Battle of Okinawa
Prelude to the use of the atomic bomb
1 April - 22 June 1945
author Paul Boșcu, February 2019
During the last stage of the war against Japan, the US invaded the Japanese island of Okinawa. The invasion was a prelude to an actual invasion of the main Japanese islands scheduled for later that year. The Japanese put up a fierce resistance on the island in order to deter the US from an invasion of the home islands. This resistance did indeed convince the American policymakers that such an initiative would be very costly but instead of entering negotiations, as the Japanese wanted, they decided to make use of the Manhattan Project's atomic bombs.
The Battle of Okinawa was fought between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan on the Pacific Front of the Second World War. The battle started with a US amphibious invasion of Okinawa, the largest such operation in the entire Pacific Front. The invasion took place because the Allies were planning to use the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa as a staging area for a future invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. The 82 day-long battle was one of the bloodiest in the entire war, at least on the Pacific Front, and ended in an American victory. Okinawa was occupied by the USA until 1972.

The island, a sixty-mile sliver of fields and mountains, lay midway between Luzon and Kyushu. Okinawa was inhabited by 150,000 people who had Japanese nationality, though they were culturally distinct from the Japanese people.

The surrender of Germany seemed to have had little or no effect on the Japanese, even though it meant that they would soon face the combined wrath of the Allies. (Stalin had promised at Yalta to declare war on Japan three months to the day after VE Day, and was as good as his word.) For example, while Germans were surrendering at the rate of 50,000 a month in late 1944, the Japanese were fighting on, often virtually to the last man.

The invasion of Okinawa had become the last in the series of operations preliminary to the assault on the Japanese home islands themselves. Planning for those supreme efforts, for which Okinawa was to provide a major base, was well under way in early 1945. After D-Day in Normandy, the American landings on Okinawa represented the greatest amphibious operation of the war. More than 1,200 vessels transported 170,000 US soldiers and Marines of Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner’s Tenth Army, with 120,000 more providing logistics and technical support. The island’s seizure was to be a navy-run operation, under Admiral Chester Nimitz’s auspices, though soldiers were playing a substantial role. Four divisions would make the initial assault, with three more in reserve.

The initial landings proved both easier and simpler than anticipated. There was practically no resistance, and the two big airfields in central Okinawa were captured on L-Day. The island was quickly cut in two, and the Marines turned north while the army divisions headed south.

Japanese attacks on the Allied task forces included large numbers of kamikaze, which put three American carriers out of action, and ohka bombs which proved useless when the planes carrying them were shot down. The kamikaze proved much more effective against American carriers with their thin decks than the British carriers with their heavy steel decks. The latter carried fewer planes but proved much more resistant to the planes which crashed themselves onto their superstructure.

Japanese attacks on the Allied task forces included large numbers of kamikaze, which put three American carriers out of action, and ohka bombs which proved useless when the planes carrying them were shot down. The kamikaze proved much more effective against American carriers with their thin decks than the British carriers with their heavy steel decks. The latter carried fewer planes but proved much more resistant to the planes which crashed themselves onto their superstructure.

The American landing on Okinawa was designed to pave the way for what threatened to be the bloodiest battle of the Asian war – invasion of the Japanese mainland. The assault that began on Easter Sunday, after days of intense bombardment, was under Admiral Chester Nimitz’s overall command. More than 1,200 vessels offloaded 170,000 soldiers and Marines of Tenth Army, while a vast covering fleet of aircraft carriers, battleships and lesser warships cruised offshore.

The officer commanding Tenth Army was the unimaginative General Simon Bolivar Buckner. For more than two months he conducted a campaign which seemed to its participants to be a close relative to those of the First World War in Flanders. He launched repeated frontal attacks on fixed positions which slowly gained ground, but cost heavy casualties.

The US Marine Corps fared no better on Okinawa than the army units to which it liked to condescend. For once, General Douglas MacArthur was probably right when he argued that the best course would be to seal off the Japanese garrison in the south of the island, leaving it to rot while US forces addressed mainland Japan.

The Americans expected a bitter fight and were prepared for some of it, but once again intelligence substantially underestimated the strength of the Japanese army. The new American 10th army under General Simon B. Buckner, the former commander in Alaska, was organized to control the army and marine divisions assigned to the operation.

A tremendous naval bombardment was to precede a four-division landing on the western beaches of central Okinawa, selected for their general suitability and proximity to two of the airfields on the island. Supported by a vast naval array and backed up by further marine and army divisions in reserve, the landing force was to seize the airfields and cut the island in two. The marine divisions would head north and the army divisions south. It was hoped that after a hard battle in the beachhead area, the attacking force could defeat the Japanese garrison in a fairly short time.

An enormous armada of American and British warships preceded the invasion, launching sweeping raids over southern Japan in late March 1945. Numerous Japanese planes were destroyed in the process, but others survived, having been carefully dispersed and concealed.

Vice-Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner’s 5th Amphibious Force was supported by Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet, mustering more than forty carriers, eighteen battleships and almost two hundred destroyers. ‘We bombarded all day long,’ wrote James Hutchinson of the battleship Colorado on 31 March. ‘We fired the sixteen-inch main battery about every three or four minutes all that time. It really gets to be a strain on a person’s nerves after a while.’

The central concept in American planning for the defeat of Japan was the invasion of the home islands in two stages. The first step was a landing on the southern island of Kyushu, ‘Olympic’, scheduled for September 1945. This was to be followed by an even larger landing on the main island of Honshu, ‘Coronet’, which was to take place in December. Both tentative landing dates had to be postponed because of fierce Japanese resistance, Olympic to November 1945, and Coronet to March 1946.

There was some discussion in Washington about the possibility of avoiding landings in Japan after Okinawa, and the enormous casualties they were certain to cost, by strangling Japan through blockade, encirclement and bombardment from the sea and air. But the weight of opinion among the Chiefs of Staff was in favor of the landings.

Both Olympic and Coronet were to be preceded by very lengthy air and sea bombardment, while Coronet would also involve the participation of a corps from the British Commonwealth as well as a French corps. In addition, it was assumed that the contingent from the Royal Navy already attached to the American fleet in the Pacific would grow, and that British long-range bombers based in the Philippines would play a part in the bombing of Japan's home islands before and during the great land battle that was expected.

