Garapan Light, Saipan

Special thanks to Paul Sturm for granting permission to copy images from his portfolio of photos of this historic and endangered lighthouse, and to Michel Forand for the use of the photo in his collection.

Pictured on this page is America's westernmost lighthouse, located across the International Date Line on the island of Saipan. Saipan is the largest island of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a chain of 15 tropical islands stretching northward from Guam. The Northern Mariana Islands were colonized first by Spain and then by Germany. They were conquered by Japan in World War I and then by U.S. troops in World War II. Since 1986 the islands have been a self-governing commonwealth in political union with the United States, a relationship modeled on that of Puerto Rico.

Located on Navy Hill in Garapan, the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, the lighthouse was built by Japan in 1934 to guide Japanese ships arriving in the harbor. Japan had established major bases in the Marianas, and by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 there were 30,000 Japanese troops on Saipan.

The lighthouse is built of white concrete. A round light tower, with a lantern topped by a copper dome, rose from a small circular keeper's quarters.



photo copyright 2006 Paul Sturm; used by permission

historic photo by C. Singletary from the collection of Michel Forand; postcard publisher unknown

We do not have any photos of the lighthouse taken while the Japanese had it in operation. During World War II, U.S. and Allied forces invaded Saipan on June 15, 1944, and defeated the Japanese garrison in some of the bloodiest fighting anywhere in the Pacific. Fortunately, the lighthouse escaped destruction during this battle, although it suffered some damage. The photo above shows its appearance in the years shortly after the war. Note the round lantern and the copper dome.

Garapan Light
photo from the archives of the Trust Territory government,
posted by the University of Hawaii at Manoa Library

After World War II, the islands were incorporated in the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. U.S. authorities removed the lantern and stored the copper dome. The lighthouse was abandoned until around 1990, when it was renovated and expanded for use as a restaurant.

photo copyright 2006 Paul Sturm; used by permission

The dome was returned to the renovated lighthouse and placed atop a new cupola, converting the lantern to an observation room. The original circular keeper's house was expanded to provide seating space for the restaurant. Sturm writes, "a dining room was added, and the roof expanded for an outer upper deck to enjoy the sunsets."

photo copyright 2006 Paul Sturm; used by permission

The restaurant went out of business near the end of 1994, and since then the lighthouse has been abandoned. Open to the elements and all comers, it has been covered with graffiti. However, the Japanese built the building sturdily to resist typhoons and earthquakes, so the building remains sound.

photo copyright 2006 Paul Sturm; used by permission

The lighthouse is controlled by the government of the commonwealth, and there is some talk that it might become a restaurant again. Sturm has helped start the Saipan Lighthouse Historical Society, which is working to secure the lighthouse and restore it as a maritime and historical museum.

There are five known Japanese lighthouses in the former Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Most of them were badly damaged during World War II, but the Saipan lighthouse was lucky to escape with only minor damage. This building has been entered in the National Register of Historic Places. It deserves to be restored and preserved as a rare artifact of Japan's occupation of the Pacific and as a memorial to the soldiers and sailors who fought for control of Saipan in 1944.

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Posted July 10, 2006; checked and revised September 29, 2017. Site copyright 2017 Russ Rowlett and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill