April 1, 1945
American Marine on Okinawa, running through Japanese fire
For most of us, April Fool’s Day means funny pranks and jokes.
But imagine spending that day heading toward an enemy beach head in landing crafts, while bullets zing over past your head and explosions blast the water on both sides. If you survived long enough to reach the beach, you still didn’t know if you’d live to see nightfall.
That was what April Fool’s Day, 1945 was like for the American troops landing on Okinawa Island.
Located just 360 miles from mainland Japan, this island would put the American forces on the enemy's doorstep. But the island also had 130,000 Japanese soldiers stationed there. And they weren’t about to let the Americans reach their homeland.
So the American military amassed Task Force 58, led by General Simon Bolivar Buckner.
This battle would involve more ships, guns, supplies and troops that any other Pacific battle.
It was also the bloodiest
Japanese Lt. General Mitsuru Ushijima and his men were desperate to keep the island. But oddly, the first landings were as quiet as those first landings on Guadalcanal, because Ushijima knew that meeting the heavily-armed American force on flat ground would be disastrous. His defensive plan focused on Okinawa’s southern end where he could use the ridges, caves, and hills to his advantage. That meant the marines and army troops were able to establish a wide beachhead and capture Okinawa’s two airfields.
But Ushijima formed two defensive lines which he called the Machinato and the Shuri. Even if he couldn’t win this battle, he planned to stall the Americans long enough for Japan to train its civilians for an invasion. Every Japanese citizen--old men, housewives, children--were being taught how to kill American soldiers using everything from kitchen knives to sharpened pitchforks. Japan also increased its force of Kamikaze suicide pilots to attack the American naval fleet.
During the second week of April, the American army encountered strong resistance at the Machinato Line. The heavily-fortified Japanese troops set up cross-firing machine guns for maximum slaughter. They also placed mortars on the reverse slopes—the opposite side of a ridge or hill--so the attackers couldn’t see them. At Kakazu Ridge alone, more than 1,000 Japanese troops had dug into the reverse slope.
The battle was disastrous.
The Japanese bombarded the Americans with heavy artillery, grenade explosions, and increased machine-gun and mortar fire.
However, many Americans proved themselves to be incredible warriors. Private First Class Edward Moskala charged forty yards straight into two machine guns, lobbing grenades and firing his automatic rifle. He wiped out both nests. When counterattacks from other positions forced his company to withdraw, Moskala and eight other soldiers volunteered to stay behind to cover the company. During three hours of heavy fighting, Moskala killed more than twenty-five Japanese soldiers. He and the other Americans made it down the ridge to a gorge— only to discover that a group of wounded American troopers had been left behind. Moskala volunteered to stay with the wounded while the others found better positions. Protecting the disabled, Moskala killed four enemy infiltrators. When he saw another wounded American, Moskala ran to his rescue.
However, he was fired on and killed. Moskala was later awarded the Medal of Honor.
In contrast, the Japanese soldiers showed little concern for their comrades, or the citizens on Okinawa. The soldiers used local people as human shields, and murdered others without remorse. Okinawans who survived WWII later gave testimony describing how the Japanese military confiscated their food and executed anyone who tried to hide it. Many civilians died of starvation. The Japanese soldiers also told the civilians that the American soldiers would rape and kill them, so many of these people committed suicide. Some Japanese historians continue to dispute these facts, but one of Okinawa’s major newspapers reported how the Japanese army gave civilians grenades and ordered them to commit suicide.
As the marines pushed through Okinawa, they discovered ordinary people too old and infirm to fight. The Japanese army often executed these people or encouraged them to commit suicide. So when the citizens met the American soldiers, they were surprised by their humane treatment.
Marine Corporal Fenwick Dunn of Lynn, Massachusetts, shares candy from his K ration with an elderly Okinawa woman.
As the fighting continued, the Machinato Line proved difficult to break. General Buckner came ashore and added another army division to the fight. He devised a three-pronged attack: send one division straight up the middle of the line, while two others attack from the east and west.
This confrontation led to the heaviest-concentrated artillery bombardment in the Pacific War. The artillery alone fired 20,000 shells, with added gunfire from six battleships, six cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. The massive destruction allowed the army to push through an inlet and get a few miles behind the line before flanking it.
By the end of April, the Americans finally controlled the Machinato Line.
They then moved for the Shuri Line, where the battle was locked at Kochi Ridge.
Once again, Ushijima used smart defensive tactics against the American infantry, artillery, and tanks. But his officers wanted to move from defense to offense, so on May 4th, the Japanese launched an attack against the Marine 1st Division.
But the marines cut down the Japanese, taking out about 2,000 enemy soldiers.
When Ushijima’s counterattack failed on all fronts, he was forced to withdraw his troops, leaving an eight-mile path in the Shuri Line.
However, at the eastern end of the island, Americans were paying dearly for another ridge called Ishimmi. An army unit of 204 men attacked it but heavy Japanese fire left them stranded. Following an all-night battle, ammunition supplies ran short. By the third day, when reinforcements reached them, only 156 of the original 204 soldiers remained. The rest were either dead or severely wounded.
