Okinawa is one of the Ryuku islands, a possession of Imperial Japan, and a crucial one in General Douglas McArthur’s and Admiral Chester Nimitz’ march up the Pacific Ocean and into the home waters of Japan.
The northward island-hopping campaigns had begun on Guadalcanal, skipped up to Tarawa and the Marshalls and the Mariannas. The U. S. forces finally converged on the Philippines and General McArthur had the opportunity to proclaim “I have returned,” as he waded ashore (at least twice), from a landing craft with his “Missouri Meerscham,” a corncob pipe, firmly clinched between his teeth.
But the fight was not over. Both McArthur and Nimitz knew that the war had to be laid on the front door steps of Japan, itself. The Emperor, and the people, had to understand what war was like, so forces went closer and closer to the homeland.
One of the places that was selected as ideally suited for the coming air raids against the capital, Tokyo, and the industrial centers of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the shipyards that dotted the coastal inlets was Okinawa.
The American forces loaded into landing ships and headed seaward. Ahead of them went the small ships, destroyers and destroyer escorts, guarding the massive attack aircraft carriers whose weapons were the bombers laden with TNT and fire bombs.
But the battle was not easy. In fact, it was the bloodiest of all of the Pacific actions. Fortified by civilian and military workers, the mountains were honeycombed with tunnels and gun emplacements. The beaches were covered by artillery already sited in on landing sites. The Japanese soldiers were ready, ready to fight to the end for the Emperor and the Bushido code that demanded death before surrender.
And the Japanese had the “Divine Wind,” the kamikaze. The air arm had lost almost all of its effective combat pilots, so it trained rookies on how to take off and how to fly into enemy ships, their planes laden with explosives that could, and did, damage or sink enemy destroyers, cruisers and aircraft carriers. Already tried in other areas, the concentration of the attacks came when the massive U. S. fleet neared the shoreline of Okinawa.
The operation was named “Operation Iceberg,” and the name was almost prophetic. Beneath the surface of the island were the miles of tunnels awaiting troop landings. Support for the invasion came from Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet, including Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Fast Carrier Task Force.
General Simon Buckner, Jr. commanded nearly 200,000 men, part of Major General Roy Geiger’s III Amphibious Corps of Marines.
The Navy was largely unopposed at sea. Earlier battles had taken out most of the Japanese ships; engagements like the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf. Troops were landed, and the surface ships bombarded known enemy positions and then stood out to wait.
The wait was short. Kamikazes had already shown up, though few in numbers, in earlier engagements. The carrier St. Lo was one of the first major losses. But here at Okinawa, an island that would put Allied bombers within easy striking distance of the homeland of Japan, they showed up by the droves.
The planes, each flying the Rising Sun emblem, took off from airfields nearby, and set their courses for their enemy, ships that seemed to reach from horizon to horizon: carriers and cruisers and the ever-present destroyers. Each pilot selected a target, each pilot flew toward the ship, some diving, some coming in low and skimming the waves, darting and evading, fixed on death but determined to take into that death with him an enemy ship.
The destroyers were first, guarding the large carriers. Ships named LAFFEY and EDWARDS and SAUFLEY, and hundreds of others caught the brunt of the first waves, and stood their ground, taking hit after hit, sometimes as many as four kamikazes crashing into the bridges and the guns and the engine spaces. Regardless, many ships made it through.
Today, if one wishes, he can visit Patriot’s Point in Charleston, and board the LAFFEY, and live again that day when the valiant little ship took her hits and survived. But, the Divine Wind, the Kamikazes, manned by brave young men from another culture, did not.