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 more open country in the south gave General del Valle the opportunity to further refine the deployment of his tank-infantry teams. No unit in the Tenth Army surpassed the 1st Marine Division's synchronization of these two supporting arms. Using tactical lessons painfully learned at Peleliu, the division never allowed its tanks to range beyond direct support of the accompanying infantry and artillery forward observers. As a result, the 1st Tank Battalion was the only armored unit in the battle not to lose a tank to Japanese suicide squads — even during the swirling close quarters frays within Wana Draw. General del Valle, the consummate artilleryman, valued his attached Army 4.2-inch mortar battery. "The 4.2s were invaluable on Okinawa," he said, "and that's why my tanks had such good luck." But good luck reflected a great deal of application. "We developed the tank-infantry team to a fare-thee-well in those swales — backed up by our 4.2-inch mortars."

Colonel "Big Foot" Brown of the 11th Marines took this coordination several steps further as the campaign dragged along:

Working with LtCol "Jeb" Stuart of the 1st Tank Battalion, we developed a new method of protecting tanks and reducing vulnerability to the infantry in the assault. We'd place an artillery observer in one of the tanks with a radio to one of the 155mm howitzer battalions. We'd also use an aerial observer overhead. We used 75mm, both packs and LVT-As, which had airburst capabilities. If any Jap [suicider] showed anywhere we opened fire with the air bursts and kept a pattern of shell fragments pattering down around the tanks.

Lieutenant Colonel James C. Magee's 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, used similar tactics in a bloody but successful day-long assault on Hill 69 west of Ozato on 10 June. Magee lost three tanks to Japanese artillery fire in the approach. but took the hill and held it throughout the inevitable counterattack that night.

Beyond Hill 69 loomed Kunishi Ridge for the 1st Marine Division, a steep, coral escarpment which totally dominated the surrounding grass lands and rice paddies. Kunishi was much higher and longer than Sugar Loaf, equally honeycombed with enemy caves and tunnels, and while it lacked the nearby equivalents of Half Moon and Horseshoe to the rear flanks, it was amply covered from behind by Mezado Ridge 500 yards further south. Remnants of the veteran 32d Infantry Regiment infested and defended Kunishi's many hidden bunkers. These were the last of Ushijima's organized, front-line troops, and they would render Kunishi Ridge as deadly a killing ground as the Marines would ever face.

Marine patrol
This Marine patrol scouts out the rugged terrain and enemy positions on the reverse slope of one of the hills in the path of the 1st Division's southerly attack. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 125055

Japanese gunners readily repulsed the first tank-infantry assaults by the 7th Marines on 11 June. Colonel Snedeker looked for another way. "I came to the realization that with the losses my battalions suffered in experienced leadership we would never be able to capture (Kunishi Ridge) in daytime. I thought a night attack might be successful." Snedeker flew over the objective in an observation aircraft, formulating his plan. Night assaults by elements of the Tenth Army were extremely rare in this campaign — especially Snedeker's ambitious plan of employing two battalions. General del Valle voiced his approval. At 0330 the next morning, Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley's 1/7 and Lieutenant Colonel Spencer S. Berger's 2/7 departed the combat outpost line for the dark ridge. By 0500 the lead companies of both battalions swarmed over the crest, surprising several groups of Japanese calmly cooking breakfast. Then came the fight to stay on the ridge and expand the toehold.

With daylight, Japanese gunners continued to pole-ax any relief columns of infantry, while those Marines clinging to the crest endured showers of grenades and mortar rounds. As General del Valle put it, "The situation was one of the tactical oddities of this peculiar warfare. We were on the ridge. The Japs were in it, on both the forward and reverse slopes."

