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May 28, 2018

The Bloody Chaos of Okinawa

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Today we want to share a guest post for Memorial Day from BRAVO! friend and supporter, Cobb Hammond. Cobb writes about military history for his home town newspaper, the MEMPHIS COMMERCIAL APPEAL.

As we commemorate Memorial Day, 2018, many may recall a battle a family member may have been wounded or killed in, or themselves a vet, may have lost a comrade in arms. It should be refreshed in our consciousness that our WW II veterans are dwindling in number, and on this weekend of remembrance it should be incumbent upon us to recognize a battle raging 73 years ago this month; The Campaign at Okinawa.

This last battle of the War was not only the bloodiest of the Pacific theater but exhibited some of the most brutal and horrific fighting and battle conditions of the war; in that this was the first allied incursion on what was considered Japanese soil. This invasion was the first step in what was the initial phase before the eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands. The island of Okinawa was only 350 miles south of mainland Japan and was 463 miles square. It was populated by nearly half a million civilians and some 155 thousand Japanese troops of the infantry, air corps, and the navy, of which 80 thousand were front-line infantry troops. The strategic planning of the Japanese leadership before battle was to concentrate troops in several sectors that offered the most efficient use of troops—as well as the idea of inflicting the highest possible damage on US troops as they advanced.

Northern Okinawa was defended by one-division, whereas the more challenging terrain of the south was defended by 3 additional divisions- as well as multiple specialized brigades. This area was turned into four heavily fortified, ‘hedgehog’ defense sectors, taking tactical advantage of the topography, and the dense emplacement of artillery and mortars made it the highest concentration of fire the enemy used in the Pacific War.

Marines in Okinawa, 1945. Photo from Department of Defense Archives.

The ideal defense employed by the Japanese commanders, were to allow all US ground troops to move well-inland, and then to defend every crag-laden hill, ridge line and ravine as our forces moved forward. This was a totally different strategy of previous island battles such as Iwo Jima and Tarawa, where the beaches themselves were heavily contested. Seemingly every ridge and hill contained natural caves and promontories; which typically had artillery encased inside steel doors and machine gun emplacements pointing down the fingers and draws of the hills.

As the battle commenced on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, the two Marine divisions, plus a regiment landed on the central and eastern part of the island and attacked on a northerly axis, whereas the initial two army divisions wheeled south across the narrow waist of Okinawa. The Army’s 96 Inf. Division began to encounter fierce resistance from enemy troops on those rocky ridges very soon, as it slowly moved south. The Army’s 27th division landed on 9 April and took over the right, or western-side of the push south. There were now three army divisions attacking here.

Enhancing the difficulty of the battle were the spring monsoon rains, which started in mid-April and didn’t let up until early June. The American foot soldier and marine became mired in mud and flooded roads, exacerbating the ability to supply men, evacuate wounded and navigating the steepening terrain.

As Marine Corps regiments moved forward abreast, going to the aid of the army divisions pulled off the line for a brief respite, they—as their army brethren, encountered fanatical resistance from the Japanese defenders. Later, in the largest ‘banzai’ attack of the war, some 2,500 Japanese were killed, with some of the fighting devolving into hand to hand combat. As of now, five US Divisions were fighting south by southwest—going against these formidable defenses, footnoting places embedded in the memories of the brave souls doing the fighting, and now infamous in military lore. Names such as Sugar Loaf Hill, where 1,600 marines were killed and 7,400 wounded; Hacksaw Ridge- recently immortalized on screen, telling the story of Medal of Honor recipient Desmond Doss—and the formidable Shuri Line, where the Japanese planned their last defense in a series of ridgelines and strong points, taking the better part of a month to extinguish the enemy resistance. Fighting was so prolonged and intense in this area, that casualty counts are unable to be accurate, however it safe to say, tens of thousands of Japanese and easily over ten-thousand US troops became casualties of some sort.

Guest blogger Cobb Hammond.

Not to be forgotten, was the intense combat at sea just miles offshore, as Japanese ships and kamikaze planes attacked US naval forces mercifully for weeks, with some 36 US ships sunk with another 380 damaged, as thousands of enemy pilots went down in fiery deaths. The morbid toll of he battle, which ended unceremoniously on June 22, 1945 was five-thousand naval personnel, 4,600 army and 3,200 US Marines, with total wounded exceeding forty-thousand. It should be noted that the Battle for Okinawa had more cases of combat fatigue and mental breakdown than any other battle of the entire Pacific War, as thousands were taken off the line- simply unable to continue. Japanese losses run as high as 140 thousand killed and additional one-hundred thousand civilians unfortunately perished in the crossfire of this hell. Denoting the widespread ferocity and valor exhibited in this campaign, 24 Medals of Honor were awarded; 14 posthumously, including one Tennessean. It should also be highlighted that the recent death of a friend of this writer, Memphis native William Phillips of the 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division was a participant in this campaign.

As we contemplate this solemn weekend, shall we remember the sacrifice of so many on the bloodied rocky dirt of Okinawa.

Cobb Hammond is a financial advisor with Hammond Financial Advisory/Money Concepts, Inc. He writes on military history and composes short stories as a hobby. You can reach Cobb at chammond40@yahoo.com.

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