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)

L-Day and Movement to Contact

General Mulcahy did not hesitate to move the command post of the Tactical Air Force ashore as early as L plus 1. Operating from crude quarters between Yontan and Kadena, Mulcahy kept a close eye on the progress the SeaBees and Marine and Army engineers were making on repairing both captured airfields. The first American aircraft, a Marine observation plane, landed on 2 April. Two days later the fields were ready to accept fighters. By the eighth day, Mulcahy could accommodate medium bombers and announced to the Fleet his assumption of control of all aircraft ashore. By then his fighter arm, the Air Defense Command, had been established ashore nearby under the leadership of Marine Brigadier General William J. Wallace. With that, the graceful F4U Corsairs of Colonel John C. Munn's Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 31 and Colonel Ward E. Dickey's MAG-33 began flying in from their escort carriers. Wallace immediately tasked them to fly combat air patrols (CAP) over the fleet, already seriously embattled by massed kamikaze attacks. Ironically, most of the Marine fighter pilots' initial missions consisted of CAP assignments, while the Navy squadrons on board the escort carriers picked up the close air support jobs. Dawn of each new day would provide the spectacle of Marine Corsairs taking off from land to fly CAP over the far-flung Fifth Fleet, passing Navy Hellcats from the fleet coming in take station in support of the Marines fighting on the ground. Other air units poured into the two airfields as well: air warning squadrons, night fighters, torpedo bombers, and an Army Air Forces fighter wing. While neither Yontan nor Kadena were ex actly safe havens — each received nightly artillery shelling and long-range bombing for the first full month ashore — the two airfields remained in operation around the clock, an invaluable asset to both Admiral Spruance and General Buckner.

unloading supplies
As invasion forces fanned out on Okinawa, the beaches were scenes of organized disorder as shore parties unloaded the beans and bullets needed by the assault troops. They also began unloading materiel which would be needed later in the campaign. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 118304

While the 1st Marine Division continued to hunt down small bands of enemy guerrillas and infiltrators throughout the center of the island, General Geiger unleased the 6th Marine Division to sweep north. These were heady days for General Shepherd's troops: riflemen clustered topside on tanks and self-propelled guns, streaming northward against a fleeing foe. Not since Tinian had Marines enjoyed such exhilarating mobility. By 7 April the division had seized Nago, the largest town in northern Okinawa, and the U.S. Navy obligingly swept for mines and employed underwater demolition teams (UDT) to breach obstacles in order to open the port for direct, sea-borne delivery of critical supplies to the Marines. Corporal Day marveled at the rapidity of their advance so far. "Hell, here we were in Nago. It was not tough at all. Up to that time [our squad] had not lost a man." The 22d Marines continued north through broken country, reaching Hedo Misaki at the far end of the island on L plus 12, having covered 55 miles from the Hagushi landing beaches.

For the remainder of the 6th Marine Division, the honeymoon was about to end. Just northwest of Nago the great bulbous nose of Motobu Peninsula juts out into the East China Sea. There, in a six-square-mile area around 1,200-foot Mount Yae Take, Colonel Takesiko Udo and his Kunigami Detachment ended their delaying tactics and assumed prepared defensive positions. Udo's force consisted of two rifle battalions, a regimental gun company and an antitank company from the 44th Independent Mixed Brigade, in all about two thousand seasoned troops.

M-7 self-propelled 105mm howitzer
Grinning troops of the 29th Marines hitch a ride on board an M-7 self-propelled 105mm howitzer heading for Chuta in the drive towards Motobu Peninsula. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 117054

Yae Take proved to be a defender's dream, broken into steep ravines and tangled with dense vegetation. The Japanese sowed the approaches with mines and mounted 20mm dual purpose machine-cannons and heavier weapons deep within caves. As Colonel Krulak recalled: "They were just there — they weren't going anywhere — they were going to fight to the death. They had a lot of naval guns that had come off disabled ships, and they dug them way back in holes where their arc of fire was not more than 10 or 12 degrees." One of the artillery battalions of the 15th Marines had the misfortune to lay their guns directly within the narrow arc of a hidden 150mm cannon. "They lost two howitzers before you could spell cat," said Krulak.

The battle of Yae Take became the 6th Marine Division's first real fight, five days of difficult and deadly combat against an exceptionally determined enemy. Both the 4th and 29th Marines earned their spurs here, developing teamwork and tactics that would put them in good stead during the long campaign ahead.

