Why We Remember War
Human beings look to anniversaries as reminders that it is time to once again celebrate or to mourn. When the occasion of the anniversary brings us together to mourn we often choose to bury the tragic event at the root of that sorrow. We cope with the loss through remembrances of the people and places as they were before the tragedy struck. On the anniversaries of battles there is little to celebrate; the loss of lives, homes, and ways-of-life, on both sides, is devastating to think of. Excluding military historians, or warmongers, these belligerent anniversaries typically go unnoticed by a civilized society. To recall them as a collective society encourages thoughts of vengeance, and stirs angry emotions that lead to indignations against another contemporary populous that may be several generations removed from the event.
Why, then, is it necessary or important to mark such belligerent events with remembrances? From the perspective of the amateur genealogist or historian it is important to assign the honor and courage demonstrated during these tragic episodes to our forefathers. Approximately sixteen million men and women served in uniform during World War II. This figure does not include Merchant Marines, Rosie the Riveters, construction workers (many times as on Wake Island, in the heart of battle), civilian medical professionals and the mass of homeland laborers supporting each and every battle. Military members, especially frontline troops, are honored heroes and it is the opinion of this author that our society can never praise them satisfactorily. Neither can we afford to skip an opportunity to honor their sacrifice; less than one and a half million of the sixteen million World War II veterans are still alive. We lose over seven-hundred-fifty WWII veterans every day.
Secondly, we must remind ourselves, at least annually, those events such as the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, once forgotten, lead to open doors for those enemies of the State who would exploit a similar weakness. The comparison here of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks on September 2001 should be evident to the reader. As we mark these anniversaries we renew our awareness and remind ourselves that now all Americans belong to TSA and the FBI – we are all intelligence operatives always on the lookout for threats to our security. Only in these efforts can we hope to reduce our future remembrances of tragedies and wars.
In the researcher’s efforts to build a personal profile of a forefather, few places provide the plethora of documents and well-done research as the battlefield. The military documentation on individuals in service is enormous. These documenting procedures continue to proliferate through the Veteran’s Affairs Administration and other post-service agencies. Strategic examination of the battlefield by military historians and military tacticians provides the amateur researcher with accurate and abundant witness accounts of small unit, sometimes, individual, and big-picture actions. Through these accounts we discover clues to the personality traits observed in veterans and their teachings of philosophies to subsequent generations, including ourselves. This knowledge of the veteran may in some cases cause the noncombatant researcher to ignorantly cast some veterans in a bad light – cowardly, weak, dangerous or barbaric for example. The researcher must remember that in combat there are few civilized rules; there is no such thing as a coward or a hero, and what combatants do to stay alive in no way carries over to their actions outside of that violent environment. A very small percentage of veterans suffering from extreme post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) ever become a danger to themselves or others. Had this not been the case, American society would have been extinguished by the sixteen million returning veterans of World War II, who, still to this day, seldom sought or obtained treatment for their severe PTSD.
Combat veterans should always be celebrated as men and women who had the uncommon courage to do what had to be done to protect their homeland, their neighbors and their families. They did what had to be done in hope that peace would endure for one century, one decade, or one year longer than if they had not served.
To neglect to retell their stories is to lose a piece of history and to disregard their part in events that shaped our present world. To fail in these remembrances and celebration of our forefather’s battles is to discount our core belief that one free man can make a difference in the world. With this in mind, I begin, hopefully one of many, studies and annual remembrances of veterans and their battles.
When you go home, tell them of us, and say: For your tomorrow, we gave our today.
Operation Iceberg: The Final Battle of World War Two
As the inhabitants and former soldiers of Japan looked-on at the menacing battleship, USS Missouri dominating the horizon off the coast of Tokyo Bay that September morning, it must have seemed a nightmare, or perhaps a hallucination. Since their attack on China in 1937, the Empire of Japan had overwhelmed by military force an area spanning territories, colonies and seas formally claimed by the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and France. These were only the major world powers and empires. Countless other independent islands and nations lost their freedom to the Empire of Japan after 1941.
For those Japanese standing humbled and defeated, representing a subdued people, on board the Missouri, they too must have wondered what brought them to this, their lowest point. For more than five years the soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting under the Rising Sun had raped, murdered and destroyed unabated. They had seemed unstoppable and appeared destined to control the eastern half of the world. Once the Japanese envoy formalized the unconditional surrender by signing, all that they had accomplished militarily would be history. Though the act of surrender went against the fundamental Japanese ethos, in the light of recent events, it was surrender or chance being wiped from the face of the earth as a people.
What had caused the Japanese political and military elite, adamant on fighting the American landing on the homeland of Japan to the last person capable of holding a weapon, to admit defeat without a single American soldier stepping onto mainland Japan? History of course allows us hindsight. That weapon which demoralized and subdued an unshakable people was, of course, the two atomic bombs detonated on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In sheer terror of the destructive force of an atomic exposition, nothing to date compares.
