Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
Countdown to 'Love-Day'
L-Day and Movement to Contact
The Air and Sea Battles
Assault on Shuri
Closing the Loop
The Senior Marine Commanders
For Extraordinary Heroism
Special Subjects
Initial Infantry Commanders
The Japanese Forces
The U.S. Army at Okinawa
Marine Air at Okinawa
Marine Artillery at Okinawa
Marine Tanks at Okinawa
Subsidiary Amphibious Landings

THE FINAL CAMPAIGN: Marines in the Victory on Okinawa
by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret)

The Air and Sea Battles

The Japanese strategy for defending Okinawa made the most of that nation's dwindling resources and rampant fanaticism. While General Ushijima bloodied the American landing force in a protracted battle of attrition, the Japanese air arm would savage the Fifth Fleet tethered to the island in support. The battle would thus feature the unique combination of a near-passive ground defense with a violent air offensive that would employ suicide tactics on an unprecedented scale.

By the spring of 1945 the Americans knew well the Japanese propensity for individual suicide attacks, having experienced kamikazes in the Philippines, antishipping swimmers in the waters near Iwo Jima, and "human bullet" antitank demolitionists at Peleliu. But IGHQ escalated these tactics to an awesome level at Okinawa by introducing the kikusui (Floating Chrysanthemums) massed suicide air strikes against the fleet. While small groups of kamikazes struck the fleet on a nightly basis, the worst damage came from the concentrated kikusui raids. The Japanese launched ten separate kikusui attacks during the battle — some of them numbering up to 350 aircraft — and IGHQ coordinated many of these with other tactical surprises, such as the counterattacks of 12-13 April and 3-4 May or the sacrificial sortie of the Yamato. The results proved costly to both sides.

The U.S. Army at Okinawa

It would be an injustice not to credit the U.S. Army for its significant participation in the Okinawa campaign. In fact, the Army deployed as many combat troops, sustained proportionate casualties, and fought with equal valor as the Marines. The Army battles for Kakazu Ridge, Conical Hill, and the Yuza Dake Escarpment are as much hallowed touchstones to that service as are Sugar Loaf and Kunishi Ridge to the Marines. The Okinawa campaign still serves as a model of joint-service cooperation, in spite of isolated cases of "sibling rivalry."

At one point in mid-1943, the Joint Chiefs of Staff could identify only three divisions in the Pacific with "amphibious expertise": the 1st and 2d Marine Divisions, veterans of Tulagi and Guadalcanal; and the 7th Infantry Division, fresh from the Aleutians. By the time these same units joined with four other divisions to constitute the Tenth Army for Okinawa, the number of divisions with experience in amphibious operations deployed in the Pacific had expanded sevenfold. The three principal assault units in Major General John R. Hodge's XXIV Corps had fresh experience in "storm landings" in Leyte. That campaign was the first for the 96th Division, which acquitted itself well, and the third amphibious operation for the 7th Division, following Attu and Kwajalein. Leyte also saw the 77th Division, veterans of the battle for Guam, execute a bold landing at Ormoc which surprised the Japanese defenders. New to XXIV Corps was the 27th Division, a National Guard unit still regarded with acrimony by some Marines after the Saipan flail, but an outfit proud of its amphibious experiences in the Gilberts and Marianas. None of the Army divisions had the luxury of extended preparations for Okinawa. General Douglas MacArthur did not release the XXIV Corps, understrength and underfed after 110 days' combat in Leyte, to the Tenth Army until seven weeks before the Okinawa landing. The 27th Division had more time but endured unsatisfactory training conditions in the jungles of Espiritu Santo.

