The Wages of Suicide: Okinawa,
April 1-July 2, 1945
Recipe for a Holocaust
Throughout the fall of 2001 and early 2002, the military referents in the West for the war against the Islamic fundamentalists were the fanatical kamikazes of Okinawa of the past--their letters published in newspapers, the Pacific war recounted by columnists, and veterans of the conflict interviewed on television. Suicide bombing by nature is at first horrifying, calling into doubt the notion of a shared human instinct for self-preservation. Suicide killers are purportedly of a creed not of this world, and thus instill despair that such enemies can ever be thwarted and that somehow theirs is a superior ideology by its singular ability to galvanize thousands to kill themselves for the cause. Yet Okinawa reminds us that there are plenty of far more frightening mechanisms to ensure that it fails. Contrary to our own popular doubts and fears, the horror of Okinawa entailed the frustration, not the success, of kamikazes. And with that result there ensued the lessons that suicide warriors are not always willing volunteers, much less superhuman, but themselves just as often unsure and full of doubt. Literature and culture were changed by Okinawa, but the ripples of that battle were also military; after September 11 they lap up as never before to remind us that there remains an array of tactics and long-term strategies by those who fight to live that will ensure failure to those trying to die.
The forces arrayed for the American invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945--Operation Iceberg--were gargantuan. The greatest armada of combined naval and land power in the history of the Pacific war was prepared to storm an island not much more than sixty miles in length. In terms of initial troops to be landed, firepower arrayed, and tonnage to be used, the American invasion was larger than the one seen at Normandy nearly a year earlier. Indeed, Okinawa was perhaps the most impressive sea and ground assault since Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 b.c.--but then, both those earlier invasions had been directed against the continent of Europe, not an island in the Pacific.
Nearly 1,600 ships carried over a half million Americans toward Okinawa. A quarter million soldiers--infantry, support troops, airmen, and sailors in various branches of the military--eventually hoped to occupy the island. Sixty thousand Marines and army infantrymen of the newly formed 10th Army would embark on the first day alone, supported by bombs from some 40 aircraft carriers of various types and shells from 18 battleships and 150 destroyers. Some 183,000 actual infantry combatants from the army and the Marines were ready to join the fight on the island during the ninety-day campaign. Over 12,000 combat aircraft on the American side could, in theory, be thrown into the fight. The campaign was planned as a textbook American exercise in overwhelming material and numerical power that would simply bury even the most courageous adversaries.
Many of the invading Americans were hardened veterans of the bloodletting on Iwo Jima, Peleliu, Saipan, and Tarawa. If they were successful in capturing the linchpin of the Ryukyu Islands, the Japanese mainland would lie defenseless to American ships, troops, and planes, all to be based a mere 350 miles away. Indeed, after the battle and despite the horrific costs, the official military history of Okinawa declared that "the military value of Okinawa exceeded all hope" as a base for "an even more desperate struggle to come."
But the Americans in their great confidence and careful preparation had also overlooked an essential but bitter truth about their proposed campaign. The enemy would fight this battle in a manner not entirely explicable by the strategic calculus involved in losing Okinawa. Nor did he much care about the Americans' proven tactical and material superiority--much less about the age-old Western idea that the purpose of battle was largely to defeat the enemy, obtain his surrender, advise him of the futility of subsequent resistance, and therein achieve results that mere politics could not.
Indeed, the Japanese did not realistically hope militarily to defeat the invaders on Okinawa at all! Nor did they worry whether their own army, navy, and air forces would survive the conflict. And the defenders may even have accepted that after the fighting, Okinawa, for a time, would--at least for a few months or even years--become American and not Japanese. Col. Hiromichi Yahara, the brilliant architect of the Japanese defenses, wrote after the war that "the fact is that we never had a chance for victory on Okinawa."
Instead, by mid-1945 the desperate Japanese military's aims were quite different from all conventional war wisdom. And so their plans were also very simple: kill so many Americans, blow up or shoot down so many aircraft, and sink so many of their ships that the United States--both its stunned military and its grieving citizens back home--would never wish to undergo such an ordeal again. After the butchery to come on Okinawa, perhaps these rather affluent and soft Westerners would seek a negotiated armistice from Japan--and not tolerate another, greater cataclysm on the mainland in pursuit of an unnecessary unconditional surrender. Okinawa, then, was to offer a suicidal lesson to Americans to stop before they found themselves dying in the millions on the beaches of the Japanese motherland. In the words of the historian Joseph Alexander, the Japanese saw Okinawa as the "England of the Pacific"--a proximate island that would likewise serve as an enormous staging area and supply depot for the eventual foreign annexation of the sacred soil of Japan itself.
