The Battle of Okinawa

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It’s early in the month of April, in the year 1945. In a small, quiet little town somewhere out in the Midwest, a housewife hears the clatter of the mailman’s bicycle on the dusty sidewalk. Stepping out onto the porch, she blinks in the glare of the morning sun.

There’s a single envelope jutting out of the mailbox. Tugging it out, she doesn’t even have to look at the stamp; the address on the back is clearly her husband’s handwriting.

Somberly, she makes her way back into the house, sighing as she casts her eyes over the empty living room, lowering herself into the armchair.

She tears open the envelope slowly, deliberately, as she contemplates how empty the house has felt since her husband went off to sea. And for all her efforts, she still didn’t feel as if she properly understood why he had had to go. It all felt so far away – a war in countries she had never seen, over politics that seemed so far removed from the sort of matters that could emerge in America.

She knew the bits and pieces, of course – her husband’s letters told her horrifying tales of their clashes with the Japanese navy out in the Pacific, and newspapers filled with names of politicians and places she’d barely ever heard of had told her that things over in Europe seemed to be somewhat less desperate; but still, it had been so difficult to really get her head around just what such faraway affairs had to do with the life of a simple small-town Midwestern man like her husband, shipped halfway about the world a mere few years out of high school.

They’d all had a real shock when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, of course, and for a while it really had felt like the fighting would be right on their doorstep; but after that, the conflict had once again drifted to the far corners of the world. As serious as it surely was, it had never truly felt like a local concern.

With another sigh, she unfolds the letter.

“My dearest Ruth

“I’ll say it outright: things are coming to a head. The officers say we’re days away from bringing down Japan.

“Iwo Jima was hell, but it was worth it. We might finally be on the verge of reaching Japan and bringing it to its knees. And if word is true, the Nazis are about ready to throw down arms over in Europe right about now.

“I didn’t know how long it would be before I could write these words; but the war might actually almost be over.

“I didn’t tell you about Iwo Jima yet, did I? God above, who would have thought that so many could die for a poky little island? The Marines who came back from the fighting haven’t told us much so far, but you can see in their eyes that whatever went on there, it took a toll on them. And Joey, he told me that he could hear one of them whispering to himself – something about a ‘meat grinder’.

“I dare say the fellas in the Japanese army have wives and kids at home just as much as any of us do; but some of the things I hear about them, how fiercely they fight, how they won’t stop until the very last man is dead…it makes me glad that us navy folk don’t generally have to come face to face with them.

“They haven’t told us how many are dead, but it seems like the Marines have taken a bad hit. But it’s over, or so they’re saying. They’ve driven the last of the Japanese off the island. Now we have to move on to the next island. The final step on our march to Japan, they’re calling it.

“It’s called Okinawa. It’s the last island we’ll have to take before we can reach Japan. Some folks are saying we’re not ready, though. We went through the ringer to take Iwo Jima, and they say that Okinawa’s several times bigger, and held by thousands of Japan’s men(1). They’re saying that, if we even get to Japan at all, we’ll be completely finished.

“But me? I know we can do it. The Japanese had their fellas dotted all over the whole darn Pacific once. Now they’re on the run, packing their bags and desperately trying to cling onto a few little rocks around their shores while they scurry home. We may have taken a beating on that little island, but this isn’t some insurmountable force we’re facing. It’s a frightened enemy in retreat, and their friends in Europe won’t be flying in any backup anytime soon.

“They say the Brits are sailing in to back up us navy boys. We’re gonna take Okinawa, and then we’re gonna take Japan. This war’s gone on too long. It needs to end here, and we’re gonna make it happen. And then I’m going to come straight home to you.

“I don’t know what the years after the war will bring, my dear. I think it’s quite safe to say that things aren’t ever going to be the same again, and the world’s going to have a whole lot of cleaning up to do. I’m just eternally grateful that the war never came to your doorstep, the way it did to those poor European fellas. Can only imagine what must have been going through their minds when they were shipped off to the front – how much they must have worried for their wives and kids.

I’ll be home soon, my love.

