Hellish Prelude at Okinawa

By Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)

The campaign began with an exchange of preemptive strikes that gave notice the war at sea had become decidedly more dangerous the closer the U.S. fleet approached Japan. Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher assembled the fast carriers of his vaunted Task Force 58 in Ulithi Atoll the second week of March to commence final preparations for Operation Iceberg, the campaign to seize Okinawa. On 10 March, Mitscher convened a conference with his principal subordinates on board his flagship, the Essex (CV-9)-class fleet carrier Bunker Hill (CV-17).

Mitscher and his superiors, Admiral Spruance and Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commanding the Central Pacific Theater, shared a concern about the increasing lethality of the Pacific War. Peleliu, Luzon, and Iwo Jima had been unexpectedly costly, exacerbated by the enemy's increasing resort to suicide attacks. The initiation of Japanese kamikaze attacks against U.S. ships, first in the Philippines, then at Iwo Jima, posed an undeniable threat to fleet operations in support of an amphibious campaign. Mitscher warned his task group commanders to expect hundreds—possibly thousands—of suicide planes in the Ryukyu Islands.

Mitscher's warnings were prophetic. At the same time he convened the meeting on the Bunker Hill , an old adversary, Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, commanding the Japanese Fifth Air Fleet, said farewell to a group of volunteer flight crews preparing for a long-distance, one-way mission from Kyushu to attack the U.S. anchorage at Ulithi, 800 miles to the southeast. Ugaki, who had served as chief of staff to the legendary Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and later commanded the battleships during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, had devised Operation Tan, a preemptive strike against Mitscher's fast carriers.

Admiral Ugaki launched his 24 bombers the morning of 11 March. Bad weather and mechanical problems en route thinned the numbers to a handful, but one suicide bomber swept into the lagoon just after sunset, spotted the USS Randolph (CV-15) loading ammunition under spotlights, and crashed into her flight deck aft, destroying 14 aircraft and setting her ablaze. It was a sobering introduction to the operation.

Three days later, Mitscher's Task Force 58 sortied from Ulithi, heading north, intent on launching a preemptive strike of its own against Kyushu's many airfields. Ugaki's reconnaissance aircraft shadowed the U.S. carriers as they approached Kyushu, warning the Japanese in time for them to disperse and camouflage most of their aircraft. Pilots in the U.S. fighters making the first sweep were surprised to find so few targets. Mitscher grew uneasy, knowing how exposed his carriers were in Japanese waters, but he extended his penetration to allow additional daylight raids against likely kamikaze airfields. The enemy made him pay.

Japanese bombers hit the fleet carriers Wasp (CV-18) and Franklin (CV-13) on 19 March with devastating results. The Wasp lost 200 men killed, but the Franklin —hit by two bombs while refueling and rearming her planes on the flight deck—suffered terrible damage and the deaths of more than 700 men. Raging fires detonated the exposed ordnance, including new 11.75-inch Tiny Tim rockets. Hundreds of men were blown into the sea. ""The Franklin was a huge mass of explosions, flames, and a tremendous column of smoke,"" recalled Commander Thomas H. Morton, gunnery officer of the battleship North Carolina (BB-55), steaming astern of the stricken carrier. ""There must have been hundreds of her crew in the water . . . some had jumped, some had been blown over, and some were badly injured."" 2

Captain Leslie H. Gehres led the fight to save his crippled carrier. Retaining a skeleton crew on board, Gehres evacuated hundreds of wounded men, suppressed the fires, stopped the flooding, and welcomed a tow from the cruiser Pittsburgh (CA-72). Through their efforts, the Franklin became the most heavily damaged U.S. carrier to survive, making her slow but determined way to New York under her own power, an extraordinary 12,000-mile voyage home.

Task Force 58 fared poorly in a sea fight for the first time since its creation more than a year earlier. Mitscher withdrew from Japanese waters, carefully shielding his cripples. With the Okinawa invasion barely ten days ahead, Mitscher sensed the Fifth Fleet was in for the fight of its life.

Anticipating the U.S. invasion of Okinawa as a final stage before the ultimate invasion of the homeland, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters ordered the formation of suicide forces designated ""Special Attack Units."" These were principally kamikazes, but their number also included vessels and small craft of the Navy as well as Army suicidal air commandos and antitank squads.

