On this day in 1945, Americans raise a flag over the Japanese island of Okinawa. The nearly three-month battle to capture the island was finally over. The Battle of Okinawa would prove to be one of the bloodiest in the Pacific during World War II.
The war in the Pacific had been a grueling one. Americans employed a strategy of “island-hopping,” systematically taking Japanese islands, one at a time. Okinawa was the last and toughest of these. However, once it was captured, Allied forces would have a base of operations from which to attack mainland Japan.
The attack began on April 1 when more than 60,000 Marines and soldiers landed on one of Okinawa’s beaches. The American landing was barely contested, but American forces surely knew what that easy landing meant: The Japanese were hunkered down elsewhere, prepared to fight.
And that is exactly what happened for the better part of three months. The battle that followed was brutal, with hundreds of thousands of combatants facing off against each other. In the end, Americans lost 12,520 men (killed or missing), and more than 36,000 wounded. By contrast, about 110,000 Japanese died, and many civilians got caught in the crossfire. The Japanese culture rejected the idea of surrender. Thus, ritual suicide and kamikaze attacks were not at all uncommon during this period. Sometimes, the Japanese soldiers even killed their own citizens or encouraged civilians to commit suicide with the soldiers.
Indeed, as organized resistance finally came to an end on June 21, the Japanese commander, Mitsuru Ushijima, was already preparing for his own suicide. He wrote his last reports to his superiors, and he directly ordered one officer NOT to commit suicide! “If you die there will be no one left who knows the truth about the battle of Okinawa,” he told Major Yahara. “Bear the temporary shame but endure it. This is an order of your Army commander.”
Early on June 22, Ushijima committed ritual suicide, as did his second-in-command, General Isamu Cho.
Later that same morning, Americans raised the United States flag over Okinawa as a band played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
In the end, Americans never used Okinawa as a base from which to attack mainland Japan. The battle to capture the island had been so bloody and horrific that Harry S. Truman was pushed toward his decision to drop atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the toll at Okinawa had been high, the price of invading mainland Japan would surely be even higher.
Those bombings, of course, prompted the Japanese emperor to announce his intent to surrender in August 1945. That surrender became official on September 2.
At that point, it had been nearly 4 years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But the war was finally over.
Harry Gailey, War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay (1996)
John Toland, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (reprint edition 2003)
Naval History & Heritage Command, 80-G-K-3829 USS Idaho (BB-42)
Roy E. Appleman et al., United States Army in World War II: The War in the Pacific, Okinawa: The Last Battle (Center of Military History, United States Army 1948)
Stanley Sandler, World War II in the Pacific: An Encyclopedia (2000)