Sixty-two years ago today, American army units, supported by naval artillery, were preparing for yet another assault on Kakazu Ridge, a part of the outer line of the “Shuri” defenses on the southern part of Okinawa Island. April 1st, Easter Sunday, had been L Day (the landings on Okinawa itself) for Operation ICEBERG. There had been little opposition to the American landings, nor any significant fighting during the first few days of the operation. However, within the first week, American Army units, including my father’s, had begun to run up against the well-established Japanese defenses concentrated in the southern third of the island and which took full advantage of the abundant rocky hills, caves and burial tombs. These engagements marked the start of more than two months of bitter fighting as American Army and Marine units slowly forged advances through the well-prepared Japanese defenses. When they reached the southern tip of the island in June, the last land battle of World War II came to a close. The Americans had suffered 12,000 dead and 50,000 wounded, the Japanese Army almost 100,000 dead and 7,000 captured (up to a quarter of the army was Okinawan conscripts), and estimates of the death toll among Okinawan civilians ranged from 40,000 to 150,000 (modern consensus favors the higher estimates.)
Hill that was part of the defenses, normally covered with verdant foliage.
US Tanks and infantry on Okinawa.
The campaign for Okinawa had many noteworthy features, including the most intense Kamikaze attacks of the war against the supporting US fleet, extensive use of flamethrowers against entrenched Japanese defenses, mass civilian suicides, the deaths of the commanding officers on both sides - and of the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle, the sinking of the “super” battleship Yamato, intense disagreements on strategy and tactics within both the American and Japanese commands, and of course the question of what impact, if any, it had on the subsequent decision by the United States to use atomic weapons against mainland Japan. For further reading, I recommend the official Army history available online here, and the books: Operation Iceberg (primarily an oral history) and Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb. For me, Okinawa has served as a nexus of the personal and the historical, linking my quest to connect to my father’s specific experiences, with the larger narratives of World War II, war in general and the decision to use atomic weapons . (I want to thank The Constructivist for this post at Mostly Harmless and a subsequent one here at waagnfnp which prompted my latest reexamination of my views on the entire episode, and which led directly to this post.)
As far back as I can remember, I was aware that my father had served in World War II, but it was only after he had rebuked me in uncharacteristically angry tones for suggesting that a particularly intense fireworks display might be akin to an actual bombardment, that I began to view his time in the war in anything other than the most simple-minded comic book terms.
Subsequently, in talking with him I could only get unsatisfactorily evasive descriptions of his combat experience (though he was quite forthcoming on all other aspects of his time in the military.) Given his obvious discomfort, even I got the hint and backed off on attempts at direct discussion. Instead, I plunged into reading all that I could on Leyte and Okinawa (where he fought) and the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) program which he was part of along with folks like Bob Dole and Kurt Vonnegut.
Here, I will backtrack briefly and pick up the tale of my wife’s father’s brother whose experience paralleled my father’s quite closely for a time. My wife’s father’s family were relatively prosperous Viennese Jews who still had close ties to their shtetls in Poland/Russia during the 1930s. (My father came from a tiny Midwestern hamlet, where he was “privileged” to be the banker’s son, albeit one whose house did not have an indoor toilet - the parallels come later.) After the Anschluss, the immediate family all eventually managed over the course of several years to get to the US (Brooklyn), helped along by their level of prosperity, the father’s World War I service, and good luck (mother and daughter were in Russia and got to the USA via trans-Siberian railroad, then boat to Japan, and thence on to the US.)
My wife’s uncle eventually joined the Army and like my father was selected for the ASTP program. This was a “lucky” assignment (selection was by standardized test), the premise was that the war might last a long time and the US could not afford to completely cut off academic training of all young men, especially in engineering (and the universities, deprived of much of their student population by the war, lobbied hard for a program to make up some of the shortfall.) Both he and my father were assigned to large Midwestern universities. It was nice work for wartime if you could get it. However, as it became clear that the Allies were winning the war, thoughts turned to the immediate need for ground troops to press the advantage on multiple fronts, and the ASTP program was shut down and its members reassigned to the infantry (My father ultimately ended up in an Amphibious Tank unit through an Army logistics SNAFU.) A troop train snaked through the Midwest stopping at universities and finally delivering the new grunts to training camp in the Pacific Northwest.
Thus my wife’s uncle, with his perfect German language skills, and my father both became members of units which were to participate in the battles of Leyte and Okinawa. However, my wife’s uncle never did get to Okinawa. He was killed in Leyte by sniper fire as part of a small-scale action which, although it had its element of heroism, did little or nothing to further the aims of the war. And I am not really sure how I feel about that.
My father continued on to Okinawa, where he experienced intense combat And although I do not know any details, I have picked up enough hints from him and my mother to know that its impact on him was “Not Good”. (I have accepted that this is the extent of what I will ever know of his wartime combat experience, but I am not really sure how I feel about that.) After the battle he and his cohort on Okinawa began preparations to take part in the invasion of the Japanese mainland.
So we come to August 1945, and the momentous atom bomb decision(s). Among those present with decision makers Harry Truman and the US Military leaders, are my father and hundreds of thousands of US troops awaiting the order to invade the mainland, hundreds of thousands unknowing Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as all of us reading this in the future. Among those not present: 100,000 Okinawans, 100,000 Japanese soldiers on Okinawa alone, at least 100,000 civilians in Tokyo, my wife’s uncle and 12,000 other US soldiers, and millions of Jews in Europe. The decision is made, a terrible day(s)for America, Japan and humanity, which will reverberate forever - but it is still hard for me to separate it out completely from all of the other horrors of that war, and war in general. I do appreciate the uniqueness of the atom bomb deliberations, and I do not mean here to be an apologist either for the decision itself, nor the after the fact “slam dunk” justification myth that I accepted for so long, and which my father and most Americans still accept. However, I do think that post-mortem analyses of wartime actions and decisions often assume a rational calculus (especially for the leaders of states and armies) that clearly is not the whole picture in general - nor was it necessarily the case in this instance. It is certainly a point worth arguing case by case - I am not trying to wash away the existence of war crimes - but I still feel that significant responsibility for the excesses of any conflict must accrue to those who engineered the original breach of the peace. Mankind has seen and knows war, no one can claim ignorance of the blood-dimmed tide of history - the use of atomic weapons were unique, but not uniquely evil when set against this history.
Jumping ahead from 1945 to today (and it is sobering to realize that we are at a significantly further remove from that event than it was from the Spanish-American War), I find that I am not really sure about how I feel about a lot of things anymore. It is clear to me that many structural adjustments must be made in our way of seeing, understanding and living in the world if we are to avoid continual massive breaches of the peace, with all the concomitant horrors that follow. But, however confident I am that we do need to change our ways, I grow increasingly respectful of the complexity and nuance present in the world, and thereby less sure of the correctness of many of my own choices . But although I may have lost my way to what is “right”, I still have enough clarity of moral vision to recognize what is horribly wrong.
Responses to “The Road To (and From) Okinawa”