Kamikaze pilots were volunteers from both services, often mere teenagers flying substandard airplanes. Hundreds of them perished en route from storms, maintenance failures, or poor navigation. Combat air patrols and fleet antiaircraft fire from U.S. forces took a major toll. Yet, despite the attrition, an average of one in every five kamikazes who launched against the Fifth Fleet succeeded in crashing into a U.S. ship or causing shipboard damage by a near miss.

Even without the kamikazes, Okinawa presented a difficult objective for the Fifth Fleet. Protected by a barrier reef, offshore minefields, and submerged obstacles, the island was defended by an experienced field army reinforced with additional heavy artillery units.

Spruance took the threat seriously but planned the assault with confidence. Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, commanding the amphibious task force under Spruance, had prevailed against the Japanese in every major assault from Guadalcanal through Iwo Jima. Many of his captains were veterans of earlier difficult campaigns. Several ships, including the World War I-vintage battleships Arkansas (BB-33) and New York (BB-34) and the more recently commissioned Allen M. Sumner (DD-692)-class destroyer Laffey (DD-724), had played significant bombardment roles in the Normandy landing the previous year.

Spruance gave Turner the mission of landing the Tenth Army on Okinawa's southwest coast on L-Day (the overlapping assaults of Iwo Jima and the Philippines dictated a landing designation other than ""D-Day"" for Okinawa). Turner conducted extensive advance operations to clear minefields, bombard inland defenses, and seize the outlying Kerama Retta islands as a fleet repair and replenishment harbor. Turner also distracted the Japanese 32nd Army with an elaborate, division-level, decoy landing on Okinawa's opposite coast.

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These preliminary measures helped produce a nearly flawless landing on L-Day, 1 April 1945. Under the protection of a heavy air and naval gunfire bombardment, Turner landed four divisions abreast with such well-orchestrated precision that 60,000 men were ashore and in possession of the key airfields by sunset. Navy Captain Ernest M. Eller, observing the landing from the flagship of the Northern Attack Force, described the ship-to-shore assault as ""spectacular. Seeing four divisions land at once along several miles of beaches is quite a sight, like a giant cavalry charge afloat."" 3 From Kyushu, Admiral Ugaki recorded in his diary, ""By evening the whole beach area had fallen with amazing swiftness."" 4

More significant, so carefully did Turner's air and surface forces shepherd the massive flotillas of troop-laden transports that no Japanese bombers or kamikazes were able to disrupt the most vulnerable component of the main assault. Ugaki's kamikazes fared better the following day, severely damaging the attack transport Henrico (APA-45), under way for a subsidiary landing with the 77th Army Division.
 
But the Japanese had missed a prime opportunity to kill concentrated numbers of assailants before they stormed ashore. Captain Elliott B. Strauss, commanding the attack transport Charles Carroll (APA-28), recalled, ""The Japanese were foolish not to go after the transports, rather than the destroyer screen, because if they had actually sunk a couple of [loaded] transports it would have interfered with the invasion force much more."" 5

The fleet had landed the Tenth Army impressively, but the much more difficult part of the campaign became the ten-week struggle to support the troops ashore with naval gunfire and carrier air strikes while delivering a steady supply of ammunition, fuel, water, rations, and reinforcements. The protracted mission left the Fifth Fleet on a short tether around Okinawa, its ships not exactly sitting ducks but ever vulnerable to Japanese air raids.

Admiral Ugaki, as expected, attacked the U.S. fleet with hundreds of individual kamikazes and conventional bombers. In an unwelcome surprise for the invaders, he also launched ten different attacks by massed kamikazes, called kikusui (""floating chrysanthemums""), with as many as 355 planes at a time, a nightmarish threat to the fleet. The Japanese also tried to enhance the effectiveness of the kikusui attacks by combining them with parallel distractions such as a major counterattack of the 32nd Army or the suicidal sortie of the super-battleship Yamato .
 
