The Battle of Okinawa was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War of World War II. On June 21, 1945, after 82 days of battle, the Japanese troops were defeated. This was not intended to be the final major battle of World War II, only the staging ground for the Allied invasion of Japan. The ferocity of the fighting on Okinawa, combined with the massive number of casualties, forced American strategists to seek alternative means for ending the war, as the destruction on Okinawa would surely have paled in comparison to any invasion of the Japanese home islands. The following article, originally published in the January 1946 issue of Proceedings, gives a personal account of the assault on Okinawa.
By Captain E. E. Paro, U.S. Navy
The High councils of war had reached a decision. They were in agreement and a directive was issued for a proposed amphibious operation in the Pacific.
There were many assumptions in the directive and the operation was to accomplish certain very desirable military objectives which later unfolded themselves but which are not discussed herein.
The target selected was Okinawa Shima in the Ryukyus. Information on this island was sketchy to say the least but its geographical location was very clear and definite. It is located 325 miles from the Japanese home island of Kyushu, 400 miles from Shanghai and about the same distance from Formosa. The directive stated that fanatical and determined air opposition by the entire Japanese air force could be expected. It was known that the Japanese had in existence certain paratroop units which would probably be employed, enemy surface naval opposition was a threat, and enemy troop reinforcements could be expected from any of the localities mentioned above. The target was heavily garrisoned and completely ringed by prepared enemy defense positions of great strength and in depth. It had a native population of 440,000 all of which must be assumed to be hostile. The terrain was exceedingly adaptable to defense, particularly in the northern and extreme southern positions of the island. The beaches were few and these were fringed by rough coral heads, and the depth of the water over them was unknown. The weather could be expected to be stormy for at least 20 per cent of the time and the island lay in the center of the path of most of the typhoons, which were frequent and severe.
The directive added a bit of the “Chamber of Commerce” touch. Okinawa, it informed us, was intensively cultivated with many small farms. The principal crops were sugar cane and sweet potatoes, none of which were edible because they were fertilized with “night soil” which is a polite name for human excretion. There were many tombs of rock construction which would lend themselves to machine gun nests and strong points. Of potable drinking water there was none. Such diseases as leprosy, typhus, malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, plague, and dengue could be contracted with ease. As an added attraction, there were snakes. The death rate among the native population from this source alone was exceedingly high. To be bitten by one of these reptiles meant certain death within one half hour and our men of medicine had no antidote for their poison.
All in all, it appeared to be quite likely that the forces assigned to the capture of this island were in for a rather brisk time. One might have gone so far as to say they were going to have a hell of a hot time.
The code name assigned the operation was surprisingly enough “Iceberg.” D-Day, the day of the landing, was to be known as “Love Day,” and the target date was to be April 1, 1945. Now April 1, as anyone who knows anything knows, is April Fools’ Day, and as an added touch the calendar declared it was also to be Easter morning. An Easter parade on southern Japan.
That little sum of ingredients was to brew trouble for someone. The Tenth Army was to be formed to do the job at hand. We hoped that in some future date we would not be known as the X Army. Then we got busywe got good and busy.
We had been given a tough assignment, a very difficult problem to solve. We were allowed no mistakes and the penalty of failure was the needless sacrifice of the lives of thousands of good, clean, eager American boys. They would go where they were sent and fight to the best of their ability but it was the responsibility of the professionals not only to take the objective assigned but in so doing to save the lives of as many of our youngsters as we possibly could. This was a powerful driving incentive which made all those concerned push themselves and their brains to the utmost and beyond. Midnight oil was burned by the ton. No one complained, no one lagged behind. It was a poker game in which the stakes were human lives. The old American tradition of the value of human life early became evident in that along with the primary plan, ways and means were discussed and plans were laid in order that the Japanese civilian population should be spared as much as possible and that their welfare during the assault stages be the best that could be devised.
When a tough nut is to be cracked a large hammer must be employed. This case was no exception. We were given a hammer of such power that even Thor could never have imagined it. Power which was the product of long hours of labor by civilian workers, the best brains of industry, the skill of design engineers, the toil of farmers, of oil field workers, railroad men, and merchant seamen -Americans, great men and small men. It was an American sledge hammer that we were going to throw at the Japanese.
How best to assemble and employ this power was the mission assigned to the major commanders and their staffs. A grim task no matter how it was viewed.
