By P. T. Deutermann
The invasion of Okinawa (April 1, 1945, to June 22nd, 1945,) turned out to be the last big naval battle of World War II. Yes, naval battle. For the U.S. Navy, it was more costly than Midway, in terms of casualties at sea. The U.S. Navy lost approximately three hundred sailors and airmen killed at Midway. At Okinawa, the figures were approximately five thousand aviators and sailors killed in action. The Allied navies offshore had more people killed and wounded at sea than were killed and wounded ashore during the extraordinarily vicious land battle in the southern part of the island.
When one hears the term naval battle, one conjures up an image of armored seagoing monsters trading large-caliber shells at extreme, almost over-the- horizon distances. Okinawa wasn’t like that because, by April, 1945, most of the Japanese surface navy was already asleep in the deep or mewed up in their bases for lack of bunker oil. The naval battle of Okinawa was between the remnants of the Japanese air forces and the U.S. Navy ships supporting the invasion forces ashore. The Japanese called their forces Kamikaze, or Divine Wind. The Americans called it hell on earth.
Allied intelligence estimated that there were only about seven hundred operational Japanese combat aircraft available for the defense of Okinawa. The real number was close to seven thousand, as the Allied fleet soon found out. For the better part of three months, death in the form of diving Japanese aircraft came screaming down out of the sky to plunge themselves and a large bomb deep into the internal spaces of Allied warships. The Fleet had withstood maritime air attack throughout the war, but this time there was one big difference. The enemy pilots weren’t trying to obtain hits and then get back to their carriers to rearm and re-attack. They had come to die, and to take as many Americans as possible with them, which meant that, when they did attack, the Japanese pilots took no evasive or self-preservation maneuvers as they came in. With their engines red-lined, they achieved diving speeds which were at the outer limits of American fire-control computers, thus negating the American advantage of radar-controlled anti aircraft gunfire.
LSMs launching rockets 5 days before the invasion of Okinawa, photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
I believe that most Japanese pilots knew the end was near for their great military adventure in empire-building. An aluminum overcast of B-29’s was burning down their major cities almost with impunity. The rhetoric coming out of military headquarters was drifting into bushido mysticism as the generals exhorted the pilots to achieve a glorious death in defense of their godlike Emperor, no matter how hopeless the situation looked. They even dispatched the last of Japan’s mighty battleships, IJN Yamato, to go to Okinawa on a one-way trip, beach herself offshore, and then wreak havoc on the surrounding Allied fleet with he 18” main guns.
The American “victory” at Okinawa sobered the Allied high command like no other. The largest amphibious armada ever assembled, bigger even than Normandy, had still taken almost three months to subdue the Japanese 32nd Army in the southern half of the island. What would an invasion of the main islands of Japan be like, when the Japanese planes wouldn’t have to fly two hundred miles to reach their targets?
P. T. DEUTERMANN is the author of sixteen previous novels, including Ghosts of Bungo Suido and Pacific Glory, which won the W. Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction. Deutermann spent twenty-six years in military and government service, which included a Pearl Harbor tour of duty; his father was a Vice Admiral in the WWII Pacific theater, and his uncle and older brother were submariners. His latest book is Sentinels of Fire.