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“[Astor] is a master… This is oral history at its best—direct, illuminating, capturing sights and sounds and feelings and actions that never make it into official reports or more formal military histories… I recommend this book without hesitation or reservation.”—Stephen E. Ambrose
On the sea the Japanese rained down a deadly hail of kamikazes. On land the entrenched defenders had nowhere to retreat, and the US Army and Marines had nowhere to go but onward, into the thick of some of the of the most bloody close-quarters fighting in World War II.
This was Okinawa, the savage pitched battle waged just months before the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Operation Iceberg, as it was known, saw the fiercest attack of kamikazes in the entire Pacific Theater of War. And here Gerald Astor lets the soldiers tell their stories firsthand: of flame-thrower attacks and hand-to-hand confrontations, of atrocities, deadly ambushes and brutal hilltop sieges that left entire companies decimated. Operation Iceberg is the raw, hard-edged account of war at its most brutal—and the last great battle of World War II.
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THE SITE AND THE SIGHTS
THE TOTAL LAND SURFACE OF THE RYUKYUS AMOUNTS TO ONLY 1,850 square miles, less than the second smallest U.S. state, Delaware. Only thirty of the islands housed more than a handful of people. Okinawa as the main site for Operation Iceberg, “The Great Loochoo” in local parlance, covers a quarter of the entire land mass and lies in the middle of the chain. Its closest companions were a clump of much smaller islands known as the Kerama Retto and off its northwestern coast one of sufficient size for a large airfield, Ie Shima.
As a battlefield and a base, Okinawa had its drawbacks. The subtropical climate generated heavy rainfalls, monsoon surges and ferocious typhoons that would lash the islands between May and November. In 1945 the road network was limited and not designed for motorized traffic. Downpours in the rainy season created near impassable quagmires.
Heavily forested with bamboo, banyan, pandanus (a kind of pine), but not junglelike, the land supported pigs, goats, a small number of cattle and horses, a multitude of ravenous insects and a particularly venomous viper known as the habu. Orientation lectures to troops headed for Okinawa warned about the deadly consequences of the reptile’s bite.
The indigenous people resemble but do not duplicate the racial stock of the Japanese and the local culture is a mix that includes Chinese influence. Veneration of ancestors, a strong element in the people’s religion, stimulated the construction of elaborate concrete burial tombs, which would figure strongly in the fortifications facing the invaders.
The Great Loochoo itself stretched generally north and south for sixty miles, with a narrow girth that ranged from a mere two miles to a modest eighteen. With rough, mountainous terrain covering the northern two-thirds of Okinawa, three quarters of the prewar 435,000 people lived in the more gentle, hilly south. They cultivated almost every square foot of arable ground which lay between a series of steep ridges and deep ravines. The crops included sweet potatoes, bananas, beans, sugar cane and rice. Okinawa’s major towns, Naha, Shuri, Itoman and Yonabaru, names that would become familiar to leathernecks and GIs, were in the south, along with the vital Yontan and Kadena airfields.
Coral reefs fringed almost the entire island. Even at high tide the water was not deep enough for shallow draft, small craft to pass safely onto the shores. Cliffs that abutted the sea divided beaches into strips from 100 to 900 yards in length. These strands often measured only ten to forty-five yards wide at low tide. Two major airstrips at Yontan and Kadena sat on plains little more than a mile from the western beaches of southern Okinawa.
In 1853, less than 100 years before the huge, 1,500-vessel invasion Love Day fleet would appear off the coast, Commo. Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy sailed into the harbor of Okinawa’s principal city, Naha. At that time, the people of Okinawa paid tribute to both the Chinese and Japanese in return for an uneasy independence.
Perry then took his six gunboats to what is now Yokohama and convinced the emperor of Japan to sign a trade treaty. Exposed to Western influences, Japan changed rapidly, adopting among other things, a more vigorous imperial stance which led to the annexation of Okinawa in 1879.
Considered a part of Japan, just as Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands are now integrated into the United States, Okinawa received an influx of administrators, officials, professionals, and, above all, military forces from the north. Fully vested citizens of the Imperial Empire, the Okinawans were regarded by those who came to govern, manage and defend the place as rustics and perhaps inferiors. However, the Japanese soldiers stationed on Okinawa never generated the hostility manifested by the peoples of the occupied territories like the Philippines, Solomon Islands or other lands conquered after Pearl Harbor. The native inhabitants may have resented the attitudes of those from Nippon but they considered the Allies their enemies and they were willing to fight for their homeland and Japan. To the 80,000 troops from various parts of Japan hunkering down to defend Okinawa were added 20,000 Okinawan conscripts. Their officers from the Japanese army had no complaints about their performance under fire. Tsuneo Shimura, a captain who had graduated in 1940 from the Imperial Military Academy, remarked, “We had about 100 Okinawans attached to the battalion [24th Division, 32nd Infantry Regiment]. Some were middle school and a few university graduates. They fought well. Their knowledge of the terrain was very useful, especially for night moves.”