Daniel.”

What was the Battle of Okinawa?

The Battle of Okinawa was what might be called the sequel to the Battle of Iwo Jima, a fight  that took place from February 19 to March 2,1945 on a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Japan in which 30,000 lives were lost en route to an Allied victory.(2).

The precursor to Okinawa, the Battle of Iwo Jima is widely remembered as one of the bloodiest in the history of the US Marine Corps; and it proved that, even with their backs to the wall and the conclusion of the war imminent, the Japanese Army was a ruthless one, willing to fight to the last man, unwilling to surrender.

The battle was a hard one that ended with desperate Japanese forces launching a bloody banzai attack, a type of assault known as “the human wave” in which Japanese commanders sent troops up against the American line as a last ditch effort/alternative to surrender.

The carnage from these attacks was immense, but most of the casualties were taken by the Japanese. But their brutality struck fear in the hearts of the American soldiers and foreshadowed what might come from an invasion of the Japanese mainland.

The Americans ultimately claimed victory, though at no small cost – by some estimates, US forces incurred as many as 25,000 casualties.

Even then, however, the US knew that there was no time to hang around licking their wounds – Iwo Jima was merely a stepping stone toward their ultimate goal of reaching the shores of Japan.

There was only one final stepping stone in the process: laying claim to the nearby island of Okinawa, located a mere 400 miles from Japan’s home island.

But for some, the task, at the time, must have felt impossible. Okinawa was several times bigger than Iwo Jima, and dense with foliage; moreover, thanks in great part to the withdrawal of Japanese forces from much of the rest of the Pacific, it was now guarded by almost 100,000 men.

Surely, many thought, after such a grueling battle for such a tiny, strategically insignificant island as Iwo Jima, they had no hope of laying claim to Okinawa, let alone Japan itself.

The USA’s top brass knew that they were facing a serious challenge with Okinawa, of course, and the necessary preparations were made to bolster both naval and ground forces.

The United States Tenth Army, consisting of no less than ten divisions from both the Army and the Marines, were prepared for ground warfare under the command of General Simon Buckner. Meanwhile, the battle’s naval elements, all of which were under the command of Admiral Kelly Turner, United States Navy, were bolstered by the newly-arrived British Pacific Fleet(3).

Leading Up to the Battle of Okinawa

The process began in the final days of March. Determined to ensure a smooth landing for the troops and minimal outside intervention during the battle, the US carries out a number of aerial operations bringing down Japanese planes in the region around Okinawa, including an attack on Japanese airfields on one of the nearby home islands.

Then, on April 1st, the invasion itself began on Hagushi, a beach near the very center of Okinawa. Over the course of the day, around 50,000 of General Buckner’s ground troops made it ashore, with barely any resistance from Japanese forces.

Indeed, for the first few days of the invasion, ground troops were lulled into a false sense of security. Wishing to avoid naval bombardment, Japanese forces opted not to clash with US forces on the beach, instead keeping themselves further inland, awaiting their arrival.

The Fighting Begins at Sea

However, it was not on land, but rather out at sea, that Japanese forces launched their first major strike-backs of the Battle of Okinawa. Kamikaze planes — which were guided by suicidal pilots into the decks of American warships — were launched en masse at the fleet gathered about the shores of Okinawa. Diving directly down onto the Allied ships, they inflicted terrible damage. Over the course of the battle, 36 Allied ships were sunk, while a further 368 were damaged.

Although kamikaze attacks are frequently associated with Japan during the Second World War, they were, in reality, generally a last resort, and probably saw their most concentrated usage at the Battle of Okinawa – a sign, no doubt, of growing desperation on Japan’s part. 

This desperation peaked on April 6th, 1945 when Japan launched what might have been one of the most drastic “kamikaze” attacks in the history of the war. Low on fuel and resources, the Japanese navy sent their prize battleship, the Yamato, to Okinawa to disrupt the invasion force(4).

The battleship did not have enough fuel to return to base; the plan was simply for it to strand itself on the beach, where it would serve as shore artillery. However, the approaching Yamato was quickly spotted; and with no air cover, it was quickly brought down by American aerial torpedoes, with 2,498 of its crew drowning.

