Okinawa: the bloody occupation of Ishimmi Ridge

Marines pass through a small village where Japanese soldiers lay dead.  Okinawa, April 1945.

Marines pass through a small village where Japanese soldiers lay dead. Okinawa, April 1945.

A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave.  Okinawa, May 1945.

A demolition crew from the 6th Marine Division watch dynamite charges explode and destroy a Japanese cave. Okinawa, May 1945.

The grinding battle for Okinawa continued unabated. The Japanese were making full use of their huge network of underground tunnels and caves from which they conducted a suicidal defence. U.S. casualties had been heavy. Company E, 307th Infantry, 77th Division, were in reserve in the five days before the 17th. They received many replacements during this time, bringing them up to strength – although most of these men had no combat experience at all, and there was little opportunity fro these men to become properly integrated.

Then Company E were selected to lead an audacious assault deep into the main Japanese defence line, an attempt to disrupt the line and turn the battle.

Lieutenant Robert F. Meiser, a platoon commander with Company E, described the action in his duty report submitted shortly after they were withdrawn on the 20th May. To begin the night assault they had to move up over 450 yards of ground pockmarked with shell-holes, and then penetrate through Japanese lines for a further 800 yards, moving almost all of the way in single file. To maintain the element of surprise they would only use bayonets if they encountered the enemy. At 0415 on the 17th they left their Line of Departure with their objective, Ishimmi Ridge just visible where ‘three or four limbless trees’ were lit by flares:

Dawn began to break as we came upon our objective. About 50 yards from it, the 3rd platoon echeloned to the left of the 2nd and nearly on line, forming the left front and flank. The 2nd continued straight forward to occupy the center ar1d foremost position, while the platoon from Company C held the right front and flank. Our rear was protected by a well formed semi-circle of the 1st platoon.

We now found that the 125 yard part of the objective we were able to occupy was a very prominent, table top ridge. It was quite flat and made up of rock and coral where digging was very difficult, and in some places impossible.

The top center of Ishimmi Ridge was very narrow, being only about seven or eight yards wide, and then fanning out to either flank in a leaf-like pattern. Directly to the rear of the narrow section of the ridge was a pocket, 20 yards in diameter, in which the company Command Post was located, and this, ultimately, was the location of the company’s final stand.

To our right rear, 250 yards distant, were two grassy mounds of earth, each about 30 feet high and affording perfect observation into our positions. Likewise, to the center rear was a finger ridge extension which afforded the enemy an excellent OP as well as machine gun positions.

At 0505 we were on our objective, and as daylight was coming we hastened to dig in. The enemy on the ridge was completely surprised and was not aware of our presence for nearly 20 minutes. While initially caught napping, they soon made up for lost time and all hell broke loose at 0530. Mortar shells, heavy and light, began falling on our area in such fury and volume that one would believe the place had been zeroed in for just such an eventuality. Machine gun and rifle fire began pouring in from all directions and within a short time even enemy artillery began shelling us.

As daylight came, we finally realized that we were in a spot and that the enemy controlled the position from every direction, including the rear. The [3rd] Platoon on the left was receiving murderous fire, especially from both flanks and the high Shuri Ridge across the valley to our front.

Foxholes were only partly completed and to raise one’s head meant death on that fire-swept plateau. Mortar shells very often dropped directly in the foxhole, usually taking at least one man’s life or badly wounding several. The same action was taking place [with the Company C platoon] on the right flank as that area was almost identical to the one on the left.

In the rear, the 1st Platoon was faring no better and was taking a terrific pounding from all types of fire. However, they maintained continuous and effective fire on the enemy, especially to the right and left rear, greatly reducing his advantages there. Our light mortars were in this area and though only partially dug in, the mortar crews fired as long as the mortars were serviceable.

By 1000 the first day, enemy action had knocked out all but one of the mortars and killed or wounded nearly all the crewmen.

The 2nd Platoon had gone over the center of the ridge and dropped into a long Jap communication trench which was about six feet deep. Small dug-outs in this trench contained about 10 or 12 sleeping enemy who were quickly disposed of by bayonet or rifle fire. However, tunnels from inside the ridge led into either end of the trench and the enemy soon attempted to force their way upward. At first, surprise was so complete that a japanese officer and his aide, laughing and talking, came toward us in the trench, walked completely past one of our men and were killed without realizing what hit them.

