28A. Devastation of Okinawa

Susan Rutherford asked this question

“The Menkyo system seems to me a very important, core part of the martial arts system. Without a way to continue our training out of the physical world, there would be only fighting for the Olympics or for exercise. Why do you feel that so few instructors have continued to use this system out of the thousands who could and are there other similar systems, ways to learn in which they are teaching?”

The answer to “Why do you feel that so few instructors have continued to use this system out of the thousands who could,” will take several essays. The first has to do with Okinawa in the twenty years following April 1945.

For six days prior to April 1, 1945 the Allied Forces under Admiral Chester Nimitz bombed and shelled Okinawa. Then bombing and shelling ceased so that the marines could land. By the end of the first day of invasion 60,000 allied troops had landed on a small beach ten miles north of Naha, the largest city on the islands. The allies met little resistance. In fact there were only 28 casualties that first day, most of which were from friendly fire.

By day three (April 3) the marines had secured a swath of island all the way across the isthmus, captured Yontan and Kadena airfield and by such actions had separated the north part of the island from the south part. Most of this great accomplishment was done without any resistance. The Japanese were waiting, but no one knew where.

One occurrence worth noting was at Yontan Airfield. It was captured by the Americans about an hour after Kadena airfield. The 6th Division Marines moved so quickly and calmly that the airfield appeared to be in normal operation. A Japanese Zero circled, assessed and felt it was safe. He landed, got out of his plane and started to walk to the hangers before he recognized that the airfield had fallen. He was killed as he drew his pistol.

The north part of the island above the landing beach was mostly hilly with ridges, valley and dense forest. The Americans had surmised that it would take a long time to root out the Japanese from such terrain. They were wrong. Going north of the beach head the Americans encountered only pockets of resistance. Within a short time the north had been secured. Where were the Japanese?

Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima knew from the very first what his job was. He was to delay the Americans and destroy as many of them as possible without regard to the safety of his troops. Instead of selecting the north of the island for guerrilla type fighting he chose to force the Americans into open front fighting.

Let’s get the picture straight. Admiral Nimitz’s navy was being bombarded by kamikaze pilots. He had lost ships and was under suicidal attack on a near daily basis. Nimitz needed to secure Okinawa immediately to prevent the loss of more of his ships. This was urgent. Somehow Ushijima had surmised such. If Ushijima had taken his men into the north forests Nimitz could have sealed the area off and just let them starve while securing the airfields. Ushijima wisely decided to make his stand in Shuri (the capitol of Okinawa). The Americans needed to capture Shuri if they were to stop kamikaze attacks. They needed to take both Machinato airfield four miles north of the city of Naha and Naha airfield two miles south of Naha.

Ushijima set up long before the Americans descended on Shuri. He had put all his forces together and fortified three hills each which could defend the flanks of the others. He had interconnecting tunnels leading among the three hills and even to his headquarters so that men could fight and immediately escape thru the tunnels blasting them closed as they retreated. His headquarters were 100 feet below the Imperial Palace in Shuri. Bombs couldn’t touch him. He had more than 100,000 troops at his disposal, although the Allies had far underestimated his forces.

The Americans moved southward with confidence. The land was open fields of rice in the area for miles. Then the land became convoluted ridges with deep valleys around Shuri. As they passed beyond the rice fields they realized the honeymoon was over. Ushijima, an officer of the Dai Nippon Butokukai who had trained in military strategy and tactics, was totally ready. He had been waiting for them.

The Americans would fight up one ridge trying to take a summit. They lost a man for every horizontal foot gained. Then once they seized the summit they could not hold it because that summit was in direct line of fire from Ushijima’s other two summits. The Japanese artillery had been pre-aimed so that coordinates were already known to Ushijima’s men. The Americans were being torn apart. The loss of life was staggering. The Americans retreated only to attack again with more losses each time.

At the same time Admiral Nimitz’s navy was being subjected to intense kamikaze raids. The condition of the allied forces was becoming desperate. The marines were being torn apart limb by limb; the navy was being bombed by insane suicide missions. Something had to be done immediately. The marines and the navy had fought a near fruitless battle for nearly three weeks. The answer appeared to require a re-beating of the island with the navy’s big guns and lots of air strikes. The most massive artillery campaign of the Pacific war was launched on April 19, 1945.

The campaign was nearly beyond belief. A total of 324 pieces of artillery took part in dropping 19,000 shells on Shuri. In the morning mists six battleships, six cruisers and six destroyers joined the fracas. As the mist cleared 650 planes thundered in with bombs, rockets, napalm and machine-gun fire. Shuri Castle, under which the general’s command post was securely tucked, was hit with 1000 pound bombs. Ushijima felt the blasts 100 feet below.

