** war and social upheaval: World War II Pacific Theater -- Okinawa








World War II: Pacific Theater--Okinawa (April 1945)

World War II Okinawa
Figure 1.--Japanese soldiers told civilians on Okinawa horific tales of what the Americans would do to them. They incoursged civilians to commit suiside and in some cases forced them to do so. This fortunate Okinawan boy found the Americans were very different vthan depicted. He appears to be wearing a GI hat, dog tags, and 'T' shirt.

The invasion of Okinawa was the first American attack on Japanese territitory. Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Island chain was strategically located between Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese island and Taiwan (called Formosa by the Japanese). American strategists saw Okinawa as a necessary base from which an American invasion of the Japanese home islands could be staged. Okinawa had several air bases and the only two important harbors between Formosa and Kyushu. The American invasion was code named Operation Iceberg. The greatest naval force in histoy was assembled for the invasion. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance's 5th fleet included more than 40 aircraft carriers, 18 battleships, 200 destroyers and hundreds of support ships. Over 182,000 troops participated in the invasion. The American invasion forced was surprised when the beach landings were unopposed. Okinawa was defendened by the 32nd Japanese Army and a garrison of about 110,000 men. The Japanese had drawn back from the onvssion beaches. The Japanese strategy was to bring as many ships as possible in close to the island to support the invasion. it was then that a major Kamakazi attack was unleased on the invasion fleet. The Japanese on April 6-7 employed the first massed formations of hundreds of kamikaze aircraft. The Japanese during the Okinawan campaign flew 1,465 kamikaze flights from Kyushu. They succeedd in sinking 30 American ships and damaged 164 others. Other ships were attacked nearer Kyushu and Formosa. The Army Air Corps had rejected a request to havily bomb these air fields as it was seen as a diversion from the strategic bombing campaign. One third of the invasion force was killed or wounded. Over half of the 16,000 Americans killed were sailors on the ships attacked by the Kamakazis. Virtually the entire Japanese garison died in the Okinawa campaign. Few Japanese soldiers surendered even after defeat was certain. Large number of civilans were also killed. The Jaoanese military reserved available food and supplies for its use and in many cases forced civilians to commit suicide. The American military saw Okinawa as a dress rehersal for an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands and anticipated even fiercer resistance. The extent of the casualties was a major factor in the American decission to use the atomic bombs.

Location

The invasion of Okinawa was the first American attack on Japanese territitory. Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Island chain was strategically located between Kyushu, the southernmost Japanese island and Taiwan (called Formosa by the Japanese).

Background

Kyūshū is the most southerly of the main islands. The largest cities are Fukuoka and Kumamoto. The Ryukyu Islands are part of Kyūshū. One of the largest of the Ryukyu Islands is Okinawa, an island of Volcanic origins. Of all the islands, the Ryukyu/Okinawa are the most culturally dectinct because of its relatively recent incorporation into Japan by samuris (17th century). It was the closeness of Okinawa to Kyūshū that invited the Japanese invasion. Even after the Japanese invasion, considerable cultural autonomy continued. Its soutern location made it a target of the United States in the Pacific War. Just as the closeness to Kyūshū invited the Japanese invasion in the 17th century, it also invited the American invasion (20th century). The result was an apocolyptic World War II battle, the last major battle of the War.

Strategic Importance

Okinawa as the largest of the Ryukyus islands was of enormous strategic importance. It was situated at the southern tip of Japan. Okinawa itself was about 60 miles long and between 2 and 18 miles wide. It had four airfields which could play a major role in supporting the planned invasion of the HomeIslnds. American strategists thus saw Okinawa as a necessary base from which an American invasion of the Japanese home islands could be staged. Okinawa had several air bases and the only two important harbors between Formosa and Kyushu. Planners had selected Kyushu, the southern-most of the Home Islands as the invasion target. Air bases on Okinawa would provide air cover for the invasion force. Land bases provide a level of coverage that the carriers could not. Not only were the carriers more vulnerable, but they could not handle bombers, evem medium bombers. Okinawa air bases also increased the number of planes which could support the invasion. The American invasion was code named Operation Iceberg. In addition to its use to prepare for the invasion of Japa, Okinawa had other uses. The United States Navy wanrted to complete the destruction of Japan’s maru (merchant) fleet. Also air bases on Okinawa would contribute to the strategic bombing campaign. Bombers flying from the Marianass faced a long flight to reach Japan. This created strains on crews and equipoment. Operating froim Okinawa, the runs to targets on the Home Islands woukd be far shorter.