The south of Okinawa had been transformed into a fortress, with successive lines of positions deeply dug on high ground. At the point of collision between the rival armies, the island was only three miles wide. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima had concentrated his 77,000 Japanese and 24,000 Okinawan auxiliaries where they were almost impregnable to frontal attack. The Japanese never supposed that their stand on the island would achieve decisive results. They placed faith, instead, on an air assault of devastating intensity against the US fleet, in which the key role was played by kamikazes.

Suicide planes had been used with some success in the Philippines since October 1944. Although the Allies found this method of war-making repugnant, from their enemies’ standpoint it was entirely rational. A post-war Japanese historian commented impatiently: ‘There have been innumerable Japanese critics of the kamikaze attacks. Most of them, however, seem to have been made by uninformed people who were content to be mere spectators of the great crisis which their nation faced.’ Against overwhelming US air power, poorly trained Japanese pilots employing conventional tactics suffered punitive losses. By planning for their deaths as a certainty rather than a mere probability, fuel loads could be halved and destructive accuracy much increased.

The Japanese expected an American invasion of Okinawa, which with its large airfields within easy range of the home islands and its excellent harbor was an obvious target for an operation preliminary to the assault on Japan itself. Okinawa is the largest island of the Ryuku Islands group, midway between Formosa and Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island. It was therefore a crucial springboard for the invasion of the mainland, and the Japanese resolved to defend it to the last.

General Ushijima’s strategic concept, coordinated with that of army and navy headquarters, was simple. There would be no attempt to defend the beaches of the long, narrow island or its relatively flat central and northern portions. Instead, three defensive lines had been established and were being developed in the mountainous southern portion of the island. Once the Americans were stalled in front of these lines, the expenditure of supplies and ammunition needed for any attack on them would make the Americans wholly dependent on their great shipborne supply system. This was to be decimated by massive suicide attacks.

At the time Operation Iceberg, the US invasion of Okinawa, was launched in the spring of 1945, it was perceived in Washington only as a preliminary to the decisive battle that must follow, for Japan’s home islands. Likewise in Tokyo, the defense of Okinawa was deemed vital to Japan’s strategy for achieving a negotiated peace. If the US could be made to pay dearly enough for winning a single offshore island, reasoned the nation’s leaders and indeed its emperor, Washington would conclude that the price of invading Kyushu and Honshu was too great to be borne. They were correct in their analysis, but utterly deluded about its implications.

Wide-ranging preliminary air operations against bases in Kyushu were provided, and a prior landing on the Kerama Islands off the southwest coast of Okinawa was to provide a base for repairing naval ships damaged in the operation and long-range artillery support for the fighting on the island itself. This operation, successfully carried out in March 1945, turned out to be even more important than anticipated. The Americans found and seized about 300 suicide boats designed for use against the landing craft in combination with the kamikazes from the air — a welcome and easy victory, but one which pointed to dangers ahead.

Twenty-two year-old Lt. Yoshihiro Minamoto waited with his Shinyo suicide-boat unit. Many newly minted lieutenants were promptly ticketed not merely for the possibility of death, but for its certainty. Minamoto was among a further eighty posted to a seaborne special operations unit, whose mission was also explicitly suicidal. They were to man small boats laden with explosives, deployed to meet American amphibious landings. Minamoto, like his comrades, claimed to be untroubled: ‘At that time there was no choice.’ Suicide was now the pervasive theme among Japan’s armed forces.

‘The naval bombardment was terrifying. It seemed to go on and on. The sound of those shells in flight frightened me very much.’ Yet the invaders’ demonstration of naval and air power made little physical impact on the defenders, sheltering underground. Yoshihiro Minamoto emerged from his cave to a scene of devastation: ‘Trees were torn apart, the ground blackened, all our quarters flattened along with the local civilian houses.’ However, the suicide boats which he commanded were safe in laboriously dug bunkers along the shoreline.

American troops landed on Tokashiki. Minamoto ordered the coxswains to withdraw immediately to the north end of the island, to preserve them for future actions. He himself led the maintenance crews, around a hundred strong, in a brief defensive action. The Americans made short work of them. After losing nine dead in the first half hour, Minamoto ordered his survivors to retreat northwards. He rejected the notion of self-immolation: ‘I felt that I wanted to fight to the death with the enemy, rather than merely bring death on myself.’

In the days that followed, 394 men, women and children immolated themselves on Tokashiki. ‘Their actions reflected the spirit of the time,’ said Minamoto. ‘It was the consequence of all the reports about the fate of Japanese civilians on Saipan. Those islanders should not have been so hard on themselves. It wasn’t as if the invaders were Chinese or Russians.’ By a bleak irony, Minamoto and his fellow suicide crewmen survived in hiding, while more than a third of the civilians on Tokashiki perished. To the Americans, this little action represented only a skirmish, a minor objective seized at negligible cost. Yet for the Japanese, it was a foretaste of much worse to follow.

To the Americans’ surprise, the initial assault was unopposed. The Japanese had learned the lessons of earlier island battles, and withdrawn beyond range of the naval bombardment; only after a week of skirmishing inland did advancing US troops meet fierce machine-gun and artillery fire. Although the Marines got ashore and established secure beachheads on the first three days, the process of clearing the island of Japanese proved one of the epic tasks of America’s war, involving breaking through the strongly held Machinato and Shuri Lines of interlocking mountain-ridge defense systems.

No fewer than 1,300 Allied vessels took part in the invasion of Okinawa, landing 60,000 troops under a huge bombardment. These troops were the first part of Lieutenant-General Simon Bolivar Buckner’s Tenth Army, which was 180,000 strong, with more reserves available in New Caledonia.

The invaders were to land across a six-mile front on the southwest coast. Wallowing in the big transports, most men anticipated the worst. Spotter planes circled above, directing the naval guns. Wariness was essential to their pilots to avoid being caught by shells, especially from the high-trajectory five-inch destroyer armament. On the ships a huge cast of spectators, so soon to become actors, saw a sudden burst of light in the sky as a plane was hit, then dropped blazing into the sea. ‘Everyone expected E Company to be literally destroyed’, wrote a 5th Marines corporal, James Johnston.

