Posts Tagged ‘General Mitsuru Ushijima’

The Japanese defense on the island of Okinawa was different than most of the islands taken by the U.S. in the Pacific War.  The defenders, rather than attack in massed banzai charges, had chosen to utilize the terrain and the strength of underground fortifications to wage a battle of attrition against their invading foes.

Keep in mind that the Japanese leadership, for the most part, knew the war was lost.  Strategically, they were now fighting a battle to prevent an invasion of mainland Japan.  The method of choice was to extract as much blood as possible from U.S. soldiers as they approached.  To this point, the plan had been executed brilliantly on Okinawa, but not all in the Okinawan ranks approved of such tactics.  General Mitsuru Ushijima, in overall command of the island’s forces, was flanked by two vastly opposing viewpoints.  On the one side was the Chief of Staff, General Isamu Cho, who lived the code of the samurai and constantly sought to attack and die with glory.  On the other stood planning officer Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, architect of the island’s defense.  Yahara was the realist of the bunch, and knew that wearing down the opposition was the only possible way to save the homeland.

So there was constant dissension.  Cho accused Yahara of being soft, and Yahara countered with accusations of recklessness against Cho.  On April 29th, Emperor Hirohito’s birthday, an officers’ meeting saw Cho unveil plans for a daring counterattack.  Yahara strongly disagreed, arguing that way too many men would be sacrificed to no good end.  But the officers, aided by the liquid courage that sake so easily provided, quickly fell in step with Cho.  Ushijima agreed to the attacks.

At 4:30am on May 4, 1945, a massive Japanese artillery barrage served as the wake-up call for U.S. soldiers dug in north of Shuri Castle, the main Japanese stronghold.  And thousands of troops followed.  But the Japanese counterattack faltered just hours after starting, for much the same reason the U.S. troops had trouble advancing…the terrain.  The natural defenses which so helped the Japanese were now allied with their opposition.  Fighting would continue throughtout day, into the night, and even into May 5th.

But this battle had been lost for the Japanese.  An estimated 6,000 soldiers were killed in about 24 hours.  And the battle going on between Cho and Yahara had been decisively lost by Cho as well.  There would be small, piece-meal counterattacks here and there throughtout the struggle, but the massed banzai charges were finished.

Recommended Reading: The Battle For Okinawa – I’ve recommended Yahara’s book before, but it deserves mention again, because I think it really shows the tensions Yahara faced with Cho and the other officers.  And it’s just a very good read.


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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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