The Battle of Okinawa


By George Feifer (The Lyons Press)


(This column was first published in the March 28, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


George Feifer's The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb should be required reading for those young people who think only of modern wars in which a few dozen casualties on our side cause us to fold up our tents and withdraw. His book also confronts two other received beliefs: that the Japanese emperor was not a militarist and that we needn't have dropped the atom bombs.


Fifty-seven years ago, on March 26, 1945, the battle for Okinawa began with the naval bombardment of the island. On April 1, our troops landed and began the final and most punishing operation of World War II.


This was war as meat-grinder: "In the only Pacific campaign to take the lives of both sides' commanding officers [Generals Bruckner and Ushijima], 10th Army casualties would be 35 percent of the troops engaged, stunning by American standards. The 3,430 Marines killed represented 14 percent of all who died in World War II. Taking the island's .6 percent of total Japanese territory cost more than 1 percent of World War II's total American casualties. The full number would come to over seventy-two thousand — nearly as many as the 32nd Army's Japanese soldiers (excluding the Okinawan conscripts). Of those, 7,613 were killed and missing in action, and the remaining sixty-four-odd thousand were almost equally divided between those wounded seriously enough to be out of action more than a week and non-battle casualties, chiefly victims of battle fatigue. Secondary sources often state that the one hundred thousand Japanese killed and captured indicated a highly favorable American loss ratio of 1 to 17. However, the overall impact, not including the Navy's unprecedented losses of nearly five thousand killed and roughly the same number wounded, was less triumphant than those figures imply.


"Measured by the casualties they inflicted, Ushijima's forces performed brilliantly, but only at the cost of ten times more KIAs of their own. The 10th Army estimated it killed two thousand Japanese on June 19, the day after Buckner's death, three thousand on June 20, and four thousand on June 21: figures hard to imagine except from death camps. The equivalent of half a combat division died during those three days, not including many of the Home Guard's last-minute, barely trained Okinawan teenagers."


And for our Navy, this was the war of kamakazis. Reading about these pilots who gladly gave up their lives to inflict damage on their enemies can give us further insight into the tragic conflict in which our world is now engaged. "Looming military defeat increased the appeal of a death that demonstrated denial of self-interest and even community advantage. Belief counted more than reason, the purity of the motive more than the result. The ability to defy rationality and logic was itself a triumph, which was surely why many young pilots felt disgust and disgrace when they crashed without dying — and why others were plunged into depression when their missions were aborted; in their own words, they felt 'deprived' of death."


But, as today, the reaction was not what was widely expected: "Many kamikaze pilots, even knowing they couldn't seriously damage the American fleet, hoped their demonstration of sublime dedication might shock the spiritually inferior enemy into defeat. Actually, however, it prompted the reverse reaction, reinforcing Americans' conviction that the demented Japanese had to be prostrated utterly."


The damage to both sides was enormous: "Well after the campaign, the Navy would reveal that thirty-three ships had been sunk, well over half by kamikazes, and 368 ships and craft damaged, more than fifty seriously.... Carriers also lost 539 planes — but the Japanese cost was staggering. On some days, up to 90 percent of the planes delivering mass attacks, conventional and kamikaze together, were destroyed — a total of 7,830 for the three months of the Okinawan campaign."


And it was not just action against the enemy: "In the field, it was impossible to have so many youths with so many never-predictable weapons without constant accidents and mistakes. Back south on Sugar Loaf Hill,... a second lieutenant would lose 'a beautiful kid, a real fine, decent Marine' when a tank shell aimed at a Japanese target bounced off a tree stump and tore open his chest. On little Iheya Island, fifty miles north of Okinawa, Marines would be killed by rocket fire from ships that didn't know they were on the beach. It was inevitable that American bullets, grenades, mortar shells, artillery shells, and even flamethrowers would cut down American boys all over Okinawa because, as one veteran would put it, combat is 'just too confusing for any kind of count of who killed whom.'


"Peacetime terrorist actions that take a single precious life are rightly emblazoned in headlines and abhorred. Infinitely worse losses on Okinawa were never mentioned in print or even to the families concerned, because few officers were willing to write that their men had fallen to own fire — 'more than will ever be known,' in the summary of one dismayed lieutenant, which is as accurate as any."


We have heard little of this terrible battle and there are reasons for this lack of information: "Location alone ensured [our troops] the worst fighting and least recognition. Europe was far more pleasant and closer to home, culturally as well as geographically. The very fierceness of the battle led many to wish to forget: "It had closed almost completely to those ignorant of battle, for the happy twenty-year-old who'd never written home about its real hardships found himself still unable to talk about them now. Combat veterans didn't know how to do that. They didn't want to brag to listeners who lacked the means to comprehend. 'What's the point?' gregarious Whitaker would ask in explanation of his near silence about his life's emotional apex and nadir. 'How can anyone know?' Paul Fussell suggests another reason for the fighters' unspoken conspiracy of silence. They'd participated in an event that smeared a monstrous blot on the human race. The appalling outrages to decency so soon after those of World War I left them with a sense of shame for the species supposedly created in God's image. They were happy to forget them.


"Only other combat infantrymen knew, and none needed reminding, which is partly why veterans preferred swapping funny stories about the screw-ups to revisiting the horror. 'The funny thing is,' they'd say one way and another, 'I remember more of the amusing incidents than the blood and the gore.' Meeting others who did know would give them an infusion of battlefield camaraderie's unique intensity as long as they lived, but their glow needed no extra stimulus then, in 1946. Although Whitaker was saddened to see many more gold stars on the yellowing honor roll over Broome's fireplace, some signifying the deaths of friends, his own name there generated deep satisfaction. After months of beers and laughter, the saloon doors stopped swinging with the newly demobilized; all who had made it through the war were home. Now the party too was over, but Whitaker remained proud.


"So did almost every American who returned from the edge without crippling injury. He had a lifelong reservoir of pride and self-confidence, even if outsiders would never know what filled it. Marc Jaffe, a first lieutenant who'd broken down with shock during his first fighting on an earlier island but returned to win a Bronze Star for gallantry below the Shun Line, knew his life had been irrevocably changed. 'Whenever I ran into physical or psychological hardships later, I thought of Okinawa. I knew if I could survive that, I could survive anything.'"


When I was a child, there were still two or three veterans of the Civil War who marched in Memorial Day parades. Today fewer and fewer of these warriors who suffered through Okinawa do so. We owe them much and I salute them. Feifer's book confirms their proud record.-- Gerry Rising