The Yamato 's sortie proved anticlimactic. Her dramatic appearance six months earlier during Battle of Leyte Gulf had heightened the adrenalin flow of every U.S. sailor in the fleet. Now the enormous warship—bereft of carrier air support and nearly starved for fuel—no longer inspired fear. Dispatched on a desperate one-way suicide mission to Okinawa, escorted only by small task unit that served more as honorary pallbearer than as a protective screen, the Yamato posed little threat to the Fifth Fleet. Mitscher's air groups intercepted the flotilla far from Okinawa, sinking the Yamato in less than an hour with bombs and aerial torpedoes. Ugaki briefly mourned the loss of his former flagship, recording in his diary, ""My dear Yamato finally went down in the China Sea. . . ."" 6

Spruance, Turner, and Mitscher had greater concerns. On 12 April the Japanese launched their first oka, a piloted, rocket-boosted, suicide glider capable of diving at speeds of 500 miles per hour. The first oka hit the destroyer Mannert L. Abele (DD-733) with such force that she broke apart and sank in five minutes.

The psychological stress of U.S. sailors struggling to shoot down kamikazes grew worse over time. The suicide aircraft and conventional bombers struck the fleet relentlessly. In daylight, some sailors manning the topside 40-mm guns on board the radar picket destroyers actually would see the faces of the kamikaze pilots in the last split seconds before their planes exploded. Kamikazes frequently attacked by moonlight, appearing as ghostly apparitions, ""like a giant bat gliding in,"" recalled 19-year-old Signalman First Class Nicholas Floros, an antiaircraft gunner on a medium landing ship at Okinawa. 7 Admiral Spruance, whose flagship USS Indianapolis (CA-35) sustained heavy damage from a kamikaze just before the landing at Okinawa, described the nighttime raiders as ""witches on broomsticks."" 8

Destroyer captains under attack desperately maneuvered their ships broadside to diving kamikazes to minimize the target depth and maximize clearance for all three main gun mounts. More kamikazes always seemed to be in the queue, some ""flaming like a torch"" in their death throes, most bearing 500-pound bombs, crashing into the ships with an enormous fireball. The explosions did terrible damage, killing and burning many of the crew, blowing men topside overboard and trapping engine room gangs below decks. Dozens of ships went down; many more limped back to the protected waters of Kerama Retto, only to be scuttled on a beach or abandoned and towed back out to sea as decoys. ""Those kamikazes scared the hell out of people,"" admitted Lieutenant Jerome H. King Jr., the main battery officer aboard the light cruiser Mobile (CL-63). 9

When Commander Julian Becton conned his destroyer, the Normandy veteran Laffey , into Kerama Retto to replenish her ammo, the twisted and blackened wreckage of ships that littered the shoreline appalled him. One officer described the scene as ""an elephants' burial ground."" Becton said it felt like ""moving down the aisle in the middle of a hospital ward full of mangled and crippled casualties."" 10

Admiral Spruance fought back. He ordered the fighters of the Tenth Army's Tactical Air Force to reinforce the fleet's combat air patrols, increased the frequency of Mitscher's carrier raids against Kyushu's airfields, and assigned Vice Admiral Sir H. B. Rawlings's four Royal Navy carriers the mission of suppressing kamikaze fields in Formosa and the Sakishima Gunto islands. Spruance also launched amphibious landings to seize small islands off the coast of Okinawa to serve as extended fighter direction and early warning radar sites. From his forward headquarters in Guam, Admiral Nimitz prevailed on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to divert B-29 bombers from their daily raids on Honshu to pound Kyushu's airfields.

Nimitz became increasingly concerned about the fleet's losses to Japanese air attacks and impatient with the Tenth Army's slow progress in the land campaign. In late April he flew to Okinawa to urge Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner to expedite his advance. Buckner bristled at what he considered unwarranted tactical interference by the theater commander. Nimitz retorted, ""I'm losing a ship and a half a day. So if this line isn't moving within five days, we'll get someone here to move it so we can all get out from under these stupid air attacks."" 11

Buckner glowered at the threat, because ""getting the line moving"" was much easier said than done. Okinawa's narrow width and transverse ridgelines offered only two offensive options. Buckner could continue grinding south into the teeth of the Japanese defenses, or he could use his considerable amphibious capability in a series of seaborne envelopments behind enemy lines. The appeal of the second alternative escaped Buckner, whose only previous experience with amphibious operations occurred when he observed Army landings in the Aleutian Islands in 1943. Nimitz, a bold gambler in the Marshalls and a hard-hearted executor of the bloody Peleliu assault, declined to press the issue at Okinawa, perhaps leery of spiking the casualty count even higher despite the time-saving benefits. There the issue died. Nimitz departed, and Buckner resumed his frontal assaults. The campaign lurched forward, advancing only a few hundred yards each bloody day. Meanwhile, Japanese kamikazes continued to savage the Fifth Fleet, especially its radar picket ships in the East China Sea.

