The war in the Pacific, which ended 75 years ago, lasted three months longer than the war in Europe.
Hitler’s Nazi Germany had refused to surrender. An empire that in the winter of 1941/42 had stretched from the Atlantic to the gates of Moscow, from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara, had, three years later, been reduced to little more than Germany itself.
The massive preponderance of force on the Allied side was overwhelming. The outcome was inevitable. Yet the Nazi leadership was determined to fight to the bitter end.
This was the madness of fascism. Rational decision-making had ceased at the highest level of the German state. A psychotic racist wielded totalitarian power, and no one could stop him pulling the whole of Germany with him as he toppled into the abyss.
The death toll in the final four months of the Third Reich ran into millions. People were murdered in the camps or on forced marches by the SS, murdered in eastern Germany by the invading Red Army, or killed in German cities under aerial bombardment.
Among the dead – in that final madness of Hitler’s empire – were tens of thousands of Allied soldiers.
Would this apocalypse now repeat itself in the Pacific? Would tens of thousands of Americans have to die in an invasion of the Japanese home islands.
The Militarist regime – the Japanese form of fascism – had behaved with bestial brutality in the Far East little different from that of the Nazis in Europe. A similar number of Chinese civilians had perished under Japanese military authority as Polish and Russian civilians under Nazi rule. Would the Militarists also, in their ‘death-wish’ fanaticism, fight to the bitter end?
The Battle of Okinawa pointed that way. The two and a half month campaign on the island turned into one of the most murderous battles of attrition in the entire Pacific campaign. The decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was in part a consequence of what happened on Okinawa, where 12,000 Americans died to capture one small island 66 miles long by 7 wide.
In two articles forming our special this time, Alexander Izza analyses the battle. In his first piece, he provides a vivid summary narrative of the battle itself, and in his second, analyses the opposing fighting forces and the strategy and tactics of the respective campaigns.
The Battle of Okinawa
From the very beginning, Okinawa challenged all expectations. The landing was supposed to be the bloodiest of the war so far. The 182,000 troops riding aboard the 1,300-ship fleet heading for Okinawa were prepared for the worst – many had been warned that their commanders expected to lose eight in every ten men.
For the veterans of D-Day amongst them, these predictions surely brought back dark memories of the great breakthrough into Hitler’s Fortress Europe the year before, and the terrible cost in men and materiel during the Normandy Campaign.
Commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, with Vice-Admiral William Turner in charge of the amphibious phase and Lieutenant-General Simon Buckner leading the ground assault, the battle was the culmination of Operation Iceberg – a campaign to seize the Ryukyu Islands group to lay the groundwork for the planned assault on the Japanese home islands.
When dawn came on 1 April 1945 (codenamed Love Day), the biggest amphibious landing of the Pacific Theatre, and largest of the war bar D-Day, began.
To the shock of US planners, they landed on the beach with remarkable ease. Conditions were ideal: visibility had dropped to 5-7 miles after 0600, thanks in part to a morning mist and the billowing dust from the extraordinary naval bombardment.
By the end of the day, the Navy had discharged 44,825 rounds of 5-inch or larger shells, 33,000 rockets, and 22,500 mortar shells onto Okinawa’s shoreline. This cleared the way for the initial landing on Okinawa’s south-west beaches of two Marine divisions (1st and 6th) and two Army divisions (7th and 96th) – more than 60,000 men.
Pardoned from death?
For men expecting the worst, it was with some shock that they landed on beaches deserted of enemy forces. To some it felt like being ‘granted a pardon from a death sentence’.
Commanders watching the landings unfold like clockwork from the decks of the fleet could scarcely believe their eyes, with some even speculating that Japanese resistance had already started to crumble. ‘I may be crazy but it looks like the Japanese have quit the war, at least in this sector,’ Vice-Admiral Turner signalled to Fleet Admiral Nimitz – Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Ocean Areas.
