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Historic Battle of Okinawa anniversary today

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2011-06-23

Even as controversy over the end days of the Battle of Okinawa remains, thousands of survivors of the fighting are gathering today to pay homage to those who died.

The bloodiest battle of World War II, the Battle of Okinawa ended with more than 12,000 Americans and 107,500 Japanese troops killed, along with at least 42,000 Okinawa citizens dead. It began as Operation Iceberg, a massive military invasion American planners expected to be the stepping stone to attacks on mainland Japan, the first step in bringing and end to the war. Instead, the Battle of Okinawa, which commemorates its 66th anniversary today, combined six weeks later with atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima to abruptly end the conflict.

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. 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.
Last year, more than 5,500 Okinawans turned out at Memorial Peace Park to listen to the Prime Minister and the Governor of Okinawa speak out.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, then making his first visit to the prefecture as Japan’s leader, told the throngs gathered at the solemn ceremony at Mabuni, Itoman City, that “I offer an apology as a representative of all Japanese people,” referring to his decision to stand by an agreement that will keep Futenma Marine Corps Air Station in Okinawa despite objections by Okinawa citizens. His predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, spent months promising to rid the island of the controversial base, only to reverse himself and agree to keeping it in Okinawa, moving to the sparsely populated northern side of the island. Less than a week after making that decision, Hatoyama resigned.

Hirokazu Nakaima, the Okinawa Governor, minced no words as he read the peace declaration during the hour-long ceremony last year, underscoring the need to ease the burden of U.S. military bases on local citizens. He also called for eliminating potential dangers of having Futenma in Okinawa. Kan promised that his government “will make a further serious commitment to easing the burden of hosting the bases and removing dangers” that could be caused by their presence.

Dozens of new names have been added to the park’s cenotaph, engraved for posterity, over the past year or so. The shiny black walls now bear the names of more than 240,941 who died in the Typhoon of Steel, the most common nickname for the Battle of Okinawa. An estimated 94,000 civilians died during the three long months of fighting between Japanese and American troops April ~ June 1945.

The tiny island far to the east of the Ryukyu’s was considered essential to the strategic interests of American forces seeking to bring Emperor Hirohito’s Japan to its knees.

Iwo Jima, only eight square miles of rugged real estate, had to be in American hands for the U.S. to begin a final assault on the mainland. March 17th 66 years ago, U.S. Marines were in the mop up stage of their mission to capture Iwo Jima following a six-week campaign that claimed thousands of lives. As Iwo Jima’s attack was in progress, generals and admirals were poring over maps, looking to the remote island as a jumping off point for an attack on mainland Japan.
It didn’t turn out that way.

Okinawa became the pivot point that brought World War II to a bloody end. Only 375 miles from mainland Japan, it posed a threat to U.S. troops.

America recognized that the Ryukyu Islands must be tamed in order for U.S. forces to move north to the four main Japanese islands. The campaign for supremacy in the waters surrounding Okinawa began in 1944, as naval forces pummeled Japanese shipping. American submarines plying the waters sunk a Japanese troop ship nine months before the Okinawa ground battle began, killing 5,600 soldiers. Only months later, the Japanese battleship Yamato was sunk by American fighter bombers as it steamed toward Okinawa.

Iwo Jima was a Japanese military bastion, a handy 760 miles from mainland Japan. Its three airstrips were being used by kamikaze pilots flying against the Americans. U.S. leaders saw the island as a key emergency landing strip for planes flying from the Mariana Islands to mainland Japan, and would facilitate B-29 raids against Tokyo and other key Japanese cities.

Seventy thousand U.S. troops began their assault on the small island February 19, going against 27,000 Japanese. One Marine unit, E Company, suffered 40% casualties in four bitter days of fighting. They didn’t know the Japanese had fortified the island with more than 800 pillboxes connected by some three miles of tunnels.

A small but critical victory came at Mount Surabachi where, on February 23rd at 10am, the stars and stripes were raised for the first time. There were no civilians on Iwo Jima, leaving the death tolls to Japanese Imperial Army and U.S. forces. As the stars and stripes waved in the Pacific breeze, 6,821 Americans lay dead, another 19,217 wounded. An estimated 20,000 Japanese died, and another 1,083 became prisoners of war.

Final victory came on March 26, 1945.

Okinawa was not supposed to be the final battle in World War II. Military planners had been preparing Operation Downfall for more than a year, an all-out attack on mainland Japan. Tides of war changed all that as the forces came together in the Ryukyus.

The Battle of Okinawa began April 1, 1945, the largest amphibious assault in U.S. military history.

It was the start of 82 days of hell that was also nicknamed tetsu no ame, literally a rain of steel.

Preliminaries to the Battle of Okinawa began with bombing runs over Naha in October 1944. More than 200 aircraft criss-crossed the island in five separate attacks. More than 180,000 troops launched the actual attack on Easter Sunday, April 1st, 1945, backed by the U.S. Fifth Fleet and its more than 40 aircraft carriers, 18 battleships, more than 200 destroyers and hundreds more support ships.

Initial attacks in the north were met with little Japanese Imperial Army resistance as soldiers remained in bunkers in the south. The pride of the Japanese fleet, the Yamamato, the largest battleship ever built, was attacked and sunk by a half-dozen American submarines and an aircraft carrier. Japanese began using more than 1,465 kamikazi aircraft to stage blitz attacks on U.S. ships, sinking 30 and inflicting damage on more than 160 others.

Allied victories in early days came with a hefty toll. Hard fought battles at places now registered in the history books, like Sugar Loaf, Strawberry Hill, Sugar Hill and Conical Hill, are synonymous with American victories. Battles in the central Shuri area saw land seesawing back and forth from Japanese to American to Japanese control, while monsoon rains turned the Okinawa clay into quagmire.

Official records register 12,000 American deaths in the battle, along with 38,000 wounded. Combat stress and other non-combat casualties were listed in the tens of thousands. Japanese troops suffered 107,500 dead, along with another 23,000+ trapped and sealed in hillside caves. Another 10,700 surrendered. The toll was extremely high for the civilian population, where at least 42,000 were killed and another 100,000 wounded or injured during the fighting.

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