The Pacific War's Biggest Battle

By Richard B. Frank

The army would abandon the northern three-quarters of Okinawa, including, to the consternation of Tokyo, existing airfield sites. On a trio of ridges forming natural ramparts in the southern quarter of the island, the army frantically prepared intricate defensive belts. On Okinawa the Japanese also fielded their most numerous and well-directed artillery component of the Pacific campaigns. The island had served as an artillery training facility, and consequently, the precise terrain survey permitted deadly accurate fires.

Under Yohara's plan, the army would eschew the sort of heroic but self-defeating banzai counterattacks that marked most prior campaigns to preserve strength as long as possible in order to inflict the maximum blood cost on the invaders from within its fortifications. Although Ushijima accepted that annihilation of his army and his death constituted the probable outcome of the battle, he and his staff kindled hopes that their stubborn defense would allow a massive onslaught of kamikaze attacks that would inflict such attrition on the invasion fleet that the Americans would give up.

For both sides, the aspect of Okinawa that boded hugely for the expected invasion of Japan was the presence of nearly half a million civilians. The island's natives actually are ethnically distinct from mainland Japanese, and the Okinawans chafed under what they perceived as deeply ingrained discrimination. The friction remains to this day, and not least of the reasons is that many Okinawans believe the 32nd Army actively encouraged civilians on the island to follow the same policy of suicide before surrender as governed Japan's armed forces. There is little doubt, however, that the 32nd Army would have been just as ruthless if the inhabitants had been Japanese.


The U.S. Tenth Army under Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner drew the task of taking Okinawa. The son of a Confederate general, Buckner's prior role had been in the Aleutians backwater; Okinawa was his first and only test as an army commander. Buckner's assault echelon alone required 183,000 troops. After the landing, another 80,000 men would develop a massive array of airfields on Okinawa, requiring no fewer than 25 miles of runways plus taxiways and hardstands. From Europe, Major General James Doolittle's Eighth Air Force (re-equipped with B-29s) would stage to Okinawa, as would a British strategic bombing force of Lancaster bombers, half used as refueling aircraft. Thousands of tactical aircraft under Lieutenant General George Kenny's Far East Air Force would also migrate up to the island. Okinawa would furthermore become a major fleet base.

Two corps constituted the main combat components of the Tenth Army. The 1st, 2nd, and 6th Marine divisions formed Major General Roy Geiger's III Amphibious Corps. The Army's XXIV Corps under Major General John Hodge comprised the 7th, 77th, and 96th Infantry divisions. The Army 27th Infantry Division was Buckner's reserve. A massive 1,418-ship invasion fleet under Admiral Raymond Spruance incorporated both amphibious shipping under Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, who started the war at Guadalcanal, and vast support forces, including 17 U.S. and 5 British fleet carriers and some 20 battleships. In terms of combat naval might, Spruance's command represented far more power than the Normandy invasion fleet.

The naval forces, however, gained a sobering preview of what Okinawa would cost. On 19 March 1945 during preliminary carrier strikes on Kyushu, two Japanese bombs hit the fleet carrier USS Franklin (CV-13). Huge fires and explosions killed at least 798 crewmen. The losses were an omen that victory would come at an unexpectedly heavy cost.


To the amazement of all hands, virtually no opposition confronted the main American landing on 1 April 1945 April Fool's Day. The III Amphibious Corps crossed Okinawa and then wheeled to clear the northern two-thirds of the island. The XXIV Corps pivoted south. During these early days, ground fighting was so light that Admiral Turner jocularly signaled Admiral Nimitz: "I may be crazy but it looks like the Japs have quit the war, at least in this section." Nimitz replied tersely, "Delete all after crazy."