Intelligence

The United States as preparatiojs for the Okinawa invasion began had enormous advntages. The U.S. Navy had virtually destroyed the Imperial Fleet. U.S. carrier aircraft was advanced types able to strike at will. The United States had enormous superority in men and equipment. What the United States did not have was much intelligence about Japanese forces on Okinawa and preparations for the defense of the island. Okinawa was defendened by the 32nd Japanese Army. American intelligence estimated that the Japanese had amassed some 65,000 men on Okinawa and most had been deployed in the moutenous south. In fact the Jpanese had twice that number, a major miscalculation--some 130,000 men. Totally undetected by Amerucan surveilance flights was the substantial number of planes that had been hiddened and prepard for suiside attacks against the invasion fleet.

Deception Campaign -- Operation Bluebird

The Americans in the Pacific theater, in sharp contrast to the European theater, where the Allies conducted major operations to misinform the Germans about Allied intentions. The Japanese after Midway, were commomly surpised by American operations, but this was largely because of poor inteligence rather than misinformtion. The Americans did carry out one important deception effort--Operation Bluebird. This was designed to convince the Japanese that southern China and Formosa (Taiwan) were to be invaded rather than Okinawa. [Holt] Actually, Taiwan was believeable target. The United States had considered Taiwan. rather than the Philippines. By 1945, however, Okinawa wa the only realistic target.

Naval Action

Okinawa proved to be a largely land action. There was, however, a naval component. Both the Americabs and Japanese deployed naval forces. The United States assembled the greatest naval force in histoy for the invasion. Admiral Raymond A. Spruance's 5th fleet included more than 40 aircraft carriers, 18 battleships, 200 destroyers and hundreds of support ships. Both the United States and Japan before the War had planned a major fleet actions in case of war. As a result of Pearl Harbor this did not pccur. The American battleships that would hav conducted such a fleet action were sunk. An American invasion of the Home Island would have elicted a massive naval responnse. The Japanese Imperial Navy which had once dominated the Pacific was not only no longer capable of opposing the American Navy, but had largely been destroyed at the Battle of the Philippines Sea and Leyte Gulf. In fact the Imperial Fleet no longer existed as an effective fighting force. The American landings were largely unopposed by the Imperial Navy. The great naval battles of the War were now over. The primary exception was the suiside mission of the Yamato, the remaining Japanese super-battleship. Its sistership Musahi had been sunk during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The Yamato in the same bttle had turned around at Samar, a matter of some embarassment to the country's naval leadrship. This time there would be no turning back. The Navy could hardly sit back and allow the country's soldiers and airmen to die in large numbers without any naval resonse. One historian writes, "A second kind of Kamikaze was soon to be confonted, a suiside fleet, consisting of the world's largest battleship, the Yamato along with one light cruiser, and eight destroyers. They sailed for Okinawa on April 6 with just eough fuel for a one-way voyage ...." [Harris] The Yamato was intercepted by American carrier aircraft and sunk after repeated hits in a horific bombardment. The Navy's role was critical to the U.S. invasion force. Carrier aircraft was needed to provide air support until existing air bases could be seized in Okinawa from the Japanese and airfilds established. Also the Navy was needed for logistical support, landing the assault troops, and then supplying them. This meant the Navy had to bring its ships into range of Japanese land-based aircraft. The Japanese mounted a major Kamikaze campaign against the American ships off Okinawa.

Japanese Strategy

The Japanese defense of Okinawa was directed by Lieutenant-General Ushijima. His orders were to hold the island at all costs. The Japanese strategy was bleed the americans so as to discoyrage an invasion of the Home Islands. Ushijima had two major defensive strategems. First, was recognizing the superior fire powwer of American naval artillery and airpower was as on Iwo, to go underground. He turned the mountaneous southern half of the island into a vast underground frtresses with hidden poition nd connecting tunnels. This allowed him to bring intense fire on advancing Zmerucan infantry., bith artilley and small arms. It also enabled him to attck advancing units from both frontlnd rear positions. He built a series of concealed fortifications. They would have to be attacked frontally as they could not be flanked. Second, Ushijima sought by staging a soirited griund defense to bring many American ships in close to the island to support the invasion. This would make them vulneran;e to the massive Kamakazi attack being prepared. This was a new tactic. Previously only a handful of Kamikazee attacks had been staged. The Japanese hoped that a massed wave of Kamikzzes could overwealm the ameticn defnses and devestate the invasion fleet. A single plane could sink a ship.

