A Picture from History: Battle of Okinawa By: Matt Brown

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The island-hopping campaign in the Pacific theater of WWII was absolute Hell.

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For two years, American soldiers and marines assaulted island after island. They landed on fortified beaches and traversed dense jungles to hunt down hidden enemies.

The super battleship Yamato explodes after persistent attacks from U.S. aircraft.

By April 1945, they had crossed the entire South Pacific. Now they targeted Okinawa — considered by the Japanese to be one of their home islands. For almost three months, the Battle of Okinawa raged as both sides fought for control.

To prepare for the landing, the Americans organized the Tenth Army.

The Tenth Army

War correspondent Ernie Pyle with soldiers of the Tenth Army in Okinawa
War correspondent Ernie Pyle with soldiers of the Tenth Army in Okinawa

This was a grouping of four army infantry divisions and three Marine divisions with a jointly commanded tactical air force. The Tenth Army totaled over 500,000 men, almost half of which were dedicated combat troops.

Opposing them were the men of the Japanese 32nd Army, over 75,000 strong. Additionally, the Japanese Army conscripted over 40,000 Okinawan civilian “volunteers” — including children — to resist the invasion. 

Child soldiers at Okinawa
Child soldiers at Okinawa

The invasion of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, as soldiers and marines landed on the western coast. The Tenth Army swept across the narrow island and moved south with little resistance. Along the way, they captured two airbases within just a couple of hours.

But although the Tenth Army took the center of the island with ease, the real battle was still to come.

Motobu Peninsula

By April 13, the Americans had secured most of northern Okinawa. The exception to this was Motobu Peninsula, jutting out from the island’s northwestern edge and covered in rocky ridgelines and forests.

Motobu Peninsula
A shot of Motobu Peninsula, taken from Onna, also on Okinawa (Photo: そらみみ)

Japanese defenders who fell back from their positions across northern Okinawa concentrated in the ravines and woods of Motobu and presented stiff resistance.

Finally, after five days of brutal combat, suicide attacks, and surprise ambushes, the 6th Marine Division seized Motobu.

Japanese high school students seeing off a kamikaze pilot headed for Okinawa
Japanese high school students seeing off a kamikaze pilot headed for Okinawa

Meanwhile, to the south, the Army’s 7th and 96th Infantry Divisions fought for control of the ridgelines along the island’s main highway.

After sustaining over 1,000 casualties in a single week and removing the Japanese from key hilltops around the city of Shuri, the Americans discovered that these fortified positions were simply outposts protecting a much larger force.

As the Americans continued to slowly press south, the Japanese launched a highly organized counteroffensive. After realizing they were outgunned, Japanese defenders took to caves for shelter from aerial and naval bombardment.

Japanese Type 89 150mm gun hidden inside a cave defensive system
Japanese Type 89 150mm gun hidden inside a cave defensive system

Rather than facing a cohesive front, the Americans would now have to fight the fortified Japanese cave by cave.

Slow Moving Advances

Over the next month, the American advance slowed to a crawl. Even the flame tanks brought in to help clear the caves had little overall impact. Throughout May, heavy rains turned the island to mud that soon filled with countless bodies.

After inching along for weeks, Americans finally seized the cities of Shuri and Naha as the Japanese retreated for a final defense.

Marines during the Battle of Okinawa
U.S. Marines during the Battle of Okinawa

At this point, thousands of Japanese soldiers began to commit suicide. After more Marines landed in the south, 4,000 Japanese sailors ended their lives in a massive underground bunker.

By the time the entire island was pacified on June 30th, over 100,000 Japanese and Okinawans had died, along with over 12,000 Americans. 

This is a new style of article for Pew Pew Tactical, if you liked it — let us know in the comments! If you didn’t enjoy it…well phooey. To catch up on previous Pictures from History, click on over to our History Category.