Japanese forces changed their typical tactics of resisting at the water’s edge to a defense in depth, designed to gain time. In conjunction with this, the Japanese navy and army mounted mass air attacks by planes on one-way “suicide” missions; the Japanese also sent their last big battleship, the Yamato, on a similar mission with a few escorts. The “special attack” kamikaze tactics the Japanese used on these missions, although not especially sophisticated, were so determined that Allied forces perhaps faced their most difficult Pacific campaign. The net result made Okinawa a mass bloodletting both on land and at sea, and among both the island’s civilian population and the military.
A series of defense lines across the island, both north and south of the American landing beaches, enabled the Japanese to conduct a fierce defense of Okinawa over many weeks. Using pillboxes and strongpoints, caves, and even some ancient castles, the Japanese defense positions supported one another and often resisted even the most determined artillery fire or air strikes. Mounting few attacks themselves, the Japanese conserved their strength for this defense. Caves or pillboxes often had to be destroyed individually with dynamite charges. This battle took place in an environment much more heavily populated than most Pacific islands, with civilian casualties of almost 100,000 and equally heavy losses for the Japanese army. “It was a scene straight out of hell. There is no other way to describe it,” recalls Higa Tomiko, then a seven-year-old girl, who survived the battle.
The commanding generals on both sides died in the course of this battle: American general Simon B. Buckner by artillery fire, Japanese general Ushijima Mitsuru by suicide. Other U.S. losses in ground combat included 7,374 killed, 31,807 wounded, and 239 missing in action. The navy suffered 4,907 killed or missing aboard 34 ships sunk and 368 damaged; 763 aircraft were lost. At sea and in the air, the Japanese expended roughly 2,800 aircraft, plus a battleship, a light cruiser, and four destroyers, with losses that can be estimated at upwards of 10,000.
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.