OKINAWA: A REHEARSAL FOR JAPAN'S INVASION
0n April 1 fifty-six years ago, American forces made an amphibious landing on Okinawa, the principal island in the Ryukyu Islands, only 350 miles from Japan. This landing, code-named "Operation Iceberg," was carried out by the greatest concentration of land, sea and air power ever used in the Pacific.
The supporting armada of U. S. Fifth Fleet ships totaled 1,457 vessels of all types, including the British Pacific Fleet, and 548,000 men. The invasion was also supported by bomber and fighter-bomber aircraft of the U. S. Seventh Air Force and B-29 Superfortresses of the XXI Bomber Command.
To the Japanese, this invasion so close to Japan's home islands sent a clear message that the time was nearing when the United States would be invading their country, and Okinawa would be the base used for launching that invasion. The enemy, therefore, called the Okinawa invasion "Tennozan"-"the ultimate battle." Anticipating this, Japan had heavily fortified the island, which is sixty miles long and 2 to 18 miles wide covering 485 square miles, to delay the U. S. drive. There were 120,000 Japanese troops on the island, almost double the 65,000 troops American intelligence believed the Japanese had.
The 183,000 U. S. troops that went ashore that day, the XXIV (Army) Corps and the III (Marine) Amphibious Corps, comprised largely of battle-tested veterans of Pacific island fighting, met only light resistance by the Japanese defenders. Nearly 1,000 Navy frogmen had cleared Okinawa's shore in preparation for L-Day. Consequently, only 28 American lives were lost during the landing instead of the expected heavy casualties.
Beginning in February, U. S. ships and planes had pummeled Okinawa with intense, methodical naval and air bombardment. In response Japanese suicide planes - "kamikazes" -- carried out mass formation attacks on our fleet and U. S. Merchant Marine ships similar to what they did to the fleet and supply ships In the fall of 1944 when the United States invaded the Philippines. Between March 26--31, kamikazes knocked 16 ships out of action or severely damaged them. The carrier USS Franklin, hit by two bombs, suffered close to 1,000 casualties, but managed to get home under her own power. She was the most heavily damaged carrier ever to be saved.
This March fighting took place before the landing on Okinawa when our forces invaded smaller outlying islands, also in the Ryukcus, to obtain a protected anchorage for refueling and resupplying ships. Beginning about a week after the landing, more devastating attacks were made by hundreds of enemy planes, including kamikazes, on fleet and supply ships. Still more deadly suicide attacks were repeated sporadically throughout the month of April. One of the more than forty ships bearing Wyoming names, the USS Natrona (APA 214), an assault troop carrier, was credited with bringing down one kamikaze and assisting with another in those attacks.
Our troops advanced across the island. By April 6, the Tenth Army held the center of the island, and two days later the Marines secured the northern part. The U. S. forces soon learned, though, that most of the Japanese troops were concentrated at the south end of the island. They were dug in firmly in the formidable Shuri Line that was anchored on an ancient castle from which the elaborate defensive network took its name. The line was softened up for 10 days by artillery, aircraft and naval gunfire. It has been described as the most massive concentrated artillery pounding of the Pacific war.
While our troops secured positions inland on Okinawa, other American forces continued landing on smaller islands around it. On one of them, le Shima, America's most beloved war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, was killed by a Japanese sniper. On a marker where he was shot were these words, "At This Spot the 77 th Infantry Division Lost a Buddy. Ernie Pyle. 18 April 1945."
At sea, Japan's superbattleship Yamato - the biggest and most powerful in the world -- came out of port to fight. She was accompanied by a cruiser and eight destroyers. A U.S. submarine sighted this powerful naval task force on 7 April and alerted our carriers. Three hundred U. S. carrier planes attacked and sank all ships, except four destroyers that fled back to Japan. All 3,063 men on the Yamato went down with their ship.
The battle at the Shuri Line in the south went on for some time. After the heavy pounding, U. S. troops attacked on 19 April. Another attack five days later disclosed the enemy had secretly withdrawn` further back to a stronger line. More U. S. forces were assembled to attack again, but before they did, Japanese troops with tanks and artillery support, all skillfully coordinated with kamikazes, surged out of their fortifications, striking the U. S. front in an enormous counterattack. Our forces managed to defend against the attack, assisted by artillery and naval gunfire that cost the Japanese about 5,500 casualties. U. S. losses were around 700.
