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Battle of Okinawa : Operation Iceberg

Photo #: NH 62696  USS Missouri (BB-63)
USS Missouri (BB-63) about to be hit by a Japanese A6M Zero kamikaze while operating off Okinawa on 11 April 1945. The plane hit the ship’s side below the main deck, causing minor damage and no casualties on board the battleship. A 40-mm quad gun mount’s crew is in action in the lower foreground (NH 62696) : Battle of Okinawa

April-June 1945. The largest amphibious landing in the Pacific theater of World War II. It also resulted in the largest casualties with over 100,000 Japanese casualties and 50,000 casualties for the Allies.

The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War and lasted almost three months, from late March to June 1945. Over 4,900 U.S. Sailors died, more than U.S. Army (4,675) and U.S. Marine Corps (2,938) personnel did in the land battle.

A map of US operations at Okinawa
Battle Of Midway : Battle Of Britain : Battle of Coral Sea : Battle of the Philippine Sea : Battle of the Yellow Sea

Almost the entire Japanese garrison of 77,000 died, along with about half the civilian population of Okinawa.

Japanese commanders of Okinawa (photographed early in February 1945). In center: (1) Admiral Minoru Ota, (2) Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, (3) Lt. Gen. Isamu Cho, (4) Col. Hitoshi Kanayama, (5) Col. Kikuji Hongo, and (6) Col. Hiromichi Yahara

The island was the key strategic stepping-stone necessary for follow-on operations to invade Japan. To accomplish the mission, the U.S. Navy had to transport, supply, and defend over 500,000 U.S. Army and Marines over vulnerable logistics lines thousands of miles long, and then defend the forces on the island while in range of thousands of Japanese land-based aircraft, whose kamikaze suicide tactics made them much more effective than conventional attackers.

The Japanese strategy ashore, in the air, and on the sea, was to drag out the fight as long as possible.

Japanese high school girls wave farewell to a kamikaze pilot departing to Okinawa.

While the Japanese tried to inflict as many casualties as possible, and make it clear to the Allies that any invasion of Japan would be enormously costly. As the Japanese proved their willingness to fight and die to the last man. In the case of the kamikaze, this meant choosing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Although the idea of the kamikaze, to knowingly intend to die, was alien to an American mindset, there were innumerable examples of U.S. sailors demonstrating resolve as great as the Japanese pilots.

Gunners stood their ground, firing on kamikaze to the bitter end (20-mm gunners “died in the straps”), other times continuing to fire as their ship burned around them.

Damage control teams repeatedly refused to give up on their ships even when it seemed all hope was lost; sometimes they pulled off a miracle, sometimes they didn’t, but they often died trying. The fuel in the kamikaze aircraft resulted in more fire on impact than conventional bombs and, as a result, among the many Sailors wounded was a high proportion of severe burn injuries.

The Japanese may have lost the battle and lost the island, but they also made their point. By the time the battle was over, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind just how horrific the casualties would be on both sides in any invasion of Japan.

“Floating Chrysanthemums”

A map of Okinawa’s airfields, 1945

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, if the U.S. Navy should last for 1,000 years, the Battle of Okinawa should be remembered as its “finest hour.” For almost three months, the ships of the U.S. Navy operated at the end of an immensely long logistics trail, constantly within range of large numbers of land-based aircraft, defending the U.S. Army and Marine forces locked in a protracted bloody battle ashore on Okinawa.

Facing an onslaught of over 1,400 kamikaze attacks by pilots determined to die to defend their homeland, the ships of the U.S. Navy didn’t flinch, despite horrific casualties. Some of the ships that took the worst of the kamikaze attacks survived and some didn’t; there was a significant degree of chance involved in determining the outcome. What was consistent throughout, however, was the extraordinary valor of the ships’ crews. At Okinawa, the price of victory was extremely high: over 4,900 U.S. Sailors gave their lives for our nation and that sacrifice deserves to be remembered forever.