The war had first come to Okinawa late in 1944. On October 10, 1944, raids from Task Force 58 of the U.S. Navy launched 1,400 sorties and 600 tons of bombs along with thousands of rockets pummeled military installations and Naha’s port facilities. Incendiaries ignited uncontrollable fires in buildings constructed of wood and paper. Most of the city, home to 65,000 people, was destroyed almost overnight. About a thousand civilians perished, double the number of military personnel killed.
In succeeding months, attacks continued although the pilots found a dearth of visible targets. Marauding U.S. submarines preyed on shipping in the East China Sea, sinking vessels that bore reinforcements and supplies or evacuated nonessential civilians.
The import to both the Imperial Army command and the chiefs of the Japanese 32nd Army that garrisoned Okinawa was unmistakable. From Tokyo came the word to defend to the death. Order number 82 issued by 32nd Army headquarters declared, “The Empire is determined to fight a showdown battle with an all-out effort for the preservation of additional unity when the enemy advances to the Nansei Shoto [another name for the Ryukyus]. Should we be unable to defend the Nansei Shoto, the mainland and the southern frontier would become isolated . . . a life and death problem for our nation.” Those on the island had known for years this would be their destiny and had spent years in preparation.
The preinvasion American figures on Japanese strength on Okinawa and the surrounding islands considerably underestimated the number of troops. Interrogators collected scraps of information from documents and an occasional prisoner taken elsewhere but their knowledge of the Ryukyus was scant. A submarine dispatched from Pearl Harbor to photograph the beaches disappeared. The only real source of intelligence lay in aerial reconnaissance and early in the game the enemy had gone underground. To the prying eyes of the pilots and to the lenses of the cameras, Okinawa began to look as if it were devoid of humans. Photographs indicated defenses around Naha, behind the Hagushi beaches on the western coast about twenty miles from Naha and along a ridge known as the Shuri Line, which centered on an ancient walled city dominated by Shuri Castle and girdled the island.
Subterranean defenses had been an increasingly prominent hallmark of Japanese strategy, as American GIs and leathernecks painfully learned during the island-to-island trek towards Okinawa. In places like Tarawa and Iwo Jima, the Nipponese had burrowed into nearly impregnable coral for their emplacements, rendering themselves all but invulnerable to the usually lethal barrages of heavy naval guns. Flame throwers and satchel charges, demanding close-in work by the attacking troops, became the only means to overcome the inhabitants and stifle their deadly fire. As the Americans improved their techniques, their adversaries honed countermeasures. Snipers with rifles and grenades picked off assault teams toting flame throwers and explosives. Anti-incendiary devices like wet mats or blankets smothered fires. Ventilation systems became well disguised and less susceptible to an attack.
For close to two years, the local Okinawa commanders drove their men to dig, ever deeper. The overseers exhorted the men with the slogan, “Confidence in victory will be born in fortifications.” The soldiers willingly embarked on construction of shelter that might preserve them from enemy bombardment. Furthermore, the approach offered a glimmer of hope for survival, if not victory.
Okinawa was not a coral atoll but a veneer of that substance coated much of the land toward the south. Bulldozers were not available. The troops excavated by hand with picks and shovels, often wearing them down to stumps on the coral crust before reaching the dirt below. Then Capt. Koichi Itoh, who had survived a childhood case of tuberculosis and graduated from the Imperial Military Academy, says his men created 10,000 meters of caves using only hand tools. They worked every day including Sundays; the single holiday was New Year’s Day.
Tsuneo Shimura noted that officers labored as industriously at these tasks as enlisted men. “Some men refused to show up for roll call. They were not AWOL or deserters but working in the caves. Every moment they felt might make the difference between life and death. They dug with hand tools and by the light of lamps lit by pine resin.” Shimura noted that the soldiers never forgot where they dug, and later, wounded men sought refuge where they knew they could find some protection.
The Japanese also incorporated into their defensive emplacements the thick tombs of limestone blocks that the Okinawans had raised to honor their dead. The Japanese intelligence experts had their own blind spots. Someone in the strategy hierarchy counseled, “Take advantage of the American Army’s respect for tombs.” In a typical human error of projecting one’s own beliefs upon others, the advisor saw the enemy as reverential towards ancestors. While Americans might extend piety towards their own departed, they hardly would sacrifice any advantage to honor that of their foes.
