Code-named “Operation Iceberg”, the Battle of Okinawa went down in history as the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Rim during World War II. The conflict lasted 82 days, beginning on April 1st (Easter Sunday) and continuing until mid-June, 1945. Referred to by the Americans as the “typhoon of steel”, the Japanese gave it two names, “tetsu no ame” (rain of steel) and “tetsu no bōfū” (violent wind of steel); with the nicknames used to help describe the fierceness of the fighting. Included in the clash were a concentration of kamikaze attacks from the Japanese defenders, along with the sheer number of Allied ships and armored vehicles.
A long campaign had led up to Iceberg, involving a great deal of island hopping in the process, as the Allies worked their way towards the Japanese mainland. Okinawa could very well be considered the “crown jewel” in the process, given the fact it is a large island, located only 340 miles from the Japanese mainland, which made it a good base for air operations while planning the mainland invasion, known as Operation Downfall.
Most of the individuals who made up the four US Army divisions and two Marine divisions involved in the Okinawa conflict were fresh out of high school and too young to vote. They were supported by the air and amphibious efforts of the Navy. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance of the Fifth Fleet led the operation. He was joined by British Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings. American forces numbered approximately 102,000 from the Army, including 38,000+ non-divisional artillery, combat support and HQ troops and 9,000 service troops; 88,000+ Marines and 18,000 Navy personnel, composed mostly of Seabees and medical personnel.
U.S. units composed the entire Allied landing force, backed up by Allied naval power from the British Pacific Fleet, as part of Task Force 57. This group numbered 450 planes, or approximately 25% of the Allies’ naval air power. There were also 50 warships – 17 of which were aircraft carriers. Planes from US Navy carriers were the larger percentage of those used for air-to-air fights, small dive bombers and strike aircraft.
The size of the British flight decks limited the quantity of planes which could be carried on each ship; however, they were also more resistant to kamikaze strikes. The majority of these ships were provided by England; however, the personnel who manned them were composed of individuals who hailed from countries throughout the British Commonwealth; England, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Their assigned task was to neutralize the Japanese airfields on the Sakishima Islands, in addition to providing air cover from Japanese kamikaze attacks. This mission was successfully accomplished between March 26th and April 10th. Beginning on April 10th, attention was now focused on the airfields of northern Formosa.
Among the Japanese commanders during Okinawa were Admiral Minoru Ota, Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, Lt. Gen. Isamu Cho, and Col. Hiromichi Yahara. Their defensive land campaign contained between 67,000 - 77,000 Army troops and approximately 9,000 from the Imperial Japanese Navy, few of whom had been trained and equipped for ground combat. An additional 39,000 local Ryukyuan people were also drafted. 1,500 boys from middle school formed the "Iron and Blood Volunteer Units", and 600 Himeyuri Students composed a nursing unit.
Though the Japanese had previously utilized kamikaze tactics, this would be the first time these pilots would play a major part in defense strategy. Between April 1st when the Americans landed and May 25th, seven major kamikaze attacks took place, utilizing more than 1,500 planes. Two of these planes struck the American aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill within 30 seconds of each other, setting the vessel afire.
During World War II, the mind set of the kamikaze was totally different from that of its German counterpart. When the Germans surrendered to the Allies in Europe, five million German soldiers were involved. On the other hand, less than 5% of Japan's forces surrendered. The Japanese considered surrender as a disgrace to their families and fought to the death.
For the Americans watching each of the plunging kamikazes, a hypnotic fascination of sorts emerged, due to the fact this type of behavior was totally alien to Western philosophy; much the same as the suicide bombers of today. Planes, however, were not the only method of attack. Due to the close proximity to land of the Allied fleet, land-based motorboats were also utilized by the Japanese for their suicide attacks.
Monsoon rains during the month of May transformed the contested hills and roads of Okinawa into a quagmire, serving to exacerbate both the tactical and medical situations. Before long, the ground advance exemplified a World War I battlefield as troops became mired in mud and the evacuation of wounded was greatly inhibited due to the flooded roads. Rain-sodden fields became the habitat of troops whose landscape had been transformed into a combination graveyard and garbage dump. Numerous bodies of fallen Japanese and American troops which had not been buried for whatever reason now sank in the mud as they decayed and became the ingredients of a noxious stew. It was also not uncommon to slide down a greasy slope, then discovery one’s pockets filled with maggots at trip’s end.
On May 29th, troops in the 1st Marine Division under the command of Major General Pedro del Valle, scored a tactical victory. Ordered by General del Valle to capture Shuri Castle, the Marines quickly took possession of the structure, which acted as both a psychological and strategic blow to the Japanese, resulting in a major milestone in the campaign. For three days prior to its capture, Shuri Castle experienced a barrage of shelling from the USS Mississippi, which helped to pave the way for the Marines’ onslaught and capture of the structure. A friendly fire incident was barely averted in the process, given the fact the castle was situated outside the zone assigned to the 77th Infantry Division; placing them in territory which soon came under attack by an American air strike and artillery bombardment.
The Japanese began their retreat under the cover of night and despite being assisted by monsoon storms, they still came under Allied artillery fire. Though the 32nd Army was successful in placing somewhere around 30,000 troops in the last defense line on the Kiyan Peninsula, the outcome would be Okinawa’s greatest slaughter and include thousands of civilians. The Imperial Japanese Navy had 9,000 troops involved in the tussle, along with 1,100 Japanese militia. 4,000 of these troops were stationed at the underground headquarters on a hillside that overlooked Okinawa Naval Base, situated on the Oroku Peninsula. On June 13th, these 4,000 Japanese, including Admiral Minoru Ota, committed suicide within the hand-dug tunnels after the 6th Marine Division launched their amphibious assault on the peninsula. By June 17th, what was left of the 32nd Japanese Army was pushed further south on the island. Though these remaining individuals were captured, others successfully continued to remain in hiding; among them Okinawa’s future governor, Masahide Ota.
In the closing hours of battle, Colonel Yahara asked his commanding officer, General Ushijima, for permission to commit suicide; however, his request was denied. General Ushijima stated, “If you die, there will be no one left who knows the truth about the Battle of Okinawa. Bear the temporary shame, but endure it. This is an order from your army commander.” At the end of the battle, Colonel Yahara was the most senior Japanese officer to survive and later authored the book, The Battle for Okinawa.
The bloodiest battle of the Pacific War, Operation Iceberg created the highest number of casualties experienced in any of the Pacific Theater battles during World War II. It also had a profound impact on President Harry S. Truman as he debated using atomic weapons for the first time. Less than two months later, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki took place, which led to the Japanese surrender.
Okinawa Prefecture Peace Park is home to the Cornerstone of Peace Monument. This structure is engraved with the names of each individual who died at Okinawa during World War II. As of 2010, the monument contains a total of 240,931 names. Included in this number are 77,166 Imperial Japanese soldiers, 14,009 U.S. soldiers and 149,193 Okinawan civilians, a momentous percentage of the local population. Of the civilian number, it is unknown how many actually died as a result of being a conflict casualty and how many chose to commit suicide. Also included are the names of individuals from South Korea (365), the UK (82), North Korea (82) and Taiwan.
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"They came in swarms from all directions. The barrels of our ship's guns got so hot we had to use firehoses to cool them down."
Al Costa, radio man aboard the USS Miami during the Battle of Okinawa