Bloody Okinawa: The Last Major Battle of World War II
On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, some 60,000 American soldiers and Marines supported by approximately 13,000 Allied vessels launched Operation Iceberg, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and landed on the island of Okinawa. Located some 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 Japanese in the Pacific, once and for all.
With the Americans bearing down on the Japanese home front, Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima and his 135,000-strong Thirty-second Army on Okinawa resolved to do whatever was necessary to protect their motherland, even if it meant sacrificing their lives in suicidal attacks to inflict as much damage as possible to the Americans. The job of clearing out this fanatically determined enemy fell to the 180,000 Americans of Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.’s Tenth Army.
Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner Jr. Buckner's father was a Confederate general during the American Civil War and famously surrendered Fort Donelson to Ulysses S. Grant in February 1862. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Because Ushijima determined that his army would make its stand in the hilly southern region of the island, the initial American advance went largely uncontested. Once Buckner’s forces reached the rugged terrain where General Ushijima had established a triangle of defensive positions known as the Shuri Defense Line, however, they faced some of the fiercest combat of the Second World War.
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 for every piece of ground. As Marine Eugene B. “Sledgehammer” 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.”
Despite the ferocity of the Japanese resistance, American resilience and fighting skill steadily overcame the enemy’s brutal efforts. On May 29, 1945, Buckner’s forces finally captured the historic Shuri Castle, which was the anchor of Ushijima’s defensive line. Several days later, the Marines launched a successful amphibious assault and seized a vital airfield at Naha.
Marine Lieutenant Colonel Richard P. Ross planting the American flag on a parapet of Shuri Castle. (Photo Credit: 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. With the battle lost, General Ushijima committed ceremonial suicide, ending his life “just as his command post was finally overrun,” as noted by Roberts.
What turned out to be the last major battle of World War II was also one of the bloodiest of the entire conflict. 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. From the very beginning of the battle, Japanese suicide plane attacks, known as kamikazes, terrorized the armada of Allied ships supporting operations on Okinawa. By the end of the fight for the island, Japanese kamikaze pilots had sunk around 26 ships and damaged another 164 vessels. The Battle of Okinawa also raged in the air and approximately 783 U.S. naval aircraft were lost over the course of the fighting.
The US aircraft carrier Bunker Hill burning after being hit by two kamikaze planes within 30 seconds on May 30, 1945. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In defense of the motherland, the Japanese fought with extreme savagery and suffered catastrophic losses on Okinawa. Approximately 107,500 Japanese were killed in action, and as Roberts writes, “an additional 20,000 were buried underground in their caves during the fighting,” leaving only 7,400 troops left at the end to surrender. In terms of aircraft, the Japanese also suffered enormously, losing around 8,000 planes.
The three-month struggle for the island also inflicted a horrific price on Okinawan civilians. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 150,000 Okinawans were killed during the battle. Some of those civilians even committed suicide after Japanese propaganda had brainwashed them into believing that they would suffer terribly if they fell into American hands.
Many heroes emerged during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the most extraordinary of which was Private First Class Desmond T. Doss. Raised as a strict Seventh Day Adventist, a Protestant Christian denomination, Doss’ faith forbade him from bearing arms. Although he received a military deferment, he felt duty bound to serve his country and enlisted in the Army Medical Corps as a noncombatant. While his conscientious objector status made military life difficult, Doss remained committed to his religious convictions and displayed an unwavering commitment to saving lives. On several occasions during the fight for Okinawa, Doss went above and beyond the call of duty. During one incident in particular, he rescued around 75 wounded soldiers by dragging them to the edge of a 400-foot-high jagged cliff, nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge, and lowered them to safety in a rope sling. For his remarkable actions on Okinawa, Doss became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor, the United States military’s highest decoration for valor under fire.
President Harry Truman presenting the Medal of Honor to the Hero of Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond T. Doss on October 12, 1945. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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, however, 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 after the Soviet Union had entered the fight against them, Japan finally announced its surrender on August 14, 1945.
The Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2. On that historic day, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, American General Douglas MacArthur, announced to a live worldwide radio audience, “Let us pray now that peace be restored to the world and that God will preserve it always. These proceedings are closed.”
Learn more about the final days of World War II in the Pacific by reading, An Atomic End: The Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
History.com: Japan Surrenders, Bringing an End to WWII.
The National WWII Museum: Iwo Jima and Okinawa: Death at Japan's Doorstep.
This Is Why We Stand: Battle of Okinawa.
This Is Why We Stand: Desmond T. Doss.
The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War by Andrew Roberts.