The X Army in this operation was not an orthodox army. It was commanded by the late Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, United States Army, but its assault forces were composed of one half Army and one half Marines and Navy. The General Staff of the X Army was composed of officers and enlisted personnel of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The idea of such an amalgamation is as American as new paint and it should forever remove the last doubt of the average citizen that our Armed Services are not capable of working in unison. They can and have done so with eminent success.
The details of planning such an amphibious operation are of a magnitude such that no human brain could ever be capable of comprehending them in their entirety. Tons of material, thousands of troops, hundreds of ships must be brought to a high state of combat efficiency and transported over thousands of miles of ocean and assembled at a given time in a given place so that no signal for the assault is necessary except merely glancing at a watch at a certain hour on a certain day at a certain minute. The attack was executed to the exact second for which it had been planned months earlier. That is timing, that is organization, that is planning, that is American ability which leaves our enemies in utter dismay, disbelief, and total chaos. It is the tremendous weight of a mighty machine properly employed. It spells peace and the prospect of a better world to come. It makes you feel so very very grateful that you are an American citizen.
Plans, schedules, logistics, combat assembly, combat loading and staging and then, there arrives a time when, for the moment, everything is done. From the highest general and admiral to the newest G.I., Marine, or sailor there is time to catch his breath. Plans are completed and time for the “jump off” has not arrived.
Men have time to think of themselves. What are the folks doing at home? A letter from your wife which expresses the hope that Easter Morning will dawn clear and calm and that one day of well-earned rest will be granted you. The San Francisco radio announces the latest styles in women’s Easter bonnets. Easter hymns are on the air.
But out on the Pacific to those of us in darkened ships, Love-Day and H-Hour of Operation Iceberg was inexorably drawing near. April Fools’ Day and Eastern Morning!
The tempo rises very suddenly to a crescendo. The ship ahead was torpedoed. A Kamikaze crashed an LST loaded with ammunition. Flash!-the first wave of landing parties has hit the beach designated. The second, third, and fourth waves are on their way. No thinking now, action and counteraction by planes and guns, by ships and men.
Progress is reported good. Enemy opposition is surprisingly light. More troops pour ashore. A sky full of planes, large fires on the shore and men in small boats scurrying across the water like ants while the guns of the Fleet shake the earth and sea.
Love plus one day dawns. We have in our possession two airfields and the dust from our bulldozers and heavy construction machinery already rising over the runways. Their operators keep a wary lookout for low flying Jap planes. Night air attacks are frequent and heavy but our artillery, armor, troops, and supplies continue to pour ashore. The beach head is secured and expanded. We are pushing farther and farther inland and wheeling to the south, meeting scattered opposition in sizable pockets which are taken out one by one.
Love plus six and our shore-based fighter planes arrive. Marine fighter pilots eager for action. They have control of the air by day and work can progress more rapidly.
Our front lines are advancing to the southward and finally meet well-organized and strong resistance. There was to be much bitter and bloody fighting but the issue was no longer in doubt. Okinawa will Soon fly the American flag. Our planning had been sound and even brilliant and we had accomplished our mission as well as saved the lives of many thousands of our fighting troops. It was a warm feeling, better than a medal or a citation.
Now we have time to rest and look around. What was this island like, this part of Nippon on which we stood? Who were her people and how did they live?
During lulls in the fighting we had a chance to really survey our surroundings.
Okinawa is very definitely a pretty island. Its tiny terraced fields were well kept and the crops were maturing early. We saw carrots, onions, peas, beans, and even wild strawberries. Remembering the description of how they were grown, I personally left them alone but I saw many G.I.’s concocting tasty stews and hashes with the help of a few cans of C-Rations or even a chicken or two which had inadvertently walked into the pot even though M.P.’s frowned upon such procedure.
The fields roll gently and there were many secondary roads winding along the countryside broken here and there by thatch-roofed farm houses and clumps of really stately pine trees. The climate in April was delightful, the days not too warm and the nights really cold. Two blankets were the order of the night for all those who could manage them.
The hillsides were full of grazing cattle of a breed similar to our own domestic animals. Pigs of all sizes and looking remarkably well fed were very much in evidence. Then too, there were goats-not one goat nor a few goats but hundreds of them. They would walk into your tent or your foxhole and make themselves quite at home. At night when we were on a security watch against snipers and infiltration, the cry of the small goats sounded weird and very much like the cry of a human child in distress.