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

Part of General Shepherd's success in this battle stemmed from his desire to provide proven leaders in command of his troops. On the 15th, Shepherd relieved Colonel Victor F. Bleasdale, a well-decorated World War I Marine, to install Guadalcanal veteran Colonel William J. Whaling as commanding officer of the 29th Marines. When Japanese gunners killed Major Bernard W. Green, commanding the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, Colonel Shapley assigned his own executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Fred D. Beans, a former Marine raider, as his replacement. The savage fighting continued, with three battalions attacking from the west, two from the east — protected against friendly fire by the steep pinnacle between them. Logistic support to the fighting became so critical that every man, from private to general, who ascended the mountain to the front lines carried either a five-gallon water can or a case of ammo. And all hands coming down the mountain had to help bear stretchers of wounded Marines. On 15 April, one company of the 2d Battalion, 4th Marines, suffered 65 casualties, including three consecutive company commanders. On 16 April, two companies of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, seized the topographic crest. On the following day, the 29th Marines received exceptional fire support from the 14-inch guns of the old battleship Tennessee and low-level, in-your-pocket bombing from the Corsairs of Marine Fighter Squadron 322.

Japanese 150mm gun
Uncovered on Motobu Peninsula, hidden in a cave, was this Japanese 150mm gun waiting to be used against 6th Marine Division troops advancing northwards. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 122207

Colonel Udo and his Kunigami Detachment died to the man at Yae Take. On 20 April General Shepherd declared the Motobu Peninsula secured. His division had earned a valuable victory, but the cost had not been cheap. The 6th Marine Division suffered the loss of 207 killed and 757 wounded in the battle. The division's overall performance impressed General Oliver P. Smith, who recorded in his journal:

The campaign in the north should dispel the belief held by some that Marines are beach-bound and are not capable of rapid movement. Troops moved rapidly over rugged terrain, repaired roads and blown bridges, successively opened new unloading points, and reached the northern tip of the island, some 55 miles from the original landing beaches, in 14 days. This was followed by a mountain campaign of 7 days duration to clear the Motobu Peninsula.

During the battle for Motobu Peninsula, the 77th Infantry Division once again displayed its amphibious prowess by landing on the island of Ie Shima to seize its airfields. On 16 April, Major Jones' force reconnaissance Marines again helped pave the way by seizing Minna Shima, a tiny islet about 6,000 yards off shore from Ie Shima. Here the soldiers positioned a 105mm battery to further support operations ashore. The 77th needed plenty of fire support. Nearly 5,000 Japanese defended the island. The soldiers overwhelmed them in six days of very hard fighting at a cost of 1,100 casualties. One of these was the popular war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who had landed with the Marines on L-Day. A Japanese Nambu gunner on Ie Shima shot Pyle in the head, killing him instantly. Soldiers and Marines alike grieved over Pyle's death, just as they had six days earlier with the news of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's passing.

Ernie Pyle
Shortly after the main landings on Okinawa, famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle, a Scripps-Howard columnist who had been in the thick of the war in the Italian campaign, shares a smoke with a Marine patrol. Later in Operation Iceberg he was killed by machine gun fire on Ie Shima, a nearby island fortress. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 116840

The 1st Marine Division fought a different campaign in April than their sister division to the north. Their days were filled with processing refugees and their nights with patrols and ambushes. Guerrillas and snipers exacted a small but steady toll. The 7th Marines became engaged in a hot firefight near Hizaonna, but most of the action remained small-unit and nocturnal. The "Old Breed" Marines welcomed the cycle of low intensity. After so many months in the tropics, they found Okinawa refreshingly cool and pastoral. The Marines grew concerned about the welfare of the thousands of Okinawan refugees who straggled northwards from the heavy fighting. As Private First Class Eugene Sledge observed, "The most pitiful things about the Okinawan civilians were that they were totally bewildered by the shock of our invasion, and they were scared to death of us. Countless times they passed us on the way to the rear with fear, dismay, and confusion on their faces."

Sledge and his companions in the 5th Marines could tell by the sound of intense artillery fire to the south that the XXIV Corps had collided with General Ushijima's outer defenses. Within the first week the soldiers of the 7th and 96th Divisions had answered the riddle of "where are the Japs?" By the second week, both General Hodge and General Buckner were painfully aware of Ushijima's intentions and the range and depth of his defensive positions. In addition to their multitude of caves, minefields, and reverse-slope emplacements, the Japanese in the Shuri complex featured the greatest number of large-caliber weapons the Americans had ever faced in the Pacific. All major positions enjoyed mutually supporting fires from adjacent and interior hills and ridgelines, themselves honeycombed with caves and fighting holes. Maintaining rigid adherence to these intricate networks of mutually supporting positions required iron discipline on the part of the Japanese troops. To the extent this discipline prevailed, the Americans found themselves entering killing zones of savage lethality.

native Okinawans
Within a short time after they came ashore, Marines encountered native Okinawans. This group of elderly civilians is escorted to the safety of a rear area by Marine PFC John F. Cassinelli, a veteran 1st Marine Division military policeman. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 117288

In typical fighting along this front, the Japanese would contain and isolate an American penetration (Army or Marine) by grazing fire from supporting positions, then smother the exposed troops on top of the initial objective with a rain of preregistered heavy mortar shells until fresh Japanese troops could swarm out of their reverse-slope tunnels in a counterattack. Often the Japanese shot down more Americans during their extraction from some fire-swept hilltop than they did in the initial advance. These early U.S. assaults set the pattern to be encountered for the duration of the campaign in the south.

