TINIAN—For retired Marine Major Rick Spooner, 86, coming back to Saipan and Tinian for the first time since 1944 brings back painful memories of World War II, but he’s glad to finally make the trip to pay his respects to friends and comrades who lost their lives on the same ground he’s standing on now.
“A lot of my friends were killed on Saipan and here on Tinian. And before it’s too late for me, I had to come back and pay [my] respect,” Spooner told Saipan Tribune before unveiling a monument for the 2nd U.S. Marine Division at Tinian’s historic North Field yesterday morning.
Spooner was part of the 2nd U.S. Marine Division that, along with the 4th Marine Division, invaded Japanese-held Saipan on June 15, 1944.
He was only 19 years old when he landed on Saipan in 1944.
Spooner is one of the few remaining members of the 2nd Marine Division who participated in the July 24, 1944 “perfect amphibious operation of World War II”—the invasion and capture of Tinian.
While a monument for the 4th Marine Division has stood on Tinian for years, “there remained one glairing omission,” said Col. Robert D. Loynd, officer-in-charge of the U.S. Marine Corps Activity in Guam and the CNMI.
“For years, a spot has remained vacant adjacent to her sister 4th Marine Division’s monument,” Loynd said in his keynote address during yesterday’s dedication ceremony for the 2nd Marine Division.
Spooner, in an emotional interview before the ceremony, shared his thoughts about his first visit to Tinian and Saipan since the capture of Tinian 67 years ago. He said he was also surprised at himself for the emotional moment.
“You asked the wrong question. Maybe it was the right question. Why didn’t I come back [sooner]? I should have said ‘I don’t know,’ but I told you the truth, and it affected me. Thank God I came. I wish that the others could see it,” he said.
Spooner said for years, he’s been invited by the Military Historical Tours to come back to Saipan and Tinian but it was only this year when he finally said “yes.”
He said during the war, he couldn’t really see the full beauty of the islands. “It was very difficult to think about the future of the islands. We were trying to stay alive,” he said, adding that he still remembers the war “vividly.”
His regiment stayed longer on Tinian during the war than the others. He left Tinian on Oct. 26, 1944 and went back to Saipan. Months later, they moved to Okinawa, Japan.
Upon learning of a monument dedication for the 2nd Marine Division, Spooner said he’s “deeply honored” and thanked those who made the event a reality.
“The monuments are similar, they look alike. It gives full credit to everyone. None of us who survived felt that we needed or deserved any credit but for those young guys who were with us who didn’t make it back, we really do need to honor them in some way and this is a wonderful thing to do,” he said.
Without a prepared speech, Spooner delivered the closing remarks at the ceremony.
‘Wounded on Saipan’
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Roy Elrod, who was with the 4th Marine Division, participated in the assault on Saipan from June 15, 1944 to July 2, 1944.
That was when he was seriously wounded and had to be evacuated out of Saipan.
“I wasn’t able to make the operation here on Tinian because I was taken away at a hospital,” he said.
Today, he will find the spot where he was wounded 67 years ago on Saipan, and have his photo taken.
Gordon Marciano of Pacific Development Inc. said the spot could be between Garapan and Mount Tapochao.
“I’ve always wanted to go back to Saipan. When I found that the Military Historical Tour group was having this tour, I was the first one to sign up for it,” he said.
Elrod, who was born and raised in Texas, marked his 92nd birthday on June 25.
After retiring from the Marine Corps in 1969, he decided to stay in Northern Virginia.
‘Opening the door’
Col. Robert Loynd, in his keynote address, talked about the heroic actions of the Marines who participated in the Battle of Tinian starting on July 24, 1944.
He said the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, with a supporting naval task force, “opened the door” to the Japanese heartland with the capture of the Marianas.
Loynd said not only was the Battle of Tinian considered—at the operational-level of war—to be one of the most brilliantly executed shore-to-shore expeditionary and amphibious operations to date, but the two Marine Divisions directly enabled the United States’ eventual strategic success.
This was done by securing the island, clearing out well-entrenched Japanese resistance, setting the conditions for the construction of vital airstrips by the Navy SeaBees and ultimately, allowing the Manhattan Project to reach its successful conclusion just a few hundred yards from the newly-unveiled monument, with the loading and launching of the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar.
These B-29s dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, hastening the end of World War II.
“Today’s Marines go forward into battle carrying the armor of their forebears and the same fighting spirit and élan as those Marines like Maj. Spooner and Lt. Col. Elrod who landed in the Marianas 67 years ago,” Loynd said.
‘Thanks to Emerson’
Don Farrell, a CNMI historian and who served as master of ceremony, said due to the impetus provided by a former Marine visiting Tinian with the Military History Tours, a monument to the 2nd Marine Division has been built.
That Marine is Michael L. Emerson.
In yesterday’s ceremony, Tinian Mayor Ramon Dela Cruz welcomed all dignitaries, guests, and community members to Tinian and to the site of the monument.
“But as we stand here today on the historic North Field, it is unfortunate that many Americans do not truly understand the global significance of the heroic acts our veterans performed more than 65 years ago. In fact, it is ironic that as important as Tinian is to world history, many Americans do not even know where Tinian is located or that our island even exists,” he said in his remarks.
Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, who was invited to deliver brief remarks, did not make it to Tinian.
Rear Adm. Paul Bushong, commander of the Joint Region Marianas, said in his remarks that the invasion of Tinian was “textbook perfect, but it was still brutal, demanding fighting.”
“Thank you for honoring the special Americans who paid the highest price in demonstrating that freedom is not free. And thank you to those who worked on this monument and helped ensure that the Marines of the 2nd Division will always be remembered,” Bushong said.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan, in his remarks, said monuments like the one they dedicated yesterday, “are necessary reminders of what the Marines accomplished and of what we owe to them.”
Sablan, Dela Cruz, Spooner, and Elrod unveiled the monument, while Bushong and Loynd laid the wreaths.
Today on Saipan, Spooner will have a book signing for his book at the American Memorial Park’s Visitor Center from 12:30pm to 1:30pm.