The battle for Iwo Jima was not yet over, but the US Fleet was readying one last amphibious island assault, Okinawa. This was the last assault before what everyone expected would be the last big battle, the invasion of Japan itself. Okinawa, closer to Japan than any of the islands that the US had seized over past three years, was needed as a staging base for that ultimate goal.
At remote Ulithi atoll in the Caroline islands the extraordinary American amphibious war machine spent a last few days assembling.
Russell Davis was a veteran of Peleliu but even he was stirred by the sight of the vast fleet at anchor:
The troop holds smelled of sickness; the side decks were whipped with rain and slippery with spray from the roll of the ship; and over the front and rear decks swarmed the sea itself as the bucking, swaying transport clawed up waves and slammed down troughs.
The last day and night we had been running through squalls, and the sea was still high-rolling when we came into the anchorage at Ulithi; and there, as far as we could look, until a dripping wet sky shut down on the far horizon, was the greatest gathering of ships in the history of the world.
There were transports, unending as common soldiers of the line. Patrol boats were like corporals; destroyers like sergeants; cruisers were lieutenants; carriers were colonels; and the battlewagons were generals. There was an army of ships arrayed in the anchorage at Ulithi.
In such an army, the great Spanish Armada would have been run over and never sighted. There had never been as big a gathering before and there never has been anything as big since. Even the sickest and most bitter Marines came to the rail to look at the sea might of their country, and to feel, no matter how scared they were, some pride that the troops were the heart of the gathering. The great ships were there to serve and protect the troops.
Chief looked at it all, shook his head in wonder, and asked a question that had occurred to all of us: “How can we lose?” Murph said: “We can’t lose. But you know something? This is the first time in this war I’ve really felt sure of it.”
Everyone else agreed with Murph. After Ulithi there was never any question about our certain victory. The only question was When? For the next few days, as our transport moved around the anchorage, we hung at the rail, identifying the different ships. I had never seen a Landing Ship Dock (LSD) before. But there it was, with its high, blunt prow and its cranes. Ships could be put right inside it. I had never seen a new battlewagon or the big carriers. Our early carriers had been midgets.
Even when we coasted by the dark and gaping holes blasted in the side of the carrier Franklin, we were sure that nothing could hurt us: we had too many ships. And even when the maps and photos of the beach and hills of Okinawa were brought aboard – when we could see the sea wall that had to be scaled, and the high swirls of ground beyond the beach – we still felt confident.
“This will be our last big one,” the rumor said. “This will cave-in the Japs. We’re throwing the whole bundle at ’em on this one.”
Also impressed by the spectacle at Ulithi was another Marine, E. B. Sledge:
We lined the rails of our transport and looked out over the vast fleet in amazement. We saw ships of every description: huge new battleships, cruisers, sleek destroyers, and a host of fast escort craft. Aircraft carriers were there in greater numbers than any of us had ever seen before. Every conceivable type of amphibious vessel was arrayed. It was the biggest invasion fleet ever assembled in the Pacic, and we were awed by the sight of it.
Because of tides and winds, the ships swung about on their anchor chains, and each day the fleet looked new and different. When I came topside each morning, I felt disoriented. It was a strange sensation, as though I were in a different frame of reference and had to learn my surroundings anew.
The first afternoon at Ulithi a fellow mortarman said, “Break out the field glasses, and let’s see how many kinds of ships we can identify.” We passed the mortar section’s field glasses around and whiled away many hours studying the different ships.
Suddenly someone gasped, “Look over there at that hospital ship off our port bow! Look at them nurses! Gimme them field glasses!”
Lining the rail of the hospital ship were about a dozen American nurses looking out over the fleet: A scuffle erupted among us over who would use the field glasses first, but we all finally had a look at the girls. We whistled and waved, but we were too far away to be heard.
At Ulithi we received briefings on the coming battle for Okinawa. This time there was no promise of a short operation. “This is expected to be the costliest amphibious campaign of the war,” a lieutenant said. “We will be hitting an island about 350 miles from the Japs’ home islands, so you can expect them to fight with more determination than ever. We can expect 80 to 85 percent casualties on the beach.”
A buddy next to me leaned over and whispered, “How’s that for boosting the troops’ morale?” I only groaned.