Bar some limited resistance, the men advanced with ease through a verdant, agriculturally terraced land unlike anything they had seen in the Pacific so far. It had a subtropical climate and the men relished trying local fruits, shooting local wildlife, and strolling through the countryside.
In the first few days, the 10th Army was able to seize control of central Okinawa, including taking control of two airfields (Kadena and Yontan) and pushing through to the east coast to give US forces supremacy over the shores of Nakagusuku Bay by 3 April.
The waves of optimism would prove to be tragically short-lived. Awaiting the Americans were the 130,000 men of the Japanese 32nd Army under the command of General Mitsuru Ushijima.
Assessing the geography of the island, and the armada of American forces they knew was on the way, General Ushijima had opted to withdraw defences from the beaches. Instead, he set up three defensive lines in the mountainous southern region of the island, hoping to stall American ground troops there – whilst decimating their navy through waves of kamikaze attacks.
Observing from the mountains in the south of Okinawa, it was a source of some Japanese consternation to witness the ease with which the Americans landed on the beaches. ‘What a great opportunity!’ bemoaned one Japanese soldier. ‘The enemy began landing in a leisurely manner, so to speak, and made our airfields into their unsinkable aircraft carriers.’
Clearing the north
Keen to build on the successful landings, the US marines were ordered to clear the north of the island and ensure it could not be used for Japanese counter-attacks.
The 6th Marine Division drove up the Ishikawa Isthmus on 4 April. Despite narrow roads and some small pockets of Japanese opposition, they managed to set up a line at the end of the isthmus on 7 April at the town of Nago.
The toughest part of the northern operations on Okinawa came next: the fight for the Motobu Peninsula. Situated on the western edge of Okinawa, Motobu had been effectively cut off from the rest of the island by the marine advance.
It was here that Colonel Udo, commander of the Japanese forces in northern Okinawa, had his base, hidden amongst the mountainous ravines of Yae-Take in the very heart of the peninsula. This stronghold was bristling with 25mm guns and field artillery, with the core aim of pinning down US resources here in laborious guerrilla warfare.
Across the next two weeks, the marines slowly closed the noose around Yae-Take. They seized positions all along the coast of the peninsula, positioning them to attack Udo’s base on multiple fronts.
The attack came on 16 April, with assaults on Yae-Take’s high ground by the 4th and 29th Regiments from south, east, and west.
These assaults certainly proved costly, as marines advanced under heavy fire, but, supported by a massive weight of artillery, the Americans eventually broke through to seize the northern heights of Yae-Take by 18 April.
The 6th Division was left to clean up the lingering pockets of Japanese opposition that remained in the north of the island. Meanwhile, a very different kind of warfare had commenced in southern Okinawa.
A week after landing, the XXIV Army Corps reached the outer ring of Ushijima’s defensive core on Okinawa. These lines of defence held a fearsome concentration of Japanese men (97,000) and firepower, protected by warrens of tunnels, caves, and fierce mountain ridges.
The first defensive line, the Machinato Line, ran between the coastal town of Machinato in the west and along ridges to the east coast.
What followed was three weeks of intense and bloody fighting. A major attempt on 19 April by the Americans for all three divisions to slam through the Japanese lines ended in chaos. The Japanese threw back assaults on the escarpment around Machinato, raining down artillery and mortars on the relatively exposed lower ground.
Frequently, American platoons were lured into thinking they had successfully gained a ridge. A 34-man platoon from 1st Battalion’s Company A thought they had won the day on Kakazu Ridge, only to realise the enemy were pulling them into a trap. Eight men were killed, with the rest reduced to hiding in rubble and tombs, before eventually escaping back to US lines.
The fighting on 19 April cost XXIV Corps 720 dead, wounded, or missing.
It was to take another six days of piecemeal US breakthroughs along the Machinato Line before Ushijima decided to pull his forces back.
