The Tactics of Despair II

Altogether, twenty-four ships were sunk or damaged by the kamikazes that day. Though the suicide planes had not succeeded in penetrating to the beaches, the cost to the United States Navy had been high. And April 6 was only a prelude to mounting terror in the seas off Okinawa.

Onishi’s planes were not the only expedient by which the Japanese Navy hoped to turn Okinawa into a victory for the Emperor. From Tokuyama on the Inland Sea, the colossal battleship Yamato, displacing 72,909 tons, sped toward the Bungo Suido, between Kyushu and Shikoku. She was accompanied by two cruisers and six destroyers. Her destination was Okinawa. Her goal was the destruction of American transports and disruption of the beachhead. Since the Yamato carried only enough oil to take her to the island, she would have to be beached after firing her nine massive batteries of eighteen-inch guns at the American fleet. She had been sent out as floating suicide ship sui generis.

Shortly after five o’clock on the afternoon of April 6, the commanders of the submarines Threadfin and Hackleback watched in fascination as the monstrous Yamato moved across their periscopes. They noted her direction and signaled back to American carriers and heavy capital ships that nine ships were apparently headed south toward Okinawa. As darkness closed around the Japanese warships, they churned westward in a course designed to keep them away from American airpower as long as possible. The Japanese themselves had no protective cover in the skies.

Like chess players, the Americans maneuvered to thwart the enemy. Carriers and battleships moved up to intercept the Yamato at the first light of day. On the Yamato, nearly three thousand men waited tensely for the dawn and the ultimate confrontation.

At 8:22 A.M., a plane from the carrier Essex picked up the group, churning ahead at twenty-two knots. For the next four hours, Catalina flying boats hovered over the Japanese convoy as it ran due south toward Okinawa. Shortly after noon, massed carrier attacks began. Flying out of low clouds and rain, the American planes harried the Yamato and her escorts for over two hours. Repeated bomb and torpedo hits reduced the flagship to a shambles, yet she stayed afloat, firing continually at her tormentors.

When at last she was listing heavily, her captain ordered his men to abandon ship. Despite repeated protests from his aides, Captain Ariga refused to leave with them. Instead he had himself lashed to a support with heavy cord. Survivors recall one seaman remaining behind with him. From his pocket the seaman took a handful of biscuits, broke one, and held a piece up to the captain’s lips. Ariga looked at the man, then at the biscuit, smiled, and opened his mouth. The Yamato began to go under. Bound to his ship, Captain Ariga and his crewman died with her at 2:23 on the afternoon of April 7.

The last suicidal surface attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy had been a complete failure. Only four destroyers got back to Japan to report the loss of the most powerful battleship in the world.

In terms of overall strategy, the battle for Okinawa—the last land campaign of the Pacific war—was over before it began. American superiority was a foregone conclusion. But to the American Marines and soldiers struggling for survival there, it seemed that the Japanese had never fought as fiercely or as effectively. The land war was a savage killing match, fought on terrain which uniquely resembled Japan itself—familiar to the enemy, thus all the more alien to the Americans.

As April passed, the ruthless ferocity of the island war was evidenced on any given day. Marines running through gullies toward a rise called Wana Draw were attacked from the flanks by guns, pistols and mortars that fired and fired till all the men in the open had ceased to move. American flamethrowing tanks seared hillsides with gallons of liquid fuel, roasting hundreds of Japanese hiding in caves. As survivors ran out, waiting infantrymen fired clip after clip into them. Japanese shellfire was incessant, night and day, as never before in the Pacific war.

Ushijima’s heavy guns fired ceaselessly, searching out the Americans cowering in shallow depressions in the ground. Under the constant whine and roar of gunfire, sleep was fitful for the Marines and soldiers, and physical and mental exhaustion became commonplace. Cases of combat fatigue grew alarmingly, to a point where, before the campaign was over, thirteen thousand Americans had been brought to the edge of collapse.

Once a quiet haven for farmers, Okinawa soon stank of cordite and decaying corpses. The fields were torn, the roads pocked with holes. On both sides of the line, men crouched, waiting for the enemy to show himself and then rising up to beat him or shoot him or stab him again and again—until the next appeared. They lived in holes in the ground that were filled with water from the constant rain. Their clothes were continually soaked. Their boots and socks rotted. Their morale disintegrated and their minds were consumed with hatred and fear of the enemy just across the ravine or beyond the trees. Japanese and Americans alike wallowed in filth.