Invasion (April 1)

The American invasiin flet included some 300 warships and 1,139 other ships. Over 182,000 American troops participated in the Okinawa invasion. Hagushi Bay was chosen for the landings. The landings were preceded by a period of intense naval gunfire. The American invasion forced was surprised when the beach landings were unopposed. The Japanese in most of the Pacific island fighting, opposed the Aerican landings at the water's edge. The first step was to land a small force 20 miles southwest of Hagushi Bay to secure an anchorage. This was accomplished by the 77th Division which secured the position (March 31). The major landings began at Hagushi Bay (April 1).

Kamikazes

The Japanese staged Kamikaze attacks during the Philippines campaign. They were, however, fairly limited, because the Japanese military had not yet embraced the Kamikaze as aajor tactic. And the limited air deployment on Iwo Jima did not make Kamikaze effort possible. Okinawa was very different. The American submarine campaign in 1944 was making it very difficult for Japan to obtain food and raw materials, especially oil. After the loss of the Philippines, Japan was essentially cut off from oil and other vital supplies from the empire they had seized to the south. It was apparent to all but the most fanatical that Japan was losing the War. With the fleet destroyed and unanble to match the Americans in quantity or quality of planes, the Japanes were desperate for any weapon to resist the massive American invasion fleet descending on Okinawa. And they knew Okinawa in American hands would provide air based that would be used to cover the invasion of southern Japan. Their answer was the Kamikazes. After the loss of the Philippines, however, it was adopt as a major defense policy. It was central to the Japanese plan to defend Okinawa. The Kamikaze missions suceeded in sinking 40 American ships and damaging many more. The cost to the Japanese were hundreds of lives and planes. The Japanese on April 6-7 employed the first massed formations of hundreds of kamikaze aircraft (April 6-7). Kamikaze attacks were launched from both Okinawa and southern Japan. The Japanese during the Okinawan campaign flew 1,465 Kamikaze flights from Kyushu. The Japanese were after the carriers and other large ships. The United States by 1945 had made great strides with radar, but the range was still limited abnd it was important to detect the Kamikazes as early as possible. Thus the fleet was ringed with radar picket ships to provide early warming. The Japanese of course knew this and begun targetting the picket ships. And unlike the larger ships, the picket ships were on their own with a limited array of anti-aircraft guns and no air cover. The Kamikazes were capabl;e of doing grevious damage, but not sinking a major ship. The small picket ships were a different matter. The carriers would dispatch planes, but the picket ships were on their own until the planes arrived. The picket ships faced some the most ferrocious air attacks faced by the U.S. Navy during the Pacific war. The Navy deployed 206 ships for picket duty. Nearly 30 percent were sunk or damaged, making it the most dangerous combat assignment of any U.S. Navy surface ships. [Reilly] Combat loss estimates vary. One American report estimates rhar the Kamikazes sunk 30 American ships and damaged 164 others. Another U.S. source estimates that the Kamikazes sunk 34 Navy ships and damaged 368 others. Japanese sources give much higher estimates, but are not reliable. Other ships were attacked nearer Kyushu and Formosa. The Army Air Corps had rejected a request to havily bomb these air fields because it was seen as a diversion from the strategic bombing campaign.

Campaign (April-June)

Gen. Ushijima drew his men back from the invssion beaches knowing that any effort to oppose the landings would be met ith devestating naval gunfire. The American invasion force was commsnded by Lieutenant-General Simon Bolivar Buckner. He had a force of 180,000 men. He chose Hagushi Bay on the western side of the island for the major landings. The Marines landed at Hagushi Bay along the central coast (April 1). They encounted only scatterd opposition. The Americans had so perfected aphbious operaiins tht they had 60,000 men ashore on the first day. The Marines moved north and seized that pat of the island alonf with air strips (by April 20). Japanese resistance there ceased except for limited guerrilla activity. The battle for Okinawa was largely conducted in the south. The XIV Corps composed of Army divisions (US 7th, 27th, 77th and 96th infantry divisions). t first they encounted only light resistance. Then they ran into the Machinato line (April 4). This brought the American avance to a sudden halt. he Ameicans after 3 weeks of heavy fighting managed to break through the Machinato line (April 24). Unknown at the time this simply broiught them into contsct with the even stronger Shuri Line. Here the Americans experienced heavy losses. As the Americans began penetrating the Shuri line, Gen. Ushijima ordered a counter-attack (May 3). Heavy fighting enued. Finally Ushijima ordered his men to withdraw from the the Shuri Line (May 21). Fighting continued into June. Ushijima committed suiside in the samarai tradition. The Americns at long last declared Okinawa secure (July 2).