By making use of the tunnels the Nips were soon able to set up knee mortars about 100 yards to either flank and fire systematically from one end of the trench to the other. Each position had two mortars which were firing simultaneously, doing great damage to the earthworks of our line as well as producing heavy casualties in our ranks. Riflemen were blown to bits by these mortars and many were struck in the head by machine gun fire. The blood from the wounded was everywhere; on the weapons, on the living, and splattered all around. The dead lay where they fell, in pools of their own blood. Though the platoon medic was wounded early in the morning, he took care of the injured as fast as possible, but was unable to keep up and soon his supplies were exhausted.

By 0700 both of our light machine guns had been knocked out, one being completely buried. The few remaining crewmen became riflemen and stayed right there throughout the day. During the morning a few Japanese had managed to crawl up from the deep ravine to a line just slightly beneath our position and began hurling grenades upwards at us. Grenades were tossed back and soon the infiltrators were killed or driven backward, but we had suffered too.

The battle continued furiously all morning and by noon the 2nd Platoon had suffered heavily, about 50 percent being killed or wounded. The number of Japs killed had mounted steadily, but they were still able to reinforce almost at will and attempted numerous frontal and flanking counterattacks.

Meanwhile the 3rd Platoon [on the left] had had a steady grenade battle and had repulsed three fixed bayonet attacks by the enemy coming from their left flank. However, the men of this platoon had very little cover and were being whittled down man by man until more than half of them were out of action, including their platoon leader. Dead men were pushed hurriedly from the all too small holes in order to make more room for the living. In some cases the firing was so heavy as to even prevent this, and the living and bloody, mangled dead were as one in their foxholes. By 1800 the first day there were only a handful of men left alive in this platoon and they were clinging tenaciously to the few remaining positions of their own right flank.

See Wayne C. MacGregor: Through These Portals: A Pacific War Saga

A U.S. Marine from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines on Wana Ridge provides covering fire with his Thompson submachine gun, 18 May 1945.

A U.S. Marine from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines on Wana Ridge provides covering fire with his Thompson submachine gun, 18 May 1945.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Leo V. Geaghan January 26, 2017 at 7:44 pm

My uncle Norbert James Geaghan was with Company E, 177th and was killed in this battle on May 20th. The letter my grandfather received, said Norbert was helping do mop up, and was killed by a Japanese grenade. He was due to be discharged the week he was killed.

Leo V. Geaghan

Jeff October 7, 2015 at 2:19 am

The WW2 US Marine infantry squad consisted of 5 riflemen and a cameraman.

John May 20, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Martin,

I only found your distribution list a year ago and have thoroughly enjoyed every update. I was glad to see you started over again in 1940 while finishing the war in the Pacific. Will you go through all 5 years again. I am looking forward to it if you will do that.

Thanks,
John

Editor May 20, 2015 at 10:08 am

Jim

I absolutely agree that it wasn’t just the Marines in the Pacific. Part of the problem of this public perception may be that there are just far more photographs of the Marines publicly available. I am sure that the Signal Corps were taking pictures of the U.S. Army just like they were in Europe – but I have yet to find a good source for these images.

Martin

JimBobElrod May 20, 2015 at 4:03 am

This was a story about the 77th Division of the U.S. Army but all of the photos are of U.S. Marines. How about giving the Army their due? My uncle was in the 32nd Division and fought in New Guinea and the Philippines. It wasn’t just the Marines.
Nitpicking I know, otherwise I love your site. Keep up the excellent work.

Edward V. Hogue May 18, 2015 at 5:22 am

I love to read your articles about WWll, keep up the good work.

Edward V. Hogue May 18, 2015 at 5:20 am

Very good job I love these articles you write kept up the good work.

John Martin Bradley May 18, 2015 at 3:18 am

Martin
Thank you again for your fantastic work. I am very pleased to read you are continuing with updates, both through to August and revisiting the start of the war.
I doubt if there is an update in the past five years that I have not read – and with great interest.

Best regards
John

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