The Laffey 's turn for picket duty came due. Commander Becton's veteran crewmen prided themselves on their gunnery, but on the morning of 16 April they very nearly met their match. The destroyer arrived on station just after Admiral Ugaki unleashed the third kikusui attack, a swarm of 165 suicide planes. Several conventional bombers and 22 kamikazes attacked the Laffey over a span of 80 minutes. Becton's gunners surpassed themselves, shooting down at least nine Japanese planes, but the ship suffered six kamikaze strikes and four bomb explosions. Heavily damaged, afire and barely afloat, and with more than 100 casualties among the crew, the Laffey kept her few remaining guns firing until the end. When the frenzied attacks finally ceased, Commander Becton gratefully accepted a tow back to Kerama Retta, ""the elephants' burial ground."" Miraculously to all who saw her ravaged superstructure and gun mounts, the Laffey survived and later commenced her long journey back to Seattle.

Kamikaze pilots with higher expectations ignored the pickets and penetrated deep within the formation, seeking the carriers and battleships. One such pilot crashed into Mitscher's flagship, the Bunker Hill , setting fires that killed more than 350 of the crew, knocking the big carrier out of the war. Mitscher transferred his flag to the battle-scarred carrier Enterprise (CV-6), only to abandon ""The Big E"" two days later when she in turn sustained a major kamikaze crash. Mitscher wound up on board the Randolph , freshly returned from damages sustained at Ulithi the day the campaign began. Gallows humor surfaced. Other carriers put out the word that Mitscher, now considered a bad luck Jonah, would not be welcomed aboard.
 
British carriers with their steel decks fared better, withstanding several direct hits but avoiding the raging fires that ensued on the wooden decks of the U.S. ships. Battleships, with their thicker armor and bristling antiaircraft batteries, also fared well. Electrician's Mate First Class Edward E. Logue watched a kamikaze attack his battleship New York on 14 April. ""It came right across the quarterdeck,"" he said, ""and his wings tore loose on the mainmast leg and the turret. He went right through there and left his wings on our deck, and the fuselage and him went in the drink on the other side."" 12

Veteran sailors were grateful that the Japanese had not launched these massive kamikaze attacks earlier in the war, especially at Guadalcanal, where the U.S. invasion fleet was much smaller and its antiaircraft target acquisition and gunnery so comparatively primitive. A crucial improvement in surviving battle devastation at sea since the early campaigns was the enhanced proficiency of shipboard damage control teams, then being trained by civilian firefighters at every major naval base.

""Friendly fire"" was an inevitable by-product of low-flying kamikazes attacking a crowded anchorage. Operational accidents took a further toll. During the second night after the landing, the destroyer Franks (DD-554) experienced a glancing collision with USS New Jersey (BB-62) in which the battleship's anchor sliced off the port side of the destroyer's bridge, mortally injuring the captain. Quartermaster First Class Michael Bak Jr. raced to his station, but ""when I got to the bridge, my God, half the port side of the bridge was sliced away. . . . It was just like a knife going through at a 45° angle."" 13

The Fifth Fleet endured each catastrophe, rightfully earning the post-battle accolade ""The Fleet that Came to Stay."" Their delivery of fire and logistic support to the Tenth Army never flagged. Hospital ships did yeoman work, despite the kamikaze crash on the USS Comfort (AH-6) on 28 April that killed or wounded 60 patients, Army nurses, and crewmen. Carrier flight deck crews launched repeatedly, recovered, refueled, rearmed, and relaunched aircraft under harrowing conditions. Sailors throughout the fleet typically went to General Quarters an hour before dawn, nursing a mug of black coffee. Those still alive and afloat at day's end thanked their lucky stars and slept lightly, awaiting the klaxon foretelling a night attack.

