Oba, the Last Samurai: Saipan 1944-45 Book Review

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Oba, the Last Samurai: Saipan 1944-45

By Don Jones

Hardcover in dustjacket, 241 pages

Published by Presidio Press June 1986

Language: English

ISBN-10: 089141245X

ISBN-13: 978-0891412458

Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.5 x 9 inches

Sakae Oba was a 29 year old Captain in the Imperial Japanese Army.  He was a combat veteran who had served in Japan’s campaigns in Manchuria and China, where the Japanese army had known only victory.  In February of 1944 Oba and his regiment were transferred from Manchuria and boarded a transport ship, bound to reinforce the Japanese garrison defending the island of Saipan in the Marianas.

War in the Pacific was vastly different than the war in China.  Oba’s transport, the Sakuhato Maru, was torpedoed and sunk by the USS Bluefin on 29FEB44.  (Note: The book is mistaken about the identities of the ships involved.  Oba’s transport was actually the Sakito Maru, sunk by two torpedoes from the USS Trout (SS-202).  Trout was in turn depth charged and sunk by the Japanese destroyer Asashimo.)  After a day in the water Oba was rescued by a destroyer, still in possession of his sword and sidearm but little else.  While slightly less than half of the troops aboard survived the sinking, they arrived on Saipan without equipment or supplies.

Oba’s part in the defense of Saipan was command of an ad hoc unit primarily operating as a field hospital.  When the Americans landed on 15JUN44 the unit took to the hills.  As the situation for the Japanese deteriorated, Oba and his command grew more and more frustrated with the Americans’ use of supporting arms – naval gunfire, aircraft, and artillery fire had caused the Japanese significant casualties long before they even saw their first U.S. Marine.  On 07JUL44 the Japanese launched the largest Banzai charge of the Pacific War, losing over 4,000 men.  Two days later the island was officially secured.

Oba’s war was just beginning.  Convinced the Imperial Navy would arrive to push the invaders back into the sea, Oba organized a group of Japanese soldiers, sailors, and civilians and hid out in the island’s rocky interior.  He fought a guerrilla war against the Americans, conducting ambushes and stealthy infiltration of U.S. camps to secure food and medical supplies.

The book ends with Captain Oba marching his men out of the hills to surrender to the American Marines on 01DEC45, three months after the war had official ended and more than a year after Saipan was declared secure.  I would have liked to have seen one more chapter covering their return to Japan and their efforts to rebuild their country and their lives.  How did they get back and what did they find when they got there?  Very little is written about the demobilization of the militaries after the war but it must have been a particularly surreal experience for the Japanese.

I was inspired to re-read this book after reading several posts about the end of the Pacific War and occupation of Japan on G.P. Cox’s Pacific Paratrooper blog.  A very interesting account of the war from a Japanese perspective, and a unique perspective at that.  Recommended reading for anyone interested in the Pacific War.

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