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)

Closing the Loop

The retreating Japanese troops did not escape scot-free from their Shuri defenses. Naval spotter planes located one southbound column and called in devastating fire from a half dozen ships and every available attack aircraft. In short order several miles of the muddy road were strewn with wrecked trucks, field guns, and corpses. General del Valle congratulated the Tactical Air Force: "Thanks for prompt response this afternoon when Nips were caught on road with kimonos down."

Successful interdictions, however, remained the exception. Most of Ushijima's Thirty-second Army survived the retreat to its final positions in the Kiyamu Peninsula. The Tenth Army missed a golden opportunity to end the battle four weeks early, but the force, already slowed by heavy rains and deep mud, was simply too ponderous to respond with alacrity.

A Marine who had his clothing blown from his back by a Japanese mortar explosion, but is otherwise unwounded, is helped to the rear by an uninjured buddy. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 120280

The infantry slogged southward, cussing the weather but glad to be beyond the Shuri Line. Yet every advance exacted a price. A Japanese sniper killed Lieutenant Colonel Horatio C. Woodhouse, Jr., the competent commander of 2/22, as he led his battalion towards the Kokuba Estuary. General Shepherd, grieving privately at the loss of his younger cousin, replaced him in command with the battalion exec, Lieutenant Colonel John G. Johnson.

As the IIIAC troops advanced further south, the Marines began to en counter a series of east-west ridges dominating the open farmlands in their midst. "The southern part of Okinawa," reported Colonel Snedeker, "consists primarily of cross ridges sticking out like bones from the spine of a fish." Meanwhile, the Army divisions of XXIV Corps warily approached two towering escarpments in their zone, Yuza Dake and Yaeju Dake. The Japanese had obviously gone to ground along these ridges and peaks and lay waiting for the American advance.

burial ceremony
A bereaved father prays for his dead son: Col Francis I. Fenton, 1st Marine Division engineer, kneels at the foot of the stretcher holding the body of PFC Michael Fenton, as division staff members mourn. Col Fenton said that the other dead Marines were not as fortunate as his son, who had his father there to pray for him. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 122274

Rain and mud continued to plague the combatants. One survivor of this segment of the campaign described the battlefields as "a five-mile sea of mud." As Private First Class Sledge recorded in the margins of his sodden New Testament, "Mud in camp on Pavuvu was a nuisance . . . . But mud on the battlefield is misery beyond description." The 96th Division wearily reported the results of one day's efforts under these conditions: "those on forward slope slid down; those on reverse slope slid back; otherwise no change."

The Marines began to chafe at the heavy-handed controls of the Tenth Army, which seemed to stall with each encounter with a fresh Japanese outpost. General Buckner favored a massive application of firepower on every obstacle before committing troops in the open. Colonel Shapley, commanding the 4th Marines, took a different view. "I'm not too sure that sometimes when they whittle you away, 10-12 men a day, then maybe it would be better to take 100 losses a day if you could get out sooner." Colonel Wilburt S. "Big Foot" Brown, a veteran artilleryman commanding the 11th Marines, and a legend in his own time, believed the Tenth Army relied too heavily on firepower. "We poured a tremendous amount of metal into those positions," he said. "It seemed nothing could be living in that churning mass where the shells were falling and roaring, but when we next advanced the Japs would still be there and madder than ever." Brown also lamented the overuse of star shells for night illumination: "I felt like we were the children of Israel in the wilderness — living under a pillar of fire by night and a cloud of smoke by day."

self-propelled M-7 105mm gun
This self-propelled M-7 105mm gun was completely bogged down in the heavy rains which fell on Okinawa in the last weeks in May. It replaced the half-track mounted 75mm gun as the regimental commander's artillery in Operation Iceberg. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 123438

Such a heavy reliance on artillery support stressed the amphibious supply system. The Tenth Army's demand for heavy ordnance grew to 3,000 tons of ammo per day; each round had to be delivered over the beach and distributed along the front. This factor reduced the availability of other supplies, including rations. Front-line troops, especially the Marines, began to go hungry. Again partial succor came from the friendly skies. Marine pilots flying General Motors Avenger torpedo-bombers of VMTB-232 executed 80 air drops of rations during the first three days of June alone. This worked well, thanks to the intrepid pilots, and thanks to the rigging skills of the Air Delivery Section, veterans of the former Marine parachute battalions.