Examples of full cooperation by Army units with Marines abound in the Okinawa campaign. Army Air Forces P-47 Thunderbolts flew long-range bombing and fighter missions for General Mulcahy's TAF. Army and Marine Corps artillery units routinely supported opposite services during the protracted drive against the Shuri Line. The Marines gained a healthy respect for the Army's 8-inch howitzers; often these heavy weapons provided the only means of reducing a particularly well-fortified Japanese strongpoint. In addition, General Buckner attached the invaluable "Zippo Tanks" of the 713th Armored Flame Thrower Battalion and 4.2-inch mortar batteries to both Marine divisions. The 6th Marine Division also had the 708th Amphibian Tank Battalion attached for the duration of the battle. Each of these attached units received the Presidential Unit Citation for service with their parent Marine divisions.

Army soldiers
Marine Corps Historical Center

On a less formal basis, the Army frequently lent logistical support to the Marines as the campaign struggled south through the endless rains. Even the fourth revision of the Marine division's table of organization did not provide sufficient transport assets to support such a protracted campaign executed at increasing distances from the force beachhead. A shortfall in amphibious cargo ships assigned to the Marines further reduced the number of organic tracked and wheeled logistics vehicles available. Often, the generosity of the supporting Army units spelled the difference of whether the Marines would eat that day. The best example of this helping spirit occurred on 4 June when elements of the 96th Division provided rations to Lieutenant Colonel Richard P Ross' 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, brightening what the battalion otherwise reported as "the most miserable day spent on Okinawa."

Okinawa, in short, was too big and too tough for a single service to undertake. The 82-day campaign against a tenacious, well-armed enemy required unusual teamwork and cooperation among all services.

Swarms of kamikazes bedeviled the Fifth Fleet from the time the advance force first steamed into Ryukyuan waters throughout the course of the battle. Some intermediate Navy commanders spoke dismissively of the threat — inexperienced pilots in ramshackle planes launched with barely enough fuel to reach Okinawa. Indeed, many of the 2,373 kamikazes never made it to the objective. But those Special Attack Unit pilots who survived the air and surface screens inflicted grievous damage on the Fifth Fleet. By the end of the campaign, the fleet had suffered 34 ships and craft sunk, 368 damaged, and more than 9,000 casualties — the greatest losses ever sustained by the U.S. Navy in a single battle.

kamikaze attack
The amphibious task force under one of the first destructive heavy kamikaze attacks off Okinawa's southwest coast on L plus 5. The kamikazes were to make many such visits to Okinawa before the operation ended, causing much damage. Marine Corps Historical Center

The situation at sea grew so critical that on one occasion smoke from burning ships and screening escorts offshore blinded Yontan Airfield, causing three returning CAP planes to crash. As the onslaught continued, Admiral Spruance observed frankly, "The suicide plane is a very effective weapon which we must not underestimate." Spruance spoke from first hand experience. Kamikazes knocked his first flagship, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis, out of the battle early in the campaign, then severely damaged his replacement flagship, the battleship New Mexico, a few weeks later.

The Japanese attacking the U.S. fleet off Okinawa also introduced their newest weapon, the "Ohka" (cherry blossom) bomb (called by the Americans "Baka," a derisive Japanese term meaning "foolish"). It was a manned, solid-fuel rocket packed with 4,400 pounds of explosives, launched at ships from the belly of a twin-engined bomber. The Baka bombs became in effect the first antiship guided missiles, screaming towards the target at an unheard-of 500 knots. One such weapon blew the destroyer Manert L. Abele out of the water. Fortunately, most of the Bakas missed their targets, the missiles proving too fast for inexperienced pilots to control in their few seconds of glory.

U.S. ship badly damaged by a kamikaze hit
A U.S. ship badly damaged by a kamikaze hit receives a survey inspection within the protected anchorage of Kerama Retto, where the Navy repaired its damaged fleet. Marine Corps Historical Center

The ultimate suicide attack was the final sortie of the superbattleship Yamato, the last of the world's great dreadnoughts, whose feared 18.1-inch guns could outrange the biggest and newest U.S. battleships. IGHQ dispatched Yamato on her last mission, a bizarre scheme, with no air cover and but a handful of surface escorts and only enough fuel for a one-way trip. She was to distract the American carriers to allow a simultaneous kikusui attack against the remainder of the fleet. Achieving this, Yamato would beach itself directly on Okinawa's west coast, using her big guns to shoot up the thin-skinned amphibious shipping and the landing force ashore. The plan proved absurd.