The decision to annihilate approximately a quarter of a million civilians did not come without consternation for the new president or his military, scientific or political advisers. During the years following 1942 the United States had taken up a series of island-hopping offensive campaigns against the Japanese military. While these leap-frog campaigns had been successes they were exceedingly expensive in terms of human life and equipment. The war in Europe still absorbed the largest percentage of American service men and their supporting arms. America, though having many allies, had few resources available outside her own to fight the Pacific campaigns with. British, Russian and French forces were devoted to pressing the Germans off, or keeping them off, their homelands.
By 1944, in spite of struggling in a two-front war, the United States found herself in a position to begin thinking on a “how” to end the war with Japan. The atomic bomb lacked sufficient testing, and its potential as an end to the war was ambiguous at this time. The Joint Chiefs developed three approaches to end the war in the Pacific. The plan which had the greatest chance of success, the invasion of mainland Japan, also bore the greatest cost in lives. This was the amphibious assault on Kyushu, the most southern of the four Japanese Islands. Eventually, by March 1946, allied forces, if on schedule, would attack into the Tokyo Plain. Early on in the planning General MacArthur estimated that the first thirty days of fighting on Kyushu would cost the U.S. 51,000 killed in action. He held that a massive attack directly into the Tokyo Plain held the most potential for quick victory. MacArthur later retracted his casualty estimates and his objection to Operation Olympic, the landing on Kyushu. Another possible end to the war lay in convincing the Japanese that they would be treated with tolerance and left with their honor intact should they capitulate. This might occur if all allies, including Russia, agreed to leniency in the terms of post-war treatment of Japan. There was little guarantee that this plan would work under pressure of naval blockades and conventional bombings alone. The assault by ground forces had to remain as a follow-through means to the end. The third plan was yet unknown, untested, and uncertain to most of the senior military leadership – the development of a working atomic bomb. When the war in Europe ended in May and the atomic bomb remained yet unready for deployment the Joint Chiefs, via the president, ordered the launch of the landing on Kyushu by November. The one battle of the war being fought on Japan soil remained only half settled. Its outcome would tilt the scales in a never before imagined direction and usher the world into the age of atomic fear.
On the early morning of 1 April 1945, no nation in existence, including the United States or Japan, had any idea that this was the beginning of the end of the Great Japanese Empire. On that Easter Sunday morning the largest allied armada of World War II sat anchored off the sixty mile long island of Okinawa, Japan. This was code name Operation Iceberg; the battle for Okinawa.
Okinawa is the largest island in the Ryukyus. At its widest the island is only eighteen miles across and at its narrowest only two. Geographically, looking from a military intelligence perspective, Okinawa is craggy mountains honeycombed with limestone caves. The lowlands and sparse plains were, at the time, farmlands. The capital, Napa, was home to a population of approximately 65,000.
Before the Japanese army fortified and improved the natural cave systems, the only other notably defensible objects on the island were tombs resembling heavy weapons pillboxes. The indigenous peoples of the island were citizens of Japan but were ethically a mixed race – Chinese, Japanese and Mongol. They were primarily primitive farmers – peasant stock who garnered little respect from the full-blooded Japanese. It was perhaps their uneducated and bucolic nature that lead the Okinawans to believe wholeheartedly the Japanese’s’ anti-American propaganda. They were, on the morning of the landing, vehemently convinced that the American servicemen were beasts sent forth to perpetrate unspeakable and inhuman acts against their women and children. Most of the Japanese soldiers preparing the defenses against the Americans were China veterans who participated in the “Three All” offensive (Kill All, Burn All, Destroy All) that took untold millions of Chinese lives in most appalling acts. They were readily familiar with how to describe atrocities to their Okinawan conscripts.
One in every three Okinawans would die during the fighting and many of those would commit suicide to avoid the expected American torture. In the summation of Japanese soldiers killed during the fighting, it is impossible to determine the number. Many Japanese soldiers were sealed in caves and tunnels by American forces in effort to silence their weapons. Over 107,000 Japanese soldiers killed in action or by suicide were counted by the end of the fighting. The fighting was, statistically speaking, the most brutal of any operation during WWII. The battle for Okinawa reported the largest number of neuropsychiatric disorders of the war. American causalities from battle exceeded 48,000. Here too on Okinawa, only 750 miles from Kyushu, saw a desperate effort to slow the American advance to the mainland by the deployment of measures incomprehensible by Western morals: suicide subs, planes and boats.
