Archive for April 1st, 2008

The capture of Iwo Jima in March had been a real boon to the U.S. Army Air Force.  The ability to provide fighter escort to bombers attacking mainland Japan was a huge asset to the war effort.  But the next target was all about the Navy.  As the largest of the Ryukyu islands, Okinawa provided great staging areas for large numbers of ships.  And with the U.S. military already planning a sea-borne invasion of mainland Japan, the 450+ square miles of land were a valuable target.

For the Japanese, Okinawa was the last line of defense for the mainland.  Situated just 400 miles south of Japan, General Mitsuru Ushijima knew that the island-hopping tactics of the U.S. stopped here…there were no more islands to hop.  He also knew the war was lost for his country, but he had been tasked with inflicting as many U.S. casualties as possible.

To that end, Ushijima largely conceded the beaches and most of the island to his foe, choosing instead to marshall more than 100,000 soldiers into the cliffs and hills in the southern point of the island.  Having been garrisoned here in force for only a year, frantic preparations had been undertaken by the troops.  As a result, Japanese defenses were, almost without question, the most elaborate yet seen, with complex tunnel systems, hidden tanks, and camouflaged artillery positions.  Fields of fire had been worked out well in advance, and nearly every approach to the Japanese strongholds sat squarely in a vicious crossfire.

The U.S. approached the island with a vast armada of 1,300 ships, nearly every battleship available in the arsenal, and 18 aircraft carriers.  The assault force was comprised of the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions with the 2nd held as reserve (if you recall, the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Marine Divisions had just finished fighting at Iwo Jima).  Four infantry divisions (the 7th and 96th with the 27th as a reserve and the 77th available if needed) supplemented the assault team…nearly 200,000 men in total.  Overall command of the action, code-named Operation Iceberg, was given to Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., son of Simon Bolivar Buckner, Sr., a Confederate General in the Civil War.

For more than a week, Navy guns and planes shelled, strafed, and bombed the island in preparation for the invasion and, on April 1, 1945, the assault troops boarded their landing craft, made their way to the beaches, and disembarked…to relative silence and serenity.  Was this some sort of cruel April Fool’s Day joke?  Were the Japanese busy celebrating Easter, which fell on this day?

The soldiers would learn soon enough.  This was merely the calm before a storm of epic proportions.

Recommended Reading: The Battle for Okinawa – The story of the battle, told from one of the few surviving Japanese officers. If you read two accounts of Okinawa, this should be one of them.

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