In that context, despite the Americans' skill and overwhelming material preponderance, much of the advantage on the island still lay with the Japanese in this new phase of attrition. Because Okinawa was larger than many of the other Pacific atolls of the previous campaigns, because it was a home island of the Japanese empire, because of its unpredictable weather, coral rock, prepared fortifications, and dense vegetation, and because of the number, nature, and leadership of the Japanese defenders, nearly every combatant on the island in theory could resist to the death for a very long time. The commander of the island's defenses, Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, had written a brief slogan to cheer on his troops that summed up the Japanese strategy: "One Plane for One Warship; One Boat for One Ship; One Man for Ten of the Enemy or One Tank." As it turned out, instead, Americans would kill ten Japanese for every one they lost. Yet even to this day they still feel that something had gone terribly wrong during the campaign. And it had.
Even if, as the planners thought, Okinawa were merely to be conquered, Operation Iceberg had not made allowances for the attacker's age-old and necessary edge in numerical superiority. There were only one and a half, not the requisite three, American invaders to match each Japanese defender. Yet to kill all the Japanese--110,000 soldiers and thousands more civilians who would resist at their sides, whether coerced or willing--how many American combatants would that gruesome task require? A million? A ten-to-one ratio of offense to defense? Just how many American infantrymen, bombers, and warships would be needed to blast out every Japanese in every cave of the island? And did the Americans realize that an entire army of over 100,000 men had become veritable subterranean and nocturnal terrorists--snipers, suicide bombers, and ambushers who would hide beneath coral at day and unleash artillery, mortar, and automatic weapons fire at night? If it cost 6,000 American dead to kill 23,000 Japanese on Iwo Jima, how many fatalities would be incurred in eliminating 110,000 more experienced troops on Okinawa?
In hindsight, Okinawa would prove not that the Americans had marshaled too few troops to take the island, but that its massive armada was in fact far too small to eliminate the enemy without suffering catastrophic losses in the process. American field artillery on the island itself would fire 1,104,630 105mm howitzer shells--and another 600,000 rounds of various calibers from 115mm to 75mm--during the course of the three-month campaign. Fifteen of such monstrous shells were fired for every Japanese death--and still such munitions could not save thousands of Americans from being killed. Before the battle was even half over, the Americans had already dropped thousands of tons of explosives on Ushijima's soldiers, without achieving any clear weakening of the enemy's will to resist.
Japanese tactics were for the most part well thought out--given the acceptance of the realities of war in mid-1945 when American bombers for weeks prior had incinerated many of the key factories on the mainland while surface ships and submarines made reinforcement and resupply anywhere in the Pacific island empire almost impossible. Generals Ushijima and Isamu Cho--the infamous rightist who in 1931 had once engaged in a terror campaign of assassination to hijack the Tokyo civilian government--along with the brilliant Colonel Yahara, planned to let the Americans land on the beaches unopposed. Then they would lure them into well-fortified Japanese positions in the southern part of the island before systematically grinding them up. By day there would hardly be a Japanese in sight; at night tens of thousands would shell and attack American lines--small teams infiltrating as often as possible to nullify American advantages in naval and ground gunfire. Although Okinawa is a huge island of several hundred square miles, the convergence of over 100,000 troops of the Imperial 32nd Army into the southern third of the island in a series of fortified lines meant that the Japanese, not the Americans, possessed the high ground and the greater concentration of force.
There, hidden wheeled artillery would pound the Americans, only to be drawn back on tracks into the safety of caves and fortifications. The southern Japanese defenses--a series of sequential barriers anchored by the two great so-called Machinao and Shuri fortified lines--had been diabolically adapted to the hills, gorges, and escarpments. Hundreds of camouflaged concrete bunkers and pillboxes allowed uninterrupted fields of fire, remained almost impenetrable from the air, and ensured mutual support and reinforcement through tunnels, telephone and radio communications, and hidden paths. Troops were dug in on the reverse slopes with the intention of luring Americans up to the crests--only to mow them down as they unknowingly exposed themselves on the ridges.
