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  • James Houser

April 1, 1945 - Battle of Okinawa

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

April 1, 1945. Troops of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps land on the shores of Okinawa, the key island of the Ryukyu chain. It is the worst and most terrible battle of the Pacific War. It is also the last battle of World War II – the final step on the road to Tokyo.

The spring of 1945 saw the Allied cause ascendant all over the world. In Europe, Allied forces had crossed the Rhine River, and Russian artillery was knocking at the gates to Berlin. In Southeast Asia, the British and Indian armies were on the offensive after driving the Japanese out of northern Burma. In the Philippines, MacArthur’s army had cleared Manila and was uprooting Yamashita’s armies out of one mountain after another. And a few days beforehand (see my March 26 post), the Marines had finally declared Iwo Jima secure.

Iwo Jima and Okinawa sound like they go together lyrically – and they do sound similar. After three years of terrible, relentless, nightmarish island fighting across one Pacific patch of dirt after another, these two were the final rocks to be taken before the invasion of Japan itself was set to commence. They could not have been more different, though. Iwo Jima was a tiny volcanic island covered in ash and 8 square miles across; it was barely a rock and had almost no civilian inhabitants.

Okinawa is 466 square miles of land, large enough to be considered one of the five main islands of Japan by some geographers. Okinawa had been its own kingdom in the pre-modern era, and had a civilian population of 435,000. The Kingdom of Okinawa was semi-independent until 1867, when the newly expansionist Japanese Empire took possession. It even had seats in the Japanese Diet. Okinawan culture has as much Chinese influence as Japanese, thus marking it as distinctive and separate from either. The island chain of the Ryukyus, of which Okinawa is the largest, even has its own – sadly dying – set of languages. Okinawa was in every way considered truly part of Japan; the United States was finally prepared to set foot on Japanese home soil. The Okinawan people would refer to the coming battle as the “tetsu no bofu” – the “Typhoon of Steel.”

The Japanese would use the same defense strategy on Okinawa as they had on Iwo Jima and Peleliu. They could not hope to defeat the American forces outright, but instead sought to prolong the action and grind down the invaders as they battled through heavy fortifications and defenses in depth. The goal was not to win, but to inflict maximum loss of life and materiel. The Japanese did not seek a victory of the flesh but of the spirit.

This was done for two reasons. The first was to discourage the United States from making an assault on the Home Islands themselves, and instead to seek a negotiated peace that could leave Japan with many of its conquests – it was out of hope of holding these territories that Japan held out as long as they did, even to the point of atomic catastrophe. The second was to buy time for new Japanese kamikaze tactics to inflict maximum damage on the American fleet, for the same overall reason.

Despite Okinawa’s reputation as a Marine battle, the first Americans ashore were Army troops of the 77th Infantry Division. They were quickly followed by more soldiers and Marines, and within the first few days had swept across most of northern Okinawa and split the island in two. It seemed like a strangely easy victory, and at first the Americans rejoiced. It was only by April 7 that the Americans found the real resistance in Okinawa, dug in along the narrow southern isthmus of the island to the south. About 182,000 Army, Marine, and Navy confronted 76,000 Japanese troops – and 20,000 armed civilians.

The civilians of Okinawa, by far, suffered the most from the conflict. Most islands the Americans had come across, with the notable and terrible exception of Saipan in 1944, had their civilian populations evacuated before the American attacks. Okinawa was not so lucky. The Japanese Army was absolutely indifferent to the civilians’ safety, often using them as human shields or outright murdering them. They confiscated food, leading to mass starvation. Informed by Japanese propaganda that the American troops would inflict terrible atrocities upon them, many Okinawan civilians were directed by the Japanese Army to commit suicide and given grenades with which to blow themselves up. Many of these actions were later denied or covered up by Japanese historical scholars, to the point that Okinawan civilians have launched protests against modern Japan’s Ministry of Education for its glossing over Japanese actions.

American propaganda attempted to counteract the Japanese demands for mass suicide, but to a degree they caused as many casualties as the Japanese. American firepower did not distinguish between soldier or civilian, and artillery shells and aerial bombardments do not detect human shields. Sexual assaults by Japanese soldiers on the Okinawan women were quite common, although similar acts by Americans were not unheard of. Either way, the Okinawans lost, and their fate was the bitterest of the battle.

