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The battle for Okinawa: one Marine’s story

The 1945 battle for Okinawa, Japan, was to become one of the costliest of the Second World War. Here, military historian James Holland explores the savagery of the battle through the memories of American marine Bill Pierce

Published: June 21, 2019 at 2:00 pm
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April 1, 1945 – April Fool’s Day, Easter Sunday, and ‘L-Day’ for the invasion of Okinawa, Japan. In the deep blue waters around the island were more than 1,457 ships and landing craft, crammed with more than half a million men, and including a joint US Army and Marine Corps landing force of around 182,000 troops.


Among those taking part in the landings and bracing himself for his first taste of action was 20-year-old Bill Pierce, a New Yorker and part of the US 6th Marine Division. He had waited nearly two years for this moment; two years of training, first in the United States, and then, for the past ten months, on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific. Pierce reckoned he was as ready as he was ever going to be, but that didn't stop the nerves. Part of a five-man, 37mm anti-tank gun crew, he was in the Weapons Company of the 29th Marine Regiment and by mid-morning he and his crew were heading towards the shore. Overhead, naval shells whistled through the sky. He and his buddies stood up on the side of the boat, their arms on the railings so they could see where they were heading. The shoreline itself was shrouded in smoke from exploding shells, but along the landing beaches it seemed calmer, with hundreds of landing craft already moored at the water’s edge. None of them had much idea what to expect, however. All Pierce knew about Okinawa was what they’d been told in the briefing: that it was an island some 70 miles long, and because of its relative proximity to mainland Japan itself, it would be an important staging post for the ongoing aerial assault of the last of the Axis powers.

The Americans had assembled a task force of astonishing fire-power – the largest of the entire war – but previous form suggested they would need it. Over the long Pacific campaign, the Americans had prised one island from the Japanese after another and with every step nearer to Japan itself, so the fanatical viciousness of the defenders had increased.

A marine gun crew fire on Japanese pillboxes on Okinawa. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
A marine gun crew fire on Japanese pillboxes on Okinawa. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

When Pierce finally landed, there seemed to be a fair amount of confusion on the beaches, but little sign of the enemy. Small-arms fire was only sporadic and so Pierce and his crew were ordered to dig in for the night. As dusk began to fall, so the sky was lit up with tracers fired without let-up from the vast naval armada sitting off shore. Shells screamed over, aeroplanes rumbled through the night air, and the men now ashore looked up and watched a firework display more spectacular than any Fourth of July celebration.

It was only a temporary calm, however, as for the next 81 days, Okinawa was to witness the biggest single land-air-sea battle of all time, a brutal campaign which would see savagery and brutality that surpassed anything that had come before in the Pacific War. At sea, naval casualties were higher than at any point in the war, with Japan unleashing almost its entire kamikaze effort against the joint American and British task force around the islands. On land, the scale of killing was even worse. Okinawa was to witness a blood bath of barbaric savagery, in which more than a quarter of a million people were killed. Okinawa was to be the last, and one of the costliest battles of the Second World War.

Okinawa was to witness a blood bath of barbaric savagery, says historian James Holland. (Photo by PFC Lewis Giffin/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Okinawa was to witness a blood bath of barbaric savagery, says historian James Holland. (Photo by PFC Lewis Giffin/FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Memories of Okinawa

I met Bill Pierce at his home in Charleston, South Carolina, to where he had retired. Spry, and with a memory that was sharp as a tack, he talked about Okinawa with an extraordinarily frank honesty. “We went in with 3,500 men,” he said, “and after 82 days of combat, more than 2,800 were gone. We had casualties of more than 80 per cent.” On Sugar Loaf Hill, he said, the 29th Marines lost 500 men killed in a week of bitter and bloody battle. No Marine regiment in the history of the Corps has ever suffered such high casualties in a single battle as the 29th Marines did on Okinawa. He also freely admitted that at the time he hated the Japanese with a vengeance. “They were animals. They’d cut off guys’ penises and stuff them in their mouths. They’d behead people, cut off arms, gouge eyes out. Put it this way,” he said, “we didn’t take many prisoners.”

