The Battle of Okinawa was the last major battle of World War II, and one of the bloodiest. On April 1, 1945—Easter Sunday—the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and more than 180,000 U.S. Army and Marine Corps troops descended on the Pacific island of Okinawa for a final push towards Japan. The invasion was part of Operation Iceberg, a complex plan to invade and occupy the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa. Though it resulted in an Allied victory, kamikaze fighters, rainy weather and fierce fighting on land, sea and air led to a large death toll on both sides.
By the time American troops landed on Okinawa, World War II on the European front was nearing its end. Allied and Soviet Union troops had liberated much of Nazi-occupied Europe and were just weeks away from forcing Germany’s unconditional surrender.
In the Pacific theater, however, American forces were still painstakingly conquering Japan’s Home Islands, one after another. After obliterating Japanese troops in the brutal Battle of Iwo Jima, they set their sights on the isolated island of Okinawa, their last stop before reaching Japan.
Okinawa’s 466 square miles of dense foliage, hills and trees made it the perfect location for the Japanese High Command’s last stand to protect their motherland. They knew if Okinawa fell, so would Japan. The Americans knew securing Okinawa’s airbases was critical to launching a successful Japanese invasion.
Landing on the Beachheads
As dawn arrived on April 1, morale was low among American troops as the Fifth Fleet launched the largest bombardment ever to support a troop landing to soften Japanese defenses.
Soldiers and Army brass alike expected the beach landings to be a massacre worse than D-Day. But the Fifth Fleet’s offensive onslaught was almost pointless and landing troops could have literally swum to shore—surprisingly, the expected mass of awaiting Japanese troops wasn’t there.
On D-Day along the shores of northern France, American troops fought hard for every inch of beachhead—but troops landing on Okinawa’s beaches surged inland with little resistance. Wave after wave of troops, tanks, ammunition and supplies went ashore almost effortlessly within hours. The troops quickly secured both Kadena and Yontan airfields.
Japanese Army Waits
Japan’s 32nd Army, some 130,000 men strong and commanded by Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, defended Okinawa. The military force also included an unknown number of conscripted civilians and unarmed Home Guards known as Boeitai.
As they moved inland, American troops wondered when and where they’d finally encounter enemy resistance. What they didn’t know was the Japanese Imperial Army had them just where they wanted them.
Japanese troops had been instructed not to fire on the American landing forces but instead watch and wait for them, mostly in Shuri, a rugged area of southern Okinawa where General Ushijima had set up a triangle of defensive positions known as the Shuri Defense Line.
American troops who headed North to the Motobu Peninsula endured intense resistance and over 1,000 casualties but won a decisive battle relatively quickly. It was different along the Shuri Line where they had to overcome a series of heavily defended hills loaded with firmly-entrenched Japanese troops.
On April 7, Japan’s mighty battleship Yamato was sent to launch a surprise attack on the Fifth Fleet and then annihilate American troops pinned down near the Shuri Line. But Allied submarines spotted the Yamato and alerted the fleet who then launched a crippling air attack. The ship was bombarded and sank along with most of its crew.
After the Americans cleared a series of outposts surrounding the Shuri Line, they fought many fierce battles including clashes on Kakazu Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, Horseshoe Ridge and Half Moon Hill. Torrential rains made the hills and roads watery graveyards of unburied bodies.
Casualties were enormous on both sides by the time the Americans took Shuri Castle in late May. Defeated but not beaten, the Japanese retreated to the southern coast of Okinawa where they made their last stand.
The kamikaze suicide pilot was Japan’s most ruthless weapon: On April 4, the Japanese unleashed these well-trained pilots on the Fifth Fleet. Some dove their planes into ships at 500 miles per hour, causing catastrophic damage.
American sailors tried desperately to shoot the kamikaze planes down but were often sitting ducks against enemy pilots with nothing to lose. During the Battle of Okinawa, the Fifth Fleet suffered:
• 36 sunk ships
• 368 damaged ships
• 4,900 men killed or drowned
• 4,800 men wounded
• 763 lost aircraft
The Maeda Escarpment, also known as Hacksaw Ridge, was located atop a 400-foot vertical cliff. The American attack on the ridge began on April 26. It was a brutal battle for both sides.
To defend the escarpment, Japanese troops hunkered down in a network of caves and dugouts. They were determined to hold the ridge, and decimated American platoons until just a few men remained. Much of the fighting was hand-to-hand combat and particularly ruthless. The Americans finally took Hacksaw Ridge on May 6.
All Americans who fought in the Battle of Okinawa were heroic, but one soldier at the escarpment stood out—Corporal Desmond T. Doss. He was an army medic and Seventh-Day Adventist who refused to raise a gun to the enemy.
Still, he remained on the escarpment after his commanding officers ordered a retreat. Surrounded by enemy soldiers, he went alone into the battle fray and rescued 75 of his wounded comrades. His heroic story was brought to life on the big screen in 2016 in the film Hacksaw Ridge—Doss won a Medal of Honor for his bravery.
Suicide or Surrender
Most Japanese troops and Okinawa citizens believed Americans took no prisoners and they’d be killed on the spot if captured. As a result, countless took their own lives. To encourage their surrender, General Simon Bolivar Buckner initiated propaganda warfare and dropped millions of leaflets declaring the war was all but lost for Japan.
About 7,000 Japanese soldiers surrendered, but many chose death by suicide. Some jumped from high hills, others blew themselves up with grenades.
When faced with the reality that further fighting was futile, General Ushijima and his Chief of Staff, General Cho, committed ritual suicide on June 22, effectively ending the Battle of Okinawa.
Both sides suffered staggering losses in the Battle of Okinawa. The Americans bore over 49,000 casualties including 12,520 killed. General Buckner himself was killed in action on June 18, just days before the battle ended.
Japanese losses were even greater—about 110,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives. It’s estimated between 40,000 and 150,000 Okinawa citizens were also killed. The Battle of Okinawa is now considered one of the deadliest in all of human history.
Who Won the Battle of Okinawa?
Winning the Battle of Okinawa put Allied forces within striking distance of Japan. But wanting to bring the war to a swift end, and knowing over 2 million Japanese troops were awaiting battle-weary American soldiers, President Harry S. Truman chose to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6.
Japan didn’t give in immediately, so Truman ordered the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9. Finally, Japan had had enough. On August, 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, marking the end of World War II.
Hellish Prelude at Okinawa. U.S. Naval Institute.
Okinawa: The Last Battle. Marine Corps Gazette. Center of Military History, United States Army.
Operation Iceberg: The Assault on Okinawa-The Last Battle of WWII (Part 1) April-June 1945. History of War.
The Decision to Drop the Bomb. USHistory.org.
The Real ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ Soldier Saved 75 Souls Without Ever Carrying A Gun. NPR.