The marines were once again tested trying to break through on Dakeshi Ridge. Three days of constant artillery and crossfire allowed them to move forward, yard by yard, until finally the marines conquered the ridge.
Although exhausted, they pushed on to Wana Ridge and Wana Draw, meeting the same murderous fire that ripped through the air from a hundred different locations. Bodies covered the ground, irretrievable because of the crossfire. The marines kept fighting.
Now Ushijima was running low on ammo. He pulled his troops back from Wana Draw and other Shuri lines.
All that remained was a perilous hill called Sugar Loaf, rising seventy-five feet. Another hill named Horse Shoe rose nearby, with Half Moon Hill on the other side. And beneath them all was a bowl of death.
The 6th Marine division demolition crew destroys a Japanese cave on Okinawa, May 1945.
For an entire week, the battle consisted of marines charging up Sugar Loaf and getting pushed back by the Japanese. One night, as the marines were ordered to hold in static defense on the hill, Major Henry Courtney, Jr. made a decision.
“Men,” he said, “if we don’t take the top of this hill tonight, the Japanese will be down here to drive us away in the morning [but] when we go up there, some of us are never going to come down again.”
Courney asked for volunteers to charge the hilltop.
All forty-four of his men volunteered.
Moving forward, the men blasted nearby cave positions and neutralized enemy guns. When they reached the top, Courney instantly attacked—killing many of the enemy, and forcing the remainder to take cover in the caves. Eventually, heavy mortar and artillery fire killed most of them, including Major Courney who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. But his leadership and courageous action contributed to the success of the Okinawa Campaign.
By mid-May, both Half Moon Hill and Sugar Loaf were in the hands of American forces.
By the end of May, monsoon rains were turning Okinawa's flat lands into mud pits, which worsened both tactical and medical situations. Vehicles got stuck in the flooded roads. The battlefields were littered with unburied Japanese and American soldiers. Maggots even began invading the living soldier’s uniforms.
Ushijima was cornered in his last outpost on the end of the island.
On June 4th, part of the 6th Marine Division launched an amphibious assault. After several days of fighting, some 4,000 Japanese sailors, including an admiral, committed suicide inside the tunnels beneath naval headquarters.
On June 18th, General Buckner was killed by artillery fire. He was the highest-ranking American killed in action during WWII.
When Ushijima's chief of staff, Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, asked permission to commit suicide, Ushijima told him: “If you die, there will be no one left who knows the truth about the battle of Okinawa. Bear the temporary shame but endure it. This is an order from your army commander.”
Then Ushijima committed suicide by Hari Kari.
In late June, the last of the Japanese resistance finally fell.
The American troops had won the Battle of Okinawa.
But it was the bloodiest conflict in the entire Pacific War.
More than 100,000 Japanese troops, along with as many civilians, were dead.
More than 3,000 American marines were killed, and 13,700 wounded. The army lost 4,600 soldiers, with 18,000 wounded. The navy lost 5,000 sailors, and 4,900 were wounded.
The Allied force also lost more than 400 vessels that were damaged or sunk.
The victory was a win for the Americans, no doubt. But now the Americans faced the prospect of losing even more troops. The next step would be an invasion of the Japanese mainland.
If that happened, Japanese civilians and troops alike would fight the Americans to the bitter end, creating enormous casualties on both sides.
Before there was the Internet or satellites or television, Americans learned about WWII from newspapers and magazines. Reporters, called war correspondents, risked their lives staying close to the soldiers so they could bring back the “real story” for their publications.
Probably the most famous reporter during WWII was Ernie Pyle. He was among the first correspondents to focus on the common soldier, instead of only reporting about the generals or the military’s larger developments.
But before going into the Battle of Okinawa, Pyle had premonitions about his own death. He went anyway.
Just west of Okinawa, Pyle was riding in a jeep with several troops on Ie Island. The road had been cleared of mines, and hundreds of vehicles had already driven over it. But suddenly Japanese troops opened up with machine gun fire from a coral ridge. Pyle was struck in the left temple and died instantly.
One of Pyle’s most famous newspaper stories was “The Death of Captain Waskow.” You can read that column here.
FIND OUT MORE:
Heroes Don't Run: A Novel of the Pacific War by Harry Mazer
World War II Warships by Batchelor
Voices of the Pacific: Untold Stories from the Marine Heroes of World War II by Adam Makos, Marcus Brotherton
World War II Battles and Leaders DK Publishing
The National Museum of the Pacific War offers more information, including virtual tours of some of its exhibits, such as a Japanese miniature submarine.
You can watch video footage of the Battle of Okinawa, including watching dive-bombers attacking American ships, at the History.com website.
Lastly, check with your parents first before watching this film clip of soldiers fighting The Battle of Okinawa.
Okinawa: The Last Battle (History Channel)
Hell to Eternity