Embellished Steel and Heavy Metal: A Guide to the May 2023 Premier Auction
Tanks and Blank. Rock Island Auction Company’s May Premier Auction features a second round of offerings from the Norman R. Blank Collection and a
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“If this gun could talk,” is the frequent lament of those of us who have collected an old gun or two. The mind races at the historical prospects and wonders about the tired hands that once bore these fascinating machines. What was their name? Were their hands soiled with honest labor or with the blood of innocent men? What places did they see? Such questions especially plague the collectors of military surplus (“milsurp”) firearms. Whether long arms or handguns, these weapons of nations from around the world are more likely to have seen the cruelest of all settings: war.
Numerous collectible milsurp arms appear in any given auction at Rock Island Auction Company, but it is a rare one indeed that is accompanied by its own verifiable history. One such gun appears in our 2017 February Regional Auction, and it was involved in one of the most strategically important battles in World War II’s Pacific Theater: The Battle of Saipan.
Saipan is a small island, about 75 square miles, located in the volcanic string of the Mariana Islands, the southernmost of which is Guam.
As of 1942, the Japanese held virtually every sandbar from Tokyo to New Guinea, but through a daunting campaign of island hopping, the United States and her Allies had made their way northward through the Pacific islands until by 1944 they were within striking distance of major targets such as the Philippines and even the Japanese mainland. The next major target of the island-hopping campaign was the Mariana Islands (Operation Forager), beginning with the island of Saipan (Operation Tearaway).
The numerous details of this battle are documented to an incredible level. Given the resources that are readily available online, it is remarkable how little is popularly known or mentioned in relation to other important U.S. military battles, especially when considering its similarity to perhaps the most famous U.S. military action of all time, The Landings at Normandy.
Saipan had its own D-Day, 0700 on June 15, 1944. Planes had been softening Japanese defenses on the island chain since February, but on the 11th, all four carrier groups in the area were ordered to attack. Intense dogfights filled the skies, ground defenses were demolished, and two Japanese ships were put out of the fight. In the days between then and D-Day planes would obliterate coastal defenses, destroy important infrastructure, as well as supplies.
On June 13 naval bombardment of the island began, exactly one week after the Normandy landings. They razed the cities of Garapan and Chalan Kanoa, the island’s two largest municipalities which had served as the Japanese “nerve center” and made the island such a critical target. Over 15,000 rounds were fired on the tiny strip of land, including the largest shells available at that time: 16-inch shells which measured 1.5 meters long and weighed around 2,700 lbs. Japanese soldiers recount the bombardment as such:
“The din robbed us totally of all sense of hearing. It wasn’t the same as a boom or a roar that splits the ears: it was more like being imprisoned inside a huge metal drum that was incessantly and insufferably being beaten with a thousand iron hammers.”
“…extreme intensity of those flashes and boiling clouds of smoke…the area I was in was pitted like the craters of the Moon. We just clung to the earth in our shallow trenches….half buried”
June 14 was largely a day of preparation for the Navy who demolished reefs, cleared mines, and left navigational buoys. June 15 loomed on the horizon.
For hours that morning, ships circled and men piled into boats in preparation to take the beach at Chalan Kanoa. One can only imagine the mounting trepidation of the Japanese soldiers who witnessed this gradual unfurling of military might. 1,500 vessels and thousands of Marines from the 2nd and 4th Divisions, comprising the Marine V Amphibious Corps (VAC). At 0830, the invasion began. Transport and assault ships began their journey to the beachhead while attack planes and supporting battleships poured supporting fire onto the isle. The battle had begun, but there was no response from the Japanese even as the ships passed the buoys marking the effective ranges of the entrenched guns. American troops must have gratefully wondered about the silent reply from the Japanese, but they wouldn’t have long to wait. Japanese artillery and mortars had zeroed in on positions at the edge of the reef, a clearly visible kill zone and a place where American ships were the most likely to become immobilized on the natural underwater obstacles. A beautiful and life-giving creation had been turned into an instrument of war.
