Americans today would find such will to win at any cost difficult to comprehend.
Perhaps with Easter just passed, it is fitting to remember Easter of 1945 when the invasion of Okinawa, the last battle of World War II and the largest sea-air-land operation in history, began. It would also be the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific and a grim foretaste of what to expect in the planned invasion of Japan itself.
On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945 the landing crafts carrying the first wave of the U.S. Marines and Army G.I.s chugged towards the beaches of the island of Okinawa, just 350 miles south of mainland Japan.
American soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division take cover in a ditch atop a position known as Rocky Crags during the invasion of Okinawa, Japan, April 19, 1945. (Photo by W. Eugene Smith/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Based on past bloodlettings at Peleliu and Iwo Jima, the initial landing force was expected to suffer casualties as high as 80 percent. But when they leapt from their boats the troops found…nothing. The beaches were eerily quiet. Strange. By the end of L-Day the Americans landed 75,000 troops safely; the number would grow to over 180,000.
Although their guts told them otherwise, even the veterans allowed themselves to wonder if the massive pre-landing naval and aerial bombardment of the island actually did obliterate the island’s 77,000 defenders of Imperial Japan’s 32nd Army and 40,000 Okinawan conscripts.
Okinawa, part of the Ryukyu chain, is a wriggly worm-shaped island 60 miles-long and eight miles wide. The landscape in 1945 consisted of neatly terraced fields, pine forests, quaint villages, rugged escarpments, and was home to 400,000 civilians. With large harbors and several airfields it was ideal as a staging area for the invasion of the Japanese mainland.
Resistance was expected to be ferocious. Yet the Americans easily swept across the island, bisecting it. The Marines then pivoted north while the G.I.s turned south.
Where were the Japanese?
The Army found them.
The Japanese commander, Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, had studied the tactics of Peleliu and Iwo Jima where the defenders stayed holed up in caves and deep bunkers, letting the exposed enemy come to them. Ushijima would not let his forces be scythed down in fruitless mass banzai charges as seen on Guadalcanal and Saipan. He would utilize a series of parallel ridge lines that ran across the waist of the island and dig in. The goal was to inflict as many casualties on the Americans as possible before selling their lives for their god emperor. By making the Americans pay dearly for every foot of ground, the defenders would buy the home islands time to prepare for invasion.
The American death toll soon began to rise as the Army came up against increasingly stiff resistance, with heavy artillery raining down constantly. The Japanese were not on Okinawa so much as in it.
Every hill bristled with expertly camouflaged machine gun nests and pre-sited artillery and mortar emplacements manned by determined defenders. In a bitter repeat of previous battles, the Americans had to root them out with bazookas, grenades, satchel charges and the awful flame-throwers one cave, one gully, one hut at a time. It was slow, methodical, demoralizing work that was both physically taxing and psychologically exhausting. In fact, Okinawa saw 26,000 cases of “combat fatigue” -- more than any American battle in history.
Meanwhile, in the waters surrounding the island, the supporting naval armada of over 1,300 vessels of every type had its hands full fending off waves of fanatical aerial assaults by the Kamikaze suicide planes. Hundreds of bomb-laden aircraft on one-way trips screamed out of the sky and slammed into ships causing terrible destruction and inflicting heavy casualties. By the time the campaign was over the Navy would have 36 ships sunk, 368 damaged, and 5,000 sailors dead; 15 times the number killed at Midway.
By mid-April, the 1st and 6th Marines managed to clear the central and northern parts of the island. But in the south the Army had been unable to blast the Japanese from their defensive positions: a succession of limestone ridges around the walled town of Shuri. On May 1 the Marines were sent south to shore up the center of the line. Pvt. Eugene Sledge, a Peleliu veteran of the 1st Marine Division, knew what this meant for him.
“A column of men approached us on the other side of the road from the 106th Regiment 27th Infantry Division that we were relieving. Their tragic expressions revealed where they had been. They were deadbeat, dirty and grizzly. Hollow-eyed and tight-faced. As they filed past us one tall, lanky fellow caught my eye and said in a weary voice: ‘It’s hell up there, Marine.’”
To add to the misery of the battle, torrential rains swept the island, turning the ground already churned up by constant shell-fire into a muddy, maggot-infested soup. The omnipresent stench of human waste and rotting flesh filled the nostrils. The weary Americans referred to the once-picturesque island as “hell’s cesspool.”
The grinding battle lasted for 82 agonizing days. Wrote Sledge:
"We were resigned to the fact that the Japanese would fight to total extinction as they had elsewhere. And that Japan would have to be invaded, with the same gruesome prospects.”
The Americans finally pierced the Shuri line and squeezed the stubborn Japanese south until they reached the sea; the island was declared secured on June 22.
It was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War.
In taking this one island the Americans suffered 12,500 dead and another 49,000 wounded. The Japanese garrison was all but annihilated losing 112,000 dead. Tragically, 142,000 Okinawan civilians lost their lives; they were either caught in crossfires, blown apart by the ceaseless shelling, or gunned down by Japanese troops if they attempted to cross to the safety of the American lines.
As Sledge intimated, Okinawa offered Allied planners a grim prognostication of what to expect in the invasion of Japan itself, slated for October 1945. This battle along with the hellish experiences of Iwo Jima and Peleliu played a major role in President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs and end the madness once and for all.
In the diabolical mathematics of war, perhaps these battles achieved the goals of both combatants. The Americans showed that, no matter the cost, they would prosecute their mission until the utter destruction of Japan. The fanaticism displayed by the Japanese in defending such small land masses prompted the Americans to search for an alternative to all-out invasion as this promised a series of Okinawas multiplied.
Both sides understood that an invasion of Japan would cost millions of lives. Perhaps then, the horrible battles of the last year of the Pacific War that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved many more lives than they took. If such is the case then the combatants did not suffer in vain.
Brad Schaeffer is an energy broker, columnist, historian and author of the World War II novel "Hummel's Cross" about a Luftwaffe flying ace who saves a family of Jews during the height of the air war over Europe. Drop him a note at: shafemans@yahoo.
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