That error aside, the result of this industry and ingenuity was a honeycomb of underground bunkers, some as many as five stories below ground. Many of these connected through a web of tunnels that produced as much as sixty miles of subterranean corridors. A single cave could house as many as 1,000 men. Trucks, even tanks, could be parked inside. Intersecting automatic weapons fire forged deadly mutual protection for entrances. Openings from inside the caves allowed positions to be shifted during artillery and air bombardments. Egress to the systems was artfully concealed. Spider holes—small, well-hidden pits—sited near entrances provided sentries clear, surprise fire lanes upon interlopers.
The rooms of the underground hideaway for the 32nd Army headquarters resembled those of a barracks, with desks, chairs and electricity. Kitchens provided good, hot food from a bountiful supply of canned goods and staples. Beer and sake flowed freely. The almost all-male society was cheered by the presence of thirty women clerks from Japan and Okinawa.
Ladders led from one level to another; communications traveled by an internal telephone system, although later the heavy shelling from the invaders destroyed the wiring, making messengers necessary. For some reason, the Imperial Japanese Army never developed an effective means of radio communications.
Life below the earth was not without its unpleasant aspect. The temperature hovered around ninety degrees; the humidity approached 100 percent, making walls constantly damp and causing sacks of rice to ferment and turn sour. The climate induced bothersome skin rashes, and the presence of so many people with few opportunities to practice personal hygiene bred rank aromas.
Concealment was critical, both to deceive the preinvasion sources of intelligence and to fool unwary soldiers once the shooting began. Kitchen smoke vents were carefully screened from observation. The watchwords of those in charge of defense were, “Camouflage is better than concrete.”
The U.S. forces focused on three other principal objectives in the Ryukyus: the Kerama Retto, the Keise Shima and Ie Shima. The first of these consisted of eight mounds of steep, rocky slopes that poked 400 to 600 feet out of the water. The largest added up to only a few square miles and provided sustenance for a handful of inhabitants. There were no roads on the Kerama Retto, merely trails for pack animals or humans.
The Kerama Retto offered an irresistible asset. Lying only ten to fifteen miles from Okinawa, these otherwise unprepossessing clumps of hilly land nestled a spacious, well-protected deep anchorage within their waters. Obviously, no enemy troops capable of using small arms, not to mention even small artillery, could be allowed to occupy the surrounding bits and pieces of the Ryukyus.
It apparently never occurred to the Japanese that the enemy would find the natural harbor within the Kerama Retto so attractive, for little effort had been made to install strong points capable of fending off attacks. Instead, they based only about 100 troops there, supplementing them with some 600 Korean laborers. But one additional and potentially dangerous element consisted of several squadrons of plywood motorboats fitted with depth charges.
The sea raider squadron crews were trained to dump their 264-pound explosives as close to the vital areas of a ship as possible. Once the devices rolled off the racks at the back of the speedboat, the pilot had five seconds before they detonated. The thin-hulled, slow-moving and poorly built craft probably would not survive the blast but, strictly speaking, it was not considered suicidal in the same terms as a kamikaze pilot. Altogether there were 350 of these Q-boats concealed around the Kerama Retto. Machine guns, mortars, small arms and ammunition issued to the crews added a further ingredient for resistance to invaders.
At least equally barren and inhospitable as the Kerama Retto, the four tiny coral islets of Keise Shima lay a mere eight miles from where the American forces expected to charge across the Okinawa beaches. Photo reconnaissance indicated defensive gun emplacements behind these areas. From Keise Shima, batteries of 155 mm guns could support the initial assault waves and hurl projectiles at would-be resisters. Conversely, if the defenders were permitted to stay on Keise Shima with heavy weaponry, they could slam both the U.S. fleet and those coming ashore.
The island of Ie Shima, about ten square miles in size, stood less than four miles from the tip of an Okinawan peninsula about twenty miles north of where the initial attack on the Great Loochoo would occur. Flatter than most of its sister islands, Ie Shima boasted a large plateau over much of its interior. Aware of its topographical advantages in an area where flat ground was at a premium, the Japanese had begun construction of no less than three airfields on Ie Shima. Only at the southern end of Ie Shima was the level surface radically broken. Iegusugu Mountain, a 600-foot, sheer outcrop of rock, dubbed “the Pinnacle” by GIs, jutted above the rest of the oval-shaped plateau and the nascent airstrips like the control tower of an aircraft carrier stationed in the East China Sea. South of the Pinnacle, in the town of Ie, many of the 5,000 civilians who remained when the war reached the Ryukyus occupied 300 houses.
Ie Shima, as one more objective in the overall scheme for the conquest of the Ryukyus, also drew the attention of aerial reconnaissance. Just as on Okinawa, the soldiers of Japan, aided by a labor battalion conscripted from Okinawa and the local people, frantically dug in. The eyes in the sky could not discern the maze of pillboxes carved out of homes and tombs, the inevitable caves, three stories high in some cases, hacked into ridges and slopes and tied in by a network of passageways, nor could they pick out the machine gun and mortar positions veiled from view with shrubbery.