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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.