Suddenly, the Pacific exploded with incoming fire. It was finally the Japanese’s turn to answer for the days of shelling and air attacks they had endured. Aimed at that small slice of earth were sixteen 105mm, thirty 75mm, and eight 150mm guns strategically located on the mountains that stared down at the invaders. The sea was also no help, as rough waters confused landing zones and overturned numerous vehicles, drowning the men they carried before they had the chance to fight. All this chaos and death, and they had yet to reach the shore.
1st Lieutenant John C. Chapin, 3rd Battalion, is widely quoted as stating,
“All around us was the chaotic debris of bitter combat. Jap and Marine bodies lying in mangled and grotesque positions; blasted and burnt-out pillboxes; the burning wrecks of LVTs that had been knocked out by Jap high velocity fire; the acrid smell of high explosives; the shattered trees; and the churned-up sand littered with discarded equipment….
Suddenly, WHAM! A shell hit right on top of us! I was too surprised to think, but instinctively all of us hit the deck and began to spread out. Then the shells really began to pour down on us: ahead, behind, on both sides, and right in our midst. They would come rocketing down with a freight-train roar and then explode with a deafening cataclysm that is beyond description.
It finally dawned on me that the first shell bursts we’d heard had been ranging shots, and now that the Japs were “zeroed in” on us, we were caught in a full-fledged barrage. The fire was hitting us with pin-point accuracy, and it was not hard to see why–towering 1500 feet above us.”
By 0900, nearly 8,000 Marines had come ashore. Now they had to fight the Japanese on land they had been preparing defensively for over a decade. Although most air installations had since been destroyed, the U.S. troops would still have to contend with fortified barracks, pillboxes, snipers, spider holes, an underground tunnel network, ammunition caches, and a terrain that was as varied as it was unforgiving; filled with sugarcane fields, ravines, caves, sand, swamps, and of course the jungle-covered Mount Tapotchau. All this just over 1,000 miles north of the equator in the middle of a sweltering June, which also happened to be during the wet season leaving troops in the midst of daily deluges that no doubt dampened spirits and worsened the already undesirable terrain. 2,000 men were lost the first day and off-shore medical ships were overwhelmed. Little did they know they had only seen the beginning of the 32,000 Japanese troops that awaited them, more than double their estimates.
That night at approximately 2000 hrs, the Japanese launched a daring but feeble counterattack on the left U.S. flank. They brought tanks, but the U.S. troops quickly utilized the naval “star shells” to easily see their attackers. Small arms, machine guns, 37 mm antitank guns, and 75mm Howitzers quickly brought the Japanese to a halt. Another counterattack commenced at 0300, but it was even more feeble than the first and stood no chance of success against the Second Marine Division, a hardened group that had already fought their way across several islands including Guadalcanal.
On D+1, causeways and makeshift docks were being built for the ingress of supplies. A large Japanese defensive point separating the U.S. forces into two groups was taken by noon, and a massive counter-attack was repelled that became the largest tank battle of the Pacific.
“The battle evolved itself into a madhouse of noise, tracers, and flashing lights. As tanks were hit and set afire, they silhouetted other tanks coming out of the flickering shadows to the front or already on top of the squads.”
– Major James A. Donovan Jr.
Before dawn on June 17, the U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Division landed. Comprised of several National Guard units from New York, they had been called to action in 1940 and were now the first National Guard division to play a part in the Pacific War. Despite the fighting of the previous day, their path was far from easy. The beaches may have been cleared of immediate danger, but the landscape was that of total war,
“…disabled LVTs and boxes of c-rations were scattered across the beach. Bodies of dead Marines that had not been recovered bobbed in the surf… The leaves on battered trees and underbrush were covered with a fine, gray dust,”
– Naval Construction Battalion Commander David Moore
They were tasked with securing the Ås Lito Airfield (now the Saipan International Airport) and to cut off the southeast corner of the island. After intense combat and a constant rain of accurate mortars and artillery fire from elevated positions, the airfield was secured on June 18th.They continued fighting throughout the month of June and were forced to engage in brutal door-to-door fighting through Garapan village. The securing of the airport could not have come at a more perfect time. On its way to Saipan was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Mobile Fleet to take on the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the 500 ship flotilla that was already assaulting Saipan. The Battle of the Phillipine Sea was about to begin.