Other scattered infantry units would fight in almost invisible pockets, popping up to shoot Americans who passed by, slipping into their fortified positions at dark, and using snipers to target officers day and night. Meanwhile, as the Americans on the southern part of the island were being immobilized and slowly ground up, kamikaze planes and "suicide" boats--350 were captured and destroyed on the nearby Kerama Islands--would systematically wreck the American fleet off the coast, ensuring its withdrawal and thus the isolation of the land forces.
Then, without resupply, the fighting would degenerate into a sort of GatterdAmmerung as Okinawa became a final inferno for friend and foe alike--as the Americans, like the Japanese, would have to make do only with what ammunition and supplies were left on the island itself. The more the kamikazes hit the American navy, the more the pressure would be on the land forces to make costly attacks on the entrenched Japanese, take the island frontally and rapidly, and so free vulnerable ships from the deadly range of suicide planes based nearby on the mainland. If there was no chance of escape from the island, then the only hope for Japanese salvation would be to kill so many Americans on land and at sea that they would exit and bypass the island, nursing wounds so grievous that they would not dare repeat the ordeal on the mainland.
The Americans, of course, had very different ideas. General Buckner, who commanded all land forces in the invasion under the rubric of the 10th Army, part of a larger joint expeditionary task force, looked not so much at the nature of the island--tragically so in retrospect--but rather at the unprecedented killing power of the U.S. fleet, the logistical capacity of the American army, and the deadly nature of his Marines who had never yet for very long given ground or failed to capture a fortified Japanese position, despite horrific carnage on Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Peleliu. In his view, the preliminary carrier bomber attacks of February and March would immobilize all Japanese airfields on the island, ensuring air superiority over Okinawa itself.
Then on the day of the landing, naval shelling and further saturation bombing could destroy the most formidable artillery and command emplacements--if they had not already been obliterated from continual aerial bombing since mid-February. That bombardment would allow a buildup of supplies--thousands of vehicles, millions of artillery shells, tons of gasoline, food, and small-arms ammunition--guaranteeing overwhelming American firepower against the finite and always dwindling material reserves of the isolated Japanese. In fact, on average the Americans unloaded about 200,000 tons of materiel on the Okinawa beaches almost every week of the campaign, as ships (458 in all) streamed in from the Philippines, the Marianas, Hawaii, and San Francisco almost daily.
Once on the island, armored columns--in the manner of successful head-on assaults practiced in the European theater--would plow through concentrations of lightly armed Japanese, as carrier fighters and bombers along with mobile artillery could be directed by radios to strafe and pound islands of resistance. In days the Americans should be able to herd the retreating Japanese into a final noose, where they would face surrender--or annihilation by combined aerial, ground, and naval bombardment. Or so the American generals, who knew nothing of coral, caves, and Japanese tactical genius, believed.
In hindsight, it would have been far wiser for General Buckner first to have pondered the challenges of steep gorges and nearly impassable terrain, the deadly nature of the kamikaze threat, and the frequency of cloudy and rainy weather over Okinawa. Constant rain especially prevented accurate reconnaissance; it hampered bombing and mired armor and infantry alike in knee-deep mud. Caution and better surveillance would have presented a chilling scenario of the true obstacles ahead: Okinawa was protected by 110,000 crack Japanese troops--five times the number found on Iwo Jima--not the preinvasion estimates of 65,000.
The defenders had had nearly a year to craft impenetrable fortifications with multiple entries and exits. Nearly a half million native Okinawans were mixed in with the defenders, both as innocents and active combatants. There may not have been a single bulldozer on the island or any three-ton trucks, but nearly a quarter million laborers with shovels and picks had invested over a year in pouring cement, digging underground tunnels--eventually to comprise a vast latticework some sixty miles in extent--carving out coral redoubts, and then supplying the entire fortified maze with nearly unlimited supplies of water, food, and ammunition. Given the terrain, the absence of reliable roads, and the shortage of fuel, day laborers could in the long run be as efficient as fleets of earthmoving machines. Three of the most aggressive and experienced Japanese ground commanders in the Imperial Army were in charge of the opposition. Indeed, as it turned out, the Japanese had a far more accurate estimate of the size, nature, and timetable of the American invasion than the Americans did of the Japanese defenses.
From the Hardcover edition.