Out on the seas the immense American fleet continued to stand by. Here too nerves stretched beyond endurance as the Japanese pressed the kamikaze attacks throughout the month of April. Over a hundred American ships were damaged or destroyed. Nearly a thousand Japanese planes were lost in this period. But still Ushijima’s dream of routing the fleet and isolating the enemy on land remained unrealized.

Despite this disappointment, the kamikazes figured heavily in one last all-out effort undertaken by the Japanese command on May 3. The new strategy came into being painfully, born of bickering and bitterness among Ushijima’s staff. In headquarters one hundred feet below the ground, under the stronghold of Shuri Castle, an increasingly belligerent group of officers had tired of remaining on the defensive and were urging a massive counterattack. One of the radical leaders was Colonel Naomichi Jin, a staff officer who was disgusted at the conservative elements around Ushijima. As casualties mounted and the Americans inched down the island, Jin and his followers openly threatened the life of Colonel Yahara, chief proponent of a defensive strategy. General Ushijima faced a rebellion within his own ranks.

The inevitable showdown occurred in an acrimonious meeting in which General Isamu Cho, a man who for years had been an extreme rightist in army affairs in Japan, hotly argued for a strong attack on American fortifications. Hard-pressed by the shouts and threats of Cho, Jin and other diehards, Ushijima relented and gave weary approval to a massive offensive beginning May 4. The objective was to destroy the American Twenty-fourth Corps and to force back the entire American line. Arrangements were made with Admiral Onishi’s air arm for an intensive new kamikaze assault on the ships offshore to begin on the evening of May 3. Once more the Japanese hoped to effect a complete rupture of naval support to the army on the island.

Onishi’s squadrons came down from airfields in Kyushu as planned and managed to put eighteen ships out of action. One of them, the destroyer Aaron Ward, took five kamikaze dives, lost ninety-eight men killed or wounded, yet stayed miraculously afloat. But the vast bulk of American ships remained undamaged.

The land fighting that began at dawn on May 4 was chaotic, costly, and for the Japanese, hopeless. A thunderous initial bombardment by Japanese artillery was followed by the confusion of close-quarter fighting, where friend and foe passed each other in the fluid battle zones without realizing it. An entire squad of Japanese soldiers marched in close order right into the automatic rifles of the Seventy-seventh Infantry Division and was annihilated on the spot. A column of American soldiers, smoking and talking, their rifles loosely slung, walked toward the front lines under the eyes of Japanese infiltrators and were all killed in seconds. One Japanese advance late in the afternoon of May 4 succeeded in penetrating over a mile behind American positions. It was quickly blunted by superior firepower.

This action of May 4–5 represented the full extent of the last Imperial Army offensive in World War II. Japanese resources could not sustain another. On the next day General Ushijima ordered his badly beaten forces back into their caves and bunkers, and his army resumed a defensive posture. The influence of Cho and Jin and their supporters broke against the hard facts of reality.

In the deep shelter under Shuri Castle, General Ushijima tried without much hope to encourage his aides. On the other side of the lines, General Simon Bolivar Buckner ordered his forces to go over to the offensive. By May 8, V-E Day, the initiative had passed forever to the Americans.

The Japanese situation deteriorated steadily through May and the early part of June as American forces slowly pushed into the southernmost area of the island. General Ushijima’s forces were unable to withstand the relentless pressure of superior firepower. When Shuri Castle, the last bastion, fell on May 31, the battle was nearly over.

American infantrymen walking into that former headquarters of Ushijima’s Thirty-second Army witnessed a scene of utter devastation. Heavy shells and bombs had torn apart the town which ringed the castle grounds. Only a Methodist church and a two-story concrete building still stood. Shuri Castle itself was demolished. In this fortress from which former kings of Okinawa had ruled, nothing lived. The Japanese had left their dead and retreated to the south. The last center of organized resistance had dissolved.

In the next three weeks, the retreating General Ushijima managed to perform a minor miracle by organizing another zone of defense, but he knew it could hold only a short time. The end was close.