Such a fate seemed cruel indeed for a ship that once was intended to be the pride and joy of the Japanese navy. Constructed in 1937, the Yamato, at 839 feet and 70,000 pounds, was the largest ship to be used in the war, boasting a set of record-breakingly large guns that were intended to cut swathes through enemy ships.

Although the Yamato was somewhat outdated when it did at last see action, using such a groundbreaking piece of naval engineering in such a manner – as a throwaway sacrifice to buy some time against the attackers – further demonstrated a particular level of desperation on the part of Japan. The US forces were on their doorstep, and they knew that, in all likelihood, the war was lost. At this point, they had nothing to lose.

The Battle Moves to Land

But of course, this didn’t mean things were going to get easy for the Allies at Okinawa. Far from it. Inland, out of reach of any covering fire from the naval forces, the ground troops were beginning to encounter the Japanese army, who were making it clear that they would fight tooth and nail to protect every inch of ground.

Various incidental features of the Okinawa landscape – usually ones offering vantage points, such as Kakazu Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, or the famed Hacksaw Ridge – were the site of violent clashes as both sides fought to dominate the island.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, given its blood-soaked nature, one of the names most widely associated with Hacksaw Ridge (and the Battle of Okinawa in general) has been that of Private First Class Desmond Doss

A devout Seventh-Day Adventist who served as a medic in the US Army during the war, Doss was known for his absolute commitment to non-violence, such that he refused to carry a gun, which made him a target of ridicule among his comrades.

In spite of this, Doss later became famous for his unwavering courage during the assault on Hacksaw Ridge, during which he would wade out into heavy gunfire to retrieve and treat his wounded comrades. It was his role in the battle that would later earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Doss is, of course, only one of thousands of men who braved the horrors of war during the Battle of Okinawa; but his unwavering commitment to his pacifism in the midst of one of the bloodiest battles in all of World War II has earned him a particularly prominent place in the pantheon of America’s war heroes.

Sadly, the heroism of Doss, and others like him, did not alter the fact that the Battle of Okinawa was a bloody one indeed. Bit by bit, the Americans gained ground, marching ever closer to victory; but it was a victory that came at a tremendous cost.

Besides the thousands of military casualties on both sides, the fighting also took a toll on the small island’s civilian population. Some estimates put total civilian deaths at around 100,000, about a quarter of the island’s entire population at the time.

As the battle raged on, hope dwindled among the Japanese forces (helped along by General Buckner, who organized the dropping of propaganda leaflets over the island declaring the war to be lost for Japan); and in late June, the battle began to wrap up.

Around 7,000 soldiers surrendered, but a great many others opted instead for ritual suicide(5) – among them, General Mitsuru Ushijima, commander of the Japanese forces. It was on the day of his suicide, June 22nd, that US forces would officially announce that all resistance on Okinawa had been quelled.

Why Did the US Invade Okinawa?

The circumstances behind the invasion of Okinawa may have been years in the making, but the central reason behind it was a simple one: it was the final step in the US’s efforts to take control of Japan itself and bring an end to the war on the Pacific front once and for all(6).

In the early days of the USA’s entry into the war, Japan had launched a successful campaign of military conquest(7), laying claim to territory all across the Pacific, from Manchuria to Micronesia.

Japan’s aim had been to lay claim to East Asia and establish themselves across a good portion of the globe, and thus establish an Axis (the name given to the alliance between Japan, Germany, and Italy)  presence across a substantial portion of the Earth. 

For much of the war, most of the US’s military efforts were focused on clashes (mostly naval and aerial) with Japan on the Pacific front in an effort to drive back their growing military presence – appropriate, perhaps, since it had been a Japanese aerial attack on an American naval base that had brought the US into the war in the first place.

Fortunately, by the time of the Battle of Okinawa, it was clear that the US’s efforts were paying off. Japan, once established across the Pacific, were now in retreat, with much of their military presence restricted to small island territories around Japan’s shores.

