1945: Okinawa – Generals commit suicide as defeat looms

F4U of Marine Air Group 33 on its rocket run attacking a Jap strong-hold on Southern Okinawa.
F4U of Marine Air Group 33 on its rocket run attacking a Jap strong-hold on Southern Okinawa.

The outcome of the bloody Okinawa struggle had never really been in doubt – the Japanese strategy had simply been to make it as costly for the U.S. invaders as possible. To achieve this end they considered all of their men expendable – and Okinawan civilians were treated little differently.

Then in the final few days of the battle, trapped in their extensive underground tunnels, the expectation was that almost all would commit suicide to avoid the shame of surrender. In one incident all of the remaining Japanese sailors on the island committed suicide together – over 4,000 men.

For the most senior officers the end came by ritual suicide.

Colonel Yahara was the most senior surviving Japanese officer – ordered not to commit suicide because:

If you die there will be no one left who knows the truth about the battle of Okinawa. Bear the temporary shame but endure it. This is an order from your army Commander.

So it is that we have an account of the final hours of Generals Ushijima and Chō:

Time was running out. Everyone in the cave formed a line to pay their last respects. Major Ono, a man of innocent face and indomitable spirit, returned and reported that the final message had gone to Imperial General Headquarters. It read:

Your loyal army has successfully completed preparations for homeland defense.

Ono, who had been a code clerk for many years, laughed bitterly. We have used those same words, he said, ever since the capitulation of Attu Island in the North Pacific. General Cho and I nodded agreement.

Officers and men who had shared the hardships of war, as well as Miss Heshikiya and the other young women, came to pay their respects. The young women were scheduled to descend with the remaining soldiers and reach the caves along the cliff before daybreak.

General Cho’s orderly, Nakatsuka, gave them his canteen of precious water, saying he no longer needed it. Cho’s personal assistant said, “Excellency, I am sorry I must leave before offering incense at your funeral.” Cho gave a wry smile.

General Ushijima quietly stood up. General Cho removed his field uniform and followed with Paymaster Sato. Led by candlelight the solemn procession headed for the exit, with heavy hearts and limbs.

When they approached the cave opening, the moon shone on the South Seas. Clouds moved swiftly. The skies were quiet. The morning mist crept slowly up the deep valley. It was as if everything on earth trembled, waiting with deep emotion.

General Ushijima sat silently in the death seat, ten paces from the cave exit, facing the sea wall. General Cho and Sato sat beside him. The hara-kiri assistant, Captain Sakaguchi, stood behind them. I was a few steps away. Soldiers stood at the exit, awaiting the moment.

On the back of General Cho’s white shirt, in immaculate brush strokes, was the poem:

With bravery I served my nation,
With loyalty I dedicate my life.

By first light I could see this moral code written in his own hand, in large characters. General Cho looked over his shoulder at me with a beautifully divine expression and said solemnly, “Yahara! For future generations, you will bear witness as to how I died.”

The master swordsman, Sakaguchi, grasped his great sword with both hands, raised it high above the general’s head, then held back in his downward swing, and said, “It is too dark to see your neck. Please wait a few moments.”

With the dawn, the enemy warships at sea would begin to fire their naval guns. Soldiers at the cave entrance were getting nervous. Granted their leave, they fled and ran down the cliff.

People were still nudging me toward the cave exit when a startling shot rang out. I thought for a moment it was the start of naval gun firing, but instead it was Sato committing suicide outside the cave. When that excitement subsided, the generals were ready. Each in turn thrust a traditional hara-kiri dagger into his bared abdomen. As they did so, Sakaguchi skillfully and swiftly swung his razor-edged sword and beheaded them. Ushijima first, then Cho.

Like a collapsed dam, the remaining soldiers broke ranks and ran down the cliff. I sat down outside the cave with Captain Sakaguchi, who declared with solemn amazement, “I did it!” His ashen face bore a look of satisfaction. Utterly exhausted, we watched the brightening sky. What a splendid last moment!

It marked a glorious end to our three months of hard battle, our proud 32nd Army, and the lives of our generals. It was 0430, June 23, 1945.

See Hiromichi Yahara: The Battle for Okinawa

A Japanese prisoner of war sits behind barbed wire after he and 306 others were captured within the last 24 hours of the battle by 6th Marine Division.
A Japanese prisoner of war sits behind barbed wire after he and 306 others were captured within the last 24 hours of the battle by 6th Marine Division.

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