Marine-manned, water-cooled, .30-caliber Browning machine gun
A Marine-manned, water-cooled, .30-caliber Browning machine gun lays down a fierce base of fire as Marine riflemen maneuver to attack the next hill to be taken in the drive to the south of Okinawa, where the enemy lay in wait. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 121760

The Marines on Kunishi critically needed reinforcements and resupplies; their growing number of wounded needed evacuation. Only the Sherman medium tank had the bulk and mobility to provide relief. The next several days marked the finest achievements of the 1st Tank Battalion, even at the loss of 21 of its Shermans to enemy fire. By removing two crewmen, the tankers could stuff six replacement riflemen inside each vehicle. Personnel exchanges once atop the hill were another matter. No one could stand erect without getting shot, so all "transactions" had to take place via the escape hatch in the bottom of the tank's hull. These scenes then became commonplace: a tank would lurch into the beleaguered Marine positions on Kunishi, remain buttoned up while the replacement troops slithered out of the escape hatch carrying ammo, rations, plasma, and water; then other Marines would crawl under, dragging their wound ed comrades on ponchos and manhandle them into the small hole. For those badly wounded who lacked this flexibility, the only option was the dubious privilege of riding back down to safety while lashed to a stretcher topside behind the turret. Tank drivers frequently sought to provide maximum protection to their exposed stretcher cases by backing down the entire 800-yard gauntlet. In this painstaking fashion the tankers managed to deliver 50 fresh troops and evacuate 35 wounded men the day following the 7th Marines' night attack.

Encouraged by these results, General del Valle ordered Colonel Mason to conduct a similar night assault on the 1st Marines' sector of Kunishi Ridge. This mission went to 2/1, who accomplished it smartly the night of 13-14 June despite inadvertent lapses of illumination fire by forgetful supporting arms. Again the Japanese, furious at being surprised, swarmed out of their bunkers in counterattack. Losses mounted rapidly in Lieutenant Colonel Magee's ranks. One company lost six of its seven officers that morning. Again the 1st Tank Battalion came to the rescue, delivering reinforcements and evacuating 110 casualties by dusk.

General del Valle expressed great pleasure in the success of these series of attacks. "The Japs were so damned surprised," he remarked, adding, "They used to counterattack at night all the time, but they never felt we'd have the audacity to go and do it to them." Colonel Yahara admitted during his interrogation that these unexpected night attacks were "particularly effective," catching the Japanese forces "both physically and psychologically off-guard."

By 15 June the 1st Marines had been in the division line for 12 straight days and sustained 500 casualties. The 5th Marines relieved it, including an intricate night-time relief of lines by 2/5 of 2/1 on 15-16 June. The 1st Marines, back in the relative safety of division reserve, received this mindless regimental rejoinder the next day: "When not otherwise occupied you will bury Jap dead in your area."

The battle for Kunishi Ridge continued. On 17 June the 5th Marines assigned K/3/5 to support 2/5 on Kunishi. Private First Class Sledge approached the embattled escarpment with dread: "Its crest looked so much like Bloody Nose that my knees nearly buckled. I felt as though I were on Peleliu and had it all to go through again." The fighting along the crest and its reverse slope took place at point-blank range — too close even for Sledge's 60mm mortars. His crew then served as stretcher bearers, extremely hazardous duty. Half his company became casualties in the next 22 hours.

Navy corpsmen lifting a wounded Marine into an airplane
Navy corpsmen lift a wounded Marine into the cabin of one of the Grasshoppers of a Marine Observation Squadron on Okinawa. The plane will then fly the casualty on to one of the aid stations in the rear for further treatment. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 123727

Extracting wounded Marines from Kunishi remained a hair-raising feat. But the seriously wounded faced another half-day of evacuation by field ambulance over bad roads subject to interdictive fire. Then the aviators stepped in with a bright idea. Engineers cleared a rough landing strip suitable for the ubiquitous "Grasshopper" observation aircraft north of Itoman. Hospital corpsmen began delivering some of the casualties from the Kunishi and Hill 69 battles to this improbable airfield. There they were tenderly inserted into the waiting Piper Cubs and flown back to field hospitals in the rear, an eight-minute flight. This was the dawn of tactical air medevacs which would save so many lives in subsequent Asian wars. In 11 days, the dauntless pilots of Marine Observation Squadrons (VMO) -3 and -7 flew out 641 casualties from the Itoman strip.