Upon closer inspection of the picturesque thatch-roofed farm houses one received a shock-an unbelievable shock. It was as if it were possible to reel back the centuries and gaze into the dwellings of the serfs of the Middle Ages. Here was poverty! Here were living conditions which could not be believed. The interior of the houses were almost invariably blackened from the soot of countless charcoal fires burned in braziers or in crude stone fireplaces. A few pitiful household articles lay about abandoned. An undoubtedly cherished set of medieval carpenter tools, a broken dish, a table, no beds and no chairs. The drinking water from the wells made the stomach retch to even look upon it. It was full of crawling things. The sanitation measures were unspeakable.
This, you continually remind yourself, is 1945, a modern age. People can’t live in this fashion, they have not for centuries and they cannot exist-it will kill them all. Then you recall that this is part of a modern empire, these islands are the children of the Sun God. The savior of all the downtrodden Asiatic peoples, the originator of the Society for the Protection of Greater East Asia. This was a part of the Empire of the Rising Sun, our enemy, the Japanese. These isiands were not newly conquered, they have been under Japanese control for almost half a century and they have had every opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of Japan and to take full advantage of Japanese enlightenment and culture. This was Japan.
In the first days of the assault, the entire island was a land of the dead, no human life could be discerned anywhere and it seemed as if the entire land had been returned to the bones and ashes of the many generations of the past. These generations, it was easy to see, lived in death in a much better fashion than they had existed in life. They were housed in ornate urns and buried in palatial tombs, not in one or two scattered cemeteries but whole villages of tombs all of excellent design and construction. Our directive had informed us correctly-there were many tombs and they would have made excellent defensive positions but in only a few cases were they defended.
As a matter of fact, we looked longingly at the thick-walled, heavily domed roofs as an excellent protection against shelling and bombing, but strict orders were issued that they were not to be used in any circumstances. I am sure that many of us digging small foxholes near these tombs would have quite willingly dropped in as an uninvited guest on the bones of some ancient Okinawan at the whistle of a shell or the flutter of a bomb. However, orders were orders and they were obeyed.
As the fighting moved forward the civilians began to come forth from their hiding places. At first in two’s and three’s and then in larger parties. They were zombies. Right out of the book of Voodoo they walked down the roads of Okinawa. The very old, the very young, the sick, and the insane. The culls of humanity that even our enemies could find no use for. All able-bodied men had been conscripted and were behind the Japanese lines. Every now and then a middle-aged woman would appear and even more rarely a young girl. They were orientals but they were fearridden people who had lived through the blaze of battle. One particular pair approached the Command Post in the early dusk of an evening shortly after Love-Day. They were nearly shot by our sentry and upon closer inspection turned out to be an old man evidently in his eighties and a boy of about five. They were brought into the post and allowed to heat their rice over our fire. Candy appeared from a lot of G.I. pockets and before long they had that small boy’s eyes twinkling over a running nose. Just as we had about won his confidence a plane passed overhead and a nearby battery of artillery opened up. The expression of fear in that child’s eyes will never be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it. There, we all thought, but for the Grace of God and our armed might, would be our own small sons.
The natives, contrary to our original estimation, were on the whole very docile and were handled with but few cases of violence on their part. I do not feel qualified to comment to any great extent in this regard but I believe that this would be the case generally. As this is written I am informed that approximately 150,000 of them had been placed under control of our military government.
You may ask, what of the disease? Here again I must plead only second-hand information but I believe that our Armed Forces, probably because of intensive courses in antitoxin and the skill and determination of the medical and sanitary units, contracted very very few cases of the many brands of diseases advertised in the pamphlet.
You may ask, what of the snakes? I personally saw only one. With the assistance of a sailor from our command I was looting a straw pile for cover for a dugout in order to keep our own flak from coming down the back of our necks and to render that particular hole as invisible as possible from low flying Jap planes which had an annoying habit of opening up a very noisy set of machine guns. I had a load of straw in my arms and the sailor picked up another load. Wiggling out of his load I saw a snake just as advertised. We both dropped bundles in a hurry and abandoned the idea completely. I believe, however, that there are numerous states in our own country which admit of more virulent and much more extensive snake crops than that found on Okinawa. I for one was very glad because I am personally afraid of snakes.