Pierce then told me about his first action. The invasion force had landed roughly in the middle of the island on the west coast. From there, the army units had headed south, while the marines had been sent into the more mountainous north. They eventually ran into some Japanese dug in at the foot of the steep, rocky, and wooded slopes of a series of hills known as Yae Take on the Motobu Peninsula. But after taking some hits from sniper fire, the marines spread out across the valley beneath the hills, their 37mm guns spaced out in a line. In front, they also set up a number of trip flares. Sure enough, that night the flares were triggered, hissing into the night and lighting up the valley with an eerie phosphorescence. “We could see about 100 people advancing,” Bill recalled, ‘so we asked what we should do. “Mow them down,” came the reply. So we let go with the canister, and in the morning there were 80 women and children lying there and just a few Japs. The Japanese pushed the civilians out in front of them. They used them to try and get away.”

A day didn’t pass when Pierce didn’t see a dead civilian. At least 150,000 Okinawans were killed during the battle, more than a third of the indigenous population. Okinawa had been a beautiful island, but in the south, especially, where most of the fighting took place, the landscape soon became more akin to the desolate and poisoned battlefields of the Western Front in the First World War. Pierce became hardened to such scenes. “We could be sitting there eating a C ration can or a Hershey bar,” he said, “and right there where Quincy’s lying, there’s a dead Jap, with an arm sticking up or a mangled leg. It didn’t mean a thing. We’d become completely immune to it. You became hardened to it immediately.”

Operations in the north of the island had been wrapped up by the third week of April, 1945, and the 6th Marine Division were left to carry out mopping-up patrols and to pick up a few souvenirs of their 20-day battle, silk kimonos being a favourite. But while operations had gone to plan in the north, the same could not be said of the fighting in the south. The majority of the 100,000-strong Japanese 32nd army were dug in along a series of defensive lines that crossed the south end of the island and which were linked in typical Japanese fashion by 60 miles of tunnels and carefully hidden gun and mortar positions. There were also a large number of caves in the south, ancient tombs that made effective dug-outs. Although US army units breached the outer Japanese lines of defence, they soon become bogged down in a highly costly battle of attrition, and so on 4 May, the 6th Marines were sent south, taking the place of the embattled and much-depleted 27th Infantry Division, along what had become known as the Shuri Line.

The marines were thrown against Sugar Loaf Hill, the main western anchorage of the Shuri Line. It was a tiny, insignificant landmark – 300 yards long and no more than 60 feet high. “You could run up it in no time at all,” Pierce told me. But it was of vital importance and there was only one way of taking it: a yard at a time by the unfortunate men on the ground. With the enemy well dug in, whole companies of marines were decimated as they repeatedly assaulted the feature.

Major General Lemuel Sheperd, commander of the 6th US Marine Division, reading a map on Okinawa. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Major General Lemuel Sheperd, commander of the 6th US Marine Division, reading a map on Okinawa. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

This was a fight with rifle, machine-guns and mortars. “If a mortar shell landed beside you,” said Pierce, “the guy was blown to bits and his body was nothing but a black hulk.” Pierce was once ten yards away from a Marine who was blown up by a mortar. “You look at it but you keep going,” he said. “You don’t stop because he’s dead.” Adding to the misery was the rain, which fell annually on Okinawa throughout May, and usually in the form of a deluge of as much as ten inches a day. May 1945, however, was worse than usual, and combined with the massive amount of shell and mortar fire, soon turned the battlefield into a thick quagmire.

“The stench of death”

Pierce and his buddies were wet all the time. “You never dried off. We landed with what we were wearing and one extra set of clothing, and if they were wet or worn out, it was tough shit. We were filthy.” They were also riddled with lice and fleas, irritants they were powerless to do anything about. The rain and the close nature of the fighting meant that no fires could be lit at the front, so there was no hot water for coffee, and no hot food. They ate mainly C rations, tins of pre-cooked food, usually bully beef. Everyone had diarrhoea. “Loads of people shat in their pants, believe me,” added Pierce, “even if you didn’t have diarrhoea.”