The battle for Okinawa cost the Fifth Fleet dearly: 36 ships sunk, 368 damaged, 4,900 men killed or drowned, another 4,800 wounded, 763 aircraft lost. Among the 145 ships sunk or so heavily damaged as to be out of action for 30 days or more, four were lost to mines, five to suicide small craft, three to coastal batteries, and 133 to Japanese air attacks. In the fighting ashore, the Tenth Army sustained nearly 40,000 combat casualties, plus an additional 26,000 ""non-battle"" casualties, primarily combat fatigue cases. Tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians died in the fighting.
 
The terrible cost of seizing Okinawa influenced top-level planning for the invasion of Japan, scheduled to begin 1 November 1945 with an amphibious assault by the U.S. Sixth Army on southern Kyushu. Admiral Nimitz, who had favored the invasion plans in late April, changed his position a month later amid soaring Okinawa losses and intelligence reports of thousands of kamikaze planes and suicide boats being assembled for the defense of Kyushu. In June, President Harry S. Truman concluded a special briefing on the proposed Kyushu landing by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with the declaration that he wanted to prevent ""another Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other."" 14 Truman allowed invasion planning to continue, but the briefing left him more inclined to render his subsequent decision to employ atomic weapons to end the war.

Back in Seattle, the Laffey eased alongside Pier 48 on 25 May 1945, six weeks after her ordeal in the East China Sea. The Navy delayed repairing the ravaged ship until some 93,000 people could visit ""The Ship That Would Not Die"" and sense for themselves the fury of the kamikaze attacks and the fortitude of her crew.

Colonel Alexander is a frequent contributor to Naval Institute publications. The author of several books for the Naval Institute Press, he received its Author of the Year award in 1997. Television viewers will recognize him for his historical commentary on many documentaries for The History Channel and the Arts & Entertainment network.


 
   1. Thomas B. Buell, The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987), p. 396. back to article
   2. Oral history interview, RAdm. Thomas H. Morton, USN (Ret.), 16 October 1975, by John T. Mason Jr., U.S. Naval Institute Oral History Collection (hereafter, USNI OHC), p. 209. back to article
   3. Oral history interview, RAdm. Ernest M. Eller, USN (Ret.), 21 November 1972, by John T. Mason Jr., USNI OHC, p. 723. back to article
   4. Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, eds., Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941-45 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), p. 568, diary entry 1 April 1945. back to article
   5. Oral history interview, RAdm. Elliott B. Strauss, USN (Ret.), 10 November 1986, by Paul Stillwell, USNI OHC, p. 262. back to article
   6. Goldstein and Dillon, Fading Victory , p. 575, diary entry 7 April 1945. back to article
   7. Author interview with former Signalman Third Class Nicholas Floros, USNR, LSM-120, 1995. back to article
   8. Buell, The Quiet Warrior , p. 392. back to article
   9. Oral history interview, VADM Jerome H. King, Jr., USN (Ret.), 13 January 1998, by Paul Stillwell, USNI OHC, vol. 1, p. 107. back to article
  10. RAdm. F. Julian Becton, USN (Ret.), The Ship that Would Not Die (New York: Prentice Hall, 1980), p. 229. back to article
  11. E. B. Potter, Nimitz (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1976), p. 375. back to article
  12. Oral history interview, former Electrician's Mate First Class Edward E. Logue, USNR, 13 December 1995, by Paul Stillwell, USNI OHC, p.97. back to article
  13. Oral history interview, former Quartermaster First Class Michael Bak Jr., USNR (Ret.), 11 June 1986, by Paul Stillwell, USNI OHC, pp. 194-95. back to article
  14. Harry S. Truman quoted in Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1999), p. 143. back to article

Related Article: What Motivated the Kamikazes?

 

See the full Naval Institute guide to The Pacific.

 

Col. Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret.) served in the Corps for 29 years as an assault amphibian officer. He has written six books, including Utmost Savagery and Edson’s Raiders. He was the Naval Institute Author of the Year in 1996 and Naval History Author of the Year in 2010. He was the principal historian and writer on the exhibit design team throughout the construction of the National Museum of the Marine Corps. He resides in Asheville, North Carolina.

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