Forty-minutes after the last air-patrol withdrew the marines attacked Shuri. They were exuberant and confident that the Japanese were demolished. But 20 minutes after the last bomb fell the Japanese emerged from the subterranean tunnels and remounted their machine-gun nests and mortar mounts. The Americans were shocked to find they could make no more progress than before the raging artillery assault. For an example, of 30 American tanks attacking Kakazu Ridge 22 were destroyed. The marines could not advance on Shuri even after a devastating blitzkrieg.

The Americans still didn’t know about the elaborate tunnel system. They could not figure out how the Japanese had done it. Men and machines seemed to be immune to the bombs. Surely the Americans didn’t know that the intricate system of tunnels allowing the Japanese immediate protection from bombs nor did they know that the tunnel system even had a narrow-gauge railway system to move heavy pieces of equipment to and from the front lines. All the Americans knew was what they saw; the Japanese had withstood the heaviest bombardment any American had ever witnessed and seemed not to lose even one position.

The Japanese tactics were so well worked out it is hard to imagine. The Japanese would let the Americans gain ground to above a steep ridge during a day. Then the Japanese would send fresh troops against the Americans during night time and force them back over the steep ridge. Many Americans died in the down-climbing by losing hand holds or not seeing the step below. The Americans paid a fearsome price.

The battle raged on with Americans fighting a war of attrition. The prodigious invasion had turned into a battle where each inch gained resulted in an American life lost. Ushijima’s tactic pinned the American’s down and, worse, pinned the naval forces down as well. The naval forces were needed to keep supply lines open to the men fighting on the front lines. And as the Japanese had hoped, the naval force positions were quite predictable because of the need for supply lines to the front. So the Japanese sent their kamikaze in hundreds.

Ushijima held Shuri until May 20th. He knew the Americans would discover his tunnel system soon. He knew he had lost 50,000 men in his present position. Ushijima knew that his tunnel system was becoming more vulnerable to attack. His code as a military man was to die rather than retreat, but his orders were to delay the Americans as long as possible. He could make things rougher on the Americans and delay them by weeks if he retreated to a new line of defense. He called for artillery fire on the Americans the day before his weather broadcast said a typhoon would hit. The Americans were allowed to advance to a new position. As they were beginning to dig their foxholes the artillery fire nailed them in unfinished trenches where they could not even continue their digging let alone consider moving forward. While the blasting continued on the north of General Ushijima’s fortress, he and his men escaped an exit to the south. He had 50,000 soldiers. He left 5,000 to fight and die at Shuri with no possibility of retreat. The rest moved to set up a new defense line. The next few days he moved in the cover of a typhoon. But the Americans caught wind of his retreat even thru the typhoon and blasted his position. His destination was a cave in Hill 89. When he reached there he had 35,000 soldiers. Had he not used the cover of the typhoon Okinawa would have fell then and there. His tactics, however, were to prolong the war another month and result in the death and destruction of tens of thousands of people, both military and civilian, and result in the devastation of the entire southern section of Okinawa.

Moving along with Ushijima’s army in the retreat were more than 30,000 Okinawan civilian men, women and children. They had been propagandized into believing that the invading American forces were heathen barbarians who would rape the women and torture the men. The Okinawans chose to abandon their devastated villages and travel with the Japanese rather than face the onslaught of a people they believed would ravage them. They worked loading equipment, nursing injured men, cooking meals and even lifting and pushing the convoy thru the rain-soaked muddy roads. Many died in the bombings and shelling of the convoy along the road.

At the new line Ushijima used the Okinawan people to dig ditches and embankments and erect shelters for his men. The Okinawans, although starving, were glad to help the Japanese, who they believed were their only hope against the American barbarians. Once the work was finished and the soldiers were ready for the fight Ushijima tried to send the Okinawans to safe harbor at Chinen. They refused to move away from the army out of fear of the Americans. More than an additional 15,000 civilians were to die in the oncoming fighting because of this refusal.

The 5000 Japanese soldiers at Shuri died to the last man. They held the tunnel fortress against the Americans with the fighting spirit (damashi) of well-trained fighters. It took nearly ten days of attack to shake the 5000 soldiers loose. But finally Shuri, that is, what little was left to a spot on the map that once was Shuri, the capitol of Okinawa, fell to the Americans.

