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Historic Battle of Okinawa Anniversary Wednesday

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-06-17

The guns fell silent 65 years ago next week after the most horrendous round of combat in history.

The Battle of Okinawa, which set the stage for the end of World War II, was 82 days of brutal air-land-sea fighting which claimed the lives of 240,000 people. The human toll was far worse when non-fatal casualties were figured in. When Operation Iceberg—the Battle for Okinawa—was planned in Fall 1944, nobody foresaw it being the final battle of a long and costly Pacific war.

Okinawa’s capture was supposed to be the stepping stone to a mainland Japan invasion, which military strategists figured would end the conflict. There was no expectation the Battle of Okinawa would be so bloody. In the end, the tolls were so high, American Congressional leaders were demanding explanations on how so many GI’s could die in combat on a small, 485 square mile island in the Pacific.

U.S. President Harry S. Truman was appalled, rejecting mainland Japan invasion plans, which forecasters calculated could cause upward of one million deaths. Instead, he ordered the atomic bomb to be used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Initial moves in the Battle of Okinawa came in October 1944,when 200 U.S. bombers pounded Naha. The invasion armada that followed included the 5th Fleet’s 40 aircraft carriers, 18 battleships, 200 destroyers and hundreds of support ships…more than 1,300 in all. It began Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945.

The American Tenth Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, totaled 300,000. His opponents were Japanese generals Takehide Udo, commanding northern forces on Okinawa, and Mitsuru Ushijima’s 32nd Army. The Japanese had 76,000 regulars and 24,000 armed militia. Within 10 days, American forces had swept ashore and into positions along the northern half of the island. Japanese troops offered little resistance, and gave up Kadena and Yomitan airfields. It was all part of General Ushijima’s strategy not to fight on the beaches and lose lives.

The monsoon rains made fighting interminable along the Shuri line, a front stretching from Naha to Yonabaru, a series of hills and rough terrain turned to mud. The area led to infamous names in combat history: Sugar Loaf Hill, Sugar Hill, Strawberry Hill. Heat, snakes and the mud were as dangerous as combat itself, with Japanese forces tucked inside the numerous hillside caves. Ground gained by the Americans was often lost in hours, fought for again, regained, then lost again.

The tides began turning May 23, when General Ushijima ordered his troops south from Shuri, into the rugged hills and more caves. The Americans followed. Fighting raged cave to cave, farm to farm. The casualties mounted, and the Japanese general soon realized the end was near.

General Mitsuru Ushijima and his deputy committed hari kari, Japanese ritual suicide, on June 16th after sending word to Tokyo there was no hope. Fighting officially stopped June 21st, although some fighting continued for another five days. One of those who didn’t give up when first ordered was Masahide Ota, a soldier who would later become Okinawa Prefecture’s governor.

The toll was horrendous. U.S. deaths were fixed at more than 15,900, with another 38,000 wounded an 33,000 suffering non-combat injuries. American forces lost 763 planes shot down and four ships sunk by kamikaze pilots. Another 34 ships were damaged.

Japanese forces fared worse. 107,000 were killed and another 10,755 either were captured or surrendered. They lost 7,830 aircraft and 16 ships.

For Okinawa’s civilian population, it was even more tragic. Americans had estimated 300,000 civilians on Okinawa when the battle began. Fewer than 200,000 remained June 22nd. American casualty figures were 148,000. Others placed the civilian toll at 100,000-130,000.

More people died in the Battle of Okinawa than in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

Ceremonies remembering the tetsu no bow, the storm of steel that fell during 82 days of combat, will take place at Memorial Peace Prayer Park in Itoman on Wednesday. Tens of thousands flock to the park each year to honor victims of the battle. The battle for Okinawa officially ended with Japanese surrender at what is now Kadena Air Base on June 23rd. Okinawans who survived the battle and recall the tumultuous days, recount the horror stories of Japanese soldiers giving the citizens hand grenades and telling them to commit suicide with them, rather than allow themselves to be captured by American soldiers.

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