View Full Version : Six Decades Later, Okinawa Recalled

06-23-05, 06:31 AM
Six Decades Later, Okinawa Recalled
By Nathaniel R. Helms

On June 21, 1945, Japanese resistance ended on the Pacific Island of Okinawa after one of the longest and bloodiest battles of World War II.

The Americans still stationed there 60 years after the battle ended celebrated their victory last Friday. Marine Lt. Gen. Robert Blackman, commander of U.S. Marine forces in Japan, presided over a quiet memorial ceremony attended largely by American World War II veterans and relatives. They gathered to commemorate the loss of more than 200,000 lives, including 12,520 Americans, 94,136 Japanese troops, and about one-quarter of Okinawa's prewar population of about 366,000 civilians who for centuries had peacefully farmed the rocky soil and sloping hills of the small island next to Japan.

An old lady who was a young woman in 1945 told a reporter from the Taipei Times how she unsuccessfully tried to kill herself with a dud Japanese Army grenade because she and her friends were convinced the Americans would rape and murder them if captured during the fight.

"At one place, we sat together and hit the grenade on the ground, but it did not explode," Sumie Oshiro recalled of her search for death after Japanese soldiers told she and her friends to kill themselves rather than be taken captive. "We tried to kill ourselves many times, trying to explode the grenade we were given from the Japanese army."

Death was everywhere during the 82-day battle to capture the launching point for the American's planned invasion of the home islands of Japan. The Japanese called the American invasion the "typhoon of steel."

Offshore, the U.S. Navy sustained the largest loss of ships in its history with 36 sunk and 368 damaged, including six fleet carriers. The Navy also sustained the largest loss of life in a single battle ever with almost 5,000 killed and an equal number wounded.

One saga in the Navy's terrible trial deserves special recognition, the survival of the destroyer USS Laffey, a brand-new ship built in Bath, Maine, and commissioned on Feb. 8, 1944 under the command of Commander Frederick Julian Becton. After participating in the June 6, 1944, Normandy invasion, the Laffey was transferred to the Pacific Theater where she joined the 7th Fleet at Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands. It was there that her gallant crew had its first brush with the Kamikaze Suicide Corps when Japanese pilots intent on crashing their planes into U.S. Navy ships struck repeatedly throughout December 1944. Luckily, the Laffey escaped unscathed.

On Apr. 1, 1945, the first day of the battle for Okinawa, the Laffey took up station to the north of the island at radar picket station number one about 35 miles north of the island to give advance warning of the approach of enemy aircraft or ships. It was there that her luck ran out.

The Laffey was patrolling as usual on Apr. 16th when she underwent a concentrated attack by a veritable flock of Japanese suicide planes. The attack commenced about 0827 when four "Vals" (single-engine Japanese Aichi D3A naval dive bomber with a 2-man crew) attacked. The Laffey shot down three and a nearby ship brought down the fourth one just before three more attacked. The seventh plane crashed into the Laffey amidships and started a huge fire that marked her as a cripple to the attacking Japanese.

Two more planes then attacked in quick succession from astern and crashed into the five-inch twin mount. The first one carried a bomb that exploded on deck. The second one dropped its bomb on deck before crashing into the after 5-inch gun mount. Shortly thereafter, two more planes came in on the port quarter, crashing into the deckhouse just forward of the crippled after five-inch mount. This sent a flood of gasoline into the two compartments below the after crew's head (bathroom) and with the fire that was already raging in the after crew's compartment just aft of the five-inch mount number three. She now had fires going in all of the after three living spaces, besides a big fire topside in the vicinity of the number four 40-mm. antiaircraft gun mount. Then more planes attacked, jamming the rudder and causing more damage with near misses.

In an action had lasted an hour and 20 minutes, the Laffey was attacked by 22 planes, nine of which she shot down unassisted. Eight planes had struck the ship. In the end the Laffey had only four of its original eleven 20-mm. mounts still in commission and only eight of the original 12 barrels on its 40-mm. In addition, her after five-inch mount was completely destroyed. Yet below decks her engines were still intact.

When the accounting was concluded, it was discovered the Laffey had lost 33 men killed or missing and 60 others wounded. Amazingly, the ship survived and is now a war memorial at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Meanwhile, on Okinawa proper, the U.S. Army would incur its greatest losses in any campaign against the Japanese. The landing force was called the 10th Army and commanded by Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., who graduated from West Point in 1908. Buckner was killed on 19 June, observing the 8th Marines in action on the drive to the south.

The 10th Army was initially made up of 183,000 Army, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel. During those eighty-two days of combat the Tenth would lose 7,613 men killed and over 30,000 wounded. In addition, the largest numbers of U.S. combat fatigue cases ever recorded would occur on Okinawa.

The Battle of Okinawa would generate many other "firsts" in American military history. The two highest-ranking officers to die during the Second World War were the commanders on Okinawa, Gen. Mitsuri Ushijima, the Japanese 32nd Army commander, and General Buckner. Another first occurred when Buckner was replaced by Gen. Roy Geiger, a Marine aviator who assumed temporary command until Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell arrived from Chine to take command. It was the first and only time in American military history that a Marine would command a fighting force as large as a field army.


