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Battle of Okinawa


“I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horror of war.” The Battle of Okinawa was a relentless struggle for Eugene B. Sledge and everyone involved. Okinawa wasn’t just the last major battle of the Second World War; it was also one of the bloodiest. Sledge would later write, “The stench of death was overpowering. The only way I could bear the monstrous horror of it all was to look upward away from the earthly reality surrounding us, watch the leaden grey clouds go skudding over, and repeat over and over to myself that the situation was unreal-just a nightmare-that I would soon awake and find myself somewhere else.”

On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, elements of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps supported by the Navy’s Fifth Fleet descended on the Pacific Island of Okinawa. Codenamed Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa aimed to clear the last barrier of resistance before the final invasion of Japan. Sitting some 350 miles south of the Japanese mainland, the 70-mile long island was bitterly defended by a garrison of nearly 130,000 men. After 82 days of relentless fighting across land, sea, and air, American forces emerged victorious as the battle effectively ended on June 22. Over the course of the three-month struggle, Japanese kamikaze pilots inflicted heavy losses to the vast armada of U.S. ships. The situation for Marines like Eugene Sledge was also perilous, later writing, "The Japanese ferociously defended every yard of ground and conserved their strength to inflict maximum losses on the American forces. The tactics turned Okinawa into a bloodbath.” The battle ultimately claimed the lives of around 110,000 Japanese troops, between 40,000 and 150,000 Okinawan civilians, and 12,520 Americans.

U.S. Marines passing by the body of a dead Japanese soldier on Okinawa. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

After capturing the island of Iwo Jima in March 1945, U.S. forces set their sights on Okinawa, the final stop before reaching the Japanese mainland. Gaining possession of the island’s airbases was critical to launching a successful invasion of Japan. While the Americans were closing in on the end of their journey in the Pacific theatre of World War II, the Japanese defending Okinawa were determined to do whatever was necessary to protect their motherland.

In the months before the amphibious assault, Okinawa was pummeled by air raids and naval bombardments. On the day of the invasion, 44,825 shells, 22,500 mortar rounds, and 32,000 rockets fell on the island to clear the way for the landing forces. More than 180,000 American troops prepared to storm Okinawa. Leading the effort on the ground was Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., whose father had served as a Confederate general during the Civil War. Strategic planners expected that heavy casualties would be suffered trying to secure a beachhead, but surprisingly, U.S. forces were able to land ashore and surge inland without encountering any major opposition. Within hours, wave after wave of troops, tanks, ammunition, and supplies had effortlessly landed. By the end of April 1, nearly 60,000 men were on Okinawa, holding an eight-mile wide beachhead. It would not be this easy for very long.

Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner Jr. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The 130,000 Japanese troops on Okinawa were led by Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima. His men sat watching and waiting for their opportunity to strike. Japanese forces were heavily concentrated in Shuri, a rugged area of Southern Okinawa where General Ushijima had established a triangle of defensive positions known as the Shuri Defense Line. This series of heavily defended hills were loaded with firmly entrenched Japanese troops and would greatly test the resolve of U.S. forces.

Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Following the successful landing, American troops continued to advance, crossing the width of the island. With the enemy committed to making their stand further inland, two vital airfields were captured. The 6th Marine Division was sent north, where they faced heavy enemy resistance. After three weeks of fighting, the northern half of the island was secured.

While the northern half of the island was won relatively quickly, the Shuri Line in the south was a different case entirely. American forces struggled to break through the strong Japanese defenses. On April 7, Japan’s 72,800-ton battleship Yamato was sent to launch a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and then to crush the American troops pinned down near the Shuri Line. With its nine 18.1-inch guns, the Yamato was an imposing craft, but due to insufficient air cover and fuel, it was doomed to fail during the fight for Okinawa. Allied submarines spotted the battleship and alerted the Fifth Fleet. A crippling air attack was launched and 19 aerial torpedoes successfully sank the Yamato, drowning some 2,498 of its crew.

The Japanese battleship Yamato. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

After clearing a series of outposts surrounding the Shuri Line, U.S. forces waged many fierce battles, clashing with the enemy on Kakazu Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, Horseshoe Ridge, and Half Moon Hill. Torrential rains turned the hills and roads into watery graveyards of unburied bodies. Eugene Sledge witnessed this firsthand: “The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire; flooded craters with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knocked-out tanks and amtracs; and discarded equipment – utter desolation.”