By now even Japanese soldiers knew it. Bombarded by millions of leaflets which assured them of fair treatment, they considered the idea of laying down their arms. Many decided against it and instead committed suicide. But for the first time in the war, hundreds of tattered and dirty soldiers came out of caves and walked toward American lines with hands held high over their heads. Eventually over seven thousand Japanese surrendered.

Inside a cave under Hill 89, General Ushijima read Allied surrender leaflets and laughed. His assistant, General Cho, relaxed with a bottle of Scotch as he listened to late reports coming in from the scattered units in the field. The front line had disintegrated. Japanese troops had become a disorganized rabble, skulking in holes and trenches, wandering through the countryside looking for food and water. They were without hope.

In an open field near Kadena Airbase more than a hundred shrouded bodies lay in neat rows on the grass. All of them were American sailors washed ashore from the wreckage of ships blown to pieces by kamikazes. Soldiers passing by paused, many of them aware for the first time of the price paid by the Navy in supporting the foot soldier at the beaches.

A huge cave inside the Japanese lines was serving as a field hospital where three hundred badly wounded Japanese Marines were being treated. Their commander, Admiral Ota, feared that the enemy would pour fire and gasoline into the cave before asking questions. He ordered the senior doctor to make sure that the patients did not suffer further, that they had an honorable death.

The doctor and his assistants readied hypodermic needles and walked through long rows of sick men. With tears rolling down their cheeks, they methodically squeezed syringes into three hundred outstretched arms. Finally there was no sound in the hospital except the sobbing of the medical staff.

Another Japanese doctor, named Maehara, had given up trying to cope with the mounting disaster and had sought refuge among Okinawan natives who were prowling through the battlefields. Maehara fell in with a group of men and women living in a series of caves gouged from the side of a hill. In these close quarters, he fell in love and shared his bed with a small, bright-faced native girl. In the midst of death, they clung together and spoke of an uncertain future.

In the third week of June, the Americans surrounded the hill. Maehara and the girl planned to escape by one of the several tunnels burrowed through the hillside to open ground hundreds of yards away. Fearful, they delayed leaving. American soldiers stalking the enemy came eventually to the mouth of the cave and threw in satchel charges of dynamite. Maehara retreated into the deepest recesses. The girl followed. When a flamethrower shot a burst into the entrance, the Japanese doctor shouted for the girl to follow him out through one of the escape hatches. Scrambling, twisting, he reached the cooling breezes outside. Behind him, nothing stirred. Shocked, Maehara retraced his steps into the blackness and came upon a crumpled form. The girl had been caught by the searing heat of the flamethrower and died in the dirt. Maehara wandered dazedly out of the cave and surrendered to the enemy. He was beyond caring.

On the eighteenth of June, General Simon Bolivar Buckner came to the forward positions to oversee the mop-up. Standing in an observation post, he watched the battle for the caves. Suddenly, a Japanese dual-purpose gun fired a shell which struck a rock formation above him. A jagged piece of coral flew down and hit Buckner in the chest. He died within minutes.

On the evening of the twenty-first of June, Generals Ushijima and Cho sat down to a sumptuous meal in their home under Hill 89. Overhead the Americans walked on top of the escarpment, where Japanese soldiers continued to resist them by fighting for every rock and tree.

The generals ate quietly. As their aides offered toasts, the two leaders drank to each other with dregs of whiskey preserved for this moment. A full moon shone on the white coral ledges of Hill 89 as a final tribute rang through the cave: “Long live the Emperor.”

At 4:00 A.M. on the morning of the twenty-second, Ushijima, cooling himself with a bamboo fan, walked with Cho between lines of crying subordinates to the mouth of the cave. There Cho turned to his superior and said, “I will lead the way.” The two generals emerged into the moonlight. They were followed by several staff officers.

Outside the entrance a quilt had been laid on top of a mattress. Loud firing sounded on all sides as American infantrymen, no more than fifty feet away, sensed movement. Ushijima proceeded to sit down and pray. Cho did the same.

Ignoring the guns and grenades, Ushijima bowed low toward the ground. His adjutant handed him a knife. The general held it briefly in front of his body, then ripped it across his abdomen. Immediately his adjutant raised a jeweled sword and brought it down across his neck. Ushijima’s head toppled onto the quilt and blood spattered the onlookers. Within seconds, General Cho died the same way.

The battle of Okinawa had ended. Over 12,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Japanese were dead. The American flag flew only 350 miles from Japan.



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