Lt. Chris Donner later described the scene as the landing crafts approached the beach: ‘There was no chatter now. Each man’s face was tight, teeth set. Even above the roar of the amph’s motors we began to hear the crackle of small arms…We hit with a jolt that tumbled us in a heap, ground up onto a coral shelf, then onto sand… I led the rush out.’ There was no firing in their immediate area, but one squad heard voices from a cavern, and used an interpreter to shout word to come out and surrender. When no response came, Browning-automatic gunners sprayed the mouth. Inside, Marines found the prostrate forms of several civilians: two men, a woman and a three-year-old boy. Only the child was alive, covered with his mother’s blood. ‘They brought him back to us,’ wrote Chris Donner, ‘and Monahan washed the blood off the boy, who had ceased to cry. My team carried him on their shoulders all the rest of the afternoon… So this was Easter Sunday warfare. It sickened me.’

Corporal James Johnston ran up the beach nursing slender expectations for his own future: ‘I thought I might get to a pillbox and dump some grenades before they got me.’ The invaders were disbelieving in the face of their own survival. They encountered only a shell-torn shoreline, a handful of dazed or dead peasants, and negligible resistance. ‘I didn’t recognize anything I saw,’ said Lt. Marius Bressoud. ‘There were no pinned-down troops, no bodies.’

The Americans fanned out north and south, seizing two airfields, advancing in hours across miles of ground for which they had expected to fight for days. Admiral Richmond Turner, commanding the amphibious force, signalled Nimitz: ‘I may be crazy but it looks like the Japanese have quit the war, at least in this sector.’ Nimitz replied: ‘Delete all after “crazy.”’

Heavy rain set in, churning the battlefield into a sea of mud. Again and again, US soldiers and Marines thrust forward – and were repulsed. Their generals demanded that they try harder: a corps commander visited a divisional command post and said he noted its units had suffered fewer casualties than any other formation. Officers interpreted this as a compliment until he added, ‘To me, that means just one thing – you’re not pushing.’

Marine Eugene ‘Sledgehammer’ Sledge, a private of the 1st Marine Division, wrote an excellent memoir of his time on Okinawa entitled With the Old Breed, in which he recalled the weeks of constant fighting. Of one typical attack he wrote: ‘As the seconds ticked slowly toward 09.00, our artillery and ships’ guns increased their rate of fire. The rain poured down, and the Japanese took up the challenge from our artillery. They started throwing more shells our way… The shells whistled, whined and rumbled overhead, ours bursting out in front of the ridge and the enemy’s exploding in our area and to the rear. The noise increased all along the line. Rain fell in torrents, and the soil became muddy and slippery wherever we hurried around the gun pit to break out and stack our ammo. I looked at my watch. It was 09.00. I gulped and prayed for my buddies.’ Flung back by ‘a storm of enemy fire from our front and left back’, Sledge’s company ‘all wore wild-eyed, shocked expressions that showed only too vividly they were men who barely escaped chance’s strange arithmetic. They clung to their M1s, BARs [Browning automatic rifles], and Tommy guns and slumped to the mud to pant for breath before moving behind the ridge toward their former foxholes. The torrential rain made it all seem so much more unbelievable and terrible.’

The Japanese defense scheme was chillingly professional and efficient. Within a week, the Japanese had stopped two very good army divisions in their tracks. Assisted by drenching monsoon rains, the Japanese turned every hill and every ridge into a muddy deathtrap. Japanese infantry, well-armed with machine guns and light mortars, defended the forward slopes, but with only enough strength to force the Americans to disperse and go to ground; after sharp firefights, the Americans would finally conquer the crest, only to be smashed with artillery and fire from the reverse-slope positions. Reeling from the ambushes, the Americans would then fall back onto the forward slopes, smashed by mortar fire and showers of grenades.

Tenth Army’s commander shared Admiral Turner’s surprise at the initial Japanese lack of resistance. Marines moving north overcame sporadic opposition without much difficulty. General Buckner was fearful that anticlimax might deprive him of the battle he was keenly expectant to fight. He had been at Kiska in the Aleutians ‘when the army troops had landed and to their embarrassment had found no Japanese,’ wrote O. P. Smith scornfully. ‘He did not want to be involved in another Kiska.’

The invaders’ advantage of numbers counted for almost nothing, where the enemy could concentrate his forces to hold a front nowhere more than three miles wide, the breadth of the island. Buckner perceived no alternative to launching repeated frontal attacks, which resulted in repeated bloody failures.

As heavy rain set in, tens of thousands of men competed for possession of a few score yards of mud. Shellfire churned human body parts, debris and excrement into a ghastly compound from which the stench drifted far to the rear. These were scenes more familiar to veterans of the First World War than those of the Second.

From their initially seized portions of central Okinawa, the Americans quickly came up against the Machinate line, Ushijima's first defensive position anchored on the west coast town of Machinate. In three weeks of bitter and costly fighting, the army divisions, soon reinforced by an additional division, battered their way forward. Ushijima decided to abandon the Machinate line and draw back to his most heavily defended position, the Shuri line, across the island in the mountain ridges covering the capital of Naha on the west coast and the old fortifications of Shuri in the center.

After a week of cautious advances, army units in the south of the island were suddenly checked in their tracks by artillery and machine-gun fire. They had reached the first of the immensely powerful concentric lines with which the Japanese had fortified the southernmost six miles of Okinawa.

The Japanese had chosen their positions well: they possessed observation points on high ground, hidden machine guns, mines, and defenses almost impregnable to frontal attack. Above all, they had guns and plenty of ammunition. The Japanese army, often short of fire support, possessed this in abundance on Okinawa. ‘The enemy tactic which impressed us most deeply was the intensity and effectiveness of artillery,’ wrote Marine captain Levi Burcham, ‘and the fact that this fire covered not only our front line area but also (an experience new to many) well back into rear areas, quartermaster dumps and the like.’

Through more than two months, US soldiers and Marines assaulted Ushijima’s bunkers and trenches, paying with blood for every yard they gained. The struggle proved more intense than any that US forces had hitherto experienced in the Pacific.

