- Historic Sites
The End On Okinawa
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. The invasion of Okinawa began before dawn with two Army and two Marine divisions abreast, a column of landing craft eight miles long bucking and pitching through rough seas toward the beaches. It would be the last battle of World War II, the greatest land, sea, and air battle of all time. And the bloodiest.
A combined 125,000 Americans and Japanese died in the fighting, with tens of thousands of Okinawan civilian casualties. Thousands of suicide missions were flown against more than 1,400 American ships anchored offshore. Many were hit. The unbelievable tenacity of the Japanese army and the sickening casualty count of military and civilians surely influenced President Truman’s decision to drop the atom bomb.
Okinawa was to be the staging area for the invasion of Japan about four hundred miles north. Its capture was not a campaign of brilliant strategy, maneuvering armies, swift end runs, surprise troop deployment. It couldn’t be. It was straight-ahead foot-soldier combat on the southernmost twenty miles or so of a rugged island only a few miles wide. It was courageous companies, platoons, and individual men doing the job one small piece at a time, day after day and night after night, when the Japanese crept out of their caves to attack, eighty-two days of constant exhaustion and terror, casualties steadily grinding down combat units. It never stopped. The devastation was so total that I did not see a whole building anyplace on the southern third of that tragic island from the time I landed until I flew out on a hospital plane for Guam. The official announcement of the end of the campaign called it “the toughest fighting American ground troops have ever known.”
In the last few days of the campaign the bone-weary, decimated 7th Division paused for a breather. We had come to Okinawa directly from five months of combat on Leyte in the Philippines. Now whatever was left of the Japanese army, whatever ground had to be taken, was between us and the southern tip of the island, which we could almost see. The north end of Mabuni Hill, hill 89 (elevation eighty-nine feet), shaped like a short loaf of French bread, was in the way, about a half-mile across a field.
Our small Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) detachment included Miles Matsumoto, a Hawaiian-born Nisei who had been a student at the Tokyo Technical Institute when he caught the last boat to Honolulu before Pearl Harbor. He was a great interpreter and translator, the very best. If he had missed that boat, he would have been drafted into the Japanese army. From interrogations of prisoners, Miles learned that General Ushijima, in command of the Japanese 32d Army, his chief of staff, General Cho, and the entire general staff were in a cave on the south end of Mabuni.
It is no longer clear to me how it came about that three of us in the CIC detachment—Bill Attwood from New York City, Miles, and I—would cross the field to Mabuni, work along its ridge to the south end, find the cave, and capture the command of the Japanese 32d Army. Or so we thought. It was our idea; nobody told us to do it. Like everything else throughout the campaign, we just did it. But for something like that we must have spoken to the G-2, and he probably said, without thinking it through any more than we had, “Go ahead if you think you can do it.”
Early the next morning, June 21, the three of us plus two Okinawan boetai (work battalion) who knew the way and a chui set off across the field. We had captured the chui , a first lieutenant in Japanese intelligence, early in the campaign. Chui is Japanese for “first lieutenant.” An intelligent man with a commanding presence, he was not eager to die for the emperor. He quickly discovered that prisoners were well treated, given medical attention, food, and clothes. He knew defeat was inevitable, so he made it his mission, working with our detachment, to save as many of his countrymen as he could by persuading them to surrender. He saved many and no doubt some GIs in the bargain. He was frustrated and angry whenever he failed.
We had no lights with us in the cave, but we needed none to understand the incredible, gruesome scene at our feet.
We made it easily to the near end of Mabuni behind a bulldozer, its blade raised as a kind of shield since we were easy targets in an open field. The bulldozer operator waved good-bye, wished us luck, and rumbled away quickly. We followed a trail up the hill onto a wooded ridge, then along it silently, cautiously, Indian file, stopping frequently to listen for human sounds.
Nothing. The Okinawans and the chui were unarmed. Bill, Miles, and I carried our carbines in a ready position. Ready for what? We were more than halfway to the end.
Suddenly, twenty yards ahead, a shell burst, then another, and another—fire from a knee mortar, a lightweight, very short-range Japanese infantry weapon. They were right there! How many? Instinct said run, and we didn’t argue. As we took off, another round burst close enough to flatten Bill, Miles, and me; the chui and the Okinawans ahead of us kept running. Bill was stunned momentarily when his helmeted head hit a rock, but luckily there was no real injury, only a few mortar fragments I caught in the neck. We made it to the trail, scrambled down, and hustled across the field to safety. The medics picked some metal out of my neck and patched me up.