Saipan was second only to Guadalcanal as the most costly Pacific battle to date for the Americans who suffered 2,949 killed and 10,464 wounded from their force of 71,000. The Japanese lost nearly every man on the island, at least 30,000 lives.
By now, you may be wondering how this Japanese Type 99 is tied to the Battle of Saipan. Attached to the right side of the butt is a small brass plaque that reads,
“At 0440 on the morning of 16 June 1944, an American infantryman just landing on the shores of Charan-Kanoa Beach, Saipan, threw a hand grenade at a Japanese sniper killing him instantly. The forward stock of the rifle was damaged by the explosion. Presented by Commander Walter Bantau. USNR.”
Besides giving us a really cool story, and perhaps the ultimate tangible connection to it, the plaque also provides some very helpful information that pinpoints its place in history – where it was and what it was doing.
Of course, the dates and location are provided on the plaque, but what other clues can we obtain? For starters, based on the landing time we know that the man who threw the grenade must have been one of the soldiers of the 27th Infantry Division of the National Guard that arrived long before dawn broke on D+2, June 17. The plaque does indicate a landing on June 16, but many sources are conflicted on this information. In the research for this article, it was found that at 0330 on June 16, Marines were busy holding off a desperate second Japanese counterattack attempting to retake the beach and “push the Americans into the sea.”
We also know that on the 27th, there were only three infantry regiments: the 105th (formerly the 2nd New York), the 106th, and the 165th (formerly the 69th, a.k.a. “The Fighting 69th” and “The Fighting Irish”), so the fortunate grenadier must have been in one of those rregiments Each of those regiments is comprised of men from the New York Army National Guard so we can say with some certainty that it was likely a New Yorker who killed the sniper on the beach that day.
Other than that, as with most collector firearms, we are left with more questions than answers.
1. Who was Lieutenant Commander J. Walter Bantau?
2. Why was he, a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, presenting this Japanese Type 99?
3. Who was he presenting it to? Why?
4. Why isn’t the presentee named on the plaque?
For the record, short of visiting the National Archives, little other information on Lieutenant Commander Bantau is available other than he existed. He served in the Amphibious Training Command before it was dissolved. In December of 1943 Bantau was the Maintenance and Supply Representative of the ATC of the Pacific Fleet, and was based out of San Francisco, eventually making his way to the USNR.
This rifle has a fine story to tell, and perhaps with a little investigation its tale can be transformed from “story” into “concrete fact.” Even without such verification, it is an excellent Type 99 with high levels of finish, matching number parts, anti-aircraft sights, and yes, it still has its mum. Clearly, this has remained a prized possession for many years. We are grateful to this rifle’s previous owners for being such steadfast stewards while it remained in their care.
Today, the island of Saipan is a nearly comical contrast to the horrifying violence it once knew. Where American troops once landed are now resorts and two different high schools. Where the island was once strategically cut in half, now resides a bakery and a sea cucumber preserve. It is truly a tropical paradise, but still bears the scars of her conflict. There are numerous submerged vehicles surrounding the island: airplanes, boats, landing craft, and rather famously, three M4 Sherman tanks. Land features to this day retain some of their wartime monikers such as Tank Beach, Marine Beach, and Suicide Cliff, where thousands of Japanese civilians and soldiers leapt to their deaths to prevent being captured. There is also the American Memorial Park on the Northwest edge of the island and the World War Two Veterans’ Cemetery at the northern point of the island, near Bonzai Cliff.
Like this rifle, Saipan remains a beautiful yet haunting reminder of war and healing.
Reconciliation by Walt Whitman
WORD over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again,this
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
Tanks and Blank. Rock Island Auction Company’s May Premier Auction features a second round of offerings from the Norman R. Blank Collection and a
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