The invaders achieved notable successes when defenders were rash enough to leave their positions and counterattack. Again and again, Japanese efforts to regain ground or surprise the Americans were crushed by firepower. After early bloody failures, however, Ushijima became less obliging about exposing his units. He held them back in their deeply dug defenses, leaving it to the Americans to pay the price for movement.

The Americans battered their way into the outlying portions of the Shuri Line in the last days of April and early May. Ushijima, who may have thought the Americans more weakened by the fighting than they really were, launched a major counter-offensive which was repulsed with heavy casualties and deprived him of reserves. It also forced him to reveal many of the hitherto concealed artillery positions. In the following weeks, the Americans went back on the offensive, fighting against a determined enemy and relying on superior fire-power and large-scale use of flamethrowers to crush one position after another.

Buckner’s headlong assaults on the Shuri Line rekindled familiar inter-service animosities. Marines thought soldiers lacked skill, drive and grit. ‘The Marines and the army don’t like each other,’ wrote corpsman Bill Jenkins. ‘…We thought they were a bunch of scaredy cats.’ Marines relieving the army’s 27th Division mocked the depth of their foxholes. A soldier said sourly: ‘You won’t be laughing when “whistling willy” comes in.’ Sure enough, within a few hours the Marines were digging even harder for themselves. ‘We were permitted, if not encouraged, to believe that Army progress was slow because their troops weren’t as courageous, capable and well trained as we were,’ wrote Marine lieutenant Marius Bressoud. ‘It was only when we ourselves came up against the Shuri bastion that we developed a proper respect for our fellow foot soldiers.’

The defeat of the Japanese counter-offensive was followed by a renewed American attack. Concentrating on the eastern flank of the Shuri Line, the Americans pounded forward in driving rain. Ushijima decided to abandon what his troops still held of the line and pulled back into the mountainous southwest corner of the island. There the remnants of the Japanese army were destroyed in the following four weeks of bitter fighting.

The ruins of Naha, Okinawa’s capital, fell to the Americans on 27 May. Ushijima retreated to his final positions further southwest, on the Oruku Peninsula. Here, Captain Ito and his men joined their commander, along with some thousands of other surviving defenders. By the first days of June, the captain found himself left with 135 men, out of the five-hundred-strong battalion he had led into battle: ‘We were exhausted, morally and physically. We faced the traditional predicament of Japanese warriors of old, with our backs to the wall.’ They were proud of the losses they had inflicted on the Americans, but understood that the defenses were broken. Yard by yard, Buckner’s persevering soldiers had ground down the Japanese.

After such an initiation into Japanese defensive warfare, Buckner might have sought an alternative to his World War I offensive against the Naha-Shuri-Yonabaru Line. His admirals as well as marine and army generals associated with the campaign gave him intelligent advice, the essence of which was that Buckner should use the reserve 2nd Marine Division to make a second landing on Okinawa’s eastern coast, thus flanking the Japanese defenses. Buckner, however, concluded that logistical support was problematic and the landing too risky.

Sadly for his troops, Buckner did not have the experience to make such a critical decision. He had graduated from West Point in 1908 and advanced to command a field army on the basis of retaking the Aleutians, his first combat. Compared with his subordinates, Buckner was hardly fit to command a corps, let alone a field army. Yet he held the lives of over 100,000 soldiers and Marines in his hand.

Buckner was fifty-eight, son of a Civil War Confederate general. He had spent the First World War training pilots, and thereafter filled mostly staff appointments. General O. P. Smith told Vice-Admiral Turner that he thought Buckner much too optimistic about the ability of artillery to batter a breakthrough. The admiral agreed, but declared that it was impossible to intervene.

Buckner rejected every suggestion that he revise the concept of the campaign, ignoring the advice of the four Marine generals who had captured Guadalcanal, Cape Britain, Guam, and Peleliu. Only Spruance and Nimitz had the authority to order Buckner to change his plan, and once again the admirals shrank from conflict with the army.

Smith described a visit with Tenth Army’s commander to the 27th Division, a formation no one thought much of: ‘The division was beaten down and did not know whether or not it wanted to fight… As General Buckner went round he asked different individuals what they wanted to do most. He was hoping to get the answer that they wanted to go into combat, but they were more interested in going home on furlough.’

With the war in Europe coming to an end and the power of the United States everywhere triumphant, it seemed to Americans at home intolerable that their boys should die in thousands to wrest from fanatics a remote piece of real estate: there was intense public anger, directed less against the enemy than towards their own commanders. War weariness was a dignified phrase to describe the American domestic mood: it might instead have been categorized as boredom, the disease of democracies, whose patience is always scarce.

By May 1945, with Hitler vanquished, Americans took for granted impending victory in the Pacific, and were increasingly cynical about the war. To prick public complacency, the US Navy urged people to take a vacation on the west coast and visit the dockyards where lay crippled and blackened warships brought back from Okinawa. But the American Red Cross found itself struggling to muster volunteers to prepare surgical dressings, and there was a chronic shortage of manpower to work in weapons plants.

Lt. Jeptha Carell came to believe that married men with children should not be allowed to serve in the front line: ‘The loss of the father is not only a reason for the family to grieve, it is an economic disaster.’ When one of his platoon was killed by an American rocket that fell short, Carell wrote to the man’s widow, who responded with a pathetic letter saying that she now had five children to care for. The widow ended: ‘I hope you’re satisfied!’

The men fighting on Okinawa shared the American people’s frustration. They demanded: why not stage an amphibious assault to outflank the defenses? Why not use poison gas? Why fight this war, in its last phase before inevitable victory, in a fashion that suited Japanese suicide fighters? None of these questions was satisfactorily answered.

The parents of a man killed on Hector Hill wrote a savage letter, branding his officers as murderers for abandoning their son. There was speculation in his unit about what someone must have written home to cause the dead man’s people to harbor such bitterness. Another letter, from the father of a wounded man, condemned the army for having put his son into combat without adequate training.

