Okinawa: The Final Battle Of WW II (Full Article)(April 1985)
By Bob Jordan
The initial euphoria of landing "unopposed" on April Fool's Day quickly changed to grim determination for American forces on Okinawa who were forced to dig Japanese defenders from every crack and crevice.
0406, 1 April 1945... It is time. One half million American soldiers, sailors and Marines are poised for attack. They emerge from the gray-steel hulls of more than 1,300 ships. The last stepping-stone to the Japanese main islands lay before them: Okinawa Shima. Operation Iceberg is ready for execution.
It is not quite daylight when Admiral R.K. Turner gives the traditional signal to "Land the landing force!" A crash of naval gunfire responds and the still calm of an Easter morning is shattered as salvo after salvo smashes into the Hagushi beaches in front of Yontan and Kadena Airfields.
The Second Marine Division sits aboard its transports on the opposite side of the island facing the beaches at Minatoga. It is a decoy, attempting to confuse the stoic Japanese defenders as to the real direction from which the seaborne assault will come.
Iwo Jima has fallen. B-52s now menace Kyushu and Honshu from the barren captured airstrips on that ash-covered, blood-soaked island.
The beaches and hillsides of Okinawa have blossomed flame and steel for seven days as they have been pounded by aerial and naval bombardment. More than 120,000 of Japan's finest soldiers weather the maelstrom, most safely in the deep, well-prepared defenses of caves with interconnecting tunnels.
Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima commands the Japanese 32nd Army on Okinawa. He and his chief of staff, MajGen Isamu Cho are veterans of the Burma Campaign. Ushijima has just completed an assignment as Commandant of the Japanese Military Academy. Both men are known to be quiet, competent professionals who are capable of inspiring great confidence and respect in their subordinates. They have studied the Pacific island campaigns well and adjusted their strategy accordingly, thus preparing what they hope will be a trap for the attacking American force. They are dedicated to victory or death.
Ushijima's strategy is simple. He will not defend the beaches. Instead, his men will patiently wait in prepared defenses deep within the network of caves, ravines, gun positions and "pillboxes." He will permit the Americans to land unopposed. After they are ashore, a massive assault by suicide speedboats and Kamikaze aircraft attacks will sever their seabased supply line. After they have wasted themselves against the interconnected defense-in-depth, Ushijima will counterattack and drive them into the sea.
It is a good plan. But the Americans unwittingly begin to defeat it when the U.S. Army's 77th Infantry Division assaults and captures Kerrama Retto and Keise Shima. In moderate fighting from 26 through 31 March, the 77th not only captures the islands of Aka, Geruma, Hokaji and Zumami but the suicide boats as well. They have also set up an artillery support base just 15 miles west of Okinawa. For seven months carrierbased aircraft have tried to soften Okinawa's defenses by daily bombardment. Now it is time to land the assault forces.
As the first rays of sunlight penetrate this fateful new dawn, Kamikazes strike the diversionary forces standing off the southeastern beaches. Ironically, the first casualties are inflicted on troops who are not slated to land. Eight Marines are killed, 37 wounded and eight listed as missing in action. The majority of the casualties are from 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines and its attached units.
0650: Air support has arrived over the target area.
0700: The assault force begins to debark. Men clamber down the landing nets swaying from the sides of APAs into landing craft while others adjust to the smell of oil and salt spray as their cramped amphibian tractors lurch from flooded well-decks toward the open sea.
Ten battleships blast away with their tympani-sounding five-and 16-inch guns, their decks rolling from the aftershock. Their chorus is joined by nine cruisers, 23 destroyers and 177 gunboats. The Japanese response is mute except for occasional light artillery and mortar fire. The assault waves are formed under this protective umbrella of fire and steel. They are now in two waves, their line of departure marked by control vessels with bright pennants fluttering in the morning breeze. Thoughts of home, reflections on life and death, fears of the unknown all torment the green-clad troops. Nervous joking serves to relieve some of the strain...but most men choose to wait silently, battling their individual internal demons within the chapels of their minds.
0800: The fluttering pennants slide from view. The first wave of LVT(A)S move forward in a bowing line toward the beach. Five to seven waves of LVTs position themselves behind them as they swim the agonizing 4,000 yards of open sea. Above, 138 aircraft swoop and dive, delivering bombs and incendiaries on suspected strong points. They strafe the beachfront repeatedly until the first LVTs lumber ashore.
Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle reported from the scene: "H-hour was 0830 (sic). We were on Okinawa about an hour and a half after H-hour...without being shot at...and we hadn't even gotten our feet wet."
