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.

WWII Vet

I recently finished the excellent book Unbroken, the true story of an American POW in Japan during WWII. As for most people, it has re-ignited my interest in World War II, and war in general. Yesterday, I had the chance to interview a Vietnam veteran, and while he was reluctant to speak of his own wartime experiences, he did tell me about his father, who served in the Pacific. These are his words:

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Sometime after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted. He wound up in the Army Air Corps, precursor to the Air Force. And somehow or another he volunteered for various things like jump school, which is parachute training. He was assigned to pre-invasion teams in the Pacific. Their main job was to go in ahead of an invasion force and do reconnaissance, so they’re looking for Japanese–where they are on the island, how many there are, what kind of weapons they have. So it was basically intelligence. They weren’t supposed to engage with the enemy because that would give them away.

I have a sneaky suspicion he volunteered for all this but I don’t know that for a fact. He was very proud of it.

He only told me two stories.

One was about the beginning, his first mission; and then one about his last mission. What happened in between, I have no idea.

On his very first mission, and I don’t know the name of the island or where he flew out from, they were supposed to go to the island at night. It was called a low-altitude parachute jump because you’re looking for accuracy, to get in the right place. The pilot was supposed to get them over this big sandy beach that they could see in the starlight. Jump and land and get into the jungle. Instead, the pilot apparently panicked and didn’t want to fly that close to the island, afraid he’d get shot down. So when the green light went on for them to jump, instead of being over the beach, they were over the water. He dropped them over the water.

My dad was panicked. He and a couple others got rid of their backpacks because they were weighing them down. Threw his helmet off. Kept his pistol belt on. He had heavy boots on. It was pitch black. They could hear wounded guys crying out. Couldn’t see a damn thing. Their instinct was to head right to shore. They knew a coral reef was there, just below the surface; they knew there was blood in the water. And they worried about sharks.

It turns out most fell on top of the reef. If I remember right there were 15 on the team, and only 3 made it to shore. The rest were cut up by the coral.

The three lost most of their equipment, including the radio. They got ashore, and

WWII, Pacific

In the Pacific, WWII

headed into the jungle. They were supposed to be on the island for 3-4 days, but they wound up being there about a month because they had no way to signal the rescue submarine to come get them.

They had no rations. They wound up trapping and killing what animals they could, mostly monkeys. They didn’t dare light a fire to cook anything so they ate them raw. My dad was a farm boy, and he was a pretty skilled hunter, what I knew of. He grew up butchering animals around the farm, so I don’t think it was any great problem for him to figure out a way. He knew how to use rabbit snares. They didn’t shoot the monkeys, I know that, because they didn’t want to be found out.

They spent the first week or so scared out of their minds, afraid to move. They’d never been in combat, it was their very first mission. The Japanese were all over the island. He used to say you could smell them. He was pretty sure the Japanese could smell them, too.

When they moved, they moved at night. Very quietly. I remember him telling me they sat outside a Japanese camp for two days, just counting and watching.

They were finally able to steal a Japanese radio and figure out how to use it. They eventually signaled a submarine and got the signal back telling them where they were supposed to rendezvous with the sub. So the Navy guys came onto shore at night on their rubber raft, picked them up, took them to the submarine and they eventually got them back to the home base.

There’s a picture somewhere of my dad right afterward–he had a mass of black curly hair, a big black beard, his uniform was pretty rotted. On base, everything of his was gone—his locker empty. They were assumed dead. I don’t know whatever happened to the pilot. My dad said several times what he would have done to him if he ever caught him.

Next week I’ll follow up with the second story, about his last mission in the Pacific during WWII.

The Importance of Timing

Meet Hallie Sawyer, a writer from Kansas City who is continuing my guest writer series, with this piece on the utter importance of split seconds:

When Jessica asked me to write a post about something I’m thankful that didn’t happen, I have to admit, I was a little stumped. I have much to be thankful for and I racked my brain for the right thing. But Veteran’s Day came along and I found it.

That day I watched a lot videos of veterans reuniting with their families and cried watching every one. Because I know that many of their lives had been spared by only minutes, seconds, even milliseconds.

Some 40 years ago, that was my father coming home to his wife. He wasn’t the same man, body or mind, as the one she had said goodbye to, but he was alive. My father had been assigned to a reconnoissance team and had endured a lot, they all had, but finally he had his release papers and he was headed home. But not without scars.

securedownloadA bullet grazed his head during one encounter. He was forced to hide in haystacks all night in a torrential rainstorm while the Viet Cong poked with pitchforks looking for them. And he witnessed one of his men die from jumping on a land mine to save them. He has the shrapnel in his skull to keep that memory close. Malaria wreaked havoc on his body. He was more than ready to be gone from that God-forsaken place. He had done his job and he was going home.

The chopper transporting him out of Hell had to make a detour. My father quickly registered that the place they needed to “swing by” was a hot zone, which meant they would be fired upon. The pilot told them they needed to pick up a wounded soldier and that it was going to be a drop in and lift off, not even touching the ground. Just one last mission.

They arrived, dropped in and got the soldier safely on board. So far, so good. But before they could breathe again, my father heard, “Sawyer! Hit the deck!” He did what he was told as he watched an enemy soldier stand on a distant hill with a rocket launcher on his shoulder. The rocket was aimed directly at their Huey.

