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.