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The Battle of Okinawa: Fierce fighting at the end of World War II

by Eric Johnston

STAFF WRITER

Tuesday’s Okinawa Memorial Day marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa. It was one of Japan’s last major engagements of World War II, ending about six weeks before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here’s a look at the battle:

When did the Battle of Okinawa take place?

On April 1, 1945, U.S. Army and Marine troops invaded the main island of Okinawa Prefecture, supported by naval forces. Some British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian ships and men also participated in the invasion.

There was fierce fighting on both sides, which included Japanese kamikaze attacks on U.S. ships. Okinawans, meanwhile, referred to the attacks by U.S. ships and aircraft in the postwar era as a “typhoon of steel.” The U.S. Department of Defense notes that kamikaze attacks, where Japanese planes rammed into U.S. vessels, sunk 26 ships, and severely damaged 168.

By the time the organized fighting ended on June 23 (June 22 in the U.S.), around 100,000 Japanese soldiers had died, either killed in combat or by suicide. Over 12,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines died in the battle.

What made Okinawa so important strategically to the U.S.?

Its size and geographic location. After nearly 3½ years of war in the Pacific, the U.S. strategy was to capture Okinawa and use it as a base to launch an invasion of the four main islands of Japan later that year.

The U.S. had adopted what was known as an “island hopping” campaign after it declared war on Japan in December 1941. U.S. forces fought a series of campaigns on smaller islands in the Pacific as they moved closer to Japan. The goal was to advance toward Japan by seizing small islands and either use captured airstrips, or build new ones, for long-range bombers that could reach the main islands of Japan.

Okinawa’s main island is less than 600 kilometers from the southern tip of Kyushu, and was seen by the U.S. as ideal for stationing a large amphibious force for a planned invasion of Kyushu later that year. Japanese airfields such as Kadena were expected to serve as key bases for launching bombing campaigns, as Okinawa was within U.S. bomber range of major cities on Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu.

What happened to the Okinawans during the battle?

Okinawans suffered greatly during the battle, and Okinawa Prefecture estimates that 94,000 civilians were killed during the nearly three months of fighting. While some fought willingly for Japan, others were forcibly conscripted. Some Okinawans attempted or were forced to attempt suicide. Others perished due to disease, especially malaria, or died of starvation.

U.S. troops found it difficult to distinguish between civilians and soldiers, and many Okinawans died when advancing U.S. troops shot at Okinawan houses. Okinawa’s history of the battle presents it as being caught in the middle of two armies, both of which committed atrocities against the civilian population.

What happened once the battle ended?

The intensity of the Battle of Okinawa stunned the U.S., especially the kamikaze attacks. It would create fears among military planners that their planned invasion of Japan later that year could be far more difficult than they’d imagined.

At a meeting between U.S. President Harry Truman and his top military advisers on June 18, 1945, as the Battle of Okinawa was ending, plans for an invasion of Kyushu on Nov. 1 were discussed. It would involve, Truman was told, over 766,000 U.S. forces against an estimated 350,000 Japanese troops. Around 30,000 American troops might be killed, the military estimated.

Ultimately, those plans would be shelved, and the U.S. would drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, ending the war. In the postwar period, the U.S. would occupy Okinawa, with the U.S. military governing it until 1950, followed by a U.S. civil administration afterwards, until Okinawa was returned to Japan in 1972. U.S. military bases on Okinawa, after playing a major support role in the Korean War (1950-53) and then during the Vietnam War era of the 1960s, remained. Today, Okinawa hosts almost two-thirds of U.S. military bases in Japan.

How do Okinawans memorialize the battle today?

In 1995, the Okinawa Prefectural Government erected the Cornerstone of Peace memorial on Mabuni, in the city of Itoman, on the southeastern tip of the main island. It lists all known names of those who died in the battle, civilian and military, Japanese and non-Japanese.

As of this month, a total of 241,593 names are engraved on the memorial. These include 149,547 Okinawans, and 77,456 people from other prefectures. The names of 14,010 Americans, 382 South Koreans, 82 people from the United Kingdom, 82 from North Korea and 34 from Taiwan are also inscribed.

In recent years, the annual ceremony that takes place each June 23 has usually been attended by the prime minister, as well as U.S. soldiers based in Okinawa, Okinawans who lived through the battle and their relatives and descendants.

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