Here is where the thankful part comes in. Both doors on either side of the chopper were still open. The rocket screamed through both open doors and exploded on the hillside beyond them.

I am thankful the chopper doors had not been shut. A second may have been the difference between me sitting here today and not existing.

Hallie Sawyer is a freelance and historical fiction writer. You can find her on her blog, Hallie SawyerFacebook and Twitter.

Meet: John Doe

JD was stationed in Iraq from August 2010 to June 2011 as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army.

I compiled information on certain terror networks. We were trying to put a puzzle together, trying to wrap our heads around who was who and who was doing what. We got info from various sources. People talk, and it’s a good way to get information. Especially when they’re compensated.

A US Marine base in Iraq

There were no days off. I worked a minimum of 12 hours a shift starting in the late afternoon. Dusk ‘til dawn. New information was always coming in, every day. Whether the info had value depended. We had to make decisions and notify the right people and ask them what they wanted to do–React? Let it play out?

Unfortunately, I’m limited in what I can tell you. Everybody we went after, we went after for a specific reason. We weren’t going to waste resources. There were numerous times we knew things they had just done. It might have been their involvement in the death of a U.S. soldier. In those particular cases, it’s a bit more personal. Going after the person who pulled the trigger in a sniper attack, or the guys who built the vest bomb that was used to kill soldiers at a checkpoint…it doesn’t change the mission, but to say it’s not personal would be lying.

We had constant radio and visual communication with the soldiers out on a mission based on information we’d supplied them. We learned a lot early on in the war in terms of taking care of our soldiers, absolutely ensuring that nobody gets left behind, learning how to fight an urban war. We got pretty good at it. All I can say is, drones are invaluable.

A lot of the policies and restrictions that came up were because of civilian casualties, whether during a drone attack or a firefight. You’re there to accomplish a mission; it doesn’t help to have your hands tied but at the same time, you don’t want to shoot first and ask questions later.

We weren’t allowed to go off post very much, just a few times. There were bazaars where local people came on base to sell products—trinkets, bootlegged DVDs. We had interaction with a lot of the police force and Iraqi army. They wanted things to be just as peaceful as we did. I think a lot of people have a misconception that so many over there are fanatical and that just isn’t the case. These are people just like us. They get up in the morning and go to work. And they want a decent life.

Some soldiers, marines, and sailors went over there 5-6 times. It was like a second home for them. They developed relationships. A lot of trust built up between the US and Iraqi people.

I didn’t disagree with anything we did over there. The way in which the military was operating at the tail end of Operation Iraqi Freedom was geared toward being absolutely legal. It was not the Wild West. There were protocols and procedures. Absolutely.

There were times I was frustrated – you think about terrorists. These are just bad people who need to be stopped. A lot of people, myself included, want to get rid of them by any means necessary. The protocols can be frustrating. Someone can be right there, you know they did something, but just like in the States, for some reason you can’t touch them.

Not to say there wasn’t corruption going on. Suspected terrorists were caught, turned over to Iraqi authorities, and all of a sudden they were seen out in town in a day or two. It wasn’t a common occurrence, but it definitely happened.

We did the best we could with what we had and the Iraqis were doing the same. There have been bombings and attacks since we left and, with us being gone, it’s primarily Iraqi on Iraqi, but that was going on between the Shiites and Sunnis before we left. Been going on forever. Afghanistan is gonna be a lot rougher once we’re gone. I’m not nearly as optimistic about Afghanistan as I am for Iraq.

Ryan

“He served in Iraq. Three years.” The pudgy man pointed to his friend next to him, and the friend nodded over his beer.

“Cheers,” she said, and clinked bottles with him. A subtle motion, completely ineffectual.

The pudgy man continued talking to her, as if the veteran wasn’t there. “He has…what do you call it? PTD?”

“PTSD?”

“Yeah, that’s it. So we take him out once in awhile, get him drunk. Try to help take his mind off it.”

She looked at the veteran and he smiled. “You could try something else,” she said to the pudgy man. “For your friend.”

He might have heard this before, and raised his eyebrows. “Like talk to him?”

“Yeah.”

“He doesn’t talk.”

She looked back to the veteran and noticed he was popping his jaw side to side, over and over. Probably coke, or maybe ecstasy.

“I wouldn’t mind helping other vets,” he said. “I’d like to get involved in something like that. If there was a program. But I don’t want to talk about me.”

“I suppose helping other vets could help you as well.”

He shrugged. “Lots of things happen in three years. I lived it. I don’t want to talk about it. I’d rather…” He made a motion with his hands of pushing down from his chest to his stomach. “I just can’t think about it anymore. I’m here. I don’t want to think about there.”

“But maybe if you talked about it, it would leave you. At least a little. Bit by bit would leave you.”

She knew she was naïve, and probably sounded ridiculous. That the problem was too big for a conversation with a stranger over a beer. But her only other choice was to not say anything, and she couldn’t do that.

His chin rested on his chest for a moment, then he wiped at his eye with his thumb. His jaw popped.

He nodded at her beer. “You alright? I’m gonna get another.”

When he left with his friend, another man approached. “That guy’s a druggie,” he said. “I saw him here last week all coked up. Watch out.”

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