Easter Sunday falls on April Fool’s Day this year, but the remembrance of blood and sacrifice for Christians is no laughing matter. For the U.S. military, there is another sacrifice to remember, as it also marks the American military’s valiant campaign during that same reverent time 73 years ago.
The event was known as Operation Iceberg — the bloodiest battle and the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
Under the command of Admiral Raymond Spruance, in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, the Navy’s Fifth Fleet attacked the Japanese-held island— joined by a Naval Task Force that consisted of British, Canadian, New Zealand, and Australian forces and more than 180,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines.
This would be the final push toward the ultimate attack on the Japanese mainland and the end to the war itself. War Department planners considered the capture of Okinawa and its airfields as ac critical piece to any successful invasion of the Japanese mainland.
President Truman would ultimately decide to forego a land invasion due to potential American casualty estimates that ranges upwards to 4 million. What happened on Okinawa and Iwo Jima in the weeks prior, only brought that point home more keenly. 26, 000 US troops had been casualties in taking islands from 21,000 Japanese that fought to their deaths. Only a few hundred were actually captured by the end of those bloody campaigns.
For the Japanese military, Okinawa was the last line of defense in the Pacific, so As a result, they deployed 77,000 regular troops on the island alongside 20,000 Okinawan militiamen. The Japanese forces even included 1,800 middle school boys conscripted into the “Blood and Iron Corps.”
The invasion began with a massive seven-day naval bombardment of the landing beaches, where heavy resistance from the Japanese forces was expected. That prelanding bombardment included tens of thousands of artillery shells, rockets, mortar shells, and napalm attacks.
The Japanese allowed American troops to land unopposed on Easter Sunday and to move inland with nominal resistance. They had been ordered not to fire on the American landing because Ushijima wanted to lure the American forces into a trap he had laid for them in what became known as the Naha-Shuri-Yonabaru Defense Line in southern Okinawa, a rugged terrain riddled with fortified pillboxes, gun emplacements, tunnels, and caves.
The Japanese also sent the battleship Yamato to Okinawa, but it was spotted by Allied submarines and sunk (along with a cruiser and four enemy destroyers). But the US Navy suffered its own heavy losses thanks to Kamikazes. The Fifth Fleet lost 36 ships and suffered damage to another 368 ships. Almost 5,000 U.S. sailors and pilots were killed with almost as many wounded— It was the heaviest naval loss of the war.
On Okinawa, Americans fought to take nearly every heavily fortified hilltop. Torrential rains turned the island into a sea of mud that bogged down tanks, trucks, and other heavy equipment. The most infamous hilltop was Hacksaw Ridge, a 400-foot cliff on the Maeda Escarpment that was depicted in a 2016 movie of the same name— about Cpl. Desmond T. Doss. Doss— a Seventh-Day Adventist and conscientious objector who became a combat medic. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing 75 wounded soldiers on that ridge.
Eventually the battle was effectively brought to an end when Ushijima and his chief of staff committed seppuku on June 22. It was Ushijima who had ordered his troops to “fight to the death.”
The Battle of Okinawa was the deadliest fight of the Pacific island campaign. The Japanese knew they could not win. Their purpose was simply to make the battle as costly as possible to the Americans and to hold them off as long as possible, allowing Japan to prepare for the defense of their home islands. Thus, Japanese commanders considered all their forces and the residents of Okinawa totally expendable.
Americans incurred almost 50,000 casualties on Okinawa, including over 12,000 dead. Those killed included the American commander, Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, who lost his life to enemy artillery fire just four days before the battle ended, making him the highest-ranking U.S. officer killed during the entire war.
Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent, was also killed when he was shot by a sniper on a small island northwest of Okinawa. In addition to Doss, six other Americans who fought in the battle received the Medal of Honor.
The bloody battle for Okinawa lasted 82 days and left the island a “vast field of mud, lead, decay, and maggots” according to Ted Tsukiyama’s “Battle of Okinawa.” Almost every building on the island was destroyed.
The hard fought win hastened the decision by Truman to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing the second world war to a close. And it all began on an Easter Sunday, April 1st, 1945.
Featured Image Courtesy of AP