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Beginning of the end 61 years ago on Okinawa

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2006-06-23

Operation Iceberg, a massive military invasion of Okinawa, was intended to be the stepping stone to a thrust to the Japanese mainland and an end to World War II.

It succeeded beyond planners expectations, but at a horrific cost never before seen in warfare. The Battle of Okinawa ended 61 years ago tomorrow, eliminating the need for a mainland invasion and triggering the steps that six weeks later would result in atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest combat of World War II, killing tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines from both Japan and the United States. The 82-day battle also caused more than 140,000 civilian casualties on Okinawa. Planning for Operation Iceberg began in the Fall 1944, as Allied forces saw the Ryukyu island chain as the key to carrying the Pacific war to Tokyo. The U.S. Fifth Fleet assembled more than 40 aircraft carriers, 18 battleships, more than 200 destroyers and hundreds more support ships‹more than 1,300 in all--to surround Okinawa and force the occupying Japanese forces to give up their quest for Asia supremacy. Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, was the day when more than 180,000 troops would launch the invasion.

Before that, B-29 reconnaissance aircraft flew missions over the islands in preparation for October 1944 bombings of Naha by 200 aircraft sweeping over the island in five separate attack waves. The capital city was nearly wiped out, but Japanese military on the island showed no sign of giving up the fight.

American firepower met little resistance in the initial invasion across the northern side of Okinawa on Easter Sunday and the first several days.

Japanese troops numbered more than 100,000, but showed little interest in moving out of fortified positions to thwart the attack. Instead, the Japanese Imperial Army opted to stay in its bunkers and hillside trenches farther south, waiting for the battle to advance its way.

Japan realized their goal of dominating Asia was slipping, and saw a battle for Okinawa as the key to its future.

The Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, was ordered to Okinawa to lead the fight. Accompanied by a half-dozen warships, the Yamato sailed into Okinawa waters where it was met by American submarines and an aircraftcarrier and ultimately sunk. Yamatošs 2,747 crew was decimated, with fewer than 300 surviving the ocean battle. It took more than a dozen bomb and seven torpedo hits before exploding and sinking. More than 1,100 Japanese sailors died aboard the cruiser Yahagi and the destroyers. It turned out to be the last Japanese naval engagement of the war.

The Japanese also turned to their kamikaze aircraft in hopes of stemming the Allied advances, sending waves of the suicide planes against the attacking naval forces. When the Battle of Okinawa smoke had cleared, 1,465 kamikaze aircraft had wiped out 30 American ships and inflicted damage on more than 160 others. The kamikaze planes slowed the advance marginally, but did not alter the battle plan.

American strategy was for a four-phase attack starting on the eastern coast the first week of April, followed by mop up operations through April 18th in the north. A third phase called for occupying the outer Ryukyu islands during April and May, setting the stage for the main battles on Okinawašs main island. While the first three battle plans met little opposition, the final phase proved to be costly in human life.

Ten American battleships including three Pearl Harbor survivors, the USS West Virginia, USS Tennessee and USS Maryland, pounded the Okinawa coast, raining 3,800 tons of explosives on the island in the first 24 hours alone.

Okinawans tagged the bombings tetsu no bow, the storm of steel after the typhoons that traditionally wreaked havoc on the Pacific islands each Spring. As the shells fell, 60,000 ground troops set foot on Okinawa.

The struggle to oust the Japanese came at heavy cost to the allies, and posted names to the history books of hard fought battles. Sugar Loaf, Strawberry Hill, Sugar Hill and Conical Hill became synonymous with American victories, albeit at a high cost. The battles in the Shuri area saw land captured, lost, regained and often lost again by the Americans as the
Japanese took advantage of the rugged terrain. As the monsoon rains muddied the ground into a quagmire, skirmish victories were measured in meters and hills.

American casualties in the Battle of Okinawa were more than 12,000 dead and another 38,000 wounded. Combat stress and other non-combat casualties numbered in the tens of thousands. Observers say nearly half the allied casualties were not inflicted by Japanese fighting. The toll for Japanese troops was even higher. A total of 107,500 were killed and another 23,000+ believed trapped and sealed in hillside caves. Another 10,700 surrendered.

Japanese records on exactly how many civilians were on Okinawa make exact casualty tolls impossible, but estimates are that at least 42,000 were killed and perhaps 100,000 wounded or injured during the fighting.

The battle for Okinawa ended June 23rd, with the formal surrender taking place at what is now Kadena Air Base on September 7th. A Memorial Peace Prayer Park in Itoman has been constructed to commemorate the Battle of Okinawa. Ceremonies take place at the park each year, with tens of thousands gathering to pay homage to the fierce fighting and those who made the ultimate sacrifice on allied, Japanese and Okinawa sides. The Park is open 365 days a year to visitors.

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