By 7 April, the 7th and 96th Infantry divisions confronted the first of the major defense lines, which were centered on ancient Shuri Castle, location of the 32nd Army headquarters. Modest U.S. Army advances in exchange for mounting casualties prompted Buckner to commit the 27th Infantry Division on 10 April and the 77th Infantry Division on the 30th. When these too proved insufficient to renew the advance and the III Amphibious Corps completed its sweep of northern Okinawa, Marine infantry units headed south. The III Amphibious Corps took over the right (west) of the Tenth Army line, with the 6th Marine Division on the west coast and the 1st Marine Division on the corps' left, adjacent to the Army's XXIV Corps. (After staging an amphibious feint off southern Okinawa on 1 April, the 2d Marine Division had returned to Saipan to stand in reserve. Only its 8th Marine Regiment, reinforced with an artillery battalion and amphibian tractor battalion, would participate in the last days of the campaign, while attached to the 1st Marine Division. The failure to employ this division en masse on Okinawa remains one of the campaign's controversies.)

The Japanese had responded to the landing by launching Ten Go, a series of ten mass suicide attacks between April and June that ultimately numbered 1,900 kamikaze sorties. These strikes killed at least 3,389 Americans. Although the prime weapon was the suicide plane, in the first of these, on 6-7 April, the superbattleship Yamato and five of her nine consorts were sunk by U.S. carrier planes before they reached Okinawa. During the campaign, at least 30 American ships were sunk and 368 ships and craft damaged, overwhelmingly by kamikazes.

Essentially this is the point where The Pacific picks up the Battle of Okinawa, with the arrival of the 1st Marine Division in southern Okinawa on 1 May. There, the division would battle at the infamous Wana Draw - Dakeshi area and then Shuri Castle. But The Pacific , as usual, is not a story of maneuvers by battalions or larger units. It's Okinawa as seen by the average Marine or Soldier in all its unrelieved physical misery and graphic horror.

The exceptionally well-seasoned and well-led 1st Marine Division entered the battle with a third of its men veterans of two campaigns, a second third veterans of one campaign, and the final third with no combat experience. The markedly higher casualties the American forces had incurred in Europe and the Pacific since a much-increased level of combat starting in June 1944 created a serious problem of manpower mobilization. It prompted the infusion, to maintain strength, of a relatively modest stream of draftees into the heretofore all-volunteer Marine Corps. Since the overwhelming majority of Marines were enlistees, the draftees typically experienced a great deal of good-natured back-and-forth before they were accepted.

Sporadic showers and steady drizzle meanwhile dumped more than four inches of rain in early May, resulting in muddy, chilly personal misery and creating a serious impediment to American combined-arms tactics. But on 21 May the rains became a deluge that lasted nine days and dumped 11 inches of rain. Valleys became swamps, roads became morasses impassable in places even to tracked vehicles, and every sloping surface proved challenging to even simple foot traffic. Resupply, evacuation, and reinforcement of the front line broke down. Hand-carrying supplies forward and the wounded back drained already-low reservoirs of stamina. (In one location, it took 12 men to get a single stretcher through a ravine and fast-flowing stream.) Marines and Soldiers remained continuously wet and caked with mud. Eating became sporadic, sound sleep impossible. Even primitive sanitation broke down, and men sat surrounded by fly-clouded decomposing bodies and human filth.

Cleverly placed, mutually supporting Japanese positions subjected advances to devastating surprise fires from the flanks or even the rear. Hills were won and lost multiple times. By night the usual Japanese infiltration tactics kept all hands on edge. Each newly won position had to be defended against inevitable counterattacks ending often in grenade battles at close range and hand-to-hand fighting. The Japanese funneled replacements from support units into their principal combat formations, which masked for some time the extremely high rate of attrition they too suffered. And always, the Americans experienced more deadly artillery fire than ever before in the Pacific.

No fewer than 11,147 replacements were sent to fill depleted Marine ranks in the III Amphibious Corps. The huge demands for replacements on Iwo Jima and then Okinawa seriously shortened training programs, and the new arrivals proved far more prone to become casualties than the men they replaced. Officer casualties were so high that Eugene Sledge found he could not even keep track of all the officers who served with his outfit K Company, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines.