In earlier years of the war the sortie of this mammoth warship would have caused consternation among the fleet protecting an amphibious beachhead. Not now. Patrolling U.S. submarines gave Spruance early warning of Yamato's departure from Japanese waters. "Shall I take them or will you?" asked Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, commanding the fast carriers of Task Force 58. Spruance knew his battleship force yearned for a surface battle to avenge their losses at Pearl Harbor, but this was no time for sentiment. "You take them," he signaled. With that, Mitscher's Hellcats and Avengers roared aloft, intercepted Yamato a hundred miles from the beachhead, and sank her in short order with bombs and torpedoes. The cost: eight U.S. planes, 12 men.

antiaircraft fire
Japanese night raiders are met on 16 April with a spectacular network of antiaircraft fire by Marine defenders based at Yontan airfield. In the foreground, silhouetted against the interlaced pattern of tracer bullets, are Corsairs of VMF-311. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 118775

Another bizarre Japanese suicide mission proved more effective. On the night of 24-25 May, a half-dozen transport planes loaded with Giretsu, Japanese commandos, approached the U.S. airbase at Yontan. Alert antiaircraft gunners flamed five. The surviving plane made a wheels-up belly landing on the air strip, discharging troops as she slid in sparks and flames along the surface. The commandos blew up eight U.S. planes, damaged twice as many more, set fire to 70,000 gallons of aviation gasoline, and generally created havoc throughout the night. Jittery aviation and security troops fired at shadows, injuring their own men more than the Japanese. It took 12 hours to hunt down and kill the last raider.

Marine Avengers
Marine Avengers of Marine Torpedo-Bomber Squadron 232 are seen through the hatch of a transport, which served as a navigation plane for the overwater flight from Ulithi to Kadena, The flight echelon landed on 22 April and began close-support missions the next day. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 121884

Admiral Spruance at sea and General Mulcahy ashore exerted Herculean efforts to reduce the effectiveness of these suicide strikes. The fast carriers struck Japanese airfields in Kyushu and Formosa time and again, but these numbered more than 100, and as usual the Japanese proved adept at camouflage. Small landing parties of soldiers and Marines seized outlying islands (see sidebar) to establish early warning and fighter direction outposts. And fighter planes from all three services took to the air to intercept the intermittent waves of enemy planes.

Not all of the Japanese air strikes were kamikazes. An equal number of fighters and bombers accompanied each raid to guide the suiciders to their targets and attack American targets by conventional means. Some of these included late-model fighters like the Nakajima "Frank." Deadly air-to-air duels took place over hundreds of miles of ocean expanse.

The far-ranging fast carriers usually made the first interceptions. While most pilots were Navy, the task force included two Marine fighter squadrons each on the carriers Bunker Hill and Bennington. One Marine aviator from Bennington, Lieutenant Kenneth E. Huntington, flew the only USMC Corsair in the attack on Yamato. Huntington swept in through heavy AA fire to deliver his bomb squarely on the battleship's forward turret. As described by combat correspondent Robert Sherrod, "One Marine, one bomb, one Navy Cross."

Marine Air at Okinawa

"Okinawa was the culmination of the development of air support doctrine in the Pacific," declared Colonel Vernon E. Megee, commander of the Landing Force Air Support Units during the campaign. "The procedures we used there were the result of lessons learned in all preceding campaigns, including the Philippines." Indeed, Marine aviation at Okinawa operated across the spectrum of missions, from supply drops to bombing an enemy battleship.

Altogether, some 700 Marine planes of one type or another took part in the Okinawa campaign. About 450 of these engaged in combat for more than half the battle. Most Marine air units served under the aegis of the Tenth Army's Tactical Air Force (TAF), commanded by Major General Francis P. Mulcahy, USMC (relieved on 8 June by Major General Louis E. Woods, USMC.) Outside of TAF were the Marine fighter squadrons assigned to the fleet carriers or escort carriers, plus long-range transports.

Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commanding all Allied forces for Operation Iceberg, deemed the Japanese air arm to be the biggest threat to the success of the invasion. The Tenth Army's first objective, therefore, became that of seizing Yontan and Kadena airfields to accommodate land-based fighter squadrons. The invaders achieved this on L-Day. The following day General Mulcahy moved ashore and commenced TAF operations. Mulcahy's top priority remained that of maintaining air superiority over the objective and the Fifth Fleet. In view of the unprecedented kamikaze attacks unleashed by the Japanese against the task force, this mission remained Mulcahy's preoccupation for many weeks.

Both Marine and Army aviation units would compromise Mulcahy's TAF. The force would grow to include a total of 15 Marine fighter squadrons, 10 Army fighter squadrons, two Marine torpedo bomber squadrons, and 16 Army bomber squadrons. In the execution of the air superiority missions, the Marine fighter squadrons flew Chance Vought F4U Corsairs, and the Marine night fighter squadrons flew radar-equipped Grumman F6F Hellcats. Army fighter pilots flew the Republic P-47 Thunderbolts; their night fighter squadron was equipped with the Northrop P-61 Black Widows.

The American pilots fought their air-to-air duels not just against one-way kamikazes; they also faced plenty of late-model Jacks and Franks. Altogether, TAF pilots shot down 625 Japanese planes. Colonel Ward E. Dickey's Marine Aircraft Group 33 set the record with 214 kills; more than half claimed by the "Death Rattlers" of Major George F. Axtell's Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMF) 323.

The necessity for TAF to protect the fleet caused some ground commanders to worry that their own close air support would be "short-sheeted." But Navy (and some Marine) squadrons from the escort carriers picked up the slack, flying more than 60 percent of the close air missions. Between 1 April and 21 June, the combination of TAF and carrier pilots flew 14,244 air support sorties. Nearly 5,000 of these supported the Marines of IIIAC. In the process, the supporting aviators dropped 152,000 gallons of napalm on enemy positions.

Air Liaison Parties accompanied the front-line divisions and served to request close air support and direct (but not control — the front was too narrow) aircraft to the target. Coordination of lower-echelon air requests became the province of three Marine Landing Force Air Support Control Units, one representing Tenth Army to the fleet commander, the others each responsive to the Army XXIV Corps and IIIAC. This technique further refined the experiments Colonel Megee had begun at Iwo Jima. In most cases, close air support to the infantry proved exceptionally effective. Some units reported prompt, safe delivery of ordnance on target within 100 yards. In other instances there were delays, accidents (although less than a dozen), or situations where the lines were simply too intermingled for any air support — as during the 6th Marine Divisions' struggle for Oroku Peninsula.

Other Marine aviation units contributed significantly to the victory in Okinawa. Marine Torpedo Bomber Squadron (VMTB) pilots flew their Grummann Avenger (TBF) "torpeckers" in "zero-zero" weather to drop 400,000 pounds of rations, medical supplies, and ammunition to forward ground units — greatly assisted by the skilled prepackaging of the IIIAC Air Delivery Section. And the fragile little Grasshoppers of the four Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) squadrons flew 3,486 missions of artillery spotting, photo reconnaissance, and medical evacuation. One senior artillery officer described the VMO pilots as "the unsung heroes of Marine aviation . . . often they would fly past cave openings at the same level so they could look in and see if there was a gun there." Colonel Yahara complained that his artillery units knew from bitter experience that they presence of an American Grasshopper overhead presaged quick retribution for any Japanese gun that fired.

