battalions had ever undertaken up to that time. They built seven huge B-29 bomber strips, each a mile and one half long and a block wide, along with eleven miles of taxi ways with "hardstands" sufficient to park 300 aircraft. The SeaBees dug, blasted, scraped and moved eleven million cubic yards of earth and coral on Tinian. Piled on a city block, the earth and coral they moved could form a pyramid two-thirds of a mile in height. Their equipment was kept busy 20 hours a day while maintenance crews worked to repair bulldozers, shovels and trucks damaged as a result of the rough construction activity. One SeaBee crew had a Marine tank team fire armor-piercing shells into the side of a hill so dynamite charges could be placed to break up the coral. The 15,000 Seabees on Tinian operated all types of construction equipment including asphalt plants to pave the airstrips. In addition to the airfields, they built Quonset huts and a wide variety of service buildings. Every airstrip was completed on time and none required more than 53 days to build. The SeaBee's motto, "We Build, We Fight" and their "Can Do Spirit" distinguished this group as being able to do any kind of work, any place, under any conditions. The effort of the 6th Naval Construction Brigade on Tinian was truly remarkable.
Tinian is about the same size and shape as Manhattan, and when U.S. forces occupied it during the war, they laid out a system of roads with the same general plan and orientation as on Manhattan. To carry the huge quantities of bombs up from the port at San Jose, two divided highways were built across Tinian. The GIs gave the roads names like Broadway, 8th Ave., and 86th street. The main north-south road, is Broadway, and it runs parallel to the other main north-south road, 8th Avenue. The strange coincidence that Tinian has streets named after streets in Manhattan, New York has no provable connection with the Manhattan Project, although personnel involved in the project were stationed on Tinian.
As soon as air service groups prepared a base on Saipan for occupancy, hundreds of B-29s began arriving in October and November ready to undertake strategic bombing operations against the Japanese home islands. An airfield on Saipan was ready to launch the first B-29 strike on 24 November. Camps on Tinian were constructed to house 50,000 U.S. troops and 1.2 million pounds of crops were produced, all of which were consumed on the island. By August 1945, a year after construction started, Tinian was the largest airbase in the world at the time, and accommodated nearly 450 B-29s.
During the last two months of 1944, B-29s began operating against Japan from the islands of Saipan and, Guam. Initial bombing missions were flown during the day at high altitude, concentrating on chemical plants, aircraft factories, harbors and arsenals. Gen. Curtis LeMay studied the poor results and instructed the bombers to begin low-level incendiary raids at night. The raids targeted Tokyo and some of Japan's other major cities, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kobe.
In January of 1945, the 20th Air Force, 313th Bombardment Wing (6th, 9th, 504th, and 505th Bombardment Groups) under the command of Brig. Gen. John H. Davies took over the newly built North Field on Tinian. They took part in a high-altitude daylight raid on Kobe on 4 February 1945. In April and May 1945, West Field, Tinian received the 58th Bombardment Wing, (40th, 444th, 462nd, and 468th Bomb Groups) which had been redeployed from the now-defunct XX Bomb Command in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre. Approximately 450 B-29ís could now be efficiently launched on a mission from Tinian in 70-80 minutes.
On 22 December 1944, the Army Air Force issued orders for mining operations of Japanese waters to begin on 1 April 1945. After the order was issued, the Navy moved a team of mine experts to Tinian. One month later, the SeaBees had a mine assembly depot completed and in operation on the island.
In late March 1945 the 504th Bomb Group of the 313th Bombardment Wing operating from the newly carved out facilities built by the SeaBees on Tinian lead-off this highly specialized mission - the aerial mining of Japanese waters from the dangerous altitude of 5000 feet. Each B-29 carried 12,000 pounds of half ton and one ton mines to be strategically and accurately placed in Japanese shipping lanes patrolled by Japanese Navy warships. Japanese Navy searchlights and all anti-aircraft weapons were most effective and deadly; much deadlier than their land based counterparts. During a mine run, a B-29 caught in searchlights could take no evasive action Ė they took everything that was thrown at them by the enemy. Many crews were lost in this operation that was described as "Hell".