On the morning of Love Day (Landing Day or more commonly known as D-Day) sixteen hundred ships sat off Okinawa. The landing force consisted of 148,000 Soldiers and Marines. The assault force of the Tenth Army was commanded by General Simon B. Bolivar, son of a former Confederate general of the same name. American Tenth Army units consisted of the Seventh and Ninety-sixth Army Infantry Divisions and the First and Sixth Marine Infantry Divisions. Special operations units of the Tenth Army were the Twenty-seventh and Seventy-seventh Army Infantry Divisions with the Second Marine Infantry Division. The landing force would assault the Hagushi beaches, from north to south, Sixth Marines, northern flank, First Marines, Seventh Army, and Ninety-sixth Army, southern flank. Objectives for the landing force included two airfields – Yontan and Kadena.
Preparatory shelling of Okinawa began on March 25th; 5,162 tons of shells struck suspected ground targets. Carrier-based planes flew 3,095 bombing missions expending their ammunition on Japanese air assets and suicide boats. Softening bombardment by naval guns off the beaches for the landing force began twenty minutes before sunrise at 0530 hours. At 0815 the first American feet touched Japanese soil.
Once the beachhead was established, American forces were to move across the narrowest section of the island and then conduct a two-prong assault with the Marines securing the northern end of the island and the Army securing the southern end. After the bloody amphibious assaults experienced on islands such as Tarawa and Saipan, where Japanese defenders attempted to push the invaders back into the sea, it was hard for the average GI or Marine to comprehend Okinawa’s silence. Except for sporadic mortar rounds dropping, or the rare sighting of Japanese defenders, the landing went unopposed. The following two days saw the American infantry units move across the island and take objectives they had been given weeks to secure. The Seventh Army Division moved so quickly they outran their flank units. The Ninety-sixth Army Division was slowed only by natural obstacles and minefields. On the 3rd of April the Army turned southward. Human intelligence began to provide the first clues to where the Japanese defenders had gone – south, into the Naha-Shuri-Yonabaru line.
For the next three months the Americans would suffer loss after loss by the Japanese defender’s meticulously designed and well hidden interconnecting fires. The steep razor ridges and interwoven tunnel systems of the Japanese halted the American advance to a crawl. They paid with life and limb for feet and, many times, inches of ground. No spider-hole or ridge was ever truly cleared – the Japanese would rise seemingly from the earth itself behind advancing forces and attack. Companies of two-hundred-fifty were reduced to thirty-seven men in one day’s engagement, pinned down and picked off as if fish in a killing barrel.
On April 14th President Roosevelt passed away. Back on Okinawa there was hardly time to halt for a moment of silent prayer. Places such as Sugarloaf Hill, Tombstone Ridge and Skyline Ridge became infamous killing fields. Each time a new name was added to that list of nightmarish places, a missing comrade or trusted leader’s hazy apparition appeared when spoken. No place gave the young infantryman respite or safety. His tomorrows were the same as today and yesterday, move forward, expect to die. That was Okinawa.
At sea the sailors had no better. Suicide planes buzzed, dived and crashed. Smiling Kamikaze pilots aimed their noses at the center of American ships and dove to their death, taking as many as possible with them. No ship was exempt; the pilot of a lone Kamikaze spotted the hospital ship Comfort fifty miles off Okinawa and aimed his flying bomb directly at the Red Cross on her side. The suicide planes sank ships in the anchorage and on picket duty. The Bush, Luce, Morrison, Manert L. Abele and many, many more vessels met their doom.
On June 22nd, in the failing light of the sunset, Generals Ushijima, commander of Japanese forces, and Cho stepped from their headquarters and stood at the edge of a ledge overlooking the sea. To their rear and less than one-hundred feet away approaching GIs tossed grenades against the sound of their farewells. Seconds later both men performed the traditional method of self disembowelment with their swords; followed quickly by an adjutant easing their misery with decapitation. Their defense and mauling of American forces on land and sea had been so well coordinated and destructive that, unbeknownst to them, they had swayed the new American president toward the use of the atomic bomb. By so doing President Truman hoped to avoid the repeat, multiplied a thousand times, of the carnage that took place on Okinawa.
I have purposely omitted here lengthy and detailed accounts of specific objectives and battles for those objectives. During past days of research I had the opportunity to interview and acquire diaries and correspondence from veterans of the Battle of Okinawa. Sadly, they are all gone now. My hope in ceasing my own account of the battle is that I will lure some of our visitors into sharing their friends and family member’s accounts of the battle on this sixty-seventh anniversary of L-Day on Okinawa. I will, however, leave you with a story that has deep personal meaning for me and was originally written in honor of my father’s service during the battle on last year’s anniversary – lest we forget.
1) Sloan, B. The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945. Pg. 6
2) Statement of Ambrose Burns Jr. Company G, 32nd Inf. Regt., 7th Inf. Div. [interview by author]