En route to Okinawa, army lieutenant Don Siebert found himself sharing a plane with a party of nurses. The girls kidded the young replacements somewhat unkindly, saying that they would see them again on a casevac flight (evacuating casualties) in a couple of days. ‘Of course this was very, very comforting,’ wrote Siebert, ‘but we were too gung-ho to heed the warning, and exacted their assurances that they would give us special care.’ He himself was troubled, like most newcomers to war, about his own fitness for command: ‘Would the men accept my leadership? Would I have a problem getting to them?’ He read field manuals assiduously all the way to the front, where he joined the line outside Shuri Castle. To Siebert’s disappointment, he was assigned to become assistant regimental adjutant and gas officer. He provoked amazement by requesting instead a posting with a line battalion.

The kamikaze air campaign off Okinawa inflicted heavier losses on the US Navy than had been contrived by the capital ships of the Combined Fleet at any moment of the war. In its closing months, Raymond Spruance’s ships were obliged to fight some of their toughest and most prolonged actions. The image of Japan’s kamikazes taking off to face death with enthusiasm is largely fallacious. Among the first wave in the autumn of 1944, there were many genuine volunteers. Thereafter, however, the supply of young fanatics dwindled: many subsequent recruits were driven to accept the role by moral pressure, and sometimes conscription.

Cmdr. Fitzhugh Lee, executive officer of Essex, described his experience of monitoring the Japanese bomb and torpedo strikes from the huge carrier’s Combat Information Centre: ‘I can remember spending many unhappy hours in CIC watching these blips coming at us, knowing what they were doing, and hoping that our guns would shoot them down, seeing them turn around on the radar screen, and then knowing that the torpedoes were in the water and on their way to you. Those minutes seemed like years, when you are sitting there waiting to see whether you’re going to get hit. CIC was not a happy place to be. It was interesting psychologically … my first experience of real fear – being in the face of what you thought might be death at any moment … Here you sat around these radar screens and watched these things happen with young seamen who were eighteen or nineteen years old, just off the farm or out of the shoe store … Their reactions were for the most part wonderful. Every once in a while you’d find one that couldn’t take it … I found that I could spot when somebody was getting a little hysterical … If he got very emotional, it would spread so you had to think of something quick – get him out … We had a few who lost control of themselves and started weeping, crying, praying.’

The kamikaze pilots’ training was as harsh as that of all Japanese warriors, and attended by the same emphasis on corporal punishment. Kasuga Takeo, a mess orderly who served at Tsuchitura, a kamikaze base, testified to the melancholy and sometimes hysteria which attended the pilots’ last hours. Some smashed furniture, while others sat in mute contemplation or danced in frenzy. Takeo spoke of a mood of ‘utter desperation’. Most were merely distressed. Peer pressure achieved its peak in the kamikaze programme.

A twenty year-old bomber pilot, Norimitsu Takushima, wrote in his diary: ‘Today the Japanese people are not allowed freedom of speech and we cannot publicly express our criticism … The Japanese people do not even have access to enough information to know the facts … This is just one example of the routines and demagoguery that have become the moving forces of our society … We are going to meet our fate led by the cold will of the government. I shall not lose my passion and hope until the end … There is one ideal – freedom.’ On 9 April 1945, Takushima’s plane vanished on an operation.

Some such young men professed that they went willingly: Lt. Kanno Naoishi, regarded by his peers as one of Japan’s most colorful fighter pilots, had rammed a B-24 and escaped with his life, but did not expect to survive for much longer. Aircrew travelled between postings with a small bag of personal effects, chart pencils, underwear, bearing their names; his was jauntily inscribed ‘personal effects of the late Lt. Cmdr. Kanno Naoishi’, for he assumed his own death, and the consequent posthumous promotion granted to every flier who fell.

In one of innumerable last letters left behind by kamikazes for their families, Hayashi Ichizo wrote in April 1945: ‘Mother, I am a man. All men born in Japan are destined to die fighting for the country. You have done a splendid job raising me to become an honorable man. I will do a splendid job sinking an enemy aircraft carrier. Do brag about me.’ Ichizo died off Okinawa in April 1945, aged twenty-three.

Nakao Takenonori wrote to his parents: ‘The other day I paid my visit to Kotohira Shrine and had a picture taken. I told them to send the finished photo to you. Just in case, I enclose the receipt … Please do not get discouraged, and fight to defeat America and Britain. Please say the same to Grandmother. I will leave behind my diary. Although I did not do much in my life, I am content that I fulfilled my wish to live a pure life, leaving nothing ugly behind me … I wish to express my thanks to my uncle and many other people … Wishing you the best for your future.’

The US Navy found the experience of combating the kamikazes among the bloodiest and most painful of its war. Japanese airmen carried out almost 1,700 sorties to Okinawa. Day after day, ships’ crews manned their guns to mount continuous barrages against diving attackers. Most of the pilots perished under the American fire, but a few always got through to immolate themselves on the flight decks and superstructures of the warships, with devastating effect as gasoline ignited, munitions exploded and sailors protected only by anti-flash hoods and gauntlets found themselves caught in blazing infernos.

The Imperial Navy suffered a near-mortal blow when the 72,000-ton battleship Yamato, generally considered the most powerful battleship ever built, was sunk by 380 American aircraft, slipping beneath the waves along with 2,488 of her crew. In the same engagement a Japanese cruiser and four destroyers were also sunk, at a total loss of 3,655 Japanese lives to the Americans’ eighty-four sailors and airmen. Despite such punishment, Japan fought on in Luzon, Burma, Borneo and especially on Okinawa, where even American flamethrowers and heavy armor made slow progress against determined Japanese counterattacks.

The Allies not only coped with the kamikazes, albeit with heavy losses, but they also succeeded in beating off the one Japanese surface naval attempt to interfere with the Okinawa landing. The Japanese super-battleship Yamato was sent out escorted by a light cruiser and several destroyers. The Yamato was attacked by waves of carrier-based planes, which sent torpedoes into the huge ship and dropped bombs on it. The Yamato, the escorting cruiser, and three of the destroyers were sunk with over 3,000 men.

The first American bomb destroyed Yamato’s air-search radar, leaving the ship’s guns dependent on visual direction. ‘Using tracer to correct fire,’ wrote Ensign Yoshida bitterly, ‘is like trying to catch butterflies in one’s bare hands.’ Again and again, bombers pounded the battleship and her escorts as they steered on southwards, while fighters strafed their upper decks. On the ship the carnage was appalling. Inspecting the radar compartment after an explosion beneath the bridge, Yoshida found only unrecognisable wrecked equipment and human body parts.