Tekketsu Kinnōtai child soldiers on Okinawa

The initial two weeks of the invasion of Okinawa went reasonably well, and losses were relatively light, with the exception of destroyer Halligan (DD-584), which hit a mine on 26 March and sank with heavy loss of life (153) when her magazine blew. The minesweeper Skylark (AM-63) hit a mine and sank.

The gunboat LCI(G)-82 was sunk by a small Japanese suicide boat. Frequent raids by small groups of kamikaze aircraft and conventional air strikes took a toll, with two fleet carriers (Franklin—CV-13—and Wasp—CV-18), escort carrier Wake Island (CVE-65), five destroyers, one destroyer escort, one destroyer-minesweeper, one destroyer transport, and six attack transport/cargo ships being damaged enough to be put out of action for more than 30 days.

The battleship USS Idaho shelling Okinawa on 1 April 1945

The first of ten major kamikaze attacks occurred on 6 and 7 April 1945. The Japanese term was Kikusui (“Floating Chrysanthemums”) Operation No. 1, in which 355 kamikaze aircraft and another 340 planes in a conventional strike and escort roles attacked U.S. forces off Okinawa. U.S. naval intelligence knew the major raid was coming and senior U.S. commanders were warned, and the ships received general warning.

Many of the kamikaze pilots had much less experience then those at Lingayen Gulf in January 1945, and many fell easy prey to the large numbers of radar-directed U.S. Navy fighters. Those that made it through the fighter gauntlet tended to go after the first ship they saw, and the U.S. destroyers on the northern radar picket stations bore the brunt of the attacks.

The destroyers Bush (DD-529) and Colhoun (DD-801) were sunk after epic fights against overwhelming odds and despite extraordinary damage control efforts. The destroyer-minesweeper Emmons (DMS-22) also put up a fight for the ages before she succumbed.

American aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill burns after being hit by two kamikaze planes within 30 seconds.

Epic damage control efforts saved destroyers Newcomb (DD-586), Leutze (DD-481)Witter (DE-636), and Morris (DD-417) from sinking, although their damage was so severe that they would not be repaired.

Of this group, Newcomb and Luetze’s heroic fight was one worthy of legend. Four more destroyers and two destroyer escorts were badly damaged and put out of action for at least 30 days. The kamikaze also sank an LST and two Victory ships loaded with ammunition. The fleet carrier Hancock (CV-19) was hit on the second day of Kikusui No. 1 and damaged enough that she had to return to the States.

As bad as it was, from the Japanese perspective, the results of Kikusui No.1 were far less than they hoped, given the numbers of aircraft that they sacrificed. That wouldn’t stop them from trying nine more times in the next two months with mass wave attacks (and small-scale attacks continued almost constantly). Kikusui No. 1 was the largest such mass attack, but it wouldn’t be the most damaging.

USS Laffey (DD-724)

USS LAFFEY (DD-724) Severely Damaged
USS Laffey (DD-724), severely damaged by bombs and kamikaze hits some 30 nautical miles northwest of Okinawa, on 16 April 1945. This view shows the Group 21 20-mm guns on Laffey‘s starboard side, abreast of her bridge (NH 75436).

“No! I’ll never abandon ship as long as a single gun will fire!” stated Commander Frederick J. Becton, commanding officer of destroyer Laffey as his severely damaged ship burned on 16 April 1945.

Naval Historian Samuel Eliot Morison remarked, “Probably no ship has ever survived an attack of the intensity that [Laffey] experienced.” Morison was probably right.

During the 80-minute attack by 22 Japanese kamikaze aircraft and dive-bombers at Radar Picket Station No. 1 northwest of Okinawa, Laffey shot down at least eight aircraft (six in the first 12 minutes) and damaged the six kamikaze that hit her.

By this time, she had been damaged by four bombs (plus those carried on the kamikaze). With both her surface search and air search radars out of action, her aft 5-inch turret destroyed, one quad 40-mm destroyed and the other on fire, down by the stern due to a bomb hit, her rudder jammed 26 degrees over, with virtually everything after the aft stack engulfed in aviation gasoline fires from kamikaze hits, it seemed Laffey was doomed.