The landing was unopposed, true to Ushijima's strategy. But Ernie Pyle and his comrades soon learned that, what started out seemingly a picnic, would end being the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War.
Six reinforced divisions, led by Army LtGen Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., had been formed into the Tenth U.S. Army. It consisted of the III Amphibious Corps (First, Second and Sixth Marine Divisions), led by Marine MajGen Roy S. Geiger; and the Army's XXIV Corps, led by Army MajGen John R. Hodge.
Fierce opposition had been anticipated. Extra medical teams had been placed in the first waves. Three days had been allotted to capture Kadena and Yontan airfields. The Marines take the airfields in two hours after hitting the beach. They then charge across the narrow island and wheel north toward Hedo Point as the Army units advance south toward Naha. Some recall that it is April Fool's Day and wonder at what kind of joke they might be a part. Their euphoria is soon to turn to frustration and for some...death.
This initial euphoria soars even higher when the world's largest carrier, the Yamato, is sunk by torpedo planes and bombers at 2:17 p.m. on 7 April. Adm Turner radios CINCPac headquarters: "I may be crazy, but it looks like the Japs have quit the war...at least in this section."
Adm Chester Nimitz knows from monitoring Japanese coded messages that Ushijima's forces are waiting for the American forces to push inland before tripping their trap. He responds to Turner: "Delete all after crazy."
It takes the Marines about a week before they find serious resistance. As they advance toward Motobu Peninsula, Okinawan natives scurry into the dense jungle tangle to "escape." They've been told that the Americans will rape, kill and pillage. Many commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide) or throw themselves off cliffs. Some hide in caves and family "turtle back" tombs (which also may serve as ready-made pillboxes).
Typical is one family's odyssey. They slipped into the tangled growth of vines and bamboo near present-day Okinawa City. After days of struggling through the underbrush without food and little water, they emerged just a few miles away in Futenma. Compassionate Marines found them and reassured them with food and water. Still suspicious, they were reluctant to accept the Marines' offering, for fear of poisioning. The Okinawans are gathered into refugee camps as the Americans press their advance.
No doubt Ushijima had studied the ancient Chinese General Sun Tzu's dictums:
When occupying ground which offers no advantage to either side (the beaches) we should lure the enemy by feigned departure, wait until half his force has come out, and make an intercepting attack.
And, in precipitous ground...take position on sunny heights and await the enemy.
While the landing force is experiencing relatively light resistance ashore, the naval task force beats off swarms of aircraft, almost half of which are Kamikazes trying to crash their flying bombs into the fleet. Ten major Kamikaze attacks are launched, resulting in the loss of 34 U.S. ships...4,907 Americans being doomed to watery graves (the worst Navy loss of WW II), while 763 carrier aircraft are also destroyed. Still, the Japanese attack on the fleet fails to isolate the forces ashore which continue to plod methodically forward.
April 14: The 1,500-foot crest of Mt. Yae Dake dominates the Motobu Peninsula as three Marine battalions storm its slopes. By nightfall the Marines have a firm hold on the first ridges. Two days later, supported by air and naval gunfire, the Marines push up the steep slopes and take command of Yae Dake.
"It was like fighting a phantom enemy," said LtCol Fred D. Beans, regimental XO of 1/4. The hills and ravines were apparently swarming with Japanese, but the Marines found it difficult to close with them. When they reached the crest of the mountain they found no one, dead or alive. The Japanese, following Ushijima's orders, had retrieved their dead and faded into the plush northern jungle to fight in small guerrilla bands.
Two Sixth Division Marines earned the Medal of Honor for their actions on the 15th and 16th of April.
Pfc Harold Gonsalves, a 19-year-old from Alameda, Calif., was part of a forward observation team moving forward to better observe artillery fire when a grenade landed in its midst. Without hesitation the young Marine dived on the grenade, absorbing the blast into his own body.
The next day Cpl Richard Earl Bush, from Glasgow, Ky., led his squad through a hailstorm of artillery fire to the crest of Yae Dake. The 21-year-old Kentuckian's squad was the first over the crest, fighting furiously while their fellow Marines caught up to them. Bush was seriously wounded in the battle and medevaced. When an enemy grenade was thrown into the medical treatment area, Bush pulled the deadly missile to him, shielding his buddies from its lethal blast.
Miraculously, both Bush and Gonsalves survive their grievious wounds.
