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The End On Okinawa

June 2024
7min read

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.

The next morning we tried again (the Okinawans extremely reluctant, but they had no choice) behind the bulldozer, up the trail, then very slowly along the ridge. No fire. We pushed farther. No fire. No sound. Then, all the way to the end, where a knob of rock thrust upward, the highest point on Mabuni. The Okinawans led us cautiously around the knob and down onto a ledge, where they stopped. They were very frightened. They pointed to the back side of the knob, and there it was, the cave, just as they had said. They wanted to leave.

The cave opening (Okinawa is covered with caves, some wandering underground endlessly) was less than three feet wide, not as tall as a man. We were very quiet, barely whispering. There was no sign of any Japanese, no sound. A crude wooden door was propped against the entrance.

We worked as close as we could get while trying to hold some cover, and the chui called into the cave. No reply. He tried again, and again, each time something different. Silence. We assumed the wooden door was booby-trapped, so we tried dropping rocks onto it from above, hoping to knock it over or set off the trap. Nothing happened. We were getting a little bolder. We found a long, heavy electrical wire, which I tossed at the door, hoping to lasso a corner. It finally caught securely enough for me to pull it over while keeping myself more or less defiladed behind a rock. No booby trap.

We inched toward the entrance and ducked our heads to walk in. We could see some twenty-five feet or so to the first bend. We had no lights, but we needed none to understand the incredible, gruesome scene at our feet. The entire general staff in dress uniform, one behind the other, all facing the same way, had committed hara-kiri, and very recently. Generals Ushijima and Cho were not among them. We were stunned, overwhelmed. After one glance the Okinawans took off. The chui , shaking with emotion, was completely silent and remained so for a very long time. We had almost nothing to say to one another. What was there to say? It was not believable. We had found the cave but felt more horrified and revolted than triumphant. With no desire to look further, we gathered a few important-looking documents, took two sabers, mine from the officer the chui thought to be Ushijima’s adjutant. With great relief we pushed rapidly down the ridge, where we found the Okinawans huddled in the bushes.

A few days later Miles somehow got hold of a remarkable document written by a sergeant assigned to the Japanese general staff. The sergeant had managed to get himself captured rather than killed—not an easy thing to do. Had somebody else handled that paper, it probably would have been ignored, but Miles recognized it as extraordinary. With great emotion and very poetically, the sergeant had described the last minutes and hara-kiri rites of Generals Ushijima and Cho. Miles put it into English. It was entered into the official records of the campaign.

With great emotion and very poetically, the sergeant had described the hara-kiri rites of the two Japanese generals.

It began: “The pale moon glimmered on the peaceful sea, dawn was yet away.” The sergeant then told how the generals, after a special dinner that the staff attended, excused themselves, thanked the staff officers “in a fatherly manner” for their services, and bade them farewell. As they walked calmly out of the cave, General Cho said, “Well, Commanding General Ushijima, as the way may be dark, I, Cho, will lead the way.” Ushijima, perfectly composed, replied, “Please do so, and I will take along my fan since it is getting warm.” They passed through the cave entrance and onto the ledge and carefully arranged a white sheet on the ground. The short blade, the upper half wrapped in cloth, was handed to Ushijima by his adjutant. He took it in both hands. With a shout he thrust it in, ripping upward. He was fifty-one years old. General Cho was next. It was 4:00 A.M. , June 22, 1945.

Thus the Okinawa campaign ended on Mabuni. Staff officers carried the two bodies down the hillside toward the sea and buried them in shallow graves, where they were found a few days later by the 7th Division GIs. We had been just a few hours too late getting to the cave.

I have often thought about that escapade. Why did we do it? What did we expect to accomplish? Nobody asked that question; we never asked it of ourselves. What would have happened had we made it to the cave the first day? The chui would have persuaded the generals and. their staff to surrender to three GIs with three carbines? Utterly senseless. Insane.

When I returned to Okinawa a few years ago, the ridge along Mabuni was covered with shrines erected by cities and prefectures of Japan memorializing their war dead. It is a big tourist attraction. I looked at the field we had walked across, now a cane field, asked myself why we had done it. I could find no rational answer. I sat alone on the ledge in front of the cave, the entrance now secured with an iron gate, staring for a long, long time, my gaze wandering from the cave to the peaceful sea. What was I thinking? What was I feeling? The emotions were powerful, but I could not decipher them. Anger, hate, satisfaction, joy, sadness, regret? None of that. I just don’t know. All I could do was shake my head slowly and repeat, “What a crazy thing to do.”

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