Marine aviators at Okinawa served with a special elan. During one desperate dogfight, a Marine pilot radioed, "Come on up and help me, I've got a Frank and two Zekes cornered!" Those were his last words, but his fighting spirit persisted. Said one grateful destroyer skipper who had been rescued from swarms of kamikazes by Marine Corsairs, "I am willing to take my ship to the shores of Japan if I could have these Marines with me."

fighter firing weapons
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 126420

Marine fighters of MAGs-31 and -33, flying from Yontan under General Mulcahy's TAF, provided most of the CAP missions over the fleet during the first several weeks of the battle. The CAP requirement soared from 12 planes initially to as many as 32 on station, with an additional dozen on strip alert. The missions involved long hours of patrolling, typically in rough weather spiked by sudden violent encounters with Japanese raiders. The CAP planes ran a double risk. Dueling a Japanese fighter often took both planes within range of nervous shipboard AA gunners who sometimes downed both antagonists unwittingly.

On 16 April, VMF-441 raced to the rescue of the picket ship Laffey, already hit by five suiciders. The Corsairs shot down 17 attackers in short order, losing only one plane which had chased a kamikaze so low they both clipped the ship's superstructure and crashed.

On 22 April, the "Death Rattlers" of VMF-323 intercepted a large flight of raiders approaching the fleet at dusk. Three Marines shot down 16 of these in 20 minutes. The squadron commander, Major George C. Axtell, knocked down five, becoming an instant ace. As Axtell described these sudden dogfights:

You'd be flying in and out of heavy rain and clouds. Enemy and friendly aircraft would wind up in a big melee. You just kept turning into any enemy aircraft that appeared . . . . It was fast and furious and the engagement would be over within thirty minutes.

aerial photographer
A "Grasshopper" from a Marine observation squadron flies over Naha, permitting an aerial photographer to take oblique photos which will be used by Marine artillery units to spot targets and determine the damage already done by the Allies. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 128032

But in spite of the heroic efforts of all these aviators and their ground crews, the kamikazes swarmed in such numbers that a few always got through. Soon, the protected anchorage at Kerama Retto began to resemble a floating graveyard of heavily damaged ships. Small groups of suiciders appeared every night, and the fleet seemed particularly vulnerable during the full moon. One naval officer described the night-time raiders as "witches on broomsticks." More often than not, the victims of these nocturnal attacks were the "small boys," the picket ships and diminutive amphibs. Nineteen-year-old Signalman 3/C Nick Floros manned a 20mm gun mount on tiny LSM-120 one midnight when a kamikaze appeared "out of nowhere, gliding in low with its engine cut off — like a giant bat." The plane struck the adjacent LSM with a terrific explosion before anyone could fire a shot. The small landing ship, loaded with landing force supplies, somehow survived the fiery blast but was immediately consigned to the "demolition yard" at Kerama Retto.

Imperial General Headquarters, accepting the inflated claims of the few observers accompanying the kikusui attacks, believed their suicidal air offensive had fatally crippled the U.S. Fleet. This was wishful thinking. The Fifth Fleet may have been stressed and battered by the kamikazes, but it was simply too huge a force to be deterred. The fleet withstood the worst of these seemingly endless air attacks without for a moment forsaking its primary mission of supporting the amphibious assault on Okinawa. Naval gunfire support, for example, had never been so thoroughly effective, beginning with the 3,800 tons of munitions delivered on L-Day. Throughout much of the campaign, each front-line regiment received direct support from one "call fire" ship and one "illumination ship." Typical of the appreciation most members of the landing force expressed for the quality of naval gunfire support was this message from General Shepherd to the Commander, Northern Attack Force during the 6th Marine Division's assault on Mount Yae Take: "The effectiveness of your gunfire support was measured by the large number of Japanese encountered. Dead ones."

