In February 1945, the men of the First Marine Division were at their rest island on Pavuvu, listening to radio reports in the evening of the desperate fighting on Iwo Jima. The men did not know it yet, but American commanders had decided back in October to have the First Division - along with the Sixth Marine Division and two Army divisions - spearhead the invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945.
"In February, the men of the First Division had no idea where they were headed next," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and a consultant on HBO's miniseries. "All they knew was that it would be a big island close to Japan, and that they should be prepared to suffer massive losses. On March 19, they sailed for Okinawa, while the fighting still raged on Iwo Jima."
Okinawa, with its excellent seaports and airfields within fighter range of mainland Japan, was to be a staging ground for an invasion of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's mainland islands. As D-Day drew near, U.S. Navy ships converged from eleven points in the Pacific to form the most powerful naval armada in history - more than 1,500 ships carrying nearly 300,000 combat-ready troops. When the invaders landed on Okinawa - a big island, 60 miles long and 18 miles wide, with a rolling, forested landscape similar to mainland Japan's - they met no initial resistance. But when they reached the Shuri Line, in the southern part of the island, they ran into the main Japanese defenses.
"By this time, Japan knows it can't win the war, so the plan is to draw the Americans inland and kill them by the tens of thousands," Miller says. "The Japanese garrison is told it will not be evacuated - they're there to die. For the Japanese, Okinawa will be a kamikaze operation on land as well as at sea. The enemy is dug into these seemingly impregnable defenses along the Shuri Line, which extends all the way across the island, an interlocking network of deep, heavily fortified caves the Japanese had been building for more than 100 days. There are about 110,000 defenders - around 24,000 of them are Okinawan conscripts who have been impressed into service. The enemy is concealed, he controls the high ground, and he has five times as much manpower and firepower as he had on Iwo Jima."
It was a brutal 82-day battle, the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific war. The Japanese flew approximately 1,900 kamikaze sorties against the American fleet, in addition to the 5,000 to 6,000 sorties by conventional aircraft, sinking 36 vessels and damaging 368 others. The Navy suffered 9,731 casualties, with 4,907 killed. Total American battle losses--at sea and on the ground--numbered approximately 72,300. The enemy garrison on the island was almost totally annihilated; and at least a third of the island's population of nearly 490,000 died. "These losses," says Miller, "show how horrible an invasion of the Japanese home islands would have been for both combatants and non-combatants."
On August 6, 1945, when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Marine and Army troops who had taken Okinawa were still stationed there, preparing to invade Japan. The second bomb fell on Nagasaki on August 9; six days later, the Japanese emperor spoke to his people for the first time ever: The war was over. "No one understood exactly what that bomb meant for America's future; nor did even the scientists who made the bomb know how devastating the radiological devastation would prove to be," says Miller. "All the troops on Okinawa knew was that two tremendously powerful bombs had annihilated two enemy cites. But the bomb meant something more deeply personal to them: they would not die in an invasion assault; they would live to see their families. They and the European veterans who were preparing to be transferred to the Pacific for the anticipated invasion, had survived the greatest explosion of violence in human history, a world war so terrible that even the atomic bomb was seen by some as an instrument of deliverance."
It was a brutal 82-day battle, the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific war. The Navy suffered 9,731 casualties, with 4,907 killed. Total American battle losses--at sea and on the ground--numbered approximately 72,300.