The Battle of Okinawa

The Battle of Okinawa came late in the war, when Japan was down to its last defenses. Its fleet in the Pacific had been devastated by several strategic losses, and it had lost almost all the territory it had gained at the war's beginning. With the Allies practically knocking on their door, Japanese military leaders had become desperate. Okinawa had to be held or all was lost.

The 100,000 Japanese troops amassed on Okinawa fully understood the situation. To that end, they had vowed to eliminate as many of the enemy as they could through whatever means necessary. The motto of the Thirty-second Japanese Army confirmed the soldiers' dedication: “One plane for one warship. One boat for one ship. One man for ten enemies. One man for one tank.”

Because of the passion of the Japanese defenders, Okinawa was a hard-fought and bloody engagement that resulted in huge casualties. When it was finally over in June 1945, more than 107,000 Japanese and Okinawan soldiers and civilians had been killed, and another 4,000 Japanese perished when the battleship Yamato was destroyed on its way to support the Japanese Okinawan defense. American losses on the island totaled 7,613 dead or missing in action and more than 31,000 wounded. An additional 4,907 sailors and marines were killed and 4,824 wounded aboard U.S. ships supporting the island assault.

The U.S. invasion fleet contained almost 1,500 combat and support vessels — the largest number of ships involved in a single operation over the course of the war in the Pacific. The British also contributed a carrier task force of 21 ships, with 244 aircraft on 4 carriers to supplement the nearly 1,000 U.S. carrier aircraft. The number of fighting men involved in the operation totaled nearly half a million, representing the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines, and the Royal Navy.

Operation Iceberg

Operation Iceberg, as the invasion of Okinawa was code-named, was scheduled to begin on March 1, 1945. But it had to be postponed to April 1 — Easter Sunday — because of delays in the Philippines campaign and at Iwo Jima, where the Japanese were forcing the marines to pay heavily for every yard they took.

A preinvasion bombardment of Okinawa started a week before the landings, and on March 26, U.S. forces captured five small islands in the Kerama Retto group west of Okinawa. This would help stop suicide boats based on the islands from being used against the invading forces.

The landing itself began at 4:06 A.M. on April 1 with a feint toward the southwestern shore of the island. This was designed to reduce the Japanese forces at the real landing site, a five-mile stretch on the southwestern coast near two strategic airfields. Marines and army troops went ashore as planned and achieved their immediate goals relatively quickly with a minimum of opposition.

Fatal Defense

The Japanese began their defense with kamikaze attacks against the naval task force supporting the invasion. Nearly 1,900 suicide sorties were flown from April to July, and more than 260 ships were sunk or damaged. According to military records, 2,336 Japanese aircraft were destroyed by U.S. planes and naval guns.

Figure 6-8 Transfer of wounded from the USS Bunker Hill to the USS Wilkes-Barre. The injuries were sustained as a result of a Japanese kamikaze attack off Okinawa, May 11, 1945.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (080-G-328610)

The Japanese sacrificed the island's airfields so they could fortify their defenses along what came to be known as the Shuri line, named after a nearby castle. American forces first hit the line on April 4; the resulting battle lasted eight days as American soldiers struggled to take a ridge and clear Japanese fighters from the area's many caves. An offensive against the Shuri line was launched on May 11, but the Japanese were able to repulse the American forces. The First Marine Division finally captured Shuri Castle on May 29.

Renowned combat journalist Ernie Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper on the island of Ie Shima during the battle to take Okinawa.

Unable to hold the line, the Japanese evacuated Shuri and established another defensive line at Yaeju Dake and Yazu Dake to the south. Vicious fighting continued on Okinawa until the last week of June, with the U.S. campaign officially ending in a successful conquest on July 2.

The Battle of Okinawa is unique because of the high number of cases of “combat fatigue” (now known as posttraumatic stress disorder) that resulted. More than 26,000 American servicemen who fought on Okinawa were later treated for psychological problems due to the ferocity and intensity of the fighting and the almost nonstop artillery and mortar fire that accompanied it.

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