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'We Began to Dare to Think of Going Home': Saul David on the Battle of Okinawa

Posted on 30th April 2020 by Mark Skinner

Detailed, gripping and unflinching, Saul David's monumental Crucible of Hell explores the 1945 battle of Okinawa – the bloodiest of US operations in the Pacific and one of the most destructive battles in modern memory. As we prepare to celebrate VE Day, David's exclusive essay is a sobering reminder that whilst the war in Europe may have ended on 8 May 1945, the war in the Pacific was still raging.

Just over 75 years ago – on 1 April, 1945 – American troops invaded the 70-mile long island of Okinawa in the largest amphibious operation of the Pacific War. It was the last great clash of the Second World War, and one that would have profound consequences for the modern world.

The battle lasted for 83 blood-soaked days as the fighting plumbed depths of savagery as bad as anything seen on the Eastern Front. In that time, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt died, the war in Europe ended, and more than 250,000 people lost their lives on or near Okinawa, the most southerly of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures. The dead included the vast majority of the 110,000 Japanese and Okinawan defenders, most of whom refused to surrender; 12,500 American servicemen (out of total casualties of 70,000), making it by far the bloodiest US battle of the Pacific, and one of the costliest in the country’s history; and, most tragically, 125,000 Okinawan civilians – a third of the pre-war population – who were either caught in the cross-fire or believed Japanese propaganda that it was better to commit mass suicide than be raped and murdered by the Amerians.

Among the fatalities were both field commanders: Lieutenant General Buckner was killed by Japanese shellfire as he observed an attack on 18 June (the joint most senior American officer to die in the war); his Japanese counterpart, Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima, committed ritual suicide four days later. The non-combatant casualties included the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondsent Ernie Pyle who was killed by a sniper.

The fighting witnessed many acts of suicidal courage, notably the mass attacks on the US Fifth Fleet by hundreds of kamikaze planes flown by officers of the Tokkatai, the Special Attack Force, who had pledged to ‘crash their airplanes into enemy ships in acts of self-immolation’; and the one way mission, known as Operation ‘Ten-go’, by the superbattleship Yamato, the world’s largest, to wreak havoc among the American ships with its 18-inch guns before beaching itself on the shore and using its crew as naval infantry. Both failed in their objectives, though they did sink 36 US ships and damage a further 368, the heaviest US naval losses of the war.

But even more than the appalling ferocity of the fighting, it is the far-reaching consequences of the battle that make it one of the most significiant in world history.  On 18 June, with the Japanese resistance on Okinawa all but broken, new US President Harry S. Truman met his military chiefs to discuss Japan’s unconditional surrender. The only way to achieve this, said the US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, was to invade Japan’s home islands in two phases. Up to a million casualties were expected.

Was there any alternative? asked Truman. Yes, said Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy. To threaten to use the newly-developed atom bomb; and if the threat was ignored, to drop it on a Japanese city.

Truman did just that. His decision to use the atom bomb was directly influenced by the bloodbath on Okinawa. He feared that an invasion of Japan would look like ‘Okinawa from one end of Japan to the other’, and that it would cost the US millions of American dead and wounded. It would also kill countless Japanese soldiers and civilians. ‘My object,’ wrote Truman, ‘is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a human feeling for the women and children of Japan.’

The first bomb – ‘Little Boy’ – was dropped by the US B-29 superfortress Enola Gay on Hiroshima on August 6. A second bomb – ‘Fat Man’ – exploded in Nagasaki three days later. The combined dead from the bombs were 200,000 Japanese, mostly civilians; an appalling total, but less than the number killed on Okinawa, and a fraction of those who would have died if the US had invaded mainland Japan. Such a desperate course of action was no longer necessary. Japan sued for peace on August 10, much to the delight and relief of most Americans. “Our hopes had been dashed so often,” recalled Lieutenant Bruce Watkins, “that it took several days to absorb the impact of this event. Relief flooded slowly into our veins and we began to dare to think of going home.”

Truman himself never doubted he had done the right thing. “I knew what I was doing,” he wrote in 1963, “when I stopped the war that would have killed a half-million youngsters on both sides if those bombs had not been dropped.’

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Jill Conway-Fell

Excellent reviews View more

Jill Conway-Fell
5th June 2020
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