Wounded men in the wardroom casualty aid station were killed by bomb shrapnel. But no one gave up. Gunners kept shooting despite flames all around, and damage control parties kept fighting the fires despite more bombs, strafing, and kamikaze.

HMS Formidable on fire after a kamikaze attack on May 4. The ship was out of action for fifty minutes.

A number of the 20-mm gunners “died in the straps,” firing their guns at the kamikaze until the instant of impact. Skillful ship handling by Becton, one of the most battle-experienced officers of the time, in maximizing firepower against incoming aircraft and maneuvering to take the unavoidable hits from the stern rather than even more damaging ones from forward was a key factor in Laffey’s survival. Another critical factor was that the destroyer’s firerooms and engine rooms remained watertight.

NH 107015 USS Laffey.jpg
(DD-724) Underway in the later 1940s or early 1950s, while the ship still carried World War II era radar antennas. This photograph was received by the Naval Photographic Center in December of 1959, but was taken several years earlier. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

The arrival of U.S. Marine Corps F4U Corsairs of VMF-441 “Blackjacks” finally changed the odds. The Marines heroically flew into Laffey’s anti-aircraft fire to down numerous Japanese aircraft. One Corsair crashed into the destroyer’s air search radar while chasing and downing a Japanese fighter (the Corsair pilot lived, the Japanese pilot didn’t). Despite horrific damage and high casualties (32 dead and 71—or 72—wounded), Laffey’s crew not only saved their ship, but the ship still had fight in her when the Japanese attacks ended.

Commander Becton would be awarded a Navy Cross, and Ensign Robert Thomsen a posthumous Navy Cross.

Other crewmen would be awarded six Silver Stars, 18 Bronze Stars and one Navy Letter of Commendation. Laffey would be awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.

The skipper of LCS(L)-51 (large support landing craft), Lieutenant Howell D. Chickering, whose small and damaged vessel stood loyally by Laffey and downed six aircraft of her own, was also awarded a Navy Cross.

In many respects, Laffey was lucky. Over the next two months, other U.S. Navy ships would come under attacks almost intense and many would be hit, many with even higher casualties. In some cases, crews would save ships that should have sunk, in others the ship was lost despite their crews’ best efforts, often due to sheer random chance of where the kamikaze hit. One thing that is certain, however, was that the extreme valor shown by the crew of Laffey was hardly unique.

Japanese Submarines

Kaiten Type 1 being trial-launched from the light cruiser Kitakami
Imperial Japanese Navy – Rekishi Gunzō, History of Pacific War Vol.36 Kairyu and Kaiten

Not only did U.S. ships off Okinawa face conventional and suicide aircraft attack, but a significant threat also came from Japanese submarines, some of them modified to piggy-back four to six Kaiten manned suicide torpedoes.

Between the time U.S. forces arrived off Okinawa in late March 1945 to the beginning of May, the Japanese deployed two groups of Kaiten-equipped submarines, the Tartara Group (I-44, I-47, I-56, and I-58) on 28 March and the Tembu Group (I-47 and I-36) on 20 and 22 April. None of these Kaiten submarines successfully attacked targets, although I-44 and I-56 would be sunk trying.

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Conventional Japanese submarines fared even worse than the Kaiten subs, with RO-41 (rammed by destroyer Haggard [DD-555]), I-8, RO-49, RO-56, and RO-109 all being sunk, accounting for almost every Japanese submarine deployed to the Okinawa area.

The notorious I-8 (the submarine’s crew committed numerous war crimes against Allied shipwreck survivors) put up a spirited surface gun battle with destroyer Morrison (DD-560) before going down, and the rest used every trick in the book to escape, but were no match for superior U.S. ASW technology.

Generals Mitsuru Ushijima, Isamu Chō and other officers of the Thirty-Second Army in Okinawa, April 1945

Japanese kamikaze went after the Fast Carrier Task Force (TF-58) on 11 April, damaging Enterprise (CV-6) and Essex (CV-9); the destroyer Kidd (DD-661) took a severe kamikaze hit, but survived.

kamikaze aircraft explodes after crashing into Essex‘s flight deck amidships 25 November 1944.