Enough, you say of the civilians-what of the enemy? What are they like? How do they fight? How do they look? How do they think? I must be even more vague on this score because we saw very few of them alive. Of their fighting, there is no doubt. They were determined and fanatical fighters, but according to our standards they were not particularly brilliant either in strategy or tactics. We learned a few things about our enemy from observation. One fact soon becomes evident, the Japanese are very slow to react. He does not organize himself quickly to new circumstances. His air attacks at first were small and with little coordination. It was not until about the fifth day that they seemed to be taking any real shape and direction. His use of natural defensive positions was superb. His intricate system of caves, tunnels, and trenches was something out of Mars. His automatic weapons were numerous and well employed. His artillery was employed to a lesser extent but he had learned a great deal from us since the war began and was rapidly improving. His ammunition supply was ample and he had food sufficient to withstand a long siege. In what manner his thought trend runs only another Japanese could tell and I doubt if he would know. In stature and appearance they are just about what you would expect, smaller on the average than our soldiers but with broad shoulders and bandy legs. They like liquor, women, and war. They are dangerous, cunning fighters and their sting is quick, without warning, and deadly. Our information on Okinawa was correct. There were many deadly snakes on the island but they wore dun-colored khaki uniforms and sometimes walked on two feet. When they were killed there was no feeling of remorse from our troops but rather a feeling of relief that one would experience when a spider or a rat is exterminated.
It was a weird war in the Pacific and we were not fighting a civilized enemy. There was no gallantry-it was either kill or be killed and the feeling persists that we were not pitted against human beings-we were fighting dangerous creatures out of some weird, mysterious world that we could not comprehend. These creatures were deadly and they must be destroyed. It was a business of killing rats without even the exhilaration of overcoming a worthy opponent. Such a feeling was totally lacking from each of our victories. Weird even in our victories and it was ghastly in our defeats.
The morale of our own troops was high, resulting largely I believe not from the exuberance of a successful operation but that ever re-occurring pride in our own country, its way of life, and its ability to train and equip its fighting men. We read of strikes and bickerings at home, we heard of people who were becoming rich on war wages, we also heard of many of the silly things that were so dear to our American hearts-of women’s hats, of face creams, of the escapades of Hollywood, but here in battle we had concrete evidence of the real backbone of our country. We had now the finest equipment that any army and navy ever had in the history of the world. When a ship was torpedoed a tug was on hand to take her in tow, when a shell landed there was medical attention at hand, skilful and sure of itself. The wounded were under clean sheets and with the best of medical care within 24 hours of their injurythanks to aviation and to our fine medical personnel. A flight nurse lighted their cigarettes and kidded them back into feeling that they were “over the hump.” American women also played their part and the sailors and G.I.’s were grateful. The food was wholesome, tasty as could be devised and plentiful. Our fighting gear and weapons were sturdy and reliable. What you needed was not in the rear some thousands of miles away, it was in your bivouac area or your own fox-hole. It gave you confidence-it made you brave.
The Iceberg was melted and under it we found the decay, filth, and corruption that is Japan. There are many soldiers, sailors, and Marines who must forever sleep the long sleep in this God-forsaken land. Our only feeling as victory dawned was a great weariness, an increased longing for home, and the peace of a new world. These feelings were coupled with a vague emptiness as we gazed on the long rows of white crosses which grew daily more numerous than the day before. There was a feeling too of thankfulness that Providence made it possible to keep the number of those crosses much smaller than we had expected. That was our reward.
Okinawa was a sword driven deep into the vitals of the Empire of the Rising Sun. It was the beginning of the end of the Dragon of Fire which had too long rampaged across the eastern world. This sword bled him white until, in his death throes, he lashed out in fury and then lay still forever. With the death of the Dragon peace has come.
A GRADUATE of the Naval Academy in 1925, Captain Paro entered the submarine service in 1929, and on Pearl Harbor day was attached to the Staff of Commander Submarines Asiatic Fleet. In addition to his submarine duties he commanded a Naval Guard Battalion at the sieges of Bataan and Corregidor, and was evacuated to Australia via submarine before Corregidor fell. Later assigned to G-3 Section, staff of Lieutenant General Buckner, he took part in the assault on Okinawa and established the first command post for the 10th Army in the vicinity of Yontan airfield.