On top of all the misery, the battle surged over Okinawan civilians. The Japanese had told them the Americans would rape their women and then slaughter them all. Deadly fires by weapons of all calibers, naval gunfire, and air bombardment killed Okinawans by the thousands. Distinguishing whether civilians were being used as shields by attacking Japanese units presented an insoluble and sickening moral dilemma. Some compassionate Japanese soldiers sought to protect and save the noncombatants. Others, however, sought to kill them to prevent their falling into American hands. Repeatedly, both the Okinawan civilians and the Japanese combatants sought shelter together in caves and tunnels, making it impossible to battle the warriors without inflicting loss on the noncombatants.


The long, costly campaign stirred much highly vocal criticism in America, particularly after Germany surrendered on 8 May and Okinawa represented the only major ongoing battle. One of the most pointed issues then and thereafter was whether General Buckner should have attempted to break the deadlock at the Shuri front by landing a division behind Japanese lines. At various times that proposition was advanced to Buckner not only by Marine officers (who urged use of the 2d Marine Division) but also by Army officers. After subjecting the proposal to serious consideration for three to five days before 22 April, Buckner rejected it primarily for two reasons. First, his logistical officer informed him he could support such an endeavor with food but not ammunition (later operations in this area confirmed that running supplies over the available beaches was a challenge). Second, until 4 May the Japanese kept the 24th Division or the 44th IMB in position precisely to confront such a landing.

Buckner also fielded additional reasons to reject the plan. Heavy losses in the 7th, 27th, and 96th Infantry divisions had so lowered their combat efficiency that they had to be successively rotated off the front lines. Further, because the 77th Infantry Division had to leave behind garrison forces on the Kerama Islands and Ie Shima, it would not be deployed at full strength. Buckner said that if the 77th landed, it would have to be relieved within 48 hours, a very dubious possibility. He called the plan "another Anzio, but worse." But by 4 May, the defenders had to commit both the 24th Division and the 44th IMB to solidify the crumbling main Japanese line. It now appears that Buckner's decision was reasonable up to the 4th, but whether a landing between 5 and 21 May, when the Shuri position fell, was a missed opportunity will remain a lingering question.


After 82 days, Okinawa was declared secure on 21 June. American direct battle casualties totaled 12,520 killed and missing (including Buckner, killed by a Japanese antitank-gun round on 18 June) and 36,613 wounded. "Non-battle" casualties, including those who broke down mentally or became sick or injured, reached 33,096. Of the Japanese garrison of about 100,000, more than 92,000 died (including Ushijima, by his own hand on 22 June). About 7,401 defenders became prisoners of war, the highest rate for a Pacific campaign, but a significant portion of this number were impressed Okinawans. Even so, prisoners overwhelmingly were only taken after organized resistance ended on 21 June. The Okinawans have erected a monument on which are inscribed the names of all the combatants and noncombatants who died in the campaign. Those names total more than 252,000, thus indicating civilian deaths exceeded 147,000.

If total American losses then are placed at 82,229, the ratio of casualties is one American to less than 1.2 Japanese. With current American estimates of the strength of the Japanese armed forces at about five million (the actual number exceeded six million by August 1945) and bluntly expressed doubts by the Joint Chiefs of Staff that an organized capitulation of Japan's army and navy could be obtained, this ratio served as a dire warning of the potential human costs of ending the war.

Time magazine described the long Okinawa struggle as "one foot at a time against the sort of savage, rat-in-a-hole defense that only the Japanese can offer." Americans from President Harry S. Truman on down saw Okinawa as the Japanese intended a preview of what an invasion of Japan would be like. As historian Ronald Spector remarked, the campaign paradoxically left the losers elated and the winners depressed. The Japanese saw the struggle as validation for their strategic aim of one final battle against the initial American invasion of the Home Islands. There, they would either defeat the attempt or inflict such casualties that the Americans would negotiate an end to the war to the taste of Japan's ultra-nationalistic and -militaristic leaders. The fact that the struggle for relatively small Okinawa had lasted 82 days, involved heavy American casualties, and previewed what fighting amid large Japanese populations would entail made U.S. officers and men tabbed for the invasion of the Home Islands believe their chances of survival were slim.