The stench was appalling. “The stench of death was all over,” said Pierce. “It stank no matter where you were. Horrible, horrible.” Bodies would be left where they had fallen. There were also millions of flies and maggots, feeding on ever-mounting numbers of corpses strewn across the battlefield. Eating became a hazardous and difficult operation. “When you ate, you opened a can and the flies would be all over it in seconds,” said Bill. “You had to try and cover the can up.”

Unsurprisingly, in such conditions many soldiers went around the bend. Over 26,000 casualties were caused by battle fatigue, illness and non-battlefield injuries. “I’ve seen guys sitting there sobbing,” Pierce told me. “Others refused to go up the line.” He never suffered combat fatigue himself, but unknown levels of exhaustion which he likened to a hundred nights of no sleep. “You’re sleeping in a hole every night and anything you do could get you killed, including absolutely nothing. That’s what it felt like.”

Incredibly, Bill’s gun survived the entire battle. The protective apron was badly dented from shrapnel marks, but it never received a direct hit. Their technique was to fire a number of rounds then as soon as the Japanese began to get their range with their mortars, Bill and his crew would clear out for half an hour or so. But like the vast majority of those on Okinawa, Bill did not survive the battle unscathed. Sugar Loaf and the nearby Shuri Castle had finally been captured and the Americans were pressing south into the largest of the island’s towns, the port of Naha. A reconnaissance team were going to the waterfront to reconnoitre the island in the middle of the harbour and wanted two 37mm guns to accompany them in case they ran into any Japanese. The city had been largely destroyed. It was, Bill remembered, “a shambles.” The island in the harbour, they soon discovered, was still full of Japanese, so the marines took cover in a disused building while they directed shell-fire onto the island.

Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as a medic in the 77th, earned the Medal of Honour for rescuing wounded men from the battlefield. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as a medic in the 77th, earned the Medal of Honour for rescuing wounded men from the battlefield. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

“They shelled the shit out of that island,” Bill told me, but he and the two-reconnaissance party were still camped out in the building the following morning when they saw Japanese troops trying to get off the island across a badly damaged bridge. Bill had a BAR light machine gun with him and firing from a window, let off a number of rounds. “The adrenalin was pumping, but I should never have done it,” he admitted. “I’d been in enough action to know better.” Suddenly, the BAR jammed, and just as he turned to try and clear the breech, he felt something smack his neck as though he had been belted with a baseball bat. “I just dropped to the floor,” he said. “There was a lot of blood and a couple of the guys were sitting there and I’ll never forget the look on their faces – they looked kind of wild and horrified.” Bullets were pinging all across the building and Pierce saw a corpsman trying to reach him. “No, stay there,” Pierce told him, as he tried to pull a bandage from his own first aid kit. “I’m all right.”

Three other men were wounded, but all four were still able to walk and managed to get out the back of the building. After being bandaged at the aid station, Pierce was put in a truck and taken to the hospital. He had been lucky - the bullet that hit him had missed his spinal cord by an inch, and incredibly, after a couple of days, he simply walked out and went back to his gun crew.

On 22 June, the American flag was finally raised on the southern-most tip and ten days later, it was announced that the entire island was secure. Of the 100,000 Japanese troops on the island, only 7,000 ever surrendered. Pierce could scarcely believe he'd survived, although it was not until February 1946 that he eventually got back home, battered by his experiences in that terrible battle, but not beaten.

Much of the destruction, mass weapons and bloodshed of Okinawa are captured in the film Hacksaw Ridge. Directed by Mel Gibson, the film tells the true story of army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield), who, during one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, saved 75 men without firing a gun.


This article was first published on History Extra in May 2017


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