By Sgt. Andrew Valenza, New York National GuardJuly 9, 2019
TROY, N.Y. -- Veterans and Soldiers of the New York National Guard's 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team honored the World War II veterans of the 27th Division and one of its Medal of Honor recipients, Lt. Col. William O'Brien, during a World War II commemoration wreath laying Sunday at O'Brien's graveside at St. Peter's Cemetery in Troy.
The ceremony marked the 75th anniversary of the division's fight against the largest Japanese human-wave suicide charge of the Pacific Theater during WWII.
Three members of the 27th Division received the Medal of Honor for their actions to defend fellow Soldiers during the attack, which marked the end of Japanese resistance in Saipan in 1944.
Retired New York Army National Guard Lt. Col. Paul Fanning, a veteran of the brigade's deployment to Afghanistan in 2008, spoke at the ceremony.
The presentation of three Medals of Honor to Soldiers in the same Army unit for actions in the same unit, on the same day, in the same battle is simply remarkable, Fanning said.
"There is nothing like this in our Army history," Fanning said, "where three men all sacrificed themselves in such a way to save the lives of their fellow Soldiers."
Fanning said ceremonies such as this were meant to remind Soldiers of their unit lineage and inspire them.
"What we're trying to do is connect Soldiers of today with Soldiers from the long past, and thereby inspire the Soldiers of today as they continue their efforts to serve our country."
The Battle of Saipan was fought in the Mariana Islands from June 15 to July 9, 1944. The invasion force included the U.S. 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions along with the Army's 27th Division, a New York National Guard element that first mobilized in 1940.
Landings began on June 15, 1944 as the two Marine Divisions established a beachhead. The 27th Division landed the following day and advanced on the island's airfield. The Soldiers took the airfield within 24 hours and repelled a Japanese counterattack the night of June 18.
The naval actions at Saipan are now known as the battle of the Philippine Sea, a defeat for the Japanese Navy, which lost three aircraft carriers and hundreds of planes.
For the Soldiers and Marines fighting on Saipan, the result was the complete isolation of the Japanese garrison with no hope for resupply or reinforcement. The Japanese defenders would fight to the end.
The Japanese defenders used caves in the volcanic landscape, creating high casualties for the attacking Americans. The Soldiers and Marines gradually developed tactics for clearing the caves by using flamethrower teams supported by artillery and machine guns.
With no reinforcement and nowhere to retreat, the Japanese commander ordered a final suicidal banzai charge for July 7. At dawn, led by a great red flag in the lead, the remaining able-bodied troops -- about 3,000 men -- charged forward with wounded soldiers following right behind.
The Japanese surged over the American front lines, engaging both Army and Marine units. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 105th Infantry Regiment, along the 27th Division front line, were almost destroyed, losing 650 killed and wounded.
However, the fierce resistance of these two battalions, as well as others in the path of the banzai charge, resulted in over 4,300 Japanese killed.
Lt. Col. Bill O'Brien, commanding the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit largely drawn from the Troy area in Upstate New York, fought and led his men from the front the night of July 6-7, 1944, firing his pistols and directing companies and platoons to hold back a wave of an estimated 4,500 suicidal attackers.
His Medal of Honor citation reads:
With many casualties and ammunition running low, Lt. Col. O'Brien refused to leave the front lines. Striding up and down the lines, he fired at the enemy with a pistol in each hand and his presence there bolstered the spirits of the men, encouraged them in their fight and sustained them in their heroic stand.
Even after he was seriously wounded, Lt. Col. O'Brien refused to be evacuated and after his pistol ammunition was exhausted, he manned a .50-caliber machine gun, mounted on a Jeep, and continued firing.
When last seen alive he was standing upright firing into the Japanese hordes that were enveloping him. Sometime later his body was found surrounded by enemy he had killed.
O'Brien received the Medal of Honor posthumously on May 27, 1945, in a ceremony at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy. He was survived by his wife and son, William J. O'Brien, Jr.
"We're looking back, but we're also focused on the fact that this is the lineage of the 27th, and it still carries on as an active formation in the New York National Guard." Fanning said.
1st Lt. Thomas Helveston, assigned to the 27th Infantry Brigade Headquarters Company, was one of the wreath bearers. He said he was glad to be a part of the ceremony, and for the opportunity to honor a Medal of Honor recipient.
"It's cool to have the opportunity to bring to light these sacrifices that have been made," Helveston said. "It's an honor to be part of the lineage today. There's a lot of history that goes into it and the Soldiers across the 27th embody that."
Two other 27th Division Soldiers received the Medal of Honor for their actions in the July 7 attack.
Pvt. Thomas A. Baker, also assigned to the 1st Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, refused to be evacuated after he was wounded and continued to fight in the close-range battle until running out of ammunition. At his request, his comrades left him propped against a tree and gave him a pistol, which had eight bullets remaining. When American forces retook the position, they found the pistol, now empty, and eight dead Japanese soldiers around Baker's body. Baker is buried at Gerald B. H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville.
Capt. Ben L. Salomon, the battalion dentist of 2nd Battalion, 105th Infantry Regiment, aided the evacuation of wounded Soldiers. After defending his unarmed patients from four Japanese soldiers, he manned a machine gun and effectively repelled numerous enemy forces to enable the evacuation of wounded personnel. When his body was recovered after the battle, 98 dead Japanese soldiers were found in front of his position. For his gallantry, Salomon received the Medal of Honor in May 2002. He is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Saipan was declared secure on July 9. Some 29,000 Japanese defenders, nearly the entire garrison, had been killed. For the Americans, out of 71,000 who fought, nearly 3,000 were killed and more than 10,000 wounded.
The loss of Saipan precipitated the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and left the Japanese mainland within range of Allied long-range B-29 bombers.
The 27th Division would spend the next nine months refitting and training before its next commitment in the Battle of Okinawa in April 1945.