By Jeff Olson
With 2020 marking the 75th anniversary of the final year of World War II, we will continue to commemorate some of the more consequential events of the war. Several weeks ago, we remembered Iwo Jima. This week we will remember the last major battle of World War II, and one of the bloodiest.
Okinawa, only 340 miles from the Japanese mainland, was the site of the final battle in the island-hopping campaign that brought the Allies closer to Japan. Knowing an invasion of Japan was America’s next move, the Japanese high command wanted to delay it for as long as possible for time to prepare. The Americans knew securing Okinawa’s airbases was critical to launching a successful invasion of Japan. Plans for such (code name “Operation Downfall”) had been in development since early1945.
The invasion of Okinawa was part of Operation Iceberg, a complex plan to occupy the Ryukyu Islands. It was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The U.S. Navy’s fifth Fleet and Four divisions of the U.S. 10th Army and two Marine divisions (more than 180,000 men) fought in the battle, supported by amphibious and tactical air forces. The operation began on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945 when a contingent of U.S. ground troops landed at Hagushi on the west coast of central Okinawa. At day’s end, some 50,000 men had gone ashore and established a beach head about 5 miles long.
The American troops anticipated conditions similar to those at Normandy – enemy fire immediately after landing. However, wave after wave of troops, tanks, ammunition and supplies went ashore within hours and with little resistance. And, unlike Iwo Jima which was uninhabited by native peoples, Okinawa had a large indigenous civilian population which added an unknown number of conscripted civilians and unarmed Home Guards to Japan’s 76,000 army. The Japanese strategy was to watch and wait for the Allied troops, mostly in rugged areas of southern Okinawa where Japanese defense positions could be best fortified and where American troops would be most vulnerable. As troops of the 10th Army moved south toward the main population centres of Naha and Shuri, they encountered strong resistance, fighting many battles and at times with heavy rains making the hills and roads watery graveyards of unburied bodies. The battle for the island was referred to by the Okinawans as a “typhoon of steel” for the ferocity of the fighting.
The first major Japanese counterattack came on April 6–7 in the form of suicidal raids by over 300 Kamikaze planes and the battleship Yamoto attacking the American fleet. The Japanese had hoped that Yamato might destroy the Allied fleet after it had been weakened by the wave of kamikazes, but with no air cover the largest battleship ever constructed was easily destroyed for American carrier-based planes.
As American troops moved south toward the Japanese headquarters at historic Shuri Castle, they were faced with a series of well-defended hills and high ridges, one of which was the Maeda Escarpment, a 400-foot plateau better known as Hacksaw Ridge. Japanese troops defended it from a heavily fortified system of caves, tunnels, bunkers and trenches. One American soldier who fought there was PFC Desmond Doss, a medic and conscientious objector. Refusing to seek cover and unarmed, Doss alone save the lives of 75 of his fellow solders by carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and lowering them on a rope-supported litter down to awaiting medical personnel. After 10 days of often hand-to-hand combat, Americans won on May 6. Nearly 500 of the 800 men in Doss’ battalion became casualties atop Hacksaw Ridge and close to 3,000 Japanese were killed. For his selfless service, sacrifice and courage, Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Besides Doss, there were 23 other Medal of Honor recipients from the Battle for Okinawa.
By mid-May, U.S. forces took the city of Naha and on June 1 Shuri fell. By June 6, the Naha airfield was in Allied possession. After 82 days of fighting, major combat operations ceased on June 21. In the aftermath, Okinawa was described as a “vast field of mud, lead, decay, and maggots.” The deaths from the battle totaled 240,931, including 149,193 Okinawans, 77,166 Japanese, 14,009 Americans and some from South Korea, the United Kingdom, North Korea and Taiwan. The commanding generals on both sides were killed as was beloved American war correspondent Ernie Pyle. On April 18, while in route to a forward command post on the island of lejima, he was mortally wounded by Japanese machine-gun fire.
With Okinawa in possession of the Allies, there was nothing left for the Japanese to do but either finish preparing for an impending invasion or surrender. If Operation Downfall was to be implemented, the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated American casualties at 1.2 million, with 267,000 deaths. However, the successful testing of the Atomic Bomb gave President Harry Truman another option. On July 26, an ultimatum was issued through the Potsdam Declaration demanding Japan’s unconditional surrender and threatening heavier air attacks otherwise. The thirteenth and final point of the Declaration closed with the warning, “The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.” With Japan’s rejection of this ultimatum, and in the interest of expediting the end of the war to save American lives, the decision was made to use the atomic bomb – on Hiroshima August 6 and subsequently on Nagasaki August 9 after Japan’s second refusal to surrender. The Japanese unconditionally surrendered on August 14, 1945.