Okinawa: Endgame in the Pacific

4 mins read

Marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in the Pacific, we analyse the ferocious last stand of the Japanese Empire.

The USS Bunker Hill burns after two kamikaze strikes in 30 seconds.
The USS Bunker Hill burns after two kamikaze strikes in 30 seconds.

The war in the Pacific, which ended 75 years ago, lasted three months longer than the war in Europe. Hitler’s Nazi Germany had refused to surrender. An empire that in the winter of 1941/42 had stretched from the Atlantic to the gates of Moscow, from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara, had, three years later, been reduced to little more than Germany itself.

The massive preponderance of force on the Allied side was overwhelming. The outcome was inevitable. Yet the Nazi leadership was determined to fight to the bitter end.

This was the madness of fascism. Rational decision-making had ceased at the highest level of the German state. A psychotic racist wielded totalitarian power, and no one could stop him pulling the whole of Germany with him as he toppled into the abyss.

The death toll in the final four months of the Third Reich ran into millions. People were murdered in the camps or on forced marches by the SS, murdered in eastern Germany by the invading Red Army, or killed in German cities under aerial bombardment.

Among the dead – in that final madness of Hitler’s empire – were tens of thousands of Allied soldiers.

Would this apocalypse now repeat itself in the Pacific? Would tens of thousands of Americans have to die in an invasion of the Japanese home islands?

The Militarist regime – the Japanese form of fascism – had behaved with bestial brutality in the Far East little different from that of the Nazis in Europe. A similar number of Chinese civilians had perished under Japanese military authority as Polish and Russian civilians under Nazi rule. Would the Militarists also, in their ‘death-wish’ fanaticism, fight to the bitter end?

The USS Idaho shells Japanese positions on Okinawa. The US fleet played a key role in providing heavy artillery support to US ground forces.
The USS Idaho shells Japanese positions on Okinawa. The US fleet played a key role in providing heavy artillery support to US ground forces.

From the very beginning, Okinawa challenged all expectations. The landing was supposed to be the bloodiest of the war so far. The 182,000 troops riding aboard the 1,300-ship fleet heading for Okinawa were prepared for the worst – many had been warned that their commanders expected to lose eight in every ten men.

For the veterans of D-Day amongst them, these predictions surely brought back dark memories of the great breakthrough into Hitler’s Fortress Europe the year before, and the terrible cost in men and materiel during the Normandy Campaign.

Commanded by Admiral Raymond Spruance, with Vice-Admiral William Turner in charge of the amphibious phase and Lieutenant-General Simon Buckner leading the ground assault, the battle was the culmination of Operation Iceberg – a campaign to seize the Ryukyu Islands group to lay the groundwork for the planned assault on the Japanese home islands.

US marines in Okinawa, June 1945.
US marines in Okinawa, June 1945.

When dawn came on 1 April 1945 (codenamed Love Day), the biggest amphibious landing of the Pacific Theatre, and largest of the war bar D-Day, began. To the shock of US planners, they landed on the beach with remarkable ease. Conditions were ideal: visibility had dropped to 5-7 miles after 0600, thanks in part to a morning mist and the billowing dust from the extraordinary naval bombardment.

By the end of the day, the Navy had discharged 44,825 rounds of 5-inch or larger shells, 33,000 rockets, and 22,500 mortar shells onto Okinawa’s shoreline. This cleared the way for the initial landing on Okinawa’s south-west beaches of two Marine divisions (1st and 6th) and two Army divisions (7th and 96th) – more than 60,000 men.

For men expecting the worst, it was with some shock that they landed on beaches deserted of enemy forces. To some it felt like being ‘granted a pardon from a death sentence’.

Commanders watching the landings unfold like clockwork from the decks of the fleet could scarcely believe their eyes, with some even speculating that Japanese resistance had already started to crumble. ‘I may be crazy but it looks like the Japanese have quit the war, at least in this sector,’ Vice-Admiral Turner signalled to Fleet Admiral Nimitz – Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Ocean Areas.

Bar some limited resistance, the men advanced with ease through a verdant, agriculturally terraced land unlike anything they had seen in the Pacific so far. It had a subtropical climate and the men relished trying local fruits, shooting local wildlife, and strolling through the countryside.

In the first few days, the 10th Army was able to seize control of central Okinawa, including taking control of two airfields (Kadena and Yontan) and pushing through to the east coast to give US forces supremacy over the shores of Nakagusuku Bay by 3 April. But the waves of optimism would prove to be tragically short-lived.

Awaiting the Americans were the 130,000 men of the Japanese 32nd Army under the command of General Mitsuru Ushijima.

A kamikaze pilot fastens
his bandana before setting out.
A kamikaze pilot fastens his bandana before setting out.

Assessing the geography of the island, and the armada of American forces they knew was on the way, General Ushijima had opted to withdraw defences from the beaches. Instead, he set up three defensive lines in the mountainous southern region of the island, hoping to stall American ground troops there – whilst decimating their navy through waves of kamikaze attacks.

What followed – a two and a half month campaign – turned into one of the most murderous battles of attrition in the entire Pacific campaign. The decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was in part a consequence of what happened on Okinawa, where 12,000 Americans died to capture one small island 66 miles long by 7 wide.

In two articles forming our special this time, Alexander Izza analyses the battle. In his first piece, he provides a vivid summary narrative of the battle itself, and in his second, analyses the opposing fighting forces and the strategy and tactics of the respective campaigns.

This is an extract from a 16-paged special on the Battle of Okinawa, published in the October/November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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