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Rapid-Fire History: Battle of Okinawa


On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, some 60,000 American troops supported by approximately 13,000 Allied vessels landed on the Pacific island of Okinawa. Located approximately 350 miles south of the Japanese mainland, Okinawa’s capture was deemed essential in order to launch a successful invasion of Japan, a fearful prospect, but one that many American planners considered inevitable in order to defeat the enemy in the Pacific, once and for all. With the Americans closing in on the Japanese home front, Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima and his 135,000-strong Thirty-second Army resolved to fight on with a fanatical determination. The job of clearing out the enemy fell to the 180,000 Americans of Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.’s Tenth Army.

Ushijima determined that his army would make its stand in the hilly southern region of the island. Operating from a heavily fortified system of caves, tunnels, bunkers, and trenches, the defenders of Okinawa forced American troops to slowly fight their way inch by bloody inch. As Marine E.B. Sledge described the struggle on 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 Japanese fought on until the very end, but American resilience and fighting skill steadily overcame the enemy’s brutal efforts.

Marine Lieutenant Colonel Richard P. Ross, planting the American flag on a parapet of Shuri Castle, located in the relentlessly contested southern region of the island of Okinawa. (Photo: USMC Archives)

After 82 days of battle, resistance on the island finally ended on June 22, 1945. Just days before his victory was complete, General Buckner was mortally wounded by an artillery shell, becoming “the most senior Allied officer to be killed by the enemy in the whole war,” according to historian Andrew Roberts. General Ushijima committed ceremonial suicide, ending his life “just as his command post was finally overrun,” as Roberts notes.

The Americans suffered approximately 50,000 casualties during the Battle of Okinawa, costing the U.S. Tenth Army some 7,373 killed and 32,056 wounded. On the naval side, about 5,000 sailors were killed and 4,600 wounded. Japanese kamikaze attacks also inflicted a heavy toll, sinking or damaging around 30 vessels. Additionally, around 783 U.S. naval aircraft were lost.

According to the National Park Service, "A bereaved father prays for his dead son: Col Francis I. Fenton, 1st Marine Division engineer, kneels at the foot of the stretcher holding the body of PFC Michael Fenton, as division staff members mourn. Col Fenton said that the other dead Marines were not as fortunate as his son, who had his father there to pray for him." (Photo: National Park Service)

In defense of the motherland, the Japanese fought with an extreme savagery and suffered catastrophic losses. Approximately 107,500 Japanese were killed in battle, and as Roberts writes, “an additional 20,000 were buried underground in their caves during the fighting, and only 7,400 surrendered.” In terms of aircraft, the Japanese also suffered enormously, losing around 8,000 planes.

After U.S. forces had gained control of Okinawa, E.B. 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. In August 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Devastated by these weapons of annihilation and facing a new enemy now that the Soviet Union had entered the fight against them, Japan finally announced its surrender on August 14, 1945.


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