Saipan: My Final U.S. Outpost Harbors Rich, Dark History

Day 47, 2024 Grand World Voyage

Monday, Feb. 19, 2024; Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands

With my visit to Saipan today, I now have set foot in the five populated outposts of the United States – its territories and commonwealths. Frankly, I hadn’t even thought of the concept, but late today while browsing in the Zuiderdam’s library, I came across The Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack’s non-fiction book about his travels to these islands.

For the record, they include Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands (which includes Saipan), as well as 11 uninhabited Minor Outlying Islands, including Midway Atoll, Wake Island and, of interest to me, Johnston Atoll. According to Mack, while we are much more likely to think of the British Empire than of the American Empire, the population of America’s five territories is bigger than that of the remaining colonies of Britain, Spain, France, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands – combined.

Today in Saipan not only did I learn a bit more about this American commonwealth, but also about World War II in the Pacific. My shore excursion took us north from the main city of Garapan to visit the landing site Americans used in the summer of 1944 and the cliffs from which the Japanese defended. You can still see the evidence in the cliffs of the bombardment.

According to signage at our various stops, of the 71,000 U.S. troops that landed, 3,100 were killed and 13,000 wounded. Of the 31,630 Japanese soldiers on the island, 29,500 were killed.

Even darker, about 1,000 civilian residents jumped from cliffs to their death, in part due to Japanese propaganda that Americans would rape, torture and kill them. We visited these cliffs, known as Suicide Cliff and Bonzai Cliff.

Bonzai Cliff

The U.S. National Park Service’s small visitor center in Garapan’s American Memorial Park has an excellent exhibition on the battle.

Saipan is much smaller than Guam and without the large hotel resort area. When we drove by the Kensington Resort early on our tour, I wasn’t too impressed. But when we returned for a short restroom visit, I was amazed by the beauty of interior and its pools leading down to the beach. This is a place I could enjoy a relaxing and luxurious visit for a few days.

Following our tour, we took the free shuttle bus back into town for a bit of shopping. The choices ranged from a small high-end mall to the huge I❤️Saipan souvenir shop. The most notable landmark is the Imperial Palace Casino, a shuttered white and gold complex that looks better suited for the Las Vegas strip. Economic woes and myriad legal actions have beset the casino.

It is somewhat indicative of the challenges before both Saipan and yesterday’s port of Guam. Their proximity to Japan, Korea and China makes them ideal tropical playgrounds, but early investment by Japan was stymied by that country’s economic woes of the 1990s. Today, the strong U.S. dollar – the currency of these islands – means it’s expensive to visit. Koreans currently make up the majority of tourists. Only four or five cruise ships visit each island every year, and this was the first time the Zuiderdam visited Saipan.

Today a local dance school said goodbye from the pier. And our chefs prepared wonderful appetizers for us to enjoy during the sail away.