It may be of interest to some of you that the confederate flag flew first over Shuri. This did not happen quickly. Ushijima retreated on the night of May 20 leaving only 5000 troops. They fought so savagely that it took the allies until May 29 to capture Shuri. The final thrust to the remains of the castle was accomplished by company A of the 5th marine regiment, who were not supposed to be in that sector let alone capture the castle. When they took the castle they had no flag. Their company commander, a South Carolina man by the name of Dusenbury, happened to have a confederate flag tucked in his helmet. It flew over Shuri for two days before someone could muster an American flag.

Ushijima’s line was now well established about ten miles south of Shuri. He had buried himself in another cave in a limestone cliff. An assessment of his army and weapons showed him that his position was to be short-lived. He told his men that this was to be their last moment of life, and to live it in the glory of dying for the Emperor as millions of samurai had done in Japan’s glorious past.

Ushijima had placed Ota in command of 5000 men to secure and defend the Oroku beach head. Ota blatantly disobeyed orders because he and his men had felt insulted by Ushijima in a previous campaign. Luckily for the marines reconnaissance of Oroku showed it was not heavily protected and so was chosen for a flank attack. The marines landed on Oroku beach with almost no resistance. As they pressed in a half-mile Ota saw his mistake but it was too late. His 5000 men fought to the death with the exception of 200 who were captured too injured to continue fighting. When Ota’s position was discovered he and his officers were dead by suicide.

Ushijima now had less than 30,000 troops. He held his position ruthlessly, continuously losing more men. On June 20, with less than 20,000 soldiers, he was given the option of surrender with honor from General Buckner. Ushijima’s reply was concise and to the point, “as a samurai, it is not consonant with my honor to entertain such a proposal. Thank you, General Buckner.”

The Japanese position was hopeless. The continued fighting resulted in their loss of communications, depletion of their ammunition and foodstuffs, and uncoordinated suicidal attacks on the Americans. The Americans used tanks to move forward blazing more than 5000 pounds of napalm into the fracas. The countryside was scorched. The military was destroyed. The civilians wouldn’t leave the “protection” of the Japanese and so died as the Americans advanced. It was the bloodiest defeat in the Pacific Theater.

When General Graves tallies were published on the Battle for Okinawa his figures startled everyone. A total of 110,000 Japanese soldiers died, 20,000 were captured because of their injuries. The countryside from 10 miles north of Shuri to the end of the island had less than 10% of the buildings standing. Bridges were non-existent. Unofficial reports indicated that another 100,000 Okinawans had died alongside the Japanese.

Generals Ushijima and Cho had done their job. They delayed the American invasion of mainland Japan by 83 days. Colonel Yahara, who was denied the right to commit suicide so that he could tell the world about the Battle for Okinawa from the Japanese side gave a written account of the last of Ushijima and Cho. I will let him tell the gruesome end in his own words:

“at 10pm on June 21 they had an elaborate meal of rice, salmon, canned meats, fried fish cakes, miso, tea and sake. Then at 4am they began to prepare for the final hour of hara-kiri: the commanding general (Ushijima), dressed in full field uniform, and the chief of staff (Cho) in a white kimono appeared. The chief of staff said as he left the cave first, ‘Well, Commanding General Ushijima, as the way may be dark, I, Cho, will lead the way’ the commanding general replied, ‘Please do so, and I’ll take along my fan since it is getting warm.’ Saying this, he picked up an Okinawan-made Kuba fan and walked out quietly fanning himself.

“These are calm minds that face death. The generals passing before the row of their subordinates give the air of immortals walking by.

“The moon, which had been shining until now, sinks below the waves of the western sea. Dawn has not yet arrived…the generals appeared at the mouth of the cave. Four meters from the mouth, a sheet of white cloth is placed on a quilt. This is the ritual place for the two generals to commit hara-kiri.

“(they) sit down on the quilt, bow in reverence toward the eastern sky…several grenades were hurled near this solemn scene by the enemy troops who observed movements taking place beneath them.

“Unperturbed by these explosions, the two generals calmly proceeded with the prescribed ritual. Each man bared his stomach for disembowelment by a ceremonial knife, at the same time bowing his head for decapitation by a sword borne by a friend….the end came quickly.”

So ended the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Theater. But, this is only the beginning as far as answering Susan’s question. Okinawa had been devastated. Its people were starving, the land had been ruined, the crops destroyed, public works destroyed, homes and shelters destroyed, national treasures destroyed. The people were devastated; physically, emotionally and spiritually. Even their own history had been wiped out of public record. It would take more than two decades to bring their lives back to tolerable.

Next, let’s look at Japan.