Offshore from the final drive south, the ships of the fleet continued to withstand waves of kamikaze attacks. Earlier, on 17 May, Admiral Turner had declared an end to the amphibious assault phase. General Buckner thereafter reported directly to Admiral Spruance. Turner departed, leaving Vice Admiral Harry W. Hill in command of the huge amphibious force still supporting the Tenth Army. On 27 May, Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey relieved Spruance. With that, the Fifth Fleet became the Third Fleet — same ships, same crews, different designation. Spruance and Turner began planning the next amphibious assault, the long-anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands.

Marine shaving
Cleanliness is next to godliness, figures this Marine, as he stands knee-deep in water while shaving in the midst of a totally saturated and flooded bivouac area. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 123507

General Shepherd, appreciative of the vast amphibious resources still available on call, decided to interject tactical mobility and surprise into the sluggish campaign. In order for the 6th Marine Division to reach its intermediate objective of the Naha airfield, Shepherd first had to overwhelm the Oroku Peninsula. Shepherd could do this the hard way, attacking from the base of the peninsula and scratching seaward — or he could launch a shore-to-shore amphibious assault across the estuary to catch the defenders in their flank. "The Japanese expected us to force a crossing of the Kokuba," he said, "I wanted to surprise them." Convincing General Geiger of the wisdom of this approach was easy; getting General Buckner's approval took longer. Abruptly Buckner agreed, but gave the 6th Division barely 36 hours to plan and execute a division-level amphibious assault.

Lieutenant Colonel Krulak and his G-3 staff relished the challenge. Scouts from Major Anthony "Cold Steel" Walker's 6th Reconnaissance Company stole across the estuary at night to gather intelligence on the Nishikoku Beaches and the Japanese defenders. The scouts confirmed the existence on the peninsula of a cobbled force of Imperial Japanese Navy units under an old adversary. Fittingly, this final opposed amphibious landing of the war would be launched against one of the last surviving Japanese rikusentai (Special Naval Landing Force) commanders, Rear Admiral Minoru Ota.

vehicles stuck in mud
Okinawa's "Plum Rains" of May and June came close to immobilizing the U.S. Tenth Army's drive south. Heroic efforts kept the frontline troops supported logistically. Marine Corps Historical Center

Admiral Ota was 54, a 1913 graduate of the Japanese Naval Academy, and a veteran of rikusentai service from as early as 1932 in Shanghai. Ten years later he commanded the 2d Combined Special Landing Force destined to assault Midway, but was thwarted by the disastrous naval defeat suffered by the Japanese. In November 1942, commanding the 8th Combined Special Landing Force in the Central Solomons, he defended Bairoko against the 1st Marine Raider Regiment. By 1945, however, the rikusentai had all but disappeared, and Ota commanded a rag tag outfit of several thousand coast defense and antiaircraft gunners, aviation mechanics, and construction specialists. Undismayed, Ota breathed fire into his disparate forces, equipped them with hundreds of machine cannons from wrecked aircraft, and made them sow thousands of mines.

dropping supplies with parachutes
When the heavy rains of May arrived, deep mud caused by days of torrential down pours made air delivery the only possible means of providing forward combat units with food, ammunition, and water. As a result, Marine torpedo-bombers of VMTBs -131 and -232 were employed in supply drops by parachute. The white panels laid on the ground at the right mark the target area for the drops. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 126402

Krulak and Shepherd knew they faced a worthy opponent, but also saw they held the advantage of surprise if they could act swiftly. The final details of planning centered on problems with the division's previously dependable LVTs. Sixty-five days of hard campaigning ashore had taken a heavy toll of the tracks and suspension systems of these assault amphibians. Nor were repair parts available. LVTs had served in abundance on L-Day to land four divisions; now the Marines had to scrape to produce enough for the assault elements of one regiment. Worse for the planners, the first typhoon of the season was approaching, and the Navy was getting jumpy. General Shepherd remained firm in his desire to execute the assault on K-Day, 4 June. Admiral Halsey backed him up.

