Monday, March 30, 2020

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Easter Sunday in Okinawa

This portion of an illustration by John Hamilton from his series War at Sea shows USS Tennessee (BB 43) being targeted by Japanese Special Attack Corps (Kamikaze) aircraft on April 12, 1945, while performing shore bombardment in support of American troops fighting their way across Okinawa.  (Navy Art Collection via Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Curator/ Flickr)   
By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

On April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday, two US Marine Corps Divisions, along with two Army Divisions, landed on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Okinawa represented the last steppingstone in the island-hopping campaign before reaching the Japanese home islands. Much like the invasion of Iwo Jima, the fighting on Okinawa would be fierce on both land…and sea.
Landing craft crowd an Okinawa beach on "L-Day," April 1, 1945 (Naval History and Heritage Command image)

Utilizing veteran units from the Marine Corps and the Army, the assembled invasion force would be the largest ever assembled under the US Navy. An armada of over one thousand ships backed up the Marines and soldiers landing on the island.  Utilizing lessons that had been learned during the hard fought Pacific campaign, the Navy planned to be on station during the duration of the invasion.

The Japanese defending the island numbered 155,000 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima. Lt. Gen. Ushijima divided the island into defensive sectors to maximize the use of his troops. What Ushijima also had an abundance of was mortars and artillery. These weapons would be used to great effect during the course of the battle.

The primary objectives of the invasion were the airfields located at Yontan and Kadena. Securing these would provide an air base even closer to Japan for B-29 bombers as well as other support aircraft. The Navy carriers operating off the coast would provide valuable close air support to the Marines and soldiers operating on the ground.

LSTs and LSMs on an Okinawa beach with a crowd of other amphibious shipping offshore on April 3, 1945.  USS LST 552 is at left.  In the center are LCT 1270 and LSM 31LST 776 is second from right.  Photographed from an aircraft from USS Tulagi (CVE 72). (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
The initial landings proceeded with no resistance.  Beachheads were established to keep the steady flow of supplies. Veterans within the Marine and Army units knew that when you land unopposed on an island, it meant that the Japanese were dug in for you and waiting somewhere else. This was definitely the case on Okinawa. The 6th Marines did not make initial contact with the Japanese until April 13. This lead to a four-day battle, which resulted in an estimated 2,000 Japanese troops, killed. The 6th Marines suffered 207 killed and 757 wounded.
Marines holding the line near Naha, Okinawa, in May 1945. (U.S. Marine Corps Photograph/ Department of Defense via
Operating in the southern front, the Army encountered stiff resistance on the 6th of April. The defensive line that the Army discovered was centered on the town of Shuri and became known as the Shuri Line. This defensive arrangement proved to be very difficult to capture, and the fighting would become very deadly.
Marine Private First Class Joseph F. Garrity fires his flamethrower at a tomb being used as a Japanese sniper's nest.  Taken in late-May 1945. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
At sea, the overall strategic commander for the Navy was Admiral Raymond Spruance. Admiral Spruance had come to Okinawa with the entire Fifth Fleet, which was broken up into nine task forces, which included units from the Royal Navy. Within the Fifth Fleet battle group, were several battleships that had been repaired after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The combination of aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers brought a tremendous amount of firepower to support the operation. Eventually though, the fighting at sea would become just as intense as the fighting on the land.
Japanese “Zero” fighter plane in anti-aircraft action with Task Group 58.1 makes an attack on USS Vincennes (CL 64) off Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, as seen from USS Miami (CL 89). Photograph released April 6, 1945.  (National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-324531 via Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Curator/ Flickr)   
The invasion of Okinawa saw the heaviest use of the Japanese Kamikazes. Having lost most of their veteran pilots during the course of the island hopping campaign, Japan resorted to using young men with bare minimum flight training to turn their aircraft into human missiles and dive into American ships. During the course of the battle, over 1,900 kamikaze planes were flown into US Navy ships. These attacks resulted in the loss of 36 ships along with 64 ships receiving significant damage. 

Japanese Kamikazes were far from the only hazards to Navy ships and landing craft during Operation Iceberg.  USS Halligan (DD 584) struck a mine on March 26, 1945, during the prelude to the landings, causing her magazine to explode. (National Archives and Records Administration 80-G-324187 via Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Curator/ Flickr)
Operation Iceberg lasted 82 days. The island of Okinawa was declared secure on June 22, 1945. Japanese losses were estimated at over 150,000 killed which included civilians. For the US Navy, 4,907 Sailors were killed in action and 4,874 were wounded. It was the highest casualty count ever for the Navy during a single engagement with enemy forces. The Marine Corps lost 2,938 Marines during the fighting while the US Army had 4,675 soldiers killed in action. This included Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., who was the highest-ranking US military officer lost to hostile fire during World War II.
Marine Corporal Earl Brunitt (left) and Private Genare J. Nuzzi (right) of the 29th Regiment, 6th Division, share their foxhole with an Okinawan orphan as they grab a brief nap during the fighting in April 1945.  (U.S. Marine Corps Photograph/ Library of Congress image PR-13_CN-246-5 via Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Curator/ Flickr)

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