06-23-05, 06:31 AM
Japanese Gen. Ushijima knew he could not win on Okinawa. Instead he chose the course of jikyusen, a battle of attrition. Ushijima told his soldiers that every man must kill ten Americans before he died and that every plane should destroy a ship when it crashed. His objective was to destroy or delay the U.S. Fleet to give the Japanese time to prepare the homeland for inevitable battle.

The southern end of Okinawa was ideal for Ushijima's battle of attrition.

Honeycombed with caves that had for over a year been reinforced using conscripted Okinawan labor to create interlocking defenses, its ridges and rocky embankments made it an easy place to fight a battle of attrition beneath the Shuri Castle that divided the island defenses in two. Meanwhile, the U.S. fleet supplying the 10th Army would expose itself to Japanese air and naval attacks. This, surmised Tokyo's leaders, would further slow the Allied attack on the mainland.

The landing began early on Easter Sunday, Apr. 1, 1945. The first waves went in at 0830 on the west coast of Okinawa at Hagushi Beach, known as Green Beach and Red Beach by the landing troops. Buckner's plan called for U.S. forces to sever the island in two. The Marines of the First and Sixth Divisions (the Sixth was experiencing combat for the first time) were to move west and east and then drive north. The expected bloody landing never materialized. The 10th Army strolled onto the island with little opposition. Organized resistance on the northern two-thirds of the island ended April 20.

The Army first ran into stiff opposition north of Naha at a hill known as Kakazu soon afterwards, when the 27th Division, which had a poor combat reputation, ran into difficulty. The Marines were ordered to bail them out. The Marines headed out and the First eventually broke through at Kakazu after tough fighting.

During a visit in April, Gen. Alexander Vandergrift the hero of Guadalcanal who had been appointed Marine Corps Commandant just three months earlier suggested an amphibious assault on the southern end of the island instead of a continued frontal assault. Vandergrift's plan ignited a debate among military historians over whether his suggestion would have saved lives. Regardless, Buckner prevailed and by the end of April the Marines began replacing the Army on the front lines. They were about to discover the so-called Shuri-Yonaburu Line which was anchored by the nearly impregnable Shuri Castle.

Rather than meeting the 10th Army at the beachhead, as in many previous encounters, Ushijima moved most of his strength to high ridge that cut the island in two just north of the city of Naha at the Shuri Castle, the pride of the Okinawans.

The 32nd Army's goal was to inflict as much damage from that spot as possible. From the walls of Shuri Castle, the command's headquarters, Ushijima and his staff waited.

By May 9, the annual rains had begun in earnest. Moving supplies and equipment proved almost impossible and often had to be accomplished on the backs of soldiers and Marines. Eventually despite supply problems, heavy resistance, and flooded rivers and streams, all that stood between the 10th Army and Naha were three "insignificant" hills called Half Moon, Horseshoe and Sugar Loaf.

May 12 through May 18 would record some of the most savage fighting in Marine Corps history when the Japanese counterattacked. The mutually supporting defense line occupied by the Japanese cut the island in half east to west. It consisted of about 60 miles of mutually supported defensive positions including mortar, artillery, machine guns positions and interconnected tunnel complexes that made movement and flanking maneuvers easy for the defenders.

Breaching the Shuri Line cost the Sixth over 2,000 casualties. Sugar Loaf Hill would be assaulted eleven times and some Marine companies would be literally wiped out twice.

Once again, Marine commanders pleaded with Buckner to make an amphibious landing on the south end of the island. This time, in the face of huge and mounting casualty lists, Buckner concurred.

The Marines would have less than thirty-six hours to plan an amphibious assault on the Oroku Peninsula where Japanese naval forces had made their base of operation. The naval contingent there was hidden in an elaborate cave system where they chose to fight to the last man. After more vicious fighting the Sixth secured the peninsula in 10 days.

By May 30, the 32nd Army had lost more than 70 percent of its strength and Ushijima abandoned the Shuri Line and headed south. Imperial Navy Vice Adm. Minoru Ota, the commander of the naval contingent on Okinawa, sent a final telegram to Tokyo in early June apologizing for his failure and explaining the final plight of the Japanese Empire's final island bastion before the so-called home islands were reached by the Americans.

"Ever since our Army and Navy occupied Okinawa, the inhabitants of the prefecture have been forced into military service and hard labor while sacrificing everything they own as well as the lives of their loved ones," he wrote. "They have served with loyalty. Now we are nearing the end of the battle, but they will go unrecognized, unrewarded. Seeing this I feel deeply depressed and lament a loss of words for them. Every tree, every plant is gone. Even the weeds are burnt. By the end of June, there will be no more food .... "

The battle raged on for several more weeks against ever lessening resistance. As the 10th Army ground forward the terrain leveled off and the slogging became easier. Even so small desperate bands of Japanese soldiers and sailors continued to resist despite the inevitable defeat looming ever closer.

The last battle on Okinawa occurred on June 17 at Mezado Ridge. On June 21, George Company, 22nd regiment, Sixth Marine Division, the same company that raised the flag on the northern end of Okinawa, raised "Old Glory" on the southern end of the island and the Battle for Okinawa was finally over.


USMC photo

This is the last photograph taken of Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, Jr. USA, at right, before he was killed on Okinawa on 19 June, 1945.


USMC photo

Okinawa's harsh terrain greatly aided the dug-in Japanese defenders.