The US naval forces supporting the fight for Okinawa experienced a deluge of Japanese attacks. Convinced that this was the key to subduing the American assault, Ushijima made plans for waves of kamikaze planes to destroy as much of the US fleet as possible. The US troops were to be left stranded onshore with diminished support.
These attacks proved to be some of the most fearsome and deadly displays of aerial warfare in WWII. From 6 April to 22 June, the Japanese launched ten major suicide attacks by day and night, involving 1,465 aircraft – plus 4,800 conventional air attacks. This enacted a fearsome toll on the American fleet, with kamikazes sinking 27 ships and damaging 164 more, and bombers taking out one and damaging 63.
This strategy reflected a growing feeling of desperation on the Japanese side. Suicide attacks were accepted by some as a norm, and a necessity for a nation that seemed on the brink of defeat. ‘It was a desperate situation,’ remembered fighter pilot Kunio Iwashita, who flew over Okinawa. ‘We felt that a man might as well sacrifice his life deliberately as lose it in an air battle.’
For the US sailors on board the ships off Okinawa, their lives became a frantic paranoia of ‘bogies’ approaching from the air and a panicked rush to take down a kamikaze before it was too late.
This became nearly impossible when a whole host of kamikazes focused on one ship, as happened with the destroyer USS Mannert L Abele – it broke in two and sank under a coordinated suicide strike on 12 April.
One sailor described the sight of a destroyer attacked from the air as leaving a ‘mangled mess of melted steel’ and devastation akin to ‘a dog set upon by a pack of wolves.’
Hell on Earth
For the US land forces, victory at the Machinato Line yielded only to a more brutal phase of the battle. Ushijima’s army now concentrated around the inner Shuri Line. This defensive line around the capital Naha included stark mountain slopes to the west and the old Shuri castle fortifications. These combined to produce a nightmarish battle geography for any attacker.
The Americans led brutal frontal assaults on steep Japanese positions, attempting to clear the path towards Naha and final victory. Every step came at a terrible price, with men dying in their thousands in muddy, hellish landscapes surrounded by the dead on all sides.
One fight continues to capture the imagination from this phase of the battle: the struggle for the Maeda Escarpment, more commonly known as ‘Hacksaw Ridge’.
This steep hillside sat squarely on the right flank of the 96th Division, making it a vital objective for the US advance. What followed was typical of this phase of the Battle of Okinawa.
US artillery pounded Maeda on 25 April, with upwards of 1,616 rounds fired just on the zone of 381st Infantry. However, the web of Japanese tunnel and cave networks meant that US infantry still had to go in and clear out the Japanese forces.
The Americans and the Japanese now engaged in a ferocious tit-for-tat tussle for control of the escarpment. Numerous attempts by US forces to scale the escarpment with ladders and netting ended with bloody repulses by the defenders, often in the dead of night.
Ushijima had ordered the Japanese to hold Maeda and ‘crush the enemy’, and this was reflected in the ferocity of the Japanese defence, with swathes of machine-gun fire making the US pay a heavy price for every yard gained.
The fight for Hacksaw Ridge quickly descended into what US forces referred to as ‘all hell rolled into one’. Napalm, flamethrowers, demolition teams, and phosphorous grenades were all deployed to wreak havoc in the Japanese tunnel and cave network.
One of the few bright lights of the battle was the extraordinary bravery of Corporal Desmond Doss. A conscientious objector who refused to carry a weapon, Doss put his life on the line to save 75 men’s lives – dragging and carrying men on his back and lowering them down the cliff to safety. Many years later, Doss said that it was his faith that had guided his hand, and all he could think was ‘Lord, please help me get one more.’
By 6 May, the brutal force of these demolition assaults had succeeded. The US were left to preside over a burning hellscape and to reflect on the shocking casualties. The 1st Battalion, 307th Infantry Regiment went up the escarpment with 800 men on 29 April, and returned down with just 324 on 7 May.
As usual on Okinawa, Japanese casualties were many times greater than the number of American lives lost. Upwards of 3,000 Japanese are believed to have died in the fight for Hacksaw Ridge.
