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Pacific Front1st April 1945

The battle for Okinawa

The battle for Okinawa was one of the most desperate of the war
The battle for Okinawa was one of the most desperate of the war

On 1 April 1945, 50,000 American troops landed on the island of Okinawa, less than a thousand miles south west of Tokyo. This was to be the biggest of the American assaults on Japanese held island fortresses. It was also to be the last in the long and bloody line of island battles that had started at Tarawa, and then gone on to encompass Guadalcanal, Saipan and Iwo Jima.

The fact that the Japanese defenders fought to the last man meant that each of these encounters had been brutal in the extreme. ‘I thought they [the Japanese soldiers] were very cruel, they were sadistic,’ says Michael Witowich, who took part in the battles for Tarawa and Saipan, ‘and they wanted to die for the Emperor and we had to go out there and help them die for the Emperor.’

By the time of Okinawa, the Japanese leadership knew that they could not win this war. But they felt they could not agree to end the conflict with the ‘unconditional surrender’ that the Allies demanded – not least because the revered institution of the Emperor would then be under grave threat. So their policy became the ultimately self destructive one of trying to inflict a single major battlefield defeat on the Allies – or at least if not a defeat then some kind of bloody stalemate – and then sue for a compromise peace. But as a strategy it was always doomed. The Americans, in particular, had suffered too much to not pursue to the bitter end the destruction of the enemy that had first ‘tricked’ them at Pearl Harbour.

Nonetheless, the only way of understanding why the Japanese approached the battle of Okinawa as they did, is to realise that the Imperial Army was tasked primarily with harming the Americans hugely – rather than protecting the civilian inhabitants of the island. That explains why the Japanese did not even try and prevent the US Marines of Lt-General Buckner’s 10th Army from landing. ‘Everyone was very happy,’ says James Eagleton of the Marine Corps. ‘What happened to the Japanese? We just thought we were luckier than hell. And we were very surprised that there wasn’t cannon fire, mortar fire, small arms fire meeting us. We were very pleased.’

But this joy was to be short lived. Because the Japanese were most certainly preparing to resist. In fact, the nearly 80,000 soldiers of the Imperial Army, under the command of Lt-General Mitsuru Ushijima, had already retreated inland to the inaccessible central area of Okinawa, and had dug themselves into the mountains and jungle.

And it was here, away from the landing ground, villages and cities of Okinawa, that the Americans would face some of the toughest fighting of the war. ‘We realized that we were losing a lot of people,’ says James Eagleton. ‘They were very excellent trained troops and killed any number of our company people. You’d get up there and you’d get under machine gun fire and you’d lose people.’

Hajime Kondo was one of the Japanese soldiers defending Okinawa. And he knew that he – along with all of his comrades – was required to resist the Americans until his last breath. ‘There was never any thought of surrender,’ he says. He believed that to become a prisoner of war was to ‘defame’ his family and, more importantly, his Emperor.

And whilst soldiers like Hajime Kondo began to fight back against the Americans on Okinawa, just off the coast of the island another battle was raging at sea. Starting on 6 April, Japanese Kamikaze planes attacked the Allied fleet using a tactic known as ‘Floating Chrysanthemums’ in which Japanese aircraft attacked en masse – it was the largest Kamikaze suicide operation of the war, as well as the most effective. 24 American ships were sunk and another 200 damaged. The American aircraft carriers with their wooden decks were particularly vulnerable, though British ships also suffered.

‘I think it was the worst moment of my life,’ says Ronnie Hay, a pilot on board a British aircraft carrier off Okinawa, describing the experience of being under attack by the Kamikazes. ‘One of them [i.e. a Kamikaze] hit the port forward gun turret and that killed about six people and maybe injured another six. And the second one bounced right off the flight deck aft and that swept a few airplanes into the sea and killed maybe eight people. And all they do is to brush the remains over the side. That’s all they can do. And that’s how we buried our friends – I mean there were only bits and pieces left.’

Amidst this carnage the Allies committed prodigious resources to try and ensure the capture of Okinawa. Eventually around half a million Americans took part in the operation – nearly 200,000 fighting on Okinawa itself. As a result of this pressure, the capital of Okinawa, Naha, was finally captured by the Americans on 27 May. But still Ushijima and his men held out at their final stronghold on the Oroku Peninsula in the south west of the island. It was around this time that Hajime Kondo decided to kill himself: ‘I thought, it’s time to join my [dead] colleagues. That’s why we decided to attempt a banzai attack. It was suicidal behaviour, but I believed that death would be a kind of relief for us at the time.’ Hajime Kondo, and his one surviving comrade, charged the American positions, but he stumbled and was captured. Kondo expected to be shot, but instead the Americans ‘offered him water from a canteen.’

On 22 June the Japanese commander, Ushijima, killed himself and effective resistance on the island was over. But at enormous human cost. Less than 10% of the Japanese survived the battle and American combat losses were more than 12,000 dead and 35,000 wounded.

The terrible irony of this Japanese tactic of suicidal resistance was that whilst it demonstrated to the Allies the potential bloodbath that might result from an invasion of the Japanese home islands, it also served as powerful evidence for the use of a secret weapon that was about to be tested for the first time in the desert of New Mexico – the atomic bomb.