Commentary / Japan

Battle of Okinawa really began 75 years ago today

by Robert D. Eldridge.

Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. With Okinawa being the site of the last major land battle, which killed more civilians than the combined combatants of both sides in the Western Pacific, there will be increasing attention to the issue of war and peace over the coming year.

The Battle of Okinawa is usually considered to have begun in late March 1945, with the Allied attack on the Kerama Islands, now a popular spot for diving and snorkeling and an easy day trip from Naha.

In fact, however, the Battle of Okinawa really began 75 years ago today, on Oct. 10, 1944, with the bombing of Naha and other locations in the Nansei Islands.

Although the planes had been spotted and there was intelligence beforehand, the attack forces of Vice Adm. Marc A. Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force, operating as part of the Third Fleet, in the preliminary operations for the landings on Leyte in the Philippines, achieved complete surprise, much like the attacks on Pearl Harbor almost three years before.

According to an official history, this was intentional. Mitscher had “made every effort to achieve surprise,” with the force following bad weather caused by a typhoon moving toward Okinawa from the southeast. A diversionary attack on Marcus Island to the east was made, and aircraft based on the Marianas, seized that summer in operations my father was involved in, conducted airstrikes on Iwo Jima and flew interdiction patrols ahead of the forces making up the Third Fleet.

Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force, comprising nine carriers, five fast battleships, eight escort carriers, four heavy cruisers, seven light cruisers, three anti-aircraft cruisers, and 58 destroyers, arrived off Okinawa early on Oct. 10. The first wave began shortly after dawn, with strikes against airfields in Yontan (Yomitan), Kadena, Ie Shima and Naha.

The attacks, which were the heaviest delivered by the force in a single day until then, continued throughout the day at hour interludes. Some 1,356 strikes were made. U.S. planes fired 652 rockets and 21 torpedoes, and dropped 541 tons of bombs.

Some 88 Japanese aircraft were caught at their airfields or on water, and 23 were shot down in the air. Ports were especially hit hard: 20 cargo ships, 45 smaller vessels, four midget submarines, a destroyer escort, a submarine tender, a minesweeper and miscellaneous other craft were sunk. Two of the midget submarines, which had been moored side by side, were taken out by a fighter-bomber from the Bunker Hill that dropped a bomb between them. More than 5 million rounds of machine gun ammunition in Japanese supply areas were destroyed, as were 300,000 sacks of rice.

The U.S. attack was successful due to many reasons, including the fact that the typhoon caused Japanese military leaders to assemble many vessels in Naha harbor, and Adm. Soemu Toyoda, commander in chief of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet, was in Formosa (Taiwan) on his way to the Philippines at the time and there was confusion in command and control channels, with differing orders being passed. Moreover, the respective field commanders had gathered in Naha the night before, leaving their units, for a dinner party prior to a tabletop exercise they were scheduled to do on Oct. 10. Due to poor communications, the units left behind thought the firing they heard was part of the exercise and did not engage until it was too late. Civilians also thought the explosions were part of the exercise and, sadly, did not take the necessary precautions.

The attacks could not have gone worse, in other words, for the Japanese side, especially for civilians.

As a result, according to a Japanese soldier’s account of the attack at the time, “The enemy is brazenly planning to destroy completely every last ship, cut our supply lines and attack us.”

However, the attack force had other missions, too. The aircraft reconnoitered, photographed and/or attacked other islands, including Kume Jima, Miyako Jima, Amami Oshima and Tokunoshima.

Using the photographs, the U.S. Army became worried that all of Okinawa was fortified when its intelligence officers saw hundreds of mounds. An Okinawan American, Takejiro “Junior” Higa, who spent 14 years in his youth in Okinawa, had to explain that they were actually ancestral graves. He would later land with the invasion force, and survived the battle.

Some of the biggest damage during the Oct. 10 attacks was to Naha. The capital was hit in each of the five raids that day. Some four-fifths of the city’s 216 hectares were destroyed. A total of 11,451 homes and buildings were severely damaged, often by fire, and at least 330 civilians were killed and 455 wounded. Other sources give higher figures. (These numbers do not include 218 Japanese servicemen killed and 243 injured.)

Okinawa was not attacked the remainder of the year, but planes of the Fast Carrier Task Force conducted a limited raid on the Nansei Islands again on Jan. 3 and 4 during an attack in Formosa in preparation for the invasion of Luzon. Another raid was conducted Jan. 22, with the primary mission of reconnoitering the islands. Despite bad weather, some 80 percent of priority areas were photographed, and bases, aircraft and shipping were struck. More attacks by the task force were made in March, and attacks from Marianas-based aircraft began near daily runs over the Nansei Islands starting in February in preparation for the Battle of Okinawa.

The Oct. 10 attacks on Naha, Kadena and other civilian areas clearly went against the Geneva Conventions, but the U.S. government ignored Japan’s protests (made through a neutral nation). This would be an important and needed case study about international law and the morality of attacks on cities as the death of noncombatants continues unabated today in other parts of the world.

While the attack was a huge military success, it leaves some deep ethical questions. The 75th anniversary presents a good opportunity to begin reflecting on them.

Robert D. Eldridge is a former political adviser to the U.S. Marine Corps in Japan and co-editor of the recent book, “The Japan Self-Defense Forces Law: Translation, History, and Analysis.”

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