Remembering Okinawa

Dealing with suicide bombers–60 years ago

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

Sixty years ago, the United States military invaded Okinawa on April 1, 1945, the last bastion of the Japanese maritime empire that stood in the way of an assault on the mainland.

Operation Iceberg was perhaps the largest combined land-sea operation since Xerxes swept into Greece, involving more troops than at Normandy Beach — 1,600 ships, 183,000 infantry and 12,000 aircraft. More than 110,000 skilled Japanese troops, commanded by the brilliant Gen. Ushijima and buttressed by another 100,000 coerced Okinawan irregulars, were ready for them.

Despite the most terrible naval barrage in history, and an ominous unopposed initial landing, almost everything imaginable then went wrong. The ravaged island was not to be declared secure until July 2 — a little more than a month before the final Japanese surrender.

In just these few weeks before the end of the war, 12,520 Americans were killed — well over twice as many as were lost at the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. In all, more than 33,000 more American s were wounded and missing. Perhaps another 200,000 Japanese soldiers, Okinawan auxiliaries and civilians died in the inferno.

Luminaries were not exempt. The commander of the operation, Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner — the highest-ranking American officer to die in the Pacific — perished. So did the celebrated war correspondent Ernie Pyle. The notorious Isamu Cho, who had sought to overthrow the Japanese civilian government in 1931, committed suicide along with Gen. Ushijimi. Some of the most gripping American war writing — E.B. Sledge’s “With the Old Breed” and William Manchester’s “Goodbye, Darkness” — grew out of this hell at Okinawa.

Almost every controversy of the present war has an antecedent at Okinawa. Faulty intelligence? The War Department insisted there were no more than 60,000 enemy troops on the island — not three times that number who had bored into the coral with sophisticated reinforced concrete bunkers.

Suicide bombers were vastly underestimated. No one ever imagined that there were 10,000 Japanese bombers and fighters committed to the campaign — and perhaps as many as 4,000 kamikazes slated for suicide attacks.

The result was the greatest losses in the history of the American Navy — 36 ships sunk, 368 hit, 5,000 sailors killed. Anger arose almost immediately: Why no accurate intelligence; why no armored aircraft carrier decks; why no suitable fighter screens; why the need to post off the island as sitting ducks — why the need to invade at all? Why, why, why?

Meanwhile, the Americans hit the Shuri Line, using head-on charges into fixed defenses — the Marine way of bullet, flame and bayonet. Thousands fell — including my namesake Victor Hanson of the 6th Marine Division — during the last hours of the last day of the successful effort to take Sugar Loaf Hill.

We of quieter times lament the dropping of two atomic bombs. But those who lived though the nightmare of Okinawa — far more killed than on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined — were thankful that Okinawa was not to be soon repeated on a scale 20 times worse on the Japanese mainland.

Most Americans of that late summer 1945 did not censure their politicians for the use of such horrific bombs to stop the carnage of the Pacific War. More often they were perplexed that we went ahead with Okinawa when the weapons to prevent such a traditional bloodbath were on the immediate horizon.

Are there any lessons from the nightmare of Okinawa for the present age? For all the horror, stupidity — and sheer courage — of the campaign, American firepower, training, adaptability and bravery prove eventually a match for zealots and suicide bombers, whether on Okinawa or in Fallujah.

For all the talk of the softness and decadence of modern Western man — whether the hot-rodders and soda jerks of the late 1930s or our own Jasons and Jeremys with rings in their ears and peroxide hair — the free American soldier proves far more lethal than those who blow themselves up.

Operational mistakes and intelligence gaffes are the stuff of all wars — whether the failure to count accurately the enemy on Sugar Loaf Hill or in the Sunni Triangle. Yet victory, then and now, goes to those who in their calm determination press on and thus make the fewest errors rather than none at all.

Despite heartbreak at our present losses, nothing in the three years of this present conflict, from its first day on Sept. 11 to the present terrorism in Iraq, compares with the carnage of those few weeks on Okinawa — for all its melancholy, still a hallowed American victory.

Perhaps we wonder now whether a presently divided American people can still overcome fascism, suicide bombers and beheaders to foster freedom in an autocratic landscape. In answer, we should look back 60 years ago to what we went through in Okinawa and the subsequent humane society and decent democracy that followed in Japan and sigh, “Yes, we can and will again.”

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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