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Historic Battle of Okinawa anniversary Saturday

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2012-06-22

The guns fell silent 67 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.

Okinawa Prefecture, the government of Japan, and the American community on Okinawa will pay homage to the Battle of Okinawa on Saturday, remembering the tetsu no bow, the storm of steel in ceremonies at Peace Memorial Park. A small American ceremony at 10:30 a.m. precedes the Okinawa Prefecture Memorial Ceremony which begins at 11:50 a.m.

The American memorial service is sponsored jointly by the United Services Organization, United Seamen’s Service and American Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Consul General, Raymond Greene, and the senior U.S. military commander on Okinawa, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Glueck, Commanding General III Marine Expeditionary Force, will be the guest speakers at the event, which takes place at the Cornerstone of Peace. Joining the American tribute will be military veterans from the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, as well as U.S. service personnel.

The Governor of Okinawa, Hirokazu Nakaima, hosts the Prefecture Ceremony several hundred meters away. Several thousand Okinawans, Americans and other foreigners involved with the Battle of Okinawa will be present. Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, will be the guest speaker for the 40-minute memorial tribute.

Buses will run for Americans wanting to attend the ceremonies, but reservations must be made through the USO or ACCO to ride the bus. Call DSN 645-2539 for the USO or (098) 898-5401 for the American Chamber of Commerce. Buses depart Camp Foster American Legion Parking Lot at 8:00 a.m., the Camp Kinser Parking Lot at 8:20 a.m., and the Seamen’s Club Naha at 8:40 a.m. Following the ceremonies, which end at 12:40 p.m., the buses will return to the Seamen’s Club for a no-host lunch, then on to Camps Kinser and Foster. Individuals may meet the buses at the Seamen’s Club Naha.

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 23rd, 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.

The Battle of Okinawa began in April, as 60,000 American troops began an attack the Okinawans labeled tetsu no boru, meaning rain of steel.

As the two Army and two Marine Divisions swarmed ashore on Okinawa’s northwest side, no one had any idea it was to be the final battle. And by the time it was over in June 1945, tens of thousands would be dead on Okinawa, but hundreds of thousands saved by Japan’s decision to surrender before an attack on the mainland.

The Battle of Okinawa began April 1st, when ten U.S. battleships, nine cruisers, 23 destroyers and escort ships, and more than 100 lighter gunboats packing rockets began an all out shelling of Okinawa. All told, more than 1,300 ships were on the front lines ringing the island. The mission was to soften the beaches and set the 100,000 Japanese troops off balance.

That same day, Japan’s Imperial Navy directed its battleship Yamato, the largest warship ever built, to sail into Okinawa port waters, beach itself and conduct offensive operations against the U.S. The effort failed as the U.S. Navy’s Admiral Marc Mitscher launched attacks from the American Carrier Bennington on the Yamato and its support ships. When that battle ended, more than 4,000 Japanese were killed. U.S. casualties were the loss of ten planes and 12 men.

Easter Sunday 1945 saw more than 180,000 troops pressed the attack from B-29 bombers, ships and ground units. The bombers had begun their work months earlier, totally demolishing Okinawa’s capital city of Naha. Despite having more than 100,000 troops defending Okinawa, General Mitsuru Ushijima and his 32nd Army opted not to engage the invading Americans in the Kadena-Chatan area, choosing instead to firmly establish defensive perimeters further south. His troops were dug in on hillsides and in caves, seeking protection from the massive firepower being brought against them.

As history looks back, the Battle of Okinawa was a four phase operation, with the invasion April 1st leading to an advance from west to east coast during the first four days. The mission to clear out Japanese Army forces from the northern side of Okinawa took several weeks. Under the operational command of U.S. Army Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. Buckner was to die before the campaign ended, a killed by an artillery shell as he personally surveyed the front lines.

By April 18th, much of northern Okinawa was in American hands. A secondary arm of the invasion was capturing and occupying the outer islands of the Ryukyu chain, which was an ongoing mission even after the fighting stopped. It was bloody. Historians rank the Battle of Okinawa as the most horrific battle of World War II. More than 12,000 Americans died, including nearly 5,000 sailors, and another 36,000 were wounded. Okinawa’s civilian population fell victim to the wages of war, as more than 130,000 were killed during the three-month conflict.

The majority of Okinawans were not killed by Americans, however. The majority were victims of suicide, spurred by rumors spread by Japanese Imperial Army and Navy troops that the Americans would torture its captives.

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