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)


There was little elation among the exhausted Marines in southern Okinawa at the official proclamation of victory. The residual death throes of the Thirty-second Army kept the battlefield lethal. The last of General Ushijima's front-line infantry may have died defending Kunishi Ridge and Yuza Dake, but the remaining hodgepodge of support troops sold their lives dearly to the last. In the closing period 17-19 June, die-hard Japanese survivors wounded Major Earl J. Cook, CO of 1/22; Major William C. Chamberlin, S-3 of the 8th Marines; and Lieutenant Colonel E. Hunter Hurst, CO of 3/7. Even the two Marines who had survived so long in the shell crater on Sugar Loaf saw their luck run out in the final days. Private First Class Bertoli died in action. A Japanese satchel charge seriously wounded Corporal Day, requiring an urgent evacuation to the hospital ship Solace.

Okinawa's caves behind front lines were used as temporary hospitals for emergency operations and treatment, at times when casualties could not be rushed to the rear or to a hospital ship standing in the transport area off of the landing beaches. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 123155

Okinawa proved extremely costly to all participants. More than 100,000 Japanese died defending the island, although about 7,000 uncharacteristically surrendered at the end. Native Okinawans suffered the most. Recent studies indicate as many as 150,000 died in the fighting, a figure representing one third of the island's population. The Tenth Army sustained nearly 40,000 combat casualties, including more than 7,000 Americans killed. An additional 26,000 "non-battle" casualties occurred; combat fatigue cases accounted for most of these.

Marine Corps casualties overall — ground, air, ships' detachments — exceeded 19,500. In addition, 560 members of the Navy Medical Corps organic to the Marine units were killed or wounded. General Shepherd described the corpsmen on Okinawa as "the finest, most courageous men that I know . . . . they did a magnificent job." Three corpsmen received the Medal of Honor (see sidebar). As always, losses within the infantry outfits soared out of proportion. Colonel Shapley reported losses of 110 percent in the 4th Marines, which reflected both the addition of replacements and their high attrition after joining. Corporal Day of 2/22 experienced the death of his regimental and battalion commanders, plus the killing or wounding of two company commanders, seven platoon commanders, and every other member of his rifle squad in the battle.

The legacy of this great battle can be expressed in these categories:

  • Foreshadow of Invasion of Japan. Admiral Spruance described the battle of Okinawa as "a bloody, hellish prelude to the invasion of Japan." As protracted a nightmare as Okinawa had been, every survivor knew in his heart that the next battles in Kyushu and Honshu would be incalculably worse. In a nutshell, the plans for invading Japan specified the Kyushu landings would be executed by the surviving veterans of Iwo Jima and Luzon; the reward of the Okinawa survivors would be the landing on the main island of Honshu. Most men grew fatalistic; nobody's luck could last through such infernos.

  • Amphibious Mastery. By coincidence, the enormous and virtually flawless amphibious assault on Okinawa occurred 30 years to the month after the colossal disaster at Gallipoli in World War I. By 1945 the Americans had refined this difficult naval mission into an art form. Nimitz had every possible advantage in place for Okinawa — a proven doctrine, specialized ships and landing craft, mission-oriented weapons systems, trained shock troops, flexible logistics, unity of command. Every thing clicked. The massive projection of 60,000 combat troops ashore on L-Day and the subsequent series of smaller landings on the surrounding islands represented the fruition of a doctrine earlier considered hare brained or suicidal.

  • Attrition Warfare. Disregarding the great opportunities for surprise and maneuver available in the amphibious task force, the Tenth Army conducted much of the campaign for Okinawa in an unimaginative, attrition mode which played into the strength of the Japanese defenders. An unrealistic reliance on firepower and siege tactics prolonged the fighting and increased the costs. The landings on Ie Shima and Oroku Peninsula, despite their successful executions, comprised the only division-level amphibious assaults undertaken after L-Day. Likewise, the few night attacks undertaken by Marine and Army forces achieved uncommon success, but were not encouraged. The Tenth Army squandered several opportunities for tactical innovations that could have hastened a breakthrough of the enemy defenses.

  • 1st Division Marines and 7th Infantry Division soldiers
    1st Division Marines and 7th Infantry Division soldiers cheer exuberantly at Okinawa atop Hill 89, where the Thirty-second Army commander took his life. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 125699
  • Joint Service. The squabble between the 1st Marine Division and the 77th Division after the Marines seized Shuri Castle notwithstanding, the battle of Okinawa represented joint service cooperation at its finest. This was General Buckner's greatest achievement, and General Geiger continued the sense of teamwork after Buckner's death. Okinawa remains a model of interservice cooperation to succeeding generations of military professionals.

  • First-Rate Training. The Marines who deployed to Okinawa received the benefit of the most thorough and practical advanced training of the war. Well-seasoned division and regimental commanders, anticipating Okinawa's requirements for cave warfare and combat in built-up areas, conducted realistic training and rehearsals. The battle produced few surprises.

  • Leadership. Many of those Marines who survived Okinawa went on to positions of top leadership that influenced the Corps for the next two decades or more. Two Commandants emerged — General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., of the 6th Marine Division, and then-Lieutenant Colonel Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., CO of 4/11. Oliver P. Smith and Vernon E. Megee rose to four-star rank. At least 17 others achieved the rank of lieutenant general, including George C. Axtell, Jr.; Victor H. Krulak; Alan Shapley; and Edward W. Snedeker. And Corporal James L. Day recovered from his wounds and returned to Okinawa 40 years later as a major general to command all Marine Corps bases on the island.

During the taping of the 50th anniversary commemorative video of the battle, General "Brute" Krulak provided a fitting epitaph to the Marines who fell on Okinawa. Speaking extemporaneously on camera, he said:

The cheerfulness with which they went to their death has stayed with me forever. What is it that makes them all the same? I watched them in Korea, I watched them in Vietnam, and it's the same. American youth is one hell of a lot better than he is usually credited."

For Extraordinary Heroism

The Secretary of the Navy awarded Presidential Unit Citations to the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions, the 2d Marine Aircraft Wing, and Marine Observation Squadron Three (VMO-3) for "extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the invasion of Okinawa." Marine Observation Squadron Six also received the award as a specified attached unit to the 6th Marine Division.

On an individual basis, 23 servicemen received the Medal of Honor for actions performed during the battle. Thirteen of these went to the Marines and their organic Navy corpsmen, nine to Army troops, and one to a Navy officer.

Within IIIAC, 10 Marines and 3 corpsmen received the award. Eleven of the 13 were posthomous awards. Most, if not all, deceased Medal of Honor recipients have had either U.S. Navy ships or Marine Corps installations named in their honor. The Okinawa Medal of Honor awardees were:

Corporal Richard E. Bush, USMC, 1/4; HA 1/c Robert E. Bush, USN, 2/5; *Maj Henry A. Courtney, Jr., USMC, 2/22; *Corporal John P. Fardy, USMC, 1/1; *PFC William A. Foster, USMC, 3/1; *PFC Harold Gonsalves, USMC, 4/15; *PhM 2/c William D. Halyburton, USN, 2/5; *Pvt Dale M. Hansen, USMC, 2/1; *Corporal Louis J. Hauge, Jr., USMC, 1/1; *Sgt Elbert L. Kinser, USMC, 3/1; *HA 1/c Fred F. Lester, USN, 1/22; *Pvt Robert M. McTureous, Jr., USMC, 3/29; and *PFC Albert E. Schwab, USMC, 1/5.

* Posthumous award

Medal of Honor

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division