The next step was obvious. Japan’s forces had been uprooted from the territories they had laid claim to; now it was time to take the fight to them. The Pacific theater was one of the major fronts of the war, and to bring that clash to a close would be to conclude a major part of the conflict. And the best way to do that, it seemed clear, was to invade Japan itself, bringing the country to its knees and 

The decision to make Okinawa a major stepping stone in the process of invading Japan was not a spontaneous one – in fact, America’s military strategists had had their eye on the island since October of the previous year.

Located a mere 400 miles south of the Japanese mainland, the island, with its dense foliage and hilly landscape, would be the ideal spot to set up a military base from which to launch aerial attacks on the country. This, surely, would be the key to a successful invasion of Japan itself.

Why Was the Battle of Okinawa so Important?

If World War II was a stage play, the Battle of Okinawa would be a major part of its closing act. Or, put more simply, it was the final major battle of the war. This, of course, means that, while it might not have been the sole deciding factor in the war’s eventual outcome, it was a defining factor in the course taken by the war in its last few weeks – especially on the Pacific front.

US military leaders fixated on Okinawa as the perfect spot from which to launch that final invasion effort against Japan, bringing the conclusion to a close at last. And indeed, when at last the island was conquered, it would play a role in the ultimate conclusion of the war – though not in the way many had suspected it would.

In brief, while the US did finally lay claim to Okinawa, it was a fight that came at tremendous cost. US forces already battered by Iwo Jima would incur even greater losses at Okinawa, with 36,000 wounded and 12,000 killed – among them, General Buckner, commander of the invasion’s ground forces.

Around this same time, Harry S. Truman, who had assumed the position of President of the United States midway through the battle after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was faced with a seemingly impossible decision.

Coming into the presidency at one of the most tumultuous times in America’s history, Truman was now tasked with seeing the war to its bitter end. Would he drag out the war further by ordering an invasion on Japanese soil, or bring it to a swift, decisive end by dropping the newly-developed atomic bomb on the country?

Truman’s ultimate decision to bomb Japan was, it was clear, not reached lightly. Indeed, it was an intensely controversial one which some of his military officials maintained to the very end was not necessary – an invasion and more small-scale bombing, they asserted, would be enough to bring Japan to heel(8).

But various circumstances, the Battle of Okinawa prominent among them, as well as the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the complexity of post-war politics, had put Truman in a profoundly compromising position.

“I understand that the president is very much perturbed over the losses at Okinawa” remarked one Pentagon general at one point. And who could blame him? The island may have been taken, but now, the troops with immediate access to the Japanese mainland were battle-weary, their numbers thinned.

And even if they were to make their way inland, where most of Japan’s forces were now concentrated, who was to say that they would not experience losses worse than at Okinawa? Could they truly afford the risk of lengthening the war further with a mainland invasion that could quite possibly repeat the disaster of Okinawa on a greater scale? Truman himself remarked to his military advisors that he hoped there was a possibility of “preventing an Okinawa from one end of Japan to another”.

The debate as to whether or not Truman made the right call in choosing to bomb Japan is one that will likely never be resolved completely. What seems quite clear, however, is that the Battle of Okinawa, and the tremendous toll it took upon the US forces, was a major factor in Truman’s ultimate decision – a final reminder, perhaps, of the enormous price of military clashes, and of how this years-long war needed to be brought to a close sooner than later.

Conclusion

Many tend to think of Hitler’s suicide, or the atomic bombing of Japan, as the final knell of the Second World War. Perhaps that’s true in general terms; but if one were to consider the war purely in terms of military engagements, the Battle of Okinawa would probably be the full stop. With the Allies in Europe descending on a fallen Berlin and Japan retreating from a Pacific theater it had once dominated, the Okinawa clash was the USA’s final step in its process of bringing the last Axis power to its knees.

Bibliography

1.   Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 225

2.   Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 224

3.  Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 225

4.   Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 226

5.  Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 227

6.  Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 224

7.   Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 94-95

8.  Messenger, Charles. The Pictorial History of World War II. Bison Books, 1987, pp. 232

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