Civilians

In addition to the Japanese troops on the island, there were some 450,000 civilians. This was much larger than the small Japanese population ncounteed on Saipan. Okinawa included n ethnically diverse group of people. Many Okinawans had multi-ethnic origins in contrast to the Japanese. Okinawa was a relstively recent addition to Japan. Japan seized the islands at an early point after the Mejii Resoration (1875). They immediately began a process of 'Japanization'. Becaise of their mixed sncestry, the Japanese looked don on the Okimnawans and treated themn as second-class citizens. One historian writes, "With their greater racial 'deviance' than Koreans, Okinawans were made to suffer even more grievously for their failure to be pure Japanese, that most valued national quality." [Feifer] The Japanese had evacuated sime civilians, but most were still on Okinawa when the Americans landed. From the beginning, civilins were caught ijn the crossfire. Trapped Japanese soldiers commonly urged or even forced civilians to commit suicide with them. Civilians were often ordered to commit mass suicide, although Japanese sources, especilly the Ministry of Education, seek to deny this. Okinawan sources want the truth told. In the final phase of the battle, what was left of the Japanese 32nd Army abandoned the Shuri Line south to Mabuni where they planned to mke afinal stand. Some civilians terified of the advancing merivans becaus of the storie told them by the Japanese militry, followed the Japanese solders south. The tiny corner of the islsnd became a chaotic mass of Japanese soldiers, American soldiers, and civilians caught in a deadly crossfire. Not oknly were the two armies fighting, but there was also intense air and sea nbommbardment. The civilians tht fled with the Japsnse not only had the deadlybfire o contend ith, but were let without food, water, or shelter. Horific tales emerged. One journalist writes, "Clutching a hand grenade issued by the Japanese Imperial Army and driven by tales of what U.S. soldiers would do with a pretty young woman, Sumie Oshiro recalled,she fled into the forests of Okinawa during the World War II battle known here as the 'typhoon of steel'. [Brooke] No one lknows, but some 100,000 to 150,000 Okinawan men, woman, and children perished in the 3 months cmpign for Okinawa.

Casualties

Okinawa was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. The United States lost more men than in any other Pacfic engagemnt. An incredible one-third of the American invasion force was killed or wounded. Here we have different statistics that I need to look into. One source indicates that 12,500 American soldiers and marines were killed. [Hanson] Another source indicates that over half of the 16,000 Americans killed were sailors on the ships attacked by the Kamakazis. Another source pputs csualtie at 7,373 men were killed and 32,056 wounded in the land camoaign. The Navy suffered some 5,000 men killed and 4,600 wounded, primarily as a result of the Kamikaze attacks. Most of the Japanese garison died in the Okinawa campaign. The Japanese committed 120,000-130,000 troops to the defense of Okinawa, Accounts vary as to the precise numbers. Most of the garrison fought to the death. The death toll was about 110,000 men, wither men killed or commiting suiside. [Hanson] Few Japanese soldiers surendered even after defeat was certain. Another source reports 107,000 Japanese soldiers lost. The acual number was probably somewhst higher and the Japanese retreated into caves and the advancing Americans incinerated them or blew up the caves. The Americans expected the Japanese to fight to the death. That was no suprise. That was a surprise that some Japanese soldiers actually surrendered. In all previou camaigns only a handfull of Japanese were taken prisoner and many of them were men too badly wounded to resist. The Japanese strategy at Okinawa failed because of the as in other Pacific engagements, the ratio of losses was disportinately heavy for the Imperial armed forces. The Japanese were willing to make great sacrifices. The capacity of the Japanese army to demand suicide, however, was not infinite. This was seen in Manchuria when the Soviets invaded (August 1945). The Japanese near the end of the Okinawa campaign were finding it increasingly difficult to recruit Kamakazi pilots. [Hanson] One report indicates that 7, 400 soldiers surrendered, although we hace seen other figures. While still a small portion of the garison, it was the first time more than a handful of soldiers surrendered. We are not sure why this occurred, but at least some Japanese soldiers seem to have had second thoughts about commiting suiside. There were als very extensive civilin csulties. The Japanese soldiers were incouraged or forced to commit suiside in large numbers. The Japanese Government to this date insists that the civilians were incouraged, but rarely frced to commit suiside. The overwealming evidence is, however, that large numbers of men. women, and children were forced to commit suiside. It is unclear what the precise orders on this were receivd from the High Command. Not all soldiers forced the civiians to commit suicide, but clearly many did.