Sadly, war correspondent Ernie Pyle is not so fortunate. He chooses to accompany the 77th Army Division as it advances on a nearby island, Ie Shima. Unknown to the Americans, 4,000 Japanese soldiers are secreted in the cracks and crevices of a 600-foot high hill called "the Pinnacle." It's an ideal observation point. Intense fighting ensues at Bloody Ridge and Government House. The Japanese charge in human-wave banzai charges. Many carry only wooden clubs. It takes five days of intense combat to secure Ie Shima which becomes Ernie Pyle's final dateline when he's cut down by sniper fire alongside an insignificant dirt road. As always, Pyle was not seeking "the big story," but simply trying to tell the story of the average "G.I." infantryman-a task for which he had a special talent and for which he earned the eternal respect of the fighting men of WWII.
To the south, the battle still rages. Kakazu Ridge doggedly resists American advances. Intense fighting erupts at "Item Pocket" near the Machinato Inlet area. Small unit objectives are dubbed with the names of their commanders: Brewer's Hill, Ryan's Ridge and others.
For the first time more Americans are lost in the fighting than Japanese. Ushijima's strategy is exacting a terrible toll.
Finally, Ryan's Ridge is taken. The advantage tilts toward the Americans. A 27th Division Combat Team leads a breakthrough. Defenses at Kakazu, Item Pocket and Skyview Ridge crumble. The Americans regroup and press forward.
Troopers of the 77th Division use cargo nets to scale the sheer cliffs of Hacksaw Ridge to reach their Japanese foes. Burning gasoline, satchel charges and flamethrowers force the Japanese to entrench into more formidable defensive positions along the Naha-Yonabaru Line.
The Japanese are jubilant!
Though hard-pressed, they feel they've been successful in holding the Americans. Ushijima feels the time is ripe to strike the fateful blow which he hopes will drive the invaders into the sea.
As the Japanese position for attack, they brush a perimeter outpost manned by Pfc William Adelbert Foster. Foster is a 30-year-old reservist from Cleveland, Ohio. He and another Marine spot the infiltrating Japanese and engage in a hand grenade duel. Suddenly an enemy grenade falls just out of reach. Foster smothers it with his body. He survives just long enough to hand his two remaining grenades to the other Marine, saying, "Make them count." He received a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor.
May 3: Orders are issued for the Japanese Army to attack the east-west line at Futenma. This is the site of the Army's 96th Division command post. The Japanese believe it to be Gen Buckner's 10th Army Headquarters.
At dusk, the Japanese launch Kamikaze attacks on American shipping. Within an hour, one ship is badly damaged and another sunk. That evening the Japanese attempt amphibious flanking maneuvers on both coasts. They use barges, assault boats and Okinawan canoes. Flares suddenly light the scene...shore batteries scream out plumes of death at the hundreds of bobbing targets. It's a disaster! The artillery destroys all of the boats and most of the Japanese as well.
Just before dawn on the 4th of May the Japanese attack. Wave after wave of Japan's finest expend themselves on the American positions. For the moment the 32nd Japanese Army is stopped.
Now the Japanese are forced to expose artillery which has been hidden inside caves. The Americans pinpoint the guns and destroy them.
Still the fanatical Japanese attack into a deadly wall of American artillery, mortar and small arms fire. The attack is blunted...but the Japanese regroup and attack three hours later...this time with tanks!
The Japanese lose six tanks in the fray. Still they press forward and engage in hand-to-hand fighting. They successfully infiltrate the town of Tonabaru and the Tonabaru Ridge. They fight behind the American lines for three days before they are beaten.
On 7 May, Pvt Dale Merlin Hansen, armed with a rocket launcher, advances with other members of "E"/2/1 toward a group of Japanese pillboxes carved into the crest of a steep ridge. Hansen, 22, has a reputation of being cool and courageous in combat. The Wisner, Neb., native crawls forward to an exposed position and knocks out one of the hostile redoubts. His weapon is destroyed by return fire so he seizes a rifle and launches a one-man assault against the offending position. He leaps across the crest of the ridge and opens fire on six Japanese soldiers. He kills four of the enemy before his M-1 jams. Hansen attacks the remaining two with butt strokes and then scurries for cover.
Hansen retrieves another weapon and several grenades, then resumes his attack. He wipes out an enemy mortar position, killing eight more Japanese. He cooly continues to lead his company in the assault throughout the bitterly contested engagement. His actions-earn him the Medal of Honor.