Torpedoes began to slam into Yamato’s hull, causing massive damage below. Soon a stream of men were emerging onto the upper deck. Those above were reluctant to slam hatches on those still trapped in the engine rooms, but the order was given to flood some compartments anyway. Turrets were traversed by hand when power failed. Exposed light AA-gun positions were strewn with dead and wounded. Half Yamato’s bridge crew was dead. Yoshida found most of the survivors, some crudely bandaged with towelling, lying prone at their posts as a third wave of American attackers struck.

Below decks, the wardroom crowded with wounded suffered a direct hit from a bomb which wiped out its occupants. The upper works were reduced to twisted wreckage. Wide-eyed men stumbled in the midst of the steel shambles, helpless to aid the maimed and dying. Yoshida slapped the face of a seventeen-year-old rating, to stop his convulsive shaking. Far below decks, storeroom clerks gorged themselves on sake. What else could they do, and what was the liquor to be saved for?

Later waves of American attackers were poorly directed and coordinated, because radio communication became confused. Pilots simply chose their own targets. Yamato pumped thousands of gallons of seawater into a hull bulge to correct a list. The ship maintained way, and continued to fire her main armament, but was drastically slowed. Four destroyers and the cruiser Yahagi were already wrecked or sunk. At 14.10, a bomb jammed Yamato’s rudder and all power failed. The huge ship swung impotent, listing steeply, her port side awash.

The Yamato tilted more steeply still, causing men in scores to fall or jump into the sea, while gun mountings and great fragments of twisted metal broke loose and tumbled overboard. Yoshida wrote: ‘At the instant Yamato, rolling over, turns belly up and plunges beneath the waves, she emits one great flash of light and sends a gigantic pillar of flame high into the dark sky… Armor plate, equipment, turrets, guns — fragments of the ship fly in all directions. Soon, thick dark brown smoke, bubbling up from the ocean depths, engulfs everything.’

‘The prettiest sight I’ve ever seen,’ said American Avenger gunner Jack Sausa: ‘A red column of fire shot up through the clouds, and when it faded Yamato was gone.’ Fires are thought to have triggered a huge magazine explosion as the battleship turned turtle. The smoke pall was visible on Kyushu, a hundred miles distant. The last American attackers departed at 14.43, leaving just two reconnaissance float planes circling the battle scene. One of these, defying the nearby enemy, landed to rescue a downed American pilot. The surviving Japanese destroyers were much slower to pick up their countrymen struggling in the water.

The Okinawa campaign was the first of the Pacific War to which the Royal Navy made a modest contribution. Hitherto, the British Eastern Fleet had merely conducted tip-and-run raids against Japanese installations in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya. Now four British carriers, along with two battleships, five cruisers and escorts, began to operate against Japanese airfields on Formosa, and suffered their share of assaults from kamikazes. ‘Task Force 57’, as Vice-Admiral Bernard Rawlings’s force was known, represented an attempt to satisfy Winston Churchill’s passionate desire for Britain to play a visible part in the defeat of Japan.

American Admiral Ernest King was bitterly hostile to any British presence in the Pacific, on both nationalistic and logistical grounds. It required the president’s personal intervention to force the US Navy to accede to the British Prime Minister’s wishes.

In the first months of 1945 it proved embarrassingly hard to muster a British fleet for Pacific service. The Royal Navy, like its parent nation, was overstretched and war-weary. Australia’s shameless dock labor unions delayed the deployment of warships and the fleet train of supply ships. When Rawlings’s ships finally joined Spruance, they were hampered by design unfitness for tropical conditions, which inflicted chronic hardship on crews.

Rawlings’s fleet struggled to keep up with its vastly more powerful allies. In an early series of air strikes, the British lost forty-one aircraft in 378 sorties, a casualty rate which would have been deemed disastrous even by Bomber Command. Sir Bruce Fraser wrote later in his dispatch: ‘There can be little doubt that the Americans are much quicker than we are at learning the lessons of war and applying them to their ships and their tactics… As a result the British fleet is seldom spectacular, never really modern…’

A British war correspondent, David Divine, joined the battleship King George V after weeks aboard Lexington, which refuelled and resupplied at sea in heavy winds, in a fashion reflecting the superb professionalism of the 1945 US Navy. Now, Divine watched in dismay as ‘KGV went up astern of one rusty old tanker, which appeared to be manned by two Geordie mates and twenty consumptive Chinamen, and it took us, I think, an hour and a half to pick up a single buoyed pipe-line, fiddling around under our bows.’

The Royal Navy discovered that its most significant assets in Pacific combat were its carriers’ armored flight decks. The extra weight reduced their complement of aircraft, but rendered them astonishingly resistant to kamikazes, in contrast to their fir-decked American counterparts. When a Zero dived vertically onto the carrier Indefatigable, its aircraft were able to resume landing within an hour. Though HMS Formidable suffered damage and fifty casualties when it was hit, the ship was soon operational again.

The British Pacific Fleet’s difficulties mounted with every week of operations. Crew morale suffered from the heat, discomfort and overcrowding. Admiral King renewed his efforts to remove the Royal Navy from operations against Japan by dispatching Fraser’s ships to support the Australian landings on Borneo. This proposal was defeated only by direct British appeals to MacArthur.

At the end of May, to the acute embarrassment of the British government, battle damage, crew exhaustion and mechanical failures obliged Rawlings’s squadron to withdraw to Sydney for extended repairs. When TF57 departed it claimed 57 enemy aircraft destroyed, for the loss of 203. It was a sorry story, indeed one of the most inglorious episodes of the Royal Navy’s wartime history. The misfortunes of the fleet reflected the fact that Britain, after almost six years of war, was simply too poor and too exhausted to sustain such a force alongside the United States armada.

Out of all the vast array of nightmares that the Pacific War offered to the men fighting there, Okinawa was one of the most terrible. With no hope of victory or reinforcements, the Japanese were determined to put up the fiercest resistance possible so that, possibly, the Allies might be persuaded to negotiate for peace. This caused the battle to be later named ‘the typhoon of steel’.