As American troops ferociously battled on land, Japanese kamikaze pilots terrorized the Fifth Fleet. Some dove their planes into ships at 500 miles per hour, causing catastrophic damage to naval vessels. Sailor Bill Haligas said, “The kamikaze airplanes were flying around like mosquitos,” and that the Japanese “were so desperate by that time because we were getting so close to Japan.” U.S. sailors fought desperately to shoot down the craft of Japanese suicide pilots, but it proved difficult to stop an opponent with nothing to lose. Over the course of the battle, kamikaze attacks cost the Fifth Fleet around 36 sunken ships, 368 damaged ships, 4,900 men killed or drowned, and 763 lost aircraft.

The USS Bunker Hill burns after being struck by two kamikaze planes within 30 seconds. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

While the Battle of Okinawa raged, events in the United States and Europe had major implications on world affairs. After four terms in office, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed away on April 12, 1945. Roosevelt had presided over the Great Depression and most of World War II. His passing was a shock to Americans on the home front and to those fighting abroad. With Roosevelt gone, the job of finishing out the war fell to Vice President Harry Truman. On May 8, both Great Britain and the United States celebrated Victory in Europe Day. The Nazi war machine had finally been defeated, but Japan still remained. To help bring the war in the Pacific to a close, Okinawa needed to be captured.

On May 11, General Buckner ordered attacks on the flanks of the Shuri Line, a move that began to help American troops break through. By the time U.S. forces took Shuri Castle in late May, both sides had suffered enormous casualties. To avoid being enveloped, General Ushijima ordered his remaining forces to retreat to the southern coast of Okinawa where they made their final stand. Even when faced with imminent defeat, Ushijima continued to resist until the very end.

U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Richard P. Ross places an American flag on a parapet of Shuri Castle. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In his final letter, General Ushijima wrote, “To my great regret we are no longer able to continue the fight. For this failure I tender deepest apologies to the Emperor and the people of the homeland. We will make one final charge to kill as many of the enemy as possible. I pray for the souls of men killed in battle and for the prosperity of the Imperial Family.” After that final offensive ended in failure, Ushijima and his chief of staff committed ritual suicide on June 22, effectively bringing the Battle of Okinawa to a close. Around 7,000 Japanese ultimately chose to surrender, but like their commander, many others chose death by suicide. The brutal three months of combat cost the Japanese some 110,000 dead.

General Buckner didn’t live to see the victory through. He was killed in action on June 18, just days before the battle ended. The fight for the island of Okinawa claimed the lives of some 12,520 Americans. More than 38,000 were wounded during the fierce struggle.

The final photograph taken of General Buckner (right), just before he was killed on June 18, 1945. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

With their island ravaged by war, Okinawa’s civilians also suffered terribly. Some citizens even committed suicide after Japanese propaganda led them to believe that they would suffer cruel fates if captured by the Americans. Those who managed to hold on learned that they'd been deceived. Contrary to the propaganda, U.S. forces did what they could to help the suffering inhabitants of the island. In the end, it’s estimated that between 40,000 and 150,000 Okinawan civilians died during the battle.

Eugene Sledge and his fellow countrymen had given their all to help secure Okinawa. After the island was firmly under U.S. control, Sledge recalled, “Ugly rumors circulated that we would hit Japan next, with an expected casualty figure of one million Americans. No one wanted to talk about that.” Due to a new weapon of unimaginable destructive power, the bloody invasion that Sledge and his comrades feared would not be attempted. On August 6, 1945, the American bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The blast reduced four square miles of the city to ruins and instantly killed some 80,000 people. On August 9, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing another 40,000. A few days later, Japan finally announced its surrender.

Smoke from the Atomic bomb bursts over Hiroshima (left) and Nagasaki (right). (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sources

History.com: Atomic Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima.

History.com: Battle of Okinawa.

History.com: FDR Dies.

History.com: Japanese Battleship Yamatois Sunk by Allied Forces.

History.com: Victory in Europe.

Marine Corps Gazette: Okinawa: The Final Great Battle of World War II.

Naval History and Heritage Command: Operation Iceberg - Okinawa Invasion in 1945.

Stars and Stripes: The bloody battle for Okinawa: Veterans recall the luck, grit that got them through.

The Japan Times: Beneath the Battle of Okinawa.

U.S. Naval Institute: Hellish Prelude at Okinawa.

War History Online: Operation Iceberg, The Largest Amphibious Invasion In The Pacific.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge.

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