Meanwhile, Pfc Albert Earnest Schwab, a 24-year-old flame-thrower operator from Washington, D.C., is waging his personal war in a nearby valley. Schwab, finding his company pinned down by machine gun fire and unable to flank the enemy because of steep cliffs on either side, boldy charges the offending machine gun with a frontal attack, burning the enemy machine gunners to death. Another machine gun opens up and Schwab's unit begins suffering heavy casualties. Despite a depleted supply of fuel for his weapon, Schwab elects to continue his frontal attack. Cooly he moves directly into the enemy fire. The final burst from the enemy gun severely wounds Schwab, but he has accomplished his task. He, too, is awarded the Medal of Honor.
A third Medal of Honor is awarded for this day's actions when Cpl John Peter Fardy sacrifices himself by falling on an enemy grenade tossed in the middle of his squad which he has just deployed along a drainage ditch. Fardy, from Chicago, Ill., is 22...forever.
By now Ushijima knows his counterattack has failed. He reverts to defensive tactics, determined to exact the highest price possible from his American antagonist.
From west to east, the Sixth Marine Division, the First Marine Division, the 77th Army Division and the 96th Army Division occupy positions facing ancient Shuri Castle. Gen Buckner orders the 10th Army to prepare for a coordinated attack by 11 May.
Working toward the attack date, the 7th Division presses doggedly along the east flank to secure Cochi. They are relieved by the 96th Division. The 77th then advances slowly along the center of the island along Route 5 toward Shuri. The XXIVth Corps consolidates positions in preparation of the all-out attack. The Americans have now attained the favorable terrain necessary for an attack by the 10th Army...but it has cost them 20,000 casualties to do so.
May 11: The attack is launched as planned.
Conical Hill dominates the front of the 96th Division. The 77th attacks Shuri from the east. The First Marine Division drives toward Shuri across Wana Draw. The Sixth Marine Division's objective is Surgarloaf Hill.
"G" Company, 22nd Marines, reaches Sugarloaf on May 12. Heavy casualties force them to withdraw.
The next day, Third Battalion, 29th Marines assaults. Again, the Marines are forced back.
Maj Henry Alexius Courtney, Jr., is executive officer of 2/22. The Duluth, Minn., native is ordered to hold his positions just behind Sugarloaf during the night of 14-15 May. After weighing the possible cost of beating off a hostile night attack in these positions, Courtney requests and receives permission to advance and seize the forward slope of the hill. He explains his plan to his subordinate unit leaders, then boldly leads the attack while personally blasting cave positions and enemy guns as he advances. Withering Japanese fire temporarily halts Courtney's advance until he can receive additional ammo and replacements, plus an LVT-load of grenades. Again, Courtney personally leads the attack, hurling grenades as he and his men move forward.
The 39-year-old Marine major observes the Japanese forming 100 yards from the crest for another counterattack. His subsequent attack is so furious that enemy survivors race for protection in nearby caves. Determined to hold his position, Courtney orders his men to dig in while he insures that they are properly deployed. As he moves among his men, an enemy mortar burst ends his gallant effort. His great personal valor is recognized with the Medal of Honor.
Meanwhile Cpl Louis James Hauge, Jr., is dealing with the poor hand that fate has dealt to him. Born on December 12, 1924, in Ada, Minn., Hauge finds himself this day serving as the leader of a machine gun squad with "C"/1/1. He observes that the left flank of his unit is pinned down and taking severe casualties from a concentrated mortar and heavy machine gun barrage. Hauge orders his squad to cover him and then races toward the enemy gun position. Despite severe wounds, Hauge is able to destroy two enemy machine gun positions with grenades before he is cut down by sniper fire. His actions, too, merit the Medal of Honor and listing on the roll of heroes.
The fighting is so fierce that tanks are employed for the medevac of wounded and to resupply infantrymen with ammo. A full seven weeks after the "unopposed" landing, the Shuri defenses remain intact.
The last week of May, a continuous downpour drenches the line. Soldiers and Marines are bogged down in a sea of mud. But the Kamikazes are undaunted by the weather. Between the 24th and 28th of May they strike at Navy ships 200 times. They score 22 hits.
During a brief respite from the rain, the 32nd U.S. Infantry attempts a daring dash across the Yonabaru-Naha Valley. They hope to seal the Shuri clef enders in their positions. Heavy support weapons mire down in the mud. The bold gamble is beaten back and the soldiers suffer heavy casualties. The constant pressure on the Shuri line finally forces the Japanese to begin withdrawing south.
From May 26 to May 29, the 32nd Japanese Army carefully withdraws under cover and concealment. Enough troops are left behind to give the impression that their positions are still fully manned. One section of the Shuri line has been totally vacated, however.
May 29: A small band of Marines from 1/5 finds the breach. They pass the Corps' boundary and occupy Shuri Castle. The entire Shuri line collapses. The Americans press the attack south as the Japanese seek refuge in the Yasu Dake hill mass.
