Before it began, Okinawa was a lush island 60 miles long, filled with 400,000 civilians and around 110,000 Japanese soldiers. The battle took place on the heels of Iwo Jima. It would be the largest air, land, and sea battle of the entire war. Its outcome would shape how the US and the British were going to end the war in the Pacific. For HBO’s The Pacific, episode 9 takes place here. From April 1, 1945 to June 22, 1945, over 240,000 people on the island would die.
Ryukyu is a chain of islands south of Japan. Once the US was able to take the island, it would serve as a base of operations for air, land, and sea forces. The battle of Okinawa would be more like Saipan than it would be Iwo Jima. The
Island Hopping strategy foreseen many years before had now reached the doorstep of the home islands of Japan. Okinawa was Japan. The Operation would be given the code name Iceberg. Iwo Jima was to be taken to protect the right flank of the American forces. The five weeks of fighting there stalled the invasion of Okinawa by a month. Once taken, the airstrips at Iwo Jima began strafing Okinawa. The US was well aware the war was nearing an end. How would Okinawa play into the endgame?
L-Day took place on April 1. The US stormed ashore with 183,000 men. The goal was to divide the island between the US Marines and the US Army. The Marines were to take the north and the Army would take the south. Japanese Genral Mitsuru Ushijima had moved the bulk of his forces to the southern end of the island. Within 3 weeks the Marines had secured the northern end of the island.
From April 24 on, it was an uphill grind to take out the Japanese. With over 1400 ships aiding the American forces offshore, the Japanese began to use Kamikaze attacks on the American ships. But by this point in the war, the Japanese ability to make war in the air and at sea had been utterly destroyed. The Kamikaze did more damage than any shell could.
When word of the German surrender on May 8 came to Okinawa, Eugene Sledge said:
Nazi Germany might as well have been on the moon. On Okinawa no one cared much. We were resigned only to the fact that the Japanese would fight to total extinction as they had elsewhere, and that Japan would have to be invaded with the same gruesome prospects.
In mid-May, the wet season arrived to Okinawa. The battlefield turned to muck. Tanks were made almost useless. But the fighting continued. One hill, Sugarloaf, exchanged hands 14 times. It wasn’t just the soldiers the US had to deal with, but the civilians were brought into “hell’s own cesspool.” It is estimated that around 120,000 civilians were killed on Okinawa.
The Japanese also had cave complexes just like other Pacific battles. An estimated 20,000 Japanese soldiers are buried alive in the caves. Flamethrowers, grenades and tanks entombed them. By late May, the Marines took Sugarloaf for good and broke the Shuri (Japanese) Line and moved into Naha and took Shuri Castle, the HQ of Ushijima.
Just like at Saipan, many of the Japanese civilians committed suicide. In addition, Ushijima committed Seppuku. The civilians were starving and the Japanese were running out of supplies. The Japanese fought nearly to the last man. The US lost 12,000+ in combat and over 38,000 wounded in addition to another 33,000 suffering from disease and combat fatigue.
Six weeks after Okinawa was over, plans for X-Day were being finalized, the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Okinawa may have hastened the use of atomic weapons as the staggering toll on military and civilian casualties was astounding. When news of surrender reached the 1st Marine Division (The Old Breed), Eugene Sledge was stunned. He states:
We thought the Japanese would never surrender. Many refused to believe it. Sitting in stunned silence, we remembered our dead. So many dead. So many maimed. So many bright futures consigned to the ashes of the past. So many dreams lost in the madness that had engulfed us. Except for a few widely scattered shouts of joy, the survivors of the abyss sat hollow-eyed and silent, trying to comprehend a world without war.
Okinawa was the last battle of World War II. For many of the soldiers, they would head home and try to make some sense of why they lived through the war. And, to try to live in a peace they created.
Sidney Phillips plays a huge role in The Pacific. he is often seen in the introduction to each episode talking about the war, the conditions and the physical and mental toll the war took on these men and women who served. As a member of the first marines on Guadalcanal, Phillips knew both of the main characters of the Pacific in Leckie and Sledge. Sledge was his best friend in childhood and Leckie was in his unit. He states:
Robert was nobody. Eugene was nobody. Just so happens they wrote these incredible books. Now Sledge is dead and Leckie is dead. I’m all that’s left. Those Hollywood producers were so excited to learn I was still around.
Leckie’s book, A Helmet for a Pillow was published in 1957. Sledge’s With the Old Breed did not see the light of day until 1981. The Pacific is mostly based on these two books.