The second massed Japanese kamikaze attack (Kikusui No.2) involved 185 kamikaze (125 navy and 60 army aircraft) on 12 April. The destroyer Mannert L. Abele (DD-733) was the first ship to be sunk by an Ohka rocket-assisted manned suicide bomb launched from a bomber, in a massive blast with heavy loss of life (84 killed and 30 wounded). 

LCS(L)-33 was also sunk. Destroyer Zellars (DD-777), destroyer-minesweeper Lindsey (DM-32), and LSM-189 were put out of action for the rest of the war. Battleship Tennessee (BB-43), destroyers Purdy (DD-734) and Cassin Young (DD-793), destroyer escorts Rall (DE-304) and Whitehurst (DE-634), and LCS(L)-57 were out of action for over a month. About 270 U.S. crewmen were killed and about 430 wounded.

The kamikaze threat was near continuous and, on 14 April, destroyer Sigsbee (DD-502) was badly damaged and nearly sunk.

USS Sigsbee (DD-502)
USS Sigsbee (DD-502)
Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-321648 from the ship’s entry in the U.S. Navy Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS) available at the Naval History and Heritage Command The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Sigsbeev (DD-502) is coming alongside of the escort carrier USS Chenango (CVE-28) in the Pacific Ocean on 23 June 1944. At that time they were screening one of amphibious groups returning to Eniwetok from the first postponed landing on Guam.

Kikusui No. 3 came in on 16 April and included 165 kamikaze (120 navy and 45 army aircraft) and resulted in the loss of destroyer Pringle (DD-477) with heavy casualties (65 dead and 110 wounded), and putting the destroyers Laffey (DD-724) and Bryant (DD-665), destroyer-minesweepers Hobson (DM-26) and Harding (DM-28), and destroyer escort Bowers (DE-637) out of action for the duration of the war. Carrier Intrepid (CV-11) was also put out of action for over 30 days, leaving only five of the original 11 fleet carriers undamaged and on line (although all but Franklin [CV-13] would return). About 225 U.S. crewmen were killed and about 390 wounded.

Japanese kamikaze attacks on 22 April sank minesweeper Swallow (AM-65) and LCS(L)-15 and damaged destroyer Isherwood (DD-520).

Kikusui No. 4 came in on 27 and 28 April and included 115 kamikaze (65 navy and 50 army aircraft), and sank the ammunition ship Canada Victory. The destroyer Hutchins (DD-476) was put out action by a Japanese one-man suicide boat and destroyer-transport Rathburne (APD-25) was hit by a kamikaze. Both were saved by their crews, but were too damaged to repair. The evacuation transport Pinkney (APH-2) and hospital ship Comfort (AH-6) were seriously damaged by kamikaze hits.

US Marine reinforcements wade ashore to support the beachhead on Okinawa, 1 April 1945.

U.S. casualties during Kikusui No. 4 were 77 dead and 87 wounded. Among the dead were 27 Army personnel, including six nurses and ten patients, aboard Comfort. There is some evidence to suggest that the Japanese hit on Comfort was retaliation for the sinking of the Japanese Red Cross ship Awa Maru (with the loss of all but one of over 2,000 aboard) by submarine Queenfish (SS-393), which resulted in the court-martial of the submarine’s commanding officer.

Haggard (DD-555)
Haggard, in Measure 31, Sea Blue, off Point No Point, Wash., on 22 September 1943. (U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships Photograph BS 53909, National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Division, College Park, Md.)

On 29 April, destroyers Haggard (DD-555) and Hazelwood (DD-531) were badly damaged by kamikaze hits, and the next day the flagship of the Minesweeping Flotilla, Terror (CM-5), was put out of action.

However, the worst was not yet over for the U.S. ships off Okinawa.

Part 2 of the Battle of Okinawa will complete this story, to be released!

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Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox

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