U.S. military chiefs consider next move on Japan

Gen. Eisenhower on his return to Washington received by Gen. Marshall - 18 June 1945
Gen. Eisenhower on his return to Washington received by Gen. Marshall – 18 June 1945
General Dwight D. Eisenhower waves from automobile in parade to people in buildings above.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower waves from automobile in parade to people in buildings above.

Over a month after the war had ended in Europe the Supreme Allied Commander finally managed to get home – and was greeted as the conquering hero that he was. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s contribution to steering the Allies to victory had been hugely important, overseeing great military undertakings with many imponderables, not least of all D-Day, and pulling together a team of military leaders that included more than one ‘difficult’ individual, as well as dealing with enormous political pressures from above, both British and American.

Now the wider U.S. military command faced more difficult decisions as they determined how to bring the war with Japan to an end. Not all were privy to the atomic bomb secrets – and in any event the weapon remained untested even now. They had to proceed on the basis that it would eventually be necessary to invade the Japanese mainland, and had to face up to the likely scale of casualties. Admiral Leahy was not alone in thinking that it might be possible to avoid horrendous casualties by now seeking some sort of peace accord:

General of the Army, D. D. Eisenhower, arrived in Washington from Europe and led a parade from Army Headquarters to the Capitol Building. The streets were crowded by a larger number of spectators than has been seen before by anybody now in Washington.

In the Chamber of the House of Representatives, before a joint session of the House and Senate, General Eisenhower made a very well prepared address which was not delivered with particular skill. The galleries were crowded with visitors and on the floor of the Chamber seats were provided for the Supreme Court, Cabinet Officers, Ministers, and Ambassadors from foreign countries, and the American Chiefs of Staff.

Immediate1y following General Eisenhower’s address we proceeded to the Statler Hotel and participated in a luncheon for 1,000 guests given by the City of Washington in honor of the General…

From 3:30 to 5:00 PM. the President conferred with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy; and Assistant Secretary of War McCloy, in regard to the necessity and the practicability of an invasion of Japan. General Marshall and Admiral King both strongly advocated an invasion of Kyushu at the earliest practicable date.

General Marshall is of the opinion that such an effort will not cost us in casualties more than 63,000 of the 190,000 combatant troops estimated as necessary for the operation.

The President approved the Kyushu operation and withheld for later consideration the general occupation of Japan. The Army seems determined to occupy and govern Japan by military government as is being done in Germany.

I am unable to see any justification from a national defense point of view for a prolonged occupation of Japan. The cost of such an occupation will be enormous in both lives and treasure. It is my opinion at the present time that a surrender of Japan can be arranged with terms that can be accepted by Japan and that will make fully satisfactory provision for America’s defense against future trans- Pacific aggression.

Dined with the President at a dinner given in honor of General Eisenhower to a large number of military and political officers. For the first time in my experience cocktails were served to the guests in the East Room of the White House. A number of enlisted men, brought by General Eisenhower from Europe, attended the dinner which was served on small tables filling the State Dining Room.

See William D. Leahy: I Was There: The Personal Story of the Chief of Staff to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman Based on His Notes and Diaries Made at the Time

The famous British liner, QUEEN MARY, arrives in New York Harbor, June 20, 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from European battles."
The famous British liner, QUEEN MARY, arrives in New York Harbor, June 20, 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from European battles.”

Okinawa – mounting U.S. casualties on Kunishi Ridge

Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.
Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.

On Okinawa the bloody struggle continued as intensively as ever. On the 11th June a combined attack by US Marines and US Army forces had begun the final assault on the last major Japanese holdout. The struggle for the Kunishi Ridge was to be as costly as any of the Okinawa battles.

Between 11th and 18th June 1945 the 1st Marine Division alone would suffer 1,150 casualties. Amongst the men of K (King) Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division (K/3/5) was E.B. Sledge, who would later write one of the classic memoirs of the Pacific war. He describes the perilous situation that they found on the Ridge, and the predicament they encountered when trying to evacuate the wounded:

With daylight I got a good look at our surroundings. Only then could I appreciate fully what a desperate, bitter battle the fight for Kunishi Ridge had been—and was continuing to be. The ridge was coral rock, painfully similar to Peleliu’s ridges. But Kunishi was not so high nor were the coral formations so jagged and angular as those on Peleliu. Our immediate area was littered with the usual debris of battle including about thirty poncho-covered dead Marines on stretchers.

Some of our riflemen moved eastward along the ridge, while others moved up the slopes. We still didn’t set up our mortars: it was strictly a riflemen’s fight. We mortarmen stood by to act as stretcher bearers or riflemen.

Snipers were all over the ridge and almost impossible to locate. Men began getting shot one right after another, and the stretcher teams kept on the run. We brought the casualties down to the base of the ridge, to a point where tanks could back in out of the view of snipers on the ridge crest.

We tied the wounded onto the stretchers and then tied the stretchers onto the rear deck of the tanks. Walking wounded went inside. Then the tanks took off in a cloud of dust along a coral road to the aid station. As many men as possible fired along the ridge to pin down the snipers, so they couldn’t shoot the wounded on the tanks.

Shortly before the company reached the east end of the ridge, we watched a stretcher team make its way up to bring down a casualty.Suddenly four or five mortar shells exploded in quick succession near the team, wounding slightly three of the four bearers. They helped each other back clown the ridge, and another stretcher team, of which I was a member, started up to get the casualty. To avoid the enemy mortar observer, we moved up by a slightly different route.

