I am writing this from roughly the middle of the East China Sea on a twenty hour sea passage from Shanghai to Okinawa. Actually, I’m not going to Okinawa but to Ishigaki-Jima which is a part of the Okinawa chain of islands which are, in turn, are part of Japan.
I don’t want to insult anyones intelligence by dwelling on what you already know, but, if you, like me, missed this part of the world in your world geography class, a little context might be useful. Okinawa is a chain of 150 or so islands midway between Japan and Taiwan, and lies, as I previously indicated, in the midst of the East China sea. Of the 44 islands which are inhabited, a population of 1.4 million is sustained. Of these, approximately 26,000 are affiliated with the various branches of the U.S. military. A quick calculation will yield the fact that our military comprises almost two percent of their total population. This is supportive of the notion that Okinawa is of some great strategic importance to U.S. interests. In fact, our assets in Okinawa have played a role in virtually every military encounter we’ve had in this half of the world…including Iraq and Afghanistan.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Human existence in Okinawa is dated to the early Paleolithic era. Surely you can pin that down. If not, take solace that there is ample evidence of an agricultural society on the islands dating to the 8th century. I suspect they lived pretty much in peace, perhaps struggling to keep food on the table and the wolf from the door for the next 700 years until the