After the capture of Iwo Jima in March, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Southwest Pacific Area, turned his attentions to the island of Okinawa. Lying just 563km (350 miles) from the Japanese mainland, it offered excellent harbour, airfield and troop-staging facilities. It was a perfect base from which to launch a major assault on Japan, consequently it was well-defended, with 120,000 troops under General Mitsuru Ushijima. The Japanese also committed some 10,000 aircraft to defending the island.

After a four day bombardment the 1,300 ship invasion forced moved into position off the west coast of Okinawa on 1st April 1945. The landing force, under the leadership of Lieutenant-General Simon Buckner, initially totalled 155,000. However, by the time the battle finished, more than 300,000 soldiers were involved in the fighting. This made it comparable to the Normandy landing in mainland Europe in June, 1944.

Ushijima decided not to put his men on the coast where they would be subjected to US Naval heavy bombardment. Instead they were positioned at the southern end of the 60 mile long island on the volcanic mountain of Shuri.

On the first day 60,000 troops were put ashore against little opposition at Haguushi. The following day two airfields were captured by the Americans. However when the soldiers reached Shuri they came under heavy fire and suffered heavy casualties.

Reinforced by the 3rd Amphibious Corps and the 6th Marine Division the Americans were able to repel a ferocious counter-attack by General Mitsuru Ushijima on 4th May. At sea off Okinawa a 700 plane kamikaze raid on 6th April sunk and damaged 13 US destroyers. The giant battleship, Yamato, lacking sufficient fuel for a return journey, was also sent out on a suicide mission and was sunk on 7th May.

Fighting at Wana Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa (May 1945)
Fighting at Wana Ridge during the Battle of Okinawa (May 1945)

On 11th May, Lieutenant-General Simon Buckner, ordered another offensive on the Shuri defences, and the Japanese were finally forced to withdraw. Buckner was killed on 18th June and three days later his replacement, General Roy Geiger, announced that the island had finally been taken. When it was clear that he had been defeated, Mitsuru Ushijima committed ritual suicide (hari-kiri).

The capture of Okinawa cost the Americans 49,000 in casualties of whom 12,520 died. More than 110,000 Japanese were killed on the island.

While the island was being prepared for the invasion of Japan, a B-29 Superfortress bomber dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima on 6th August 1945. Japan did not surrender immediately and a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later. On 10th August the Japanese surrendered and the Second World War was over.

Primary Sources

(1) Bonnie Wiley, Associated Press report (7th July, 1945)

This is a tour of the Okinawa battlefield after the guns have fallen silent-a battlefield where many valorous young Americans fell but carried with them into eternity an even greater number of Japanese.

The jeep bumps along - moving slowly through the dust clouds to keep from running down Okinawans - past the ruined and deserted villages into the rubble heap of what was once Naha, the capital of Okinawa.

Then up the hill to Shuri Castle, where the Japanese had their headquarters until the shells and bombs pulverized the walls, five feet thick.

There was Chocolate Drop Hill, where the wreckage of 15 American tanks stopped by Japanese shells are mute monuments to the valor of the men who fell in the battle to conquer it.

It is peaceful now on Conical Hill, where the Americans fought up and were driven back and finally went up to stay.

Not far away is a cemetery where many of those who fought on Conical Hill lie buried. Helmeted soldiers are painting white crosses.

In the center of one cemetery was a low picket fence around the grave of Lieut. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., commander of the U.S. Tenth Army, who fell just as final victory was in view.

The sporadic fire of Japanese snipers from distant Hill 89 reminds the visitor that men still are falling although the campaign has long since ended.

(2) Studs Terkel interviewed John Garcia about his experiences in Okinawa for his book, The Good War (1985)

We buried General Ushijima and his men inside a cave. This was the worst part of the war, which I didn't like about Okinawa. They were hiding in caves all the time, women, children, soldiers. We'd get up on the cliff and lower down barrels of gasoline and then shoot at it. It would explode and just bury them to death.

I personally shot one Japanese woman because she was coming across a field at night. We kept dropping leaflets not to cross the field at night because we couldn't tell if they were soldiers. We set up a perimeter. Anything in front, we'd shoot at. This one night I shot and when it came daylight, it was a woman there and a baby tied to her back. The bullet had all gone through her and out the baby's back.

(3) Samuel Tso, Navajo Code Talker, interviewed by the Arizona Republic newspaper about the invasion of Okinawa (9th June 2002)

When I ran across that Death Valley, I ran into a whole bunch of Marines who got shot down trying to cross that valley. Some were still alive, and they reached out to us to ask for help. But the sergeant was right behind us and said, "You're not supposed to do that kind of duty, you're supposed to locate the machine-gun nests and report back. That is your mission." So we didn't have time to help anybody out, we just kept going and we located a couple of them (enemy positions).

Just to keep the machine guns silent, we threw some hand grenades close by the machine-gun nest. And we found out it's not an open nest, it's an enclosed nest, and there's just a slit where they were firing from. Even though we hit the enclosed nest, the hand grenade bounced off and exploded outside. But then that was just to keep their heads down until we crossed back across the valley and report, and we did report, and that's when one of the Navajo Code Talkers sent a message and ordered artillery fire, mortar fire and rockets.

While he was sending over there, and I was over on the other side, the sergeant chewed me out. Oh, he really got after two of us who stopped and tried to help those wounded Marines. And when they finished sending the message, within about five minutes, they started shelling and (dropping) all that bombardment on that machine-gun area, they just literally blew everything up. I don't know how many minutes it took them.

When they stopped firing, they ordered the Marines to cross it, and the Marines just walked across that valley. So those machine guns were all knocked out. That was toward the end of the Iwo Jima operation."