By mid August B-29ís had dropped more than 12,000 mines mostly in Shimonoseki Strait between Honshu and Kyushu. Eighty percent of Japanese shipping used this route. In less than five months these planes flew 1,528 mine laying sorties. This campaign devastated the Japanese merchant fleet. The Tinian based B-29ís in this mining operation sank half of all the tonnage losses suffered by the Japanese merchant marine in the entire war! The 20th Air force operating from Tinian caused the loss of 9 percent of all Japanese ships operating in the war.
Not long after the arrival of the B-29ís on Tinian, a special comradeship developed between SeaBees and Airmen. Many SeaBee Battalions would "adopt" an aircraft by officially painting their logo and name on the B-29ís nose. The quality of life for the crew of the plane improved considerably because the SeaBees provided the crew of "their" SuperFortress with better Quonset huts, washing machines, better mattresses, ice cream and many other comforts of life. The SeaBees in return were personally represented in the B-29 raids on the Japanese homeland.
On 26 July 1945 after a daring, top-secret voyage across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco, the Indianapolis anchored 1,000 yards off the shore of Tinian and delivered the radioactive components of one of the newly created atomic bombs. SeaBees of the Sixth Naval Construction Brigade helped with the unloading of the components of a newly- developed weapon. The SeaBees then stored the elements in a shed built by them, and organized a detachment to guard the shed and its mysterious contents. Scientists assembled the weapon in the shed with several SeaBees assisting as handymen.
After this momentous delivery, the heavy cruiser set out for the Philippines, but would never make it that far. Four days after departing Tinian, the ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank.
Atomic Bomb Pits, slightly larger than a grave, were prepared for loading the world's first atomic bomb to be detonated in anger. The bomber aircraft would be rolled over the pit, until the bomb bay was directly above the bomb. Then, the bomb would be hoisted into the aircraft weapon bay. At No. 1 Bomb Loading Pit the atomic bomb was loaded aboard an American B-29 dubbed Enola Gay on the afternoon of August 5, 1945, to be dropped on Hiroshima the next day. At nearby No. 2 Bomb Loading Pit a second atomic bomb was loaded on August 9, 1945 and dropped on Nagasaki.
On 06 August 1945 the Enola Gay, a B-29 of the 509th Composite Group stationed at Tinian Island, dropped the world's first atomic bomb on the Japanese City of Hiroshima. At 0245 on 6 August 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets took the controls of a modified B-29 named "Enola Gay" and lumbered into the air from Tinian Island. Once safely airborne, Navy Captain William Parsons climbed into the cramped bomb bay and armed their special cargo--a 9,000-pound atomic bomb called "Little Boy." After more than six hours of tough overwater navigation, "Special Bombing Mission 13" was lined up with the target--Hiroshima--directly ahead. At 0815 Hiroshima time, only 17 seconds from the scheduled drop time, bombardier Tom Ferebee released the weapon.
On August 9th, with Major Charles W. Sweeney at the controls, a 509th B-29 named Bockscar took off before dawn from the island of Tinian with a second atomic bomb aboard. The primary target was the city of Kokura, but clouds obscured it. With fuel running low due to a fuel transfer problem, Sweeney proceeded to the secondary target, Nagasaki, a leading industrial center. There was enough fuel for only one bombing run, and a last minute break in the clouds allowed the bombardier to bomb visually as specified by the field order. When the bomb detonated at 11:00 A.M. Nagasaki time, it felt as though Bockscar was "being beaten with a telephone pole" said a crew member. With fuel critically low, Sweeney turned toward Okinawa where he landed to refuel before returning to Tinian.
On 10 August 1945 Emperor Hirohito decided to end World War II in the Pacific without his cabinet's consent. The legendary effort and unparalleled inter-service cooperation that occurred on Tinian 1944-1945 undoubtedly hastened the end of World War II.
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