Vandegrift, Mulcahy, Axtell, Dorroh, O'Keefe
During a visit to Marines in late April, the Commandant, Gen Alexander A. Vandegrift, second from left, called on MajGen Francis P. Mulcahy, center commander of the Tactical Air Force, Tenth Army, and three of his pilots: Maj George C. Axtell, Jr., left; Maj Jefferson D. Dorroh, second from right; and Lt Jeremiah J. O'Keefe. Maj Axtell commanded VMF-323, the "Death Rattlers." Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 119294

Similarly, even during the the most intense of the kikusui attacks of 1-16 April, the fleet unloaded an astonishing 557,000 tons of supplies over the Hagushi Beaches to support the Tenth Army, executed the division level assault on Ie Shima, and cleared mines and obstacles under fire to open the port of Nago. The only direct effect the mass kamikaze raids ever had on the conduct of Tenth Army operations ashore was the sinking on 6 April of the ammunition ships Logan Victory and Hobbs Victory. The subsequent shortage of 105mm and 155mm artillery ammunition delayed General Buckner's first great offensive against the outer Shuri defenses by about three days. In all respects, the Fifth Fleet deserved its media sobriquet as "The Fleet That Came to Stay."

But as April dragged into May, and the Tenth Army seemed bogged down in unimaginative frontal attacks along the Shuri line, Admirals Spruance and Turner began to press General Buckner to accelerate his tactics in order to decrease the vulnerability of the fleet. Admiral Nimitz, quite concerned, flew to Okinawa to counsel Buckner. "I'm losing a ship and a half each day out here," Nimitz said, "You've got to get this thing moving."

The senior Marines urged Buckner to "play the amphib card," to execute a major landing on the southeast coast, preferably along the alternate beaches at Minatoga, in order to turn the Japanese right flank. They were joined in this recommendation by several Army generals who already perceived what a meatgrinder the frontal assaults along the Shuri line would become. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander A. Vandegrift, visited the island and seconded these suggestions to Buckner. After all, Buckner still had control of the 2d Marine Division, a veteran amphibious outfit which had demonstrated effectively against the Minatoga Beaches on L Day. Buckner had subsequently returned the embarked division to Saipan to reduce its vulnerability to additional kamikaze attacks, but the unit still had its assigned ships at hand, still combat loaded. The 2d Marine Division could have opened a second front in Okinawa within a few days.

All Marines sight-in on the mouth of a cave into which an explosive charge had been thrown, and wait to see if any enemy soldiers will try to escape. This is one of the many bitterly contested cave positions found in numerous ridges and hills. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 120053

General Buckner was a popular, competent commander, but he had limited experience with amphibious warfare and possessed a conservative nature. His staff warned of logistics problems involved in a second front. His intelligence advisors predicted stiff enemy resistance around the Minatoga beachhead. Buckner had also heard enough of the costly Anzio operation in Italy to be leery of any landing executed too far from the main effort. He honestly believed the Japanese manning the Shuri defenses would soon crack under the synchronized application of all his massed firepower and infantry. Buckner therefore rejected the amphibious option out of hand. Surprisingly, Nimitz and his Chief of Staff, Rear Admiral Forrest Sherman, agreed. Not so Admirals Spruance and Turner or the Marines. As Spruance later admitted in a private letter, "There are times when I get impatient for some of Holland Smith's drive." General Shepherd noted, "General Buckner did not cotton to amphibious operations." Even Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, Operations Officer of the Thirty-second Army, admitted under interrogation that he had been baffled by the American's adherence to a purely frontal assault from north to south. "The absence of a landing [in the south] puzzled the Thirty-second Army staff," he said, "particularly after the beginning of May when it became impossible to put up more than a token resistance in the south."

By then the 2d Marine Division was beginning to feel like a yo-yo in preparing for its variously assigned missions for Operation Iceberg. Lieutenant Colonel Taxis, Division G-3, remained unforgiving of Buckner's decision. "I will always feel," he stated after the war, "that the Tenth Army should have been prepared the instant they found they were bogged down, they should have thrown a left hook down there in the southern beaches . . . . They had a hell of a powerful reinforced division, trained to a gnat's whisker."

Buckner stood by his decision. There would be no "left hook." Instead, both the 1st and the 6th Marine Divisions would join the Shuri offensive as infantry divisions under the Tenth Army. The 2d Marine Division, less one reinforced regimental landing team (the 8th Marines), would languish back in Saipan. Then came Okinawa's incessant spring rains.

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