Retreat from Shuri
The U.S. troops landed on Iwo Jima, one of the Ogasawara Islands, on February 19, 1945. A fierce battle raged between the U.S. troops and a garrison detachment headed by Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. By March 17, the detachment was defeated, with about 20,000 Japanese soldiers dead.
No time was wasted by the U.S. forces, which set in motion the invasion of Okinawa by landing on the Kerama Islands, situated to the west of Okinawa on March 26, thus establishing a logistic base for the invasion of Okinawa proper. On April 1, the U.S. forces started firing from 219 warships, including battleships and battle cruisers, and landed on Kadena Beach in the mid-western part of Okinawa Island. It was the largest landing operation in the Pacific War, mobilizing 550,000 personnel including a huge landing force of 183,000. Japan, on the other hand, had only 86,000 Army troops and 10,000 land-based naval forces. The Thirty-second Army decided to barricade itself into its position in Shuri, the ancient capital of the island, in the mid-south, in the hopes of eventually winning a long-drawn-out war.
More than 60,000 U.S. soldiers gained position on Okinawa Island the same day, taking control of the Yomitanson and Kadenacho airfields. By April 3, the U.S. troops reached the eastern shore, dividing Okinawa Island into north and south.
Losing the two airfields shook the Imperial Headquarters. On April 2, Umezu visited Emperor Showa to report on the situation. The Emperor asked, “Is there any measure to defend the island in the face of the enemy’s landing on Okinawa?” The next day, the Emperor asked again sternly: “If we are placed at a disadvantage in this battle, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy will lose the public’s trust, which will raise concerns about future war situations. Why isn’t the [Thirty-second] Army fighting back?”
Criticism against the Thirty-second Army’s holding action were heard in the Imperial Japanese Army. Some said the Thirty-second Army was being overly protective of its force strength and dragging its feet. The Imperial Headquarters sent a telegram to the Thirty-second Army on April 4 demanding it win back the two airfields that had been occupied by the U.S. forces.
The telegram confused the Thirty-second Army. Senior Staff Officer Hiromichi Yahara, who came up with the plan to hold position, said, “It’s completely irresponsible; they are urging us to fight without knowing anything about our preparations for the plan or the terrain of the battlefield.”
As telegrams ordering the Thirty-second Army to fight back kept coming, it decided to launch several attacks, all of which ended in failure. By May 5, 1945, the strength of the two mainstay divisions had become almost half of their original size, and the Thirty-second Army concluded it had two weeks before organized fighting capabilities would be exhausted. On May 16, Ushijima telegraphed the Imperial Headquarters to say that the Thirty-second Army was about to be destroyed. The telegram read, “Our strategic, long-drawn-out war will be finished.”
However, Yahara held the opinion that it was important to hold position as long as possible since the Battle of Okinawa’s sole purpose was to buy time for preparations for a battle on the mainland. He recommended Isamu Cho, the Thirty-second Army’s Chief of Staff, retreat from the position in Shuri to the Kyan Peninsula in the southern part of Okinawa Island. Chief of Staff of the Sixty-second Division Sadaomi Ueno and others insisted they should not retreat, saying: “Most of the division’s soldiers died in the Shuri battle front. We have thousands of seriously injured soldiers here. We can’t retreat now.” Okinawa Governor Akira Shimada also opposed the move, saying, “If we give up Shuri, the war front will expand, which will bring more civilian casualties.”
On May 22, Ushijima made a decision to retreat. He had been resolved to fight as long as possible, as he said, urging Yahara not to be hasty in ordering a last suicidal charge, “Some of our fighting strength is left, and we are getting strong support from the islanders. With these we will fight to the southernmost hill, to the last square inch of land, and to the last man.”
By June 4, 1945, the Thirty-second Army gathered in a new position in Mabuni on the Kyan Peninsula, but the retreat was tragic. Under an Imperial Headquarters order, those who were seriously injured were given grenades or milk containing potassium cyanide to kill themselves regardless of status—whether soldier or civilian.
About 30,000 troops withdrew to the southern part of Okinawa Island and hid in caves called gama with more than 100,000 citizens. Some soldiers took the caves away from citizens. The U.S. forces’ attacks started around June 7—they drilled holes in the tops of the caves, poured oil into the holes and set the caves on fire wiping out the soldiers who were still alive. The Battle of Okinawa ended on June 23 with Ushijima and Cho committing suicide. According to the Okinawa prefectural government, 94,136 Japanese soldiers died, along with about 94,000 Okinawa citizens. Among the civilian casualties, 59,939 died after the Thirty-second Army’s retreat.
On June 21, U.S. newspaper The Chicago Daily News reported the fierce battle on its front page, carrying a story by the Associated Press. The headline read, “Okinawa Won, 82-Day Battle for Isle Ends / 90,000 Japs Killed or Seized in Bloody Fight.” In the article it said: “Narcotics-crazed Japs fought stubbornly to the last although they were running out of ammunition, food and water.” The United States suffered the loss of 12,281 soldiers while 62,842 others were injured or suffered combat neurosis.
The U.S. government’s leaders were shocked by the huge losses and had to reconsider the plan to invade the Japanese mainland.