Okinawa, although an island with distinct culture and people, is also a prefecture of Japan. In landing on Japanese soil the US forces expected an even more ferocious defence than they had met on their previous island hopping across the Pacific. This was the final stepping stone, 340 miles (550 km) away from mainland Japan. Very heavy casualties had been predicted for those landing in the first waves on the beaches.
The Japanese anticipated that it would be used as a base to launch both aerial and then amphibious assaults on the mainland. They had been preparing for battle for almost a year. The island was to be defended like Iwo Jima, with extensive use of bunkers and caves designed to extend the battle for as long as possible. The intention was to buy time for the preparation of defences of the Japanese mainland and to inflict maximum casualties on the Americans.
Tens of thousands of Okinawan civilians remained on the island, many forced to serve the Japanese military. Japanese propaganda had led many, if not most, to believe that they could only expect monstrous treatment at the hands of the Americans, treatment so bad that suicide would be preferable. This belief was to significantly contribute to the appalling bloodshed on the island in the coming weeks.
But April Fools Day 1945 had a surprise in store first. Eugene B. Sledge was a Marine veteran who had survived the slaughter and carnage of Peleleiu, as they set off for the beaches he was full of trepidation:
“The landing is unopposed!”
We looked with amazement at the Marine on the amtrac with which our Higgins boat had just hooked up.
“The hell you say,” one of my buddies shot back.
“It’s straight dope. I ain’t seen no casualties. Most of the Nips musta hauled ass. I just saw a couple of mortar shells fallin’ in the water; that’s all. The guys went in standin’ up. It beats anything I ever saw.” –
Images of the maelstrom at Peleliu had been flashing through my mind, but on Okinawa there was practically no opposition to the landing. When we overcame our astonishment, everybody started laughing and joking. The release of tension was unforgettable. We sat on the edge of the amtrac’s troop compartment singing and commenting on the vast fleet surrounding us. No need to crouch low to avoid the deadly shrapnel and bullets. It was – and still is – the most pleasant surprise of the war.
It suddenly dawned on me, though, that it wasn’t at all like the Japanese to let us walk ashore unopposed on an island only 350 miles from their homeland. They were obviously pulling some trick, and I began to wonder what they were up to.
“Hey, Sledgehammer, what’s the matter? Why don’t you sing like everybody else?”
I grinned and took up a chorus of the “Little Brown Jug.”
“That’s more like it!”
As our wave moved closer to the island, we got a good view of the hundreds of landing‘ boats and amtracs approaching the beach.
Directly ahead of us, we could see the men of our regiment moving about in dispersed combat formations like tiny toy soldiers on the rising landscape. They appeared unhurried and nonchalant, as if on maneuvers. There were no enemy shells bursting among them.
The island sloped up gently from the beach, and the many small garden and fami plots of the Okinawans gave it the appearance of a patchwork quilt. It was beautiful, except where the ground cover and vegetation had been blasted by shells. I was overcome with the contrast to D day on Peleliu.
When our wave was about fifty yards from the beach, I saw two enemy mortar shells explode a considerable distance to our left. They spewed up small geysers of water but caused no damage to the amtracs in that area. That was the only enemy fire I saw during the landing on Okinawa.
It made the April Fool’s Day aspect even more sinister, because all those thousands of first-rate Japanese troops on that island had to be somewhere spoiling for a fight.
We continued to look at the panorama around our amtrac with no thought of immediate danger as we came up out of the water. The tailgate banged down. We calmly picked up our gear and walked onto the beach.
A short distance down the beach on our right, the mouth of Bishi Gawa emptied into the sea. This small river formed the boundary between the army divisions of the XXIV Corps, to the south, and the III Amphibious Corps, to the north of the river. On our side of the mouth of the river, on a promontory jutting out into the sea, I saw the remains of the emplacement containing the big Japanese gun that had concerned us in our briefings. The seawall in our area had been blasted down into a terracelike rise a few feet high over which we moved with ease.
We advanced inland, and I neither heard nor saw any Japanese fire directed against us. As we moved across the small fields and gardens onto higher elevations, I could see troops of the 6th Marine Division heading toward the big Yontan Airfield on our let. Jubilation over the lack of opposition to the landing prevailed, particularly among the Peleliu veterans. Our new replacements began making remarks about amphibious landings being easy.