We got up the ridge and found the casualty lying above a sheer coral ledge about five feet high. The Marine, Leonard E. Vargo, told us he couldn‘t move much because he had been shot in both feet. Thus he couldn’t lower himself down off the ledge. “You guys be careful. The Nip that shot me twice is still hiding right over there in those rocks.” He motioned toward a jumble of boulders not more than twenty yards away.

We reasoned that if the sniper had been able to shoot Vargo in both feet, immobilizing him, he was probably waiting to snipe at anyone who came to the rescue. That meant that anyone who climbed up to help Vargo down would get shot instantly.

We stood against the coral rock with our heads about level with Vargo, but out of the line of fire of the sniper, and looked at each other. I found the silence embarrassing. Vargo lay patiently, confident of our aid. “Somebody’s got to get up there and hand him down,” I said. My three buddies nodded solemnly and made quiet comments in agreement.

I thought to myself that if we fooled around much longer, the sniper might shoot and kill the already painfully wounded and helpless Marine. Then we heard the crash of another 105mm short round farther along the ridge – then another. I was seized with a grim fatalism – it was either be shot by the sniper or have all of us get blown to bits by our own artillery. Feeling ashamed for hesitating so long, I scrambled up beside Vargo.

For unknown reason, even as Sledge looked directly into the sniper’s cave, he was not shot. See E. B. Sledge: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Eugene B. Sledge in 1946. He would later become a University Professor . Years later he would say  "There is no 'mellowing' for me - that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To 'mellow' is to forget."
Eugene B. Sledge in 1946. He would later become a University Professor.
Years later he would say
“There is no ‘mellowing’ for me – that would be to forgive all the atrocities the Japanese committed against millions of Asians and thousands of Americans. To ‘mellow’ is to forget.”
Private Warren D. Fuhlrodt (1925- ) of Blair, Nebraska, attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, is lift out of an M4 tank of the 1st Tank Battalion after being wounded during the Battle of Kunishi Ridge.
Private Warren D. Fuhlrodt (1925- ) of Blair, Nebraska, attached to F Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, is lift out of an M4 tank of the 1st Tank Battalion after being wounded during the Battle of Kunishi Ridge.

Okinawan civilians try to leave the battlefield

Marines escort an elderly Okinawan civilian from battle, Battle of Okinawa, June 1945,
Marines escort an elderly Okinawan civilian from the battlefield, Battle of Okinawa, June 1945,

On the Okinawa the U.S. forces were blasting their way across the island from one concealed bunker to another as they struggled to contain horrendous casualties. Investigating who occupied each bunker was rarely practicable and never safe – it was assumed that each one needed to be dealt with. The consequences for the native Okinawans, many of whom had been forced to occupy the caves and bunkers alongside the Japanese Army were grim.

Some Okinawans got the chance to escape their confinement – but conditions above ground were almost equally lethal. Miyagi Kikuko had been a schoolgirl until she was forced to join the Lily Student Corps and serve as a nursing auxiliary. After enduring appalling conditions they were ordered out of the bunker to avoid the advancing Americans:

About May 25, we were ordered to withdraw to Ihara.

All the men we had nursed were simply lying there. One of us asked, “Soldier, what are you going to do with these people?” “Don’t worry,” he responded, “I’ll make it easy for them.” Later we heard that the medics offered them condensed milk mixed with water as their last nourishment, and then gave them cyanide and told them, “Achieve your glorious end like a japanese soldier.”

The American forces were nearby. Would it have been so terrible if they had been captured and revealed the japanese army’s situation? Instead they were all murdered to protect military strategy. Only one person crawled out and survived to testify.

The road to Ihara was truly horrible, muddy and full of artillery craters with corpses, swollen two or three times normal size, floating in them. We could only move at night. Sometimes the American forces sent up flares to seek out targets. Ironically, these provided us with enough light to see the way.

This light revealed people pulling themselves along on hands and knees, crawling desperately, wounded people calling to us, “Students! Students!” I had an injured friend using my shoulder as a crutch. Another friend had night blindness from malnutrition. She kept falling over corpses and crying out.

We’d become accustomed to the smell of excrement, pus, and the maggots in the cave, but the smell of death there on that road was unbearable. And it poured rain every day.

Tens of thousands of people moving like ants. Civilians. Grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers with children on their backs, scurrying along, covered in mud. When children were injured, they were left along the roadside. Just thrown away. Those children could tell we were students. They’d call out, “Nei, nei!” and try to cling to us. That’s Okinawan dialect for “Older Sister!” It was so pitiable. I still hear those cries today.

In daylight we were pinned down. In the wild fields, we clung to the grasses and cried out to our teachers, I’m afraid.” My group were all fifteen or sixteen-year-olds and the teachers took special care of us. “Bear up! You can take it!” they’d reassure us.

Finally, on the tenth of June we reached Ihara. Ten days for what takes thirty minutes by car today. There the first, second, and third surgeries were re-established. The second surgery was already completely full. There was only space to sit with your knees pulled up to your chest.

I don’t remember going to the toilet after we moved to Ihara, we were so dehydrated. If you put your hand into your hair it was full of lice. Our bodies were thick with fleas. Before we had been covered in mud, now we were covered with filth. Our nails grew longer and longer. Our faces were black. We were emaciated and itched all the time.

This account appears in Haruko Taya Cook(ed): Japan at War: An Oral History.

Okinawan civilians after the battle, taken by Lieutenant Reinhart T. Kowallis’s - see more from his collection.
Okinawan civilians after the battle, taken by Lieutenant Reinhart T. Kowallis’s – see more from his collection.