In Lt. Don Siebert’s first encounter with the Japanese, he was shocked to see an enemy soldier keep running at him, despite being hit repeatedly by carbine bullets. Siebert discarded his carbine in favour of an M1 rifle. ‘One of the weaknesses of the American army in combat,’ he wrote, ‘was night operations. We did little fighting at night, almost no movement… The Japs, on the other hand, used the darkness. They fought, moved and resupplied in it.’

Darkness caused every American soldier, huddled under a poncho to mask the glow of a cigarette, to become acutely sensitive to the risk of surprise. One night in the positions of the infantry company accompanied by gunner Chris Donner, a man panicked when he heard an unexpected noise. He began firing, and killed five of his fellow Marines before somebody shot him down. ‘The company commander,’ wrote Donner, was thereafter ‘embittered over this needless loss. The entire outfit moved heavily.’

‘With afternoon came the order to advance,’ wrote Chris Donner. ‘A short round from another artillery shoot so jolted Captain Sweet that he had to be removed… As the units, each no more than twenty-five strong, converged on the brushy knoll to our front there was no firing of any kind. Then, walking erect, and only a few yards from the bushes, they were suddenly met by blazing light machine-gun fire, and mortars began raining upon them. There was no cover. They fell, squirmed, and were hit again. A handful managed to get back, including a lieutenant who trembled and shook with terrific sobs, murmuring over and over, “It was awful, God, it was awful. They all died.” I felt awful myself.’

Marines and soldiers alike found themselves trapped in an experience as hellish as any of the war. Word of the death of their president, Franklin Roosevelt, seemed as remote as a dispatch from the moon. ‘The news came as a shock,’ wrote an infantry officer. ‘The word was passed down to the men, but each had his own problems at the moment, the most important being to keep his hide in one piece.’ Only the few square yards of ground around them, the men in the next foxhole, possessed meaning.

If the invaders were appalled by their predicament, that of the defenders was vastly worse. Japanese soldiers were dying at ten times the rate of Americans. Captain Kouichi Ito’s battalion found themselves deployed where they had only hastily scraped foxholes. These offered pitiful protection against US artillery fire, far heavier than anything Ushijima’s batteries could put down. Then they met their first American tanks; thereafter the carnage only got worse.

Most of Captain Ito’s men had known each other for years. Now, each hour they vanished by scores. ‘We took three hundred casualties in the first two days,’ said Ito. His second-in-command, Lieutenant Kashiki, made the dangerous circuit of their perimeter the first night, telling the men how well they had done. Yet all knew how desperate their predicament was. One of his company commanders said ruefully down a telephone line to the command bunker: ‘You can’t treat these Americans lightly.’

In a rear-area hospital, O.P. Smith inspected combat fatigue cases, of which Okinawa generated thousands. He watched a doctor treating a Marine in whose foxhole a mortar round had landed. ‘No man could have portrayed fear as this man did. He kept gurgling “Mortar, mortar, mortar.” The doctor asked him what he was going to do now. He replied: “Dig deeper. Dig deeper.” The doctor told him to go ahead and dig. The man got down on his knees and went through frantic motions of digging in the corner of the room.’ Another man, who had been recommended for a Silver Star, was overcome by guilt about killing so many Japanese. There were others occupying beds, however, for whom the Marine general evinced less sympathy: ‘I am afraid… there are many cases of so-called combat fatigue where the man should not have gotten back to the hospitals.’ What would Smith have said to a man like medic Bill Jenkins, whose platoon went through double its original strength before the navy man went to his sergeant, removed his pistol belt and said: ‘You can take this war and shove it, I quit’? The NCO gave Jenkins a mug of coffee and without protest tagged him as suffering from a ‘psychoneurosis anxiety state’. He was evacuated to Saipan.

Okinawa was the scene of some gruesome deaths among the civilian population. Caught in the middle of a terrible battle, 100,000 civilians may have been killed by artillery fire, bombing and even small arms. Fighting in the midst of civilians is always repugnant, never more so than on Okinawa. While most American units behaved as professional soldiers, a minority deliberately targeted civilians.

Wandering animals and civilians prompted alerts. White goats were mistaken for infiltrators. Don Siebert’s men were dug in at the edge of a big field one night, when they heard rustling and movement. Flares revealed nothing, but there was certainly something out there. The lieutenant told his men to shoot, prompting moans and the squalling of a baby. Siebert was still fearful of Japanese soldiers trying to lure the Americans from their foxholes: ‘Much against my instincts, I ordered the platoon to open fire; we must have killed the youngster, because there were no more cries. This truly depressed me. However, I believed that it was necessary to protect the lives of my men.’

‘On the ground,’ Chris Donner recorded one day, ‘lay the body of a young Okinawan, a girl who had been fifteen or sixteen, and probably very pretty. She was nude, lying on her back with arms outstretched and knees drawn up, but spread apart. The poor girl had been shot through the left breast and evidently violently raped.’ It seemed unlikely that this was the work of Japanese soldiers. Not long after, several men of the infantry unit which Donner was accompanying fell to fire from unseen enemies on a clifftop. Suddenly, the Americans saw a Japanese woman clutching a baby. Convinced that she was spotting for enemy soldiers, some shouted: ‘Shoot the bitch, shoot the Jap woman!’ There was a burst of fire. The woman fell, then struggled to her feet and staggered towards her baby. After more shots, she went down again and lay still. Donner wrote: ‘None of the men would own up to having fired… the ridge was a stinking mess, compounded of half-empty ration tins, dead Japs and human faeces, all covered with hot flies… One corporal was dragged back and given a transfusion. His foot was gone at the ankle. When they could bring up a stretcher and start off with the man, he began to smoke a cigarette someone had given him. Then with his face drawn with pain he waved to us and shouted, “Got mine, fellows. Gonna have liberty now. Good luck to you.”’

