In this year of reflection on the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, too often our Western gaze falls solely on events in Europe. We rightly mourn those who died in the final, catastrophic battles in Nazi Germany and celebrate the final end of war in Europe on VE Day. But when the guns fell silent in Europe, the desperate fight between the Allies and the Japanese raged on. In Crucible of Hell, Saul David takes the reader on a journey to Okinawa, ‘the last great battle of the Second World War’.
This small island in the Pacific was a pivotal final step in the planned invasion of Japan. From 1 April to 22 June, it would witness a bloodbath matched only by the worst days on the Eastern Front. The clash claimed roughly 12,000 American lives (the bloodiest US battle in the Pacific), 90,000 Japanese, and somewhere in the region of 100,000 Okinawan civilians. It was this unimaginable slaughter, David argues, that should give Okinawa a significant place in our collective understanding of the final chapter of the Second World War.
In Crucible of Hell, David once again demonstrates his commanding power to hold the reader’s attention. The narrative begins on the critical landings on Okinawa on 1 April 1945, known as ‘Love Day’, when four divisions (75,000 men) were put ashore on the south-west coast of the island.
You quickly get a sense of David’s strengths as a historian, with detailed primary accounts woven carefully into his own analysis of the battle. On the matter of Love Day, for example, he drives home the message that this landing – whilst smaller than Sicily in 1943 and Normandy in 1944 – was an ‘astonishing logistical feat’. Over a thousand ships, ferrying hundreds of thousands of men, and nearly threequarters of a million tons of cargo, all marshalled from 11 different ports on either side of the Pacific, converging on a small but strategically vital island in the East China Sea.
As we move into the battle itself, David shows his strengths at crafting top-level military history. He guides the reader through the ebbs and flows of the battle: from the bloodless landings of Love Day to the titanic fight for the south of the island in battles carved into military legend such as Sugarloaf Hill and Hacksaw Ridge (subject of a violent but somewhat one-dimensional film from Mel Gibson in 2018).
That, in and of itself, would not be enough to distinguish this book. Plenty of historians have covered the story of Okinawa before, with noted works including Gerhard Weinberg’s magnum opus World at Arms: a global history of World War II and Max Hastings’ Nemesis: the battle for Japan, 1944-45.
The real triumph of Crucible of Hell emerges in the tapestry David creates of the multitude of experiences of commanders, soldiers, and civilians – on all sides – caught up in this battle. This book is the product of rigorous research, drawing on diaries, memoirs, and official accounts of Okinawa.
For the 130,000 Japanese soldiers on the island, commanded by General Mitsuru Ushijima, we are taken inside the operations centre in the bowels of Shuri Castle. David places the reader in the room at the fateful moment when Ushijima, ‘sitting cross-legged’ on the floor, learns of the failure of the great Japanese counter-offensive on 4 May. We feel his pain as he reflects on the wasted lives (the attempted pushback left the Japanese with 5,000 casualties) and tells Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, ‘Now I am determined to stop this offensive. Meaningless suicide is not what I want.’
Indeed, this book is a rare beast in Western literature for actually treating the Japanese experience of this horrific battle with genuine sensitivity and respect. No longer a faceless, brutal enemy, here we see them as men and women engaged in a struggle to defend their homeland.
David gives us deep insights into the men who sacrificed their lives in the infamous kamikaze attacks. They involved two types of dive-bombing planes, ohka (rocket-driven gliders carrying explosives) and kaiten (modified naval torpedoes steered to their destination by a pilot). They inflicted the heaviest casualties on the US Navy of the entire war, with 27 ships sunk and 164 damaged. A particularly memorable passage takes the reader through the final hours of ohka pilot Lieutenant Saburo Dohi. These gliders were launched from a bomber within 14 miles of the target. Dohi, unbelievably, napped on the journey to the attack zone, awaking 30 minutes before launch and exclaiming, ‘Time passes quickly, doesn’t it?’
After Dohi carries out the final act of his life against US ships 20,000 feet below, David guides us into the American perspective on this incident. One man’s act of bravery is another man’s moment of mind-numbing fear.
Despite his forensic research, we learn that it is unclear whether or not Dohi’s attack on 12 April was one of the successful Japanese suicide attacks on US forces. There are, however, records of two deadly ohka strikes that day. The USS Mannert L Abele sank; one US ensign who was thrown overboard recalled ‘several around me scream from pain caused by the blast’.
The US soldiers who fought on Okinawa are treated with similar nuance to their Japanese counterparts. This gives Crucible of Hell at times the form of epic fiction, returning at various points to the lives and terrible suffering endured by these men to achieve victory. For some men we feel the emotional blow of loss, struck down soon after we are introduced to them.
Others, like Sergeant William Manchester, survive the ‘hell’s cesspool’ to fight on. Manchester, we learn, was injured in a shell blast, and yet rushed from hospital to re-join his men in landing on the Oroku Peninula: ‘I had to be with them, rather than let them die and live with the knowledge that I might have saved them.’
David’s account of the US command is defined by the tragic arc of Lieutenant-General William Buckner, commander of the US Tenth Army on Okinawa. It is an extraordinary path, involving a near-miss flight over the Japanese garrison on the island of Rota, and a mounting tidal wave of criticism throughout Okinawa of his ‘conservative’ tactics, from both the media and other senior members of the US military.
Ultimately, it all came to an ignominious end on his visit to the US front lines on 18 June in the closing days of the battle. As David notes, Buckner had been warned on his journey to the front against visiting because ‘there was considerable flanking fire coming from the high ground in front of the 96th Division.’
Buckner was unperturbed, but his three-star general helmet was spotted by Japanese observers on the opposing ridge, so they called down a strike from a 47mm anti-tank gun, and he was hit, dying shortly after.
Significance of the battle
Crucible of Hell joins a string of accounts of the final months of the Pacific War in linking the brutality and cost of the Battle of Okinawa to the US decision to drop the atomic bomb. Based on now declassified US records, David provides a detailed account of the top-secret discussions between US President Harry Truman and his military planners about securing the surrender of Japan.
We see a military establishment driven towards the atomic bomb and away from the planned invasion of Japan, in part because of Okinawa’s ‘heart-sickening’ casualty rates, much worse than had been anticipated. David loses us, however, in the final moments of the book with a sudden lurch into questionable ideas about the inevitability of history. He would have us believe that nuclear warfare was simply the only option to end the war; that the war was ‘bound’ to continue if the bombs had not been dropped.
After a book so rich in historical research and careful analysis, it seems a shame to simply disregard dissenting opinions as ‘ludicrous’. Historians like Tsuyoshi Hasegawa and Sheldon Garon have produced important insights on the growing internal and external pressures on the Japanese leadership before the bombs fell.
Bar his partial failure to deliver on the wider context of this battle, David’s Crucible of Hell is a worthy addition to our understanding of Okinawa. It is a book made to be read in a weekend, a literary experience that throws you head first into a world unimaginable as we sit here in 2020. Seventy-five years on, the sacrifice, bravery, and companionship of those who fought in the Pacific deserves to be remembered.
Reading a book like Crucible of Hell gives us the opportunity to understand the lives of individuals like Sergeant Manchester, who recognised that men ‘do not fight for ag or country, for the Marine Corps, or glory, or any other abstraction. They fight for one another.’
Review by Alexander Izza