Desperate to recoup lost ground and push back the American advance, on 3 May the Japanese 32nd Army launched a major counter-attack.
Masterminded by Lieutenant-General Cho, it was a sprawling plan that involved the Japanese infantry leaving the comparative safety of their mountain fortresses and tunnels and launching a full frontal assault on the centre and east of the American lines. It was to be supported by kamikaze attacks and amphibious landings behind enemy lines.
In the words of Ushijima on 5 May, messaging from his underground HQ in Shuri Castle, the offensive was a ‘total failure’. Exposed on open ground in large numbers for the first time on Okinawa, the Japanese offered themselves as targets, to the delight of American commanders. In the words of First Lieutenant Richard S McCracken, they were perfect ‘artillery meat’.
There were, certainly, Japanese successes. Kamikaze attacks on the US fleet were damaging – the destroyers USS Luce and Morrison met their doom on 4 May. Captain Koichi Ito’s 1st Battalion, 32nd Regiment managed to forge a breakthrough to the Tanabaru escarpment, a mile behind US lines. But they were pushed back when he was isolated from the rest of the Japanese forces. Overall, the 32nd Army suffered a pulverising few days, suffering 5,000 casualties.
The final few weeks of the Battle of Okinawa continued in a spiralling bloodbath as US forces inched across the island. From 1 May, US Army forces were joined in the south by US marines to shore up the line and relieve the battered 106th Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division.
The marines engaged in fights that continue to live in US military history, none more so perhaps than Sugarloaf Hill. Located on the west flank of the Shuri Line, the 22nd and 29th Regiments of the 6th Marine Division were ordered to take this hill to break open Ushijima’s flank and clear the way for an advance south to Naha.
This proved a titanic endeavour. Exposed on three sides to Japanese artillery, the marines were torn apart again and again as they attempted to seize the hill. From 12 to 18 May, the Americans lost 2,662 men to death or serious injury, and another 1,289 to combat fatigue. It took US breakthroughs on one of the adjacent hillsides to start to turn the tide.
Similar nightmarish fighting occurred on the push towards Shuri Castle, with US marines exposed to tremendous Japanese artillery on multiple sides. Wana Ridge, Wana Draw, and Dakeshi Ridge all exacted a heavy toll on US forces. The Japanese suffered worse, relentlessly pounded by US shelling and ground down by US infantry assaults.
The torrential rain that began on 21 May only added to the chaotic fury of the environment, turning verdant hillsides into a wasteland of mud and human suffering. Private First Class Eugene Sledge recalled Wana Draw as ‘the most awful place conceivable for a man to be hurt or to die.’
US advances continued for the remainder of May, with Naha seized and the Americans starting to envelop the mountainous fortifications of Shuri – which held firm.
However, facing the steady collapse of his forces under attritional US assaults, Ushijima made the decision on 21 May to withdraw from Shuri and extend the fighting in the far south of the island. Japanese forces pulled back steadily from Shuri, confusing American planners about their intent until 30 May.
US forces were at last able to seize Shuri Castle from the skeleton force that remained, clearing out all resistance by 31 May. What followed was three more weeks of fighting as US forces mopped up the remainder of Japanese resistance in the south-west mountains of Okinawa.
This descended into a new level of brutal violence, with mass suicides by Okinawan civilians and Japanese soldiers. Men continued to die until the last moment. The guns finally fell silent on 22 June. Among the last to die was General Buckner (killed on 18 June by a Japanese artillery strike during a visit to a forward command post) and General Ushijima (who committed suicide on 22 June).
The battle had resulted in some of the worst losses of the Pacific War: 12,000 US dead, 90,000 Japanese, and over 100,000 Okinawan civilians. •
All images: WIPL, unless otherwise stated.
Check out part two of Alexander Izza’s analysis of the Battle of Okinawa, in which he reviews the strategy, tactics and weapons of the opposing forces. You can read it here.