Gen Buckner is optimistic. he tells his staff, "Gentlemen, it's all over now but cleaning up pockets of resistance."
What Buckner doesn't know is that his Army faces three more weeks of fighting. He's unaware that the Japanese are setting up yet another defensive line. Nor does he suspect that 50,000 more casualties will be suffered before the end of June.
0530, 4 June: The First and Second Battalions, 4th Marines launch an amphibious assault against a determined and defiant enemy force dug in on the Oroku Peninsula. Despite saturation bombardment by 15 artillery battalions, the Marines find their objective heavily mined, with an ingenious network of interlocking defensive fires devised from weapons stripped from aircraft and placed on the advantageous high ground dominating the beaches. A Bailey Bridge is rigged under fire by combat engineers and a tank pincer combines with the efforts of the 4th Marines (attacking from the sea) and the 29th Marines (attacking from land) to smash again and again with little effect. The 22nd Marines join the fray and the Japanese defenses crumble. On 13 June the last pockets of resistance are routed and the stage is set for the final scene.
It is during this action that Pvt Robert Miller McTureous, Jr., distinguishes himself and earns his Medal of Honor. Qn 7 June McTureous, 21, from Altoona, Fla., assaults a critical hill objective with 3/29 and is preparing for a counterattack when he spots stretcher bearers being assailed by enemy machine gun fire. He fills his jacket with grenades and charges a cluster of enemy-held caves, throwing grenades in each as he passes, diverting the machine gun fire from the stretcher bearers to himself. He returns to his lines to resupply himself with more grenades and then resumes his one-man assault until severely wounded. Despite his wounds, McTureous is reluctant to endanger others for his own well being and stoically crawls 200 yards to a sheltered position before calling for assistance.
During the battle for Okinawa three Navy corpsmen also are awarded the Medal of Honor for shielding their wounded charges from further danger. HM-1 Robert Eugene Bush, 19, from Tacoma, Wash., though severely wounded, survives after fighting off attackers with his pistol and a carbine while shielding a wounded officer. He refuses treatment for his own wounds until all his patients are cared for properly and evacuated to safety. Pharmacist's Mate-2 William David Halyburton, Jr., 20, of Canton, N.C., and HM-1 Fred Faulkner Lester, who had just turned 19, from Downers Grove, Ill., both died attempting to rescue wounded Marines and from using their own bodies to shield the wounded.
There were many more heroics than may be chronicled here, of course.
What drives men to perform such deeds and to make such sacrifices?
Author William Manchester, himself twice wounded while serving as a Marine corporal on Okinawa, explains it thusly in his book "Goodbye Darkness":
"It was an act of love. Those men on the line were my family, my home. They were closer to me than I can say, closer than any friends had been or ever would be. They had never let me down, and I couldn't do it to them. I had to be with them, rather than let them die and me live with the knowledge that I might have saved them. Men, I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another. Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him, or for whom he is willing to die, is not a man at all. He is truly damned."
It is this fighting spirit that drives the Americans forward as they press the attack against fanatical Japanese now holed up in the limestone rocks and burrowed in the depths of a thousand caves, with their backs to the sea. Methodically, cave by cave, point by point, the Americans dig them out or seal them in forever. Gen Buckner offers Ushijima surrender terms-which are rejected. Ushijima, true to the Japanese warrior code of Bushido, chooses to disembowel himself as his adjutant beheads his corpse. The end is nigh.
18 June: Gen Buckner ascends a coral-studded high point to observe the 8th Marines in the attack. An enemy shell arches high and screeches to an explosive impact near the general. Shards of coral rock plummet into the general's body and he is mortally wounded just three days before the island is formally secured. MajGen Roy S. Geiger takes command of the 10th Army throughout the remainder of the campaign. An official flag-raising on 22 June marks the capture of Okinawa and Gen Geiger relinquishes command to Army Gen Joe Stilwell on the 23rd.
The price of victory has been high and foretells of an even higher cost of blood should Japan's main islands be invaded. Almost one-quarter million people have died in the battle: 107,539 Japanese soldiers killed, 27,769 entombed in caves; 10,755 prisoners captured; out of a population of 500,000, roughly 80,000 Okinawans have perished; 7,374 Americans are dead and 31,807 are wounded.
It is the most costly battle of the Pacific War.
It is the last battle in the Pacific...and the final battle of World War II.
In August, President Truman authorizes the use of atomic bombs against two Japanese cities. The destruction is almost incomprehensible. But no more American blood is spilled, as it was on Okinawa.