General Buckner quickly committed the 27th Infantry Division to the southern front. He also directed General Geiger to loan his corps artillery and the heretofore lightly committed 11th Marines to beef up the fire support to XXIV Corps. This temporary assignment provided four 155mm battalions, three 105mm battalions, and one residual 75mm pack howitzer battalion (1/11) to the general bombardment underway of Ushijima's outer defenses. Lieutenant Colonel Frederick P. Henderson, USMC, took command of a provisional field artillery group comprised of the Marine 155mm gun battalions and an Army 8-inch howitzer battalion — the "Henderson Group" — which provided massive fire support to all elements of the Tenth Army.

Readjusting the front lines of XXIV Corps to allow room for the 27th Division took time; so did building up adequate units of fire for field artillery battalions to support the mammoth, three-division offensive General Buckner wanted. A week of general inactivity passed along the southern front, which inadvertently allowed the Japanese to make their own adjustments and preparations for the coming offensive. On 18 April (L plus 17) Buckner moved the command post of the Tenth Army ashore. The offensive began the next morning, preceded by the ungodliest preliminary bombardment of the ground war, a virtual "typhoon of steel" delivered by 27 artillery batteries, 18 ships, and 650 aircraft. But the Japanese simply burrowed deeper into their underground fortifications and waited for the infernal pounding to cease and for American infantry to advance into their well-designed killing traps.

two Marines help an aged Okinawan to safety
Two Marines help an aged Okinawan to safety in the rear of the lines, as a third Marine of the party carries the man's meager possessions. Only children, women, and the aged and infirm were found and protected by assaulting Marines as they pushed across the island during the first few days following the 1 April landing. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 116356

The XXIV Corps executed the assault on 19 April with great valor, made some gains, then were thrown back with heavy casualties. The Japanese also exacted a heavy toll of U.S. tanks, especially those supporting the 27th Infantry Division. In the fighting around Kakazu Ridge, the Japanese had separated the tanks from their supporting infantry by fire, then knocked off 22 of the 30 Shermans with everything from 47mm guns to hand-delivered satchel charges.

The disastrous battle of 19 April provided an essential dose of reality to the Tenth Army. The so-called "walk in the sun" had ended. Overcoming the concentric Japanese defenses around Shuri was going to require several divisions, massive firepower, and time — perhaps a very long time. Buckner needed immediate help along the Machinato Kakazu lines. His operations officer requested General Geiger to provide the 1st Tank Battalion to the 27th Division. Hearing this, General del Valle became furious. "They can have my division," he complained to Geiger, "but not piece-meal." Del Valle had other concerns. Marine Corps tankers and infantry trained together as teams. The 1st Marine Division had perfected tank-infantry offensive attacks in the crucible of Peleliu. Committing the tanks to the Army without their trained infantry squads could have proven disastrous.

Fortunately, Geiger and Oliver P. Smith made these points clear to General Buckner. The Tenth Army commander agreed to refrain from piece-meal commitments of the Marines. Instead, on 24 April, he re quested Geiger to designate one division as Tenth Army Reserve and make one regiment in that division ready to move south in 12 hours. Geiger gave the mission to the 1st Marine Division; del Valle alerted the 1st Marines to be ready to move south.

These decisions occurred while Buckner and his senior Marines were still debating the possibility of opening a second front with an amphibious landing on the Minatoga Beaches. But the continued bloody fighting along the Shuri front received the forefront of Buckner's attention. As his casualties grew alarmingly, Buckner decided to concentrate all his resources on a single front. On 27 April he assigned the 1st Marine Division to XXIV Corps. During the next three days the division moved south to relieve the shot-up 27th Infantry Division on the western (right) flank of the lines. The 6th Marine Division received a warning order to prepare for a similar displacement to the south. The long battle for Okinawa's southern highlands was shifting into high gear.

Meanwhile, throughout April and with unprecedented ferocity, the Japanese kamikazes had punished the ships of the Fifth Fleet supporting the operation. So intense had the aerial battles become that the western beaches, so beguilingly harmless on L-Day, became positively deadly each night with the steady rain of shell fragments from thousands of antiaircraft guns in the fleet. Ashore or afloat, there were no safe havens in this protracted battle.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division