Shepherd considered Colonel Shapley "an outstanding officer of great ability and great leadership," and chose the 4th Marines to lead the assault. Shapley divided the 600-yard Nishikoku Beach between 2/4 on the left and 1/4 on the right. Despite heavy rains, the assault went on schedule. The Oroku Peninsula erupted in flame and smoke under the pounding of hundreds of naval guns, artillery batteries, and aerial bombs. Major Anthony's scouts seized Ono Yama island, the 4th Marines swept across the estuary, and LCMs and LCIs loaded with tanks appeared from the north, from "Loomis Harbor," named after the IIIAC Logistics Officer, Colonel Francis B. "Loopy" Loomis, Jr., a veteran Marine aviator. The amphibious force attained complete surprise. Many of 1/4's patched-up LVTs broke down enroute, causing uncomfortable delays, but enemy fire proved intermittent, and empty LVTs from the first waves quickly returned to transfer the stranded troops. The 4th Marines advanced rapidly. Soon it became time for Colonel Whaling's 29th Marines to cross. By dark on K-Day the 6th Division occupied 1,200 yards of the Oroku Peninsula. Admiral Ota furiously redirected his sailors to the threat from the rear. Then Colonel Roberts' 22d Marines began advancing along the original corridor.

Marines hauling supplies
As soon as the parachute drops landed in the target zone, grateful Marines enthusiastically retrieved the supplies, often while under enemy fire. Some of the drops were out of reach as they landed in territory where Japanese soldiers claimed them. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 123168

The amphibious assault had been nigh letter-perfect, the typhoon came and went, and the Marines occupied the peninsula in force, capturing the airfield in two days. When the 1st Marine Division reached the south west coast north of Itoman on 7 June, Admiral Ota's force lost its chance of escape. General Shepherd then orchestrated a three-fold enveloping movement with his regiments and the outcome became inevitable.

Admiral Ota was no ordinary opponent, however, and the battle for Oroku was savage and lethal. Ota's 5,000 spirited sailors fought with elan, and they were very heavily armed. No similar-sized force on Okinawa possessed so many automatic weapons or employed mines so effectively. The attacking Marines also encountered some awesome weapons at very short range — eight-inch coast defense guns redirected in land, rail-mounted eight-inch rockets (the "Screaming Mimi"), and the enormous 320mm spigot mortars which launched the terrifying "flying ashcans." On 9 June the 4th Marines reported "character of opposition unchanged; stubborn defense of high ground by 20mm and MG fire." Two days later the 29th Marines reported: "L Hill under attack from two sides; another tank shot on right flank; think an eight-inch gun."

Ota could nevertheless see the end coming. On 6 June he reported to naval headquarters in Tokyo: "The troops under my command have fought gallantly, in the finest tradition of the Japanese Navy. Fierce bombardments may deform the mountains of Okinawa but cannot alter the loyal spirit of our men." Four days later Ota transmitted his final message to General Ushijima ("Enemy tank groups are now attacking our cave headquarters; the Naval Base Force is dying gloriously. . . .") and committed suicide, his duty done.

It seemed to be one hill after another in the drive south. Amidst tree stumps which hardly serve as adequate cover, a bazooka team waits for an opportunity to charge into the face of Japanese fire over the crest of the hill in front of them. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 122167

General Shepherd knew he had defeated a competent foe. He counted the costs in his after-action summary of the Oroku operation:

During the 10 days' fighting, almost 5000 Japanese were killed and nearly 200 taken prisoner. Thirty of our tanks were disabled, many by mines. One tank was destroyed by two direct hits from an 8-inch naval gun fired at point blank range. Finally, 1,608 Marines were killed or wounded.

When the 1st Marine Division reached the coast near Itoman it represented the first time in more than a month that the division had access to the sea. This helped relieve the Old Breed's extended supply lines. "As we reached the shore we were helped a great deal by amphibian tractors that had come down the coast with supplies," said Colonel Snedeker of the 7th Marines, "Other wise we couldn't get supplies overland."

Japanese soldier
Trying in vain to escape and knee deep in the water's edge along the sea wall near the Oroku Peninsula, a Japanese soldier passes the bodies of two other soldiers. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 126267

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division