As the Americans slogged through the defenses on Okinawa, the Japanese Air Force launched an unprecedented kamikaze offensive on the American fleet offshore. As long as the ground forces were fighting their battle, the U.S. Navy had to keep its forces in the area to protect the troops on land from Japanese sea and air attack. This pinned them in place for Japanese kamikaze raids, and Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, had to take the unprecedented step of rotating officers off their ships to allow the commanders to rest and refit, so unremitting was the assault.

The kamikazes were a weapon of desperation; Japan’s trained pilots had been bled away in fighting against US forces across the Pacific, often in poor tactical decisions or displays of force. Unlike other major nations of the war, Japan had failed to use its best pilots to train a committed reserve, so once its pilots were gone there were no replacements. The Japanese Air Force’s edge had been permanently dulled. Japan was literally producing more aircraft than it had men to fly them, and for that it turned to the kamikaze. The kamikaze was a suicide plane armed with a bomb that would crash into an American ship to cause the maximum damage possible.

Kamikaze means “divine wind”, and was a reference to the hurricanes that destroyed two Mongol invasion fleets in the 1200s AD. This enormous double stroke of luck was taken by medieval Japan to be a sign of divine favor, and they believed that they could replicate it through the use of suicidal pilots. The kamikazes were monstrously ineffective in comparison to their numbers; thousands of young men were trained only to take off and to steer into an American vessel, but they were not taught how to land. Ostensibly “volunteers,” many of them were, um, not. The tragedy of the kamikaze pilots, boys sent to the slaughter, is one of the many smaller tragedies that made up the Second World War.

In the period March 26-June 22, the Japanese flew almost 2,000 kamikaze aircraft into the American fleet stationed around Okinawa. The only American ships destroyed were typically smaller vessels – radar pickets, destroyer escorts, and landing ships, though several major ships were severely damaged by the attacks. 20 American ships were sunk and 157 damaged by the kamikazes. A similar suicide attack by the final remaining assets of the Japanese Navy – including the battleship Yamato, the largest in the world – never made it to Okinawa, being sunk by American carrier planes long before they reached the area.

All this time, American troops slogged through the horrorshow that was the Battle of Okinawa. The multiple successive lines of defense caused terrible casualties, with fierce Japanese counterattacks. Okinawan civilians, men and women armed with nothing but spears and farming tools, were forced into mass suicide charges against the American attackers. Monsoon rains beginning in May turned the island into a morass, and the fighting only grew more bitter, with flamethrowers and grenades becoming the weapon of choice. American planes bombed the lines with napalm, and heavy battleships shelled the region into rubble. By mid-May, the battle resembled World War I’s Western Front than anything World War II had ever seen.

On May 8, 1945, American troops received the news that Germany had surrendered with stony silence. While the rest of the world could celebrate V-E Day, to them it was just another day in the hell that was Okinawa.

The American commander, Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., was the son of the Confederate General Simon Buckner who had surrendered Fort Donelson to Ulysses S. Grant on February 16, 1862. (See my post for that day.) Buckner’s, killed on June 18 by Japanese artillery fire, was the highest-ranking casualty of World War II for the United States military. He died four days before his ultimate triumph – on June 21, the last remnants of Japanese resisted, though some still remained in hiding.

The Battle of Okinawa had taken almost three months and cost the United States around 20,000 dead from both the fighting on the island itself as well as the naval kamikaze fight. Almost the whole Japanese garrison – around 77,000 total – were killed, although around 7,000 survived to become prisoners. Tragically, the civilian losses were staggering: around 150,000 civilians died on Okinawa, almost a third of the prewar population.

Okinawa had repercussions beyond its terrible cost. Iwo Jima and Okinawa, taken together, convinced the American high command that the Japanese were prepared to fight to the death and that no effort could be spared to win the war. The mass deaths of civilians, in particular, had a harrowing effect on the high command. The aerial bombardment of Japan had already begun, and the Japanese Empire showed no signs of yielding despite the massive civilian deaths already inflicted.

In American eyes, Okinawa was a preview of what they could expect on a much larger scale on the Japanese home islands.

It is impossible to truly estimate the impact Okinawa had on the American decision to use the atomic bomb.

It is worth noting, though, that more Japanese died on Okinawa than at Hiroshima.

Book Recommendation: Once again, a good broad overview of the Pacific War is Ian W. Toll, Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2020). For a more personalized view of the Battle of Okinawa, go with 1st Marine Division veteran Eugene B. Sledge’s legendary war memoir With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (New York: Presidio Press, 1981).

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