Personal Experiences

One of the most moving persoinal accounts from the Pacific War comes from a little 7-year old Okinawan girl--Tomiko Higa. Tomiko was the youngest of nine children in a samurai family. She lived on a farm near Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa and the central poubt o=f the Japanese defene io=f the iskand. Her mother died when she was only 3 years old. Her father raised her amd her sisters alone. The children are on theo own after their father doesn't return home from work. Her brother was killed beside her while they slept one night on the beach where they had dug holes in the sand for refuge. She then she becomes separated from her and sisters in the confusion and horror of Battle for Okinawa. She struggles to survive on the battlefield amist some of the fiercest fighting of the Pacific War. She has to live alone for weeks, with nothing to fall back on but her own wits and daring. Fleeing from advancing American forces, searching desperately for her lost sisters, taking scraps of food from the knapsacks of dead soldiers she mamnages to hang on. Remembering what her father told her "never just copy what other people do, always think things our for yourself" she realizes in order to survive she had to be on her own. She finally becomes attached to an elderly, disabled family. She emerged from her hiding place with a group of surrendring Japanese soldiers. She has a white flag and innocently waves to the American soldiers who have guns our, wary of the surrendering soldiers. In the final days if thge camapign, the exhausted Joanese soldiers who had survived actually began surrendering. She is known today as the 'girl with the white flag' -- the title of her book. The photo of her surrender with a white flag is an unforgettable image of war and childhood. Tomiko, in her book describes adults screaming out in fear of American oldiers. “They’re going to put us all in a big hole, pour gasoline on us and set us on fire!” one cried. Another rumor spread nby the Japanese soldiers warned that U.S. soldiers were butchering children by ripping them open at the crotch. Accounts of Japanese soldiers stealing food from starving civilians, driving them from places of refuge, murdering alleged spies, and raping women, failed to inspire Okinawans with trust. Tomiko was brave enough to approach the Americans with her white flag. An Army combat photographer named John Henrickson happened to be on the road when Tomiko stumbled up. She was smiling because her father had told her to smile when she was about to be shot; she thought the photographer's bulky Graphlex was a weapon and sge was abiut to be shor--but at long last sge was safe.

Consequences

The American military saw Okinawa as a dress rehersal for an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. They were horified as the savagery and tenacity of the Japanese resistance and their willingness to kill civilians as well. One historian writes, "Okinawa chillingly demonstrated that the human capacity for slaughter, savagery, and chaois is almost limitless." [Sloan] Military planners anticipated even fiercer resistance in any invasion of the Home Islands. The prospect of invading Japan began to look increasingly unattractive. The extent of the casualties and the ferocity of the Japanese resistance was a major factor in the American decission to use the atomic bombs. [Hanson]

Last Battle: Manchuria (August 1945)

Okinawa is often describbed as the last battle of World War II. This is simplly not the case. The last battle was the massive Soviet invasion of Manchuria. Stalin ordered the invasion precisely as he had promussed at Yalta, 3 months to the date after the NAZI Surrender. A massive build up occurred (May-July 1945). The Japanese failed to detect the buildup and instead were trying to use the good offices of the Soviet Union to end the war. The Soviets refused to cooperate, but as the Americans were preparing a massive invasion which would have resulted in enormous Ameican and Japanese casualties. The United States dropped first atomic bomb on Hiroshima (August 6). The Japanee Army commander assured the Emperor that the Americans could not have more than one bomb. Them the Soviets declared war and struck in Manchuria (August 8). The Japanese had a substantial although weakened force in Manchuria. The Japanese in Msanchuria, however, were not prepared for a suisidal battle as was the case on Okinawa. Thus Soviet forces very quickly advanced in Manchuria. This is an often ignored campaign. But it was a very important one and may have had as much to do with the Japanese surender as the Atomic bombs.

Sources

Brooke, James. "1945 suicide order still a trauma on Okinawa," International Herald Tribune (June 21, 2005).

Feifer, George.TheBttle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb.

Hanson, Victor Davis. Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Live and How We Think (Doubleday, 2003), 278p.

Harris, Brayton. Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater (2011), 256p.

Holt, Thaddeus. The Deceivers: Allied Military Deceptionin the Second World War (Scribner, 2004), 1,148.

Masaaki, Aniya. "Compulsory mass suicide, the Battle of Okinawa, and Japan's textbook controversy," < The Okinawa Times and Asahi Shinbun.

Rielly, Robin L. Kamikazes, Corsairs, and Picket Ships: Okinawa, 1945, 460p.

Sloan, Bill. The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945--The Last Epic Struggle of World War II (Simon & Schuster, 2007).






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Created: September 21, 2003
Last updated: 12:59 AM 4/13/2020