The 6th Marine Division joined the southern battlefield from its forcible seizure of the Oroku Peninsula. Colonel Roberts' 22d Marines became the fourth USMC regiment to engage in the fighting for Kunishi. The 32d Infantry Regiment died hard, but soon the combined forces of IIIAC had swept south, over lapped Mezado Ridge, and could smell the sea along the south coast. Near Ara Saki, George Company, 2/22, raised the 6th Marine Division colors on the island's southernmost point, just as they had done in April at Hedo Misaki in the farthest north.

The long-neglected 2d Marine Division finally got a meaningful role for at least one of its major components in the closing weeks of the campaign. Colonel Clarence R. Wallace and his 8th Marines arrived from Saipan, initially to capture two outlying islands, Iheya Shima and Aguni Shima, to provide more early warning radar sites against the kamikazes. Wallace in fact commanded a sizable force, virtually a brigade, including the attached 2d Battalion, 10th Marines (Lieutenant Colonel Richard G. Weede) and the 2d Amphibian Tractor Battalion (Major Fenlon A. Durand). General Geiger assigned the 8th Marines to the 1st Marine Division, and by 18 June they had relieved the 7th Marines and were sweeping southeastward with vigor. Private First Class Sledge recalled their appearance on the battlefield: "We scrutinized the men of the 8th Marines with that hard professional stare of old salts sizing up another outfit. Everything we saw brought forth remarks of approval."

General Buckner also took an interest in observing the first combat deployment of the 8th Marines. Months earlier he had been favorably impressed with Colonel Wallace's outfit during an inspection visit to Saipan. Buckner went to a forward observation post on 18 June, watching the 8th Marines advance along the valley floor. Japanese gunners on the opposite ridge saw the official party and opened up. Shells struck the nearby coral outcrop, driving a lethal splinter into the general's chest. He died in 10 minutes, one of the few senior U.S. officers to be killed in action throughout World War II.

Subsidiary Amphibious Landings

Although overshadowed by the massive L-Day landing, a series of smaller amphibious operations around the periphery of Okinawa also contributed to the ultimate victory. These subsidiary landing forces varied in size from company-level to a full division. Each reflected the collective amphibious expertise attained by the Pacific Theater forces by 1945. Applied with great economy of force, these landings produced fleet anchorages, fire support bases, auxiliary airfields, and expeditionary radar sites for early warning to the fleet against the kamikazes.

No unit better represented this progression of amphibious virtuosity than the Fleet Marine Force Pacific (FMFPac) Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, commanded throughout the war by Major James L. Jones, USMC. Jones and his men provided outstanding service to landing force commanders in a series of increasingly audacious exploits in the Gilberts, Marshalls, Marianas (especially Tinian), and Iwo Jima. Prior to L-Day at Okinawa, these Marines supported the Army's 77th Division with stealthy landings on Awara Saki, Mae, and Keise Shima in the Kerama Retto Islands in the East China Sea. Later in the battle, the recon unit conducted night landings on the islands guarding the eastern approaches to Nakagusuku Wan, which later what would be called Buckner Bay. One of these islands, Tsugen Jima contained the main Japanese outpost, and Jones had a sharp firefight underway before he could extract his men in the darkness. Tsugen Jima then became the target of the 3d Battalion, 105th Infantry, which stormed ashore a few days later to eliminate the stronghold. Jones Marines then sailed to the northwestern coast to execute a night landing on Minna Shima on 13 April to seize a fire base in support of the 77th Division's main landing on Ie Shima.

The post-L-Day amphibious operations of the 77th and 27th Divisions and the FMFPac Force Recon Battalion were professionally executed and beneficial, but not decisive. By mid-April, the Tenth Army had decided to wage a campaign of massive firepower and attrition against the main Japanese defenses. General Buckner chose not to employ his many amphibious resources to break the ensuing gridlock.

