KILLING GROUND ON OKINAWA: The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill.
Sugar Loaf Hill was a small, insignificant-looking mound, barely 50 feet high and about 300 yards long, situated on the southern end of Okinawa. It was part of a triangle of strongpoints set up by the Japanese defenders designed to delay and damage the attacking American forces. The other two points of the triangle were the higher terrain of Shuri Heights and an irregular-shaped set of hills that Marines called the Half Moon.
The Sixth Marine Division was given the task of taking the mound called Sugar Loaf, and it would prove costly. By the time the area was considered secure, 1,656 Marines would be dead and another 7,429 wounded. Regiments were reduced to company strength, and companies to platoon size. Platoons and squads simply ceased to exist in some cases. It took 11 tries during a 12-day period and ate up most of three regiments before the hill was taken. Why this was so, and how the hill was eventually taken, is the subject of James Hallas’ World War II book, “Killing Ground on Okinawa: The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill.”
Hallas interviewed a number of survivors of the battles and coupled their recollections with unit official accounts to come up with a story that graphically and explicitly describes the horrors of the battles and the courage and sacrifices exhibited by the attacking Marines. This book is not for the faint of heart. When Hallas writes of the battles, he includes descriptions of horrific wounds suffered by the casualties that make even calloused gunnery sergeants cringe. In doing so, he is merely passing on the sights and smells of the assaults indelibly imprinted in the memories of those who survived, and who passed on their recollections to the author. These stories are what make the chapters come alive for the reader.
Leathernecks of Company G, 22d Marine Regiment were the first to bump heads with the mound, and the first to feel the heat of the interlocking fires. By the end of its struggle to take Sugar Loaf, “George” Co would be down to 24 men of its original complement. When it was relieved, more units were ordered into the fight and were consumed one by one. Many times, Marines reached the summit of the mound only to be driven off or killed by the murderous fire. Eventually, the realization sank in, that the mound was an interlocking system of caves and tunnels with the firing ports so cleverly disguised as to be virtually undetectable. The tanks being used to support the assaults often fell victim to mines, artillery and antitank fire. Those who got through were ineffective in taking out the bunkers because of the camouflage.
The Japanese were so entrenched that many Marines fought the battles without ever sighting the enemy. The frustration they felt is summed up in one chapter that describes a colonel shaking hands with the Marines who returned from one of the fights. One Marine refused to shake hands, saying: “I don’t deserve any commendation. I took the worst licking of my life and never even got one of them in my sights.”
The stories Hallas tells are ones of bravery and devotion to duty. When officers and noncommissioned officers fell, privates stepped up and assumed command. The killing ground leading up to Sugar Loaf was littered for days by the dead, and it was only after the battle that they could be recovered. The war ended shortly after Sugar Loaf and Okinawa were secured. For some of the survivors, it has never ended.