One for the History Books: a Story of the Battle of Okinawa

I wish I’d had accounts like these in my high school textbooks.

Last week, I brought you the story of a WWII soldier stranded on a Pacific island for a month, forced to eat raw monkeys and move only at night. The story was told to me by the soldier’s son, himself a Vietnam veteran. It was one of only two war stories his father ever told him–the story of his first mission and the story of his last mission. “What happened in between, I don’t know,” he says.

Here is the story of the soldier’s last mission, as told by his son:

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(Some background: Okinawa was the last major battle of WWII and is the largest land-sea-air battle in history. The 82-day battle resulted in Japan losing over 77,000 soldiers and the Allies suffering 14,009 deaths [with an estimated total of more than 65,000 casualties of all kinds]. Tens of thousands of local civilians were killed or committed suicide. Japanese suicide bombers sank over 30 U.S. ships.) 

My dad’s last mission was the last big battle of the Pacific–Okinawa. It was the last landing before they dropped the atomic bomb. They were one of a bunch of pre-invasion teams that went into Okinawa to gather intelligence. It’s a relatively small island, narrow and only about 60 miles long. There are places you can stand in the middle and see ocean on both sides. The southern half is relatively hilly. It’s where all the population centers are. Before they went in, the intelligence assumed most of the Japanese were dug in on the northern half of the island. It was mostly jungle, mountainous. Rough terrain. They had estimates of 100K or more. The plan was that the Army would take the southern half, and the Marines would land on the northern part, where the Japanese were supposed to be.

My dad’s unit flew in, managed to get dropped on the beach this time. They went inland a bit and had to sneak by these bunkers the Japanese had built into the cliffs. They realized that there were a lot of Japanese on the southern end of the island. They knew it was probably wrong that most Japanese were on the north end.

Later on, after it was over, they looked at these bunkers. They were made out of cement, walls three-foot thick. When the Navy bombarded the island, they did no damage. The walls had all these slits in them, just like you see in Normandy, so the machine guns can sweep the area.

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My dad’s unit was supposed to get off the island before the shelling started but couldn’t, I don’t know why. They were told to find a cave; Japanese were all over the place. They were there several days while the Navy flattened the southern end of the island. If you look at pictures of that end of Okinawa, there was nothing standing afterward. They really did level the island. But my dad said you could be hunkered down in a cave or gully at night and could hear the Japanese all around them. One of his buddies claimed he talked to a Japanese officer during all this who had gone to UCLA. That is a common story. Don’t know if it’s ever true. Wouldn’t be surprised.

Marines land on Okinawa

Marines land on Okinawa

So my dad’s team was sitting above the cliffs where the Japanese were in bunkers. They couldn’t do much because the Japanese were all around them. When the Army came ashore, they had to watch them just get cut to ribbons. I believe Okinawa was the bloodiest battle in the war, at least in the Pacific. The land was littered with bodies. There were 30,000 casualties. The Army just kept coming. Once they got a foothold, they joined up with some of the troops like my dad. Then their job was to clean out the bunkers best they could. They crawled around in front of the bunkers so the firing porch was right above their head. They’d pitch a grenade into the hole. If they had no grenade, they’d stick their gun barrel up above their heads, into the slot, and empty it.

My dad spent the rest of his time with a unit just cleaning out caves. They’d find a cave with Japanese inside. Pin them down and then they would take Jerry cans–they’re flat gas cans that hold five gallons of gas or something. They’d pour powdered soap into the cans, turn the gas to gel. In effect, they were making napalm. These little gel balls would fly out and if you got hit by one, it’d stick to you. It burned. So they’d tie a rope to it and get somebody to crawl above a cave, lower a can down to the mouth of the cave. A sharpshooter would shoot the can and it would explode and start burning. Sometimes the Japanese would come out, sometimes the wouldn’t.

There was a famous story of 3-400 Japanese* who didn’t want to surrender so they committed suicide. That happened while my dad was on the island. He didn’t see it but he heard about it. The Japanese basically got cornered on a peninsula, and they marched off the cliff.
Japanese suicide bomber.

Japanese suicide bomber.

So that was one of the two stories he ever really told. And I would say he told those reluctantly. I don’t know how he left Okinawa but he ended up in the Huey P. Long hospital in New Orleans after VJ day. He had some jungle diseases. High fevers, out of his head half the time.

Somewhere in there, and for what I don’t know, he got a Bronze Star, which is a medal for heroism. I found out about the Bronze Star at his funeral. My cousin was a minister and he was sitting with my mother getting information before the service. So he mentioned it at the funeral. A lot of veterans are pretty closed mouthed. He probably never would have told me about Okinawa, except that in 1968, I was going there.

*He might have also been referring to a story of hundreds of Okinawan civilians who jumped to their deaths in a mass suicide, urged on by Japanese soldiers who told them they would be raped, tortured, or killed by the conquering Americans.
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8 thoughts on “One for the History Books: a Story of the Battle of Okinawa

  1. Wow. I read Unbroken last year, and it was really the first book I’ve read about World War II from the Pacific theater. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for veterans to relive their time at war by telling their stories, but it’s so important that we never forget the horrors and the human suffering. Thank you for giving us a personal account, Jessica.

  2. Wow. My husband’s father was in Okinawa, and received a Purple Heart, but he never talked about it. I passed your post onto my husband. (As you know) I’ve been doing a lot of research about the Vietnam War, and “a lot of veterans are pretty closed mouthed” has been my experience. When I do hear stories (like these) and the Vietnam stories I’ve been fortunate enough to hear in person, I understand. The stories are important (but hard) to hear and even more important (and much harder, I’m sure) to tell. Thank you for sharing this remarkable story.

    • I will let you know if I ever get the full story from the Vietnam veteran I know. I have part of it, the basics. He didn’t want to go any further at the time. How wonderful that you are documenting some stories, though.

  3. After such trauma I can understand why so many soldiers didn’t want to discuss the gritty details of their experiences. Words can sometimes fail. (As a writer I hate saying that! It is probably why I love writing historical fiction so much because I can try to capture the emotions that are hard to put into words.) I think the work of StoryCorps and the true stories you share here are so important.

    • Thanks, Jackie. I appreciate it. Have you also heard of Narrative 4? I had a chance to hear Colum McCann and Luis Urrea speak about it at Printers Row last year.
      Yes – I understand why they don’t want to talk, and I want to respect that. At the same time, it’s hard not to beg because I feel it’s so important to document.

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