The last days of the battle were rendered especially horrible by the presence of so many Japanese women and children among the defenders, some still eager to live, others determined to die. After Lt. Marius Bressoud’s Marines blew open a cave mouth, a crowd of civilians emerged, whom he dispatched to the rear. Three remained, badly wounded: a child, its mother and grandmother. Platoon Sgt. Joe Taylor said: ‘We can’t just leave these people, and we can’t spare escorts.’ Bressoud knew the NCO meant that the Okinawans should be put out of their misery. He asked if there was a volunteer to do the job. Nobody spoke. Bressoud described the scene: ‘I said, “OK, I’ll do it myself.” All three were lying motionless on their backs. Some very thoughtful person in the platoon had covered their heads with clean white cloths so that I did not have to look at their faces. I fired one round through each head.’ Yet the mother and grandmother continued to writhe. Bressoud fired again and again. ‘By this time the cloths and the heads were a mess. It had not been a neat, gangland style execution after all. I was overcome with emotion I cannot possibly describe…thoroughly ashamed, not because I had killed them, but because I did it in so emotional and unprofessional a manner.’

Dispute persists about how many Okinawan civilians died, because it is uncertain how many were evacuated before the battle began. Estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000.

The American casualties included General Buckner, killed during the last days of the battle by enemy artillery fire. Ushijima committed suicide four days later. Over 100,000 Japanese soldiers had died on the island as had tens of thousands of Okinawa civilians. American casualties numbered 75,000, an indication of what could be expected in the future if the Allies were to invade the Japanese mainland.

Buckner was unable to celebrate the victory he had yearned for. A Japanese shell killed him in the last days of the campaign. His Japanese counterpart, General Ushijima, also perished. He and his Chief of Staff committed ritual suicide in their headquarters cave. Nine of his staff officers shot themselves.

By the time Okinawa was declared secure, the army and Marines had lost 7,503 killed and 36,613 wounded, in addition to 36,000 non-battle casualties, most of them combat fatigue cases. Additionally the US Navy suffered 4,907 dead and more than 8,000 wounded. Almost the entire defending force ashore perished, together with many thousands of native Okinawans.

Resistance petered out in the last weeks of June. Yet if Buckner’s land campaign represented a shocking experience for American soldiers and Marines, it was matched, perhaps even outdone, by the struggle waged at sea. The battle off Okinawa cost more lives than any other fought by the US Navy in the Pacific War.

Some Japanese officers retained a conviction that Ushijima had been mistaken to allow the Americans an unopposed landing on Okinawa. Yet, given the overwhelming power of the amphibious force, it is hard to believe that any Japanese deployment could have prevented American assault units from getting ashore, or indeed from conquering the island. The defenders could aspire only to what they accomplished — the extraction of a bitter price for American victory.

The only tactical option which Buckner never explored, and which might have enabled his forces to prevail more quickly, was that of launching attacks in darkness. The difficulty, however, is that night operations demand exceptionally high motivation and tactical skills, to prevent those carrying them out from simply disappearing, ‘going to ground’, rather than pressing home an assault. It is doubtful that Tenth Army possessed such qualities.

Americans emerged from the battle shocked by the ferocity of the resistance they had encountered, the determination of Japanese combatants to die rather than accept defeat. ‘People out here attach more importance to the Kamikaze method of attack as an illustration of the Japanese state of mind than as a weapon of destruction,’ New York Times correspondent William L. Laurence wrote from the Pacific. ‘Considered carefully, the fact that literally thousands of men, many young and in their prime, will go out alone on missions of certain death… is not one calculated to breed optimism.’

To eyes in Washington, the Pacific War looked won, since the capture of Okinawa breached the wall of the Home Islands. The Japanese, however, failing to appreciate the clear-sightedness of the West’s logic, continued to fight. Minor ground operations continued through the weeks that followed. Dogged efforts persisted to persuade Japanese stragglers to surrender. The Japanese were largely successful in achieving their purpose: America’s losses persuaded the nation’s leadership that an invasion of mainland Japan would prove immensely costly. The consequences, however, proved very different from those Tokyo intended.

One prisoner, twenty-nine year-old Sergeant Kiyoshi Ito, in civilian life a salesman from Nagoya, was persuaded to sign a leaflet for distribution by American troops: ‘My comrades! You, who valiantly decided to resist to the end … PLEASE PAUSE A WHILE BEFORE DYING AND THINK! OFFICERS, NCOs AND MEN!… I need not tell you the plight we are in, when our isolated homeland is fighting against the whole world. Is it not only a matter of time? Please try to think reasonably. Leave it to Fate to decide the war. Come what may the Japanese people, with their glorious history of 3,000 years, will never be exterminated. Comrades, why not consider your past and live anew to rebuild Japan? Throw away your weapons and come out of your positions. Take off your shirts and wave them over your heads and approach the US positions in daylight, using the main roads. Then your worries will be over and you will receive humane treatment. I STRONGLY BELIEVE THAT THIS IS THE ONLY WAY AND THE BEST WAY LEFT TO SERVE OUR COUNTRY! An NCO of the Japanese Army, now a prisoner of war.’

Some historians, armed with knowledge of subsequent events, argue that the capture of Okinawa was unnecessary. It did not bring Japan’s surrender a day closer. Yet to those directing the operation at the time, it was perceived as an indispensable preliminary to invasion of the Japanese home islands.

Okinawa exercised an important influence on the development of events thereafter, through its impact upon the civilian, military and naval leadership of the United States. To capture an outpost, American forces had been obliged to fight the most bitter campaign of the Pacific War. The prospect of invading Kyushu and Honshu in the face of Japanese forces many times greater than those on Okinawa, and presumably imbued with the same fighting spirit, filled those responsible with dismay.

At the end of June 1945, staff planners assumed that Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, would take place four months thence. To the US Chiefs of Staff, however, any alternative which averted such necessity would be deemed welcome.

So dramatic was the succession of events which crowded into the last months of the war that it is hard to grasp the notion that, in June 1945, the prospect of the atomic bomb did not loom foremost in the consciousness of the US Chiefs of Staff. At that stage, their hopes of achieving victory without Olympic rested chiefly upon blockade, incendiary air bombardment and Russian entry into the Japanese war. All of these represented more immediate realities and more substantial prospects than the putative fulfilment of the Manhattan Project. The course of the Second World War had so often astonished its participants that no prudent men, even those at the summits of Allied power, could feel assured of how its last acts would play out.