Buckner's consideration of the amphibious option was not helped by a lack of flexibility on the part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who kept strings attached to the Marine divisions. The Thirty-second Army in southern Okinawa clearly represented the enemy center of gravity in the Ryukyu Islands, but the JCS let weeks lapse before scrubbing earlier commitments for the 2d Marine Division to assault Kikai Shima, an obscure island north of Okinawa, and the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions to tackle Miyako Shima, near Formosa. Of the Miyako Shima mission Lieutenant General Holland M. Smith observed, "It is unnecessary, practically in a rear area, and its capture will cost more than Iwo Jima." General Smith no longer served in an operational capacity, but his assessment of amphibious plans still carried weight. The JCS finally canceled both operations, and General Buckner had unrestricted use of his Marines on Okinawa. By then he had decided to employ them in the same fashion as his Army divisions.

Buckner did avail himself of the 8th Marines from the 2d Marine Division, employing it first in a pair of amphibious landings during 3-9 June to seize outlying islands for early warning radar facilities and fighter direction centers against kamikaze raids. The commanding general then attached the reinforced regiment to the 1st Marine Division for the final overland assaults in the south.

Buckner also consented to the 6th Marine Division's request to conduct its own amphibious assault across an estuary below Naha to surprise the Japanese Naval Guard Force in the Oroku Peninsula. This was a jewel of an operation in which the Marines used every component of amphibious warfare to great advantage.

Ironically, had the amphibious landings of the 77th Division on Ie Shima or the 6th Marine Division on Oroku been conducted separately from Okinawa they would both rate major historical treatment for the size of the forces, smart orchestration of supporting fires, and intensity of fighting. Both operations produced valuable objectives — airfields on Ie Shima, unrestricted access to the great port of Naha — but because they were ancillary to the larger campaign the two landings barely receive passing mention. As events turned out, the Oroku operation would be the final opposed amphibious landing of the war.

amphibious landing
Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 126987

As previously arranged, General Roy Geiger assumed command; his third star became effective immediately. The Tenth Army remained in capable hands. Geiger became the only Marine — and the only aviator of any service — to command a field army. The soldiers on Okinawa had no qualms about this. Senior Army echelons elsewhere did. Army General Joseph Stillwell received urgent orders to Okinawa. Five days later he relieved Geiger, but by then the battle was over.

The Marines also lost a good commander on the 18th when a Japanese sniper killed Colonel Harold C. Roberts, CO of the 22d Marines, who had earned a Navy Cross serving as a Navy corpsman with Marines in World War I. General Shepherd had cautioned Roberts the previous evening about his propensity of "commanding from the front." "I told him the end is in sight," said Shepherd, "for God's sake don't expose yourself unnecessarily." Lieutenant Colonel August C. Larson took over the 22d Marines.

Buckner, Jr.,
This is the last photograph taken of LtGen Simon B. Buckner, Jr., USA, right, before he was killed on 19 June, observing the 8th Marines in action on Okinawa for the first time since the regiment entered the lines in the drive to the south. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 124752

When news of Buckner's death reached the headquarters of the Thirty-second Army in its cliff-side cave near Mabuni, the staff officers rejoiced. But General Ushijima maintained silence. He had respected Buckner's distinguished military ancestry and was appreciative of the fact that both opposing commanders had once commanded their respective service academies, Ushijima at Zama, Buckner at West Point. Ushijima could also see his own end fast approaching. Indeed, the XXIV Corps' 7th and 96th Divisions were now bearing down inexorably on the Japanese command post. On 21 June Generals Ushijima and Cho ordered Colonel Yahara and others to save themselves in order "to tell the army's story to headquarters," then conducted ritual suicide.

(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

General Geiger announced the end of organized resistance on Okinawa the same day. True to form, a final kikusui attack struck the fleet that night and sharp fighting broke out on the 22d. Undeterred, Geiger broke out the 2d Marine Aircraft Wing band and ran up the American flag at Tenth Army headquarters. The long battle had finally run its course.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division