As one American staff officer observed, casualty figures from Okinawa left President Truman "perturbed." He spoke directly of his fears that an invasion of Japan would create "an Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other." Okinawa undoubtedly loomed very heavily in Truman's mind when the issue of using atomic bombs arose. In a way no prior work in any form has accomplished, The Pacific illuminates for generations to come just what the specter of "the invasion of Japan" meant to Americans of all stations in 1945.

The Marines' Most Famous Battle

By Richard B. Frank

Sitting 660 miles south of Tokyo, Iwo Jima was almost exactly midway between Japan and the American B-29 Superfortress bomber bases in the Marianas. In American hands, it would simultaneously permit basing of escort fighters for B-29 raids on Japan and provide a haven for Superfortresses in distress. In the longer term, it might prove an indispensable support and staging base for an invasion of Japan.

Japanese leaders deployed about 22,000 men to the obviously valuable island, mainly the 109th Division and 2nd Mixed Brigade. More important, Tokyo placed Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi in command. He proved to be one of imperial Japan's ablest generals. Except for a modest beach defense program his superiors demanded and a detachment on Mount Suribachi, the dominant elevation at the southern tip of the island, Kuribayashi deployed his men in the rugged northern two-thirds of Iwo Jima. From there, he intended to stage a bloody, protracted attrition battle amid defensive positions that formed perhaps the greatest single fortress of World War II.

For Operation Detachment, the seizure of Iwo Jima, Marine Major General Harry K. Schmidt's V Amphibious Corps (the 3d, 4th, and 5th Marine divisions) deployed with some 75,144 men. It remains the largest independent battle in Marine Corps history. Supporting the landing force was a vast armada of amphibious shipping and fire-support ships plus a fast carrier task force.

American intelligence signally failed on two counts. It underestimated the garrison by at least a third and completely missed Kuribayashi's intent to sell his men's lives at the highest possible price at the north end of the island. These errors also resulted in the misdirection of the preinvasion bombardment, the heaviest of the war, to the southern landing beaches.

In most places, the first 20 to 30 minutes after the initial landings on 19 February 1945 were deceptively quiet. The Japanese patiently waited until the Marines were thickly clustered and waddling up terraces of soft volcanic sand before unleashing torrents of machine-gun, mortar, and artillery fire. One Marine compared the Americans' predicament to "trying to fight in a bin of loose wheat." After skillfully and heroically leading an assault on a bunker, Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone was killed by enemy fire before the landing day ended.

On 23 February 1945, men from Company E, 2d Battalion, 28th Marines raised two flags on Mount Suribachi. Photographer Joe Rosenthal's picture of the second flag-raising endures as the most famous image of the Pacific war. With southern Iwo Jima in hand, the three Marine divisions wheeled and advanced north in an incredibly savage struggle that would officially last until 26 March.

For the combatants, Iwo Jima provided one of the eeriest combat experiences of the war. The Japanese were thoroughly dug in and made a habit of dragging away their dead and wounded; many Marines seldom saw a live or even a dead enemy fighter. The Marines felt as if they were battling the very earth itself, not its human denizens. The Japanese defenders had the reverse view and spent the last weeks, days, or hours of their young lives encased in tomb-like underground burrows.

Total U.S. losses reached 24,733, including 6,913 killed. Of the Japanese garrison, Kuribayashi and more than 20,000 others died; only 1,083 were captured through May. Ominously, for the first time the Japanese inflicted more casualties than they sustained against an amphibious assault. In words that would find their way to the striking Marine Corps War Memorial, which was based on the Rosenthal photograph, Admiral Chester Nimitz said that on Iwo Jima "uncommon valor was a common virtue."

 

See the full Naval Institute guide to The Pacific.

 

 
 

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