The American offensive was delayed by the counterattack, but it got under way again 11 May. Through 20 May, Marines and soldiers suffered terribly as the fighting wore on at Wana Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, Hills 55 and 110. The tank-infantry teams stuck with each other. An observer later described the scene saying the "alive, wounded, dead, maimed, crying in anguish, limping, bleeding - no matter how, they came out together." Henry Berry, author of Semper Fi, Mac; described the fighting as, "One of the most horrendous blood-lettings in the history of American combat."
Heavy rains added to the U. S. forces' problems. When the rains ceased on 28 May, the Marines overwhelmed the enemy units defending Shuri Castle and forced them to abandon the main Shuri Line. The Japanese retreated in the face of tremendous firepower. For clearing caves and tunnels of enemy troops, U. S. forces used flamethrowers and recoilless rifles. "Blowtorch and corkscrew" tactics, a term coined by Commander of the Tenth Army Major General Simon Bolivar Buckner, were used, to seal caves entombing burned, screaming Japanese. Flame-throwing tanks provided the blowtorch, while dynamite charges and grenades were the corkscrews.
Among the U. S. dead was General Buckner, the highest-ranking U. S. officer killed in WW II. He died 18 June in a Japanese artillery barrage while visiting the front. Okinawa ranks as the costliest single battle of the Pacific war for both sides, second only to the Battle of the Bulge in terms of U. S. casualties. The high cost of freedom is shown by these figures: The Army sustained 4,436 killed in action (KIA) and 17,343 wounded in action (WIA). The Marines suffered 2,793 KIA and 13,434 WIA. Moreover, the suicide weapons and more traditional ones used by the Japanese, such as giant mortars and artillery, took a heavy psychological toll among American GI's. It reportedly produced the most and worst cases of combat fatigue In the Pacific war.
Japan counted 107,539 dead and 10,755 captured. Another 23,764 enemy dead were sealed in caves or otherwise buried. Tragically, some 42,000 Okinawan civilians died, either by suicide or during the fighting. Combat deaths, suicides and kamikazes accounted for most Japanese deaths. Others died while piloting explosives-laden suicide boats, steering two torpedoes lashed together fitted with a seat for the pilot, or operating rocket-propelled cylinders or piloted buzz bombs. Japan also lost 7,800 planes, at least 1,465 of them kamikazes, 16 ships sunk and four damaged.
American losses in ships, both Navy and Merchant Marine, between 1 April and 1 July, also the highest In a Pacific battle, were 36 sunk and 368 damaged. Moreover, 763 aircraft were shot down. Kamikazes were the culprits in most cases. Some 20% of all Navy KIAs in the entire war were suffered off Okinawa. All of these statistics gave us just a taste of what was sure to happen in the planned invasion of Japan`
In conclusion, despite the terrible price, America's overwhelming victory carried the war to Japan's doorstep. Yet, as CDR Louis A. Gilles, Fifth Fleet intelligence officer, cautioned, "The Japanese are defeated, but we have not yet won the victory." The writing was on the wall, though, even in Tokyo. Veteran Japanese diplomat Mamoru Shigemitsu reportedly said, "Okinawa left little room for doubt as to the outcome of the war."
But, to get the ruling militarists in Tokyo to change their mind-set on fighting to the death, something dramatic had to happen. And It did. Hiroshima was bombed on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August. Emperor Hirohito, who reportedly would act only after the cabinet reached a unanimous decision, took charge saying "I . . . give my sanction to the proposal to accept the Allied proclamations... :' He was referring to the Potsdam Proclamation that would accept nothing less than an unconditional surrender, which could have meant his prosecution as a war criminal. The Japanese cabinet, however, added a proviso requiring that the Emperor stay. The Allies reluctantly agreed, concerned that the Japanese people would revolt if the Emperor, believed to be a descendant of their sun god, were dethroned and prosecuted.
In light of subsequent events involving the use of The Bomb and what followed, were the enormous sacrifices to capture Okinawa in vain? No, not at all. Though there were several factors that figured into the decision of the Japanese to surrender rather than fight to the finish, the fact that American forces were based just 350 miles away on Okinawa and were being readied to attack had to be a major one.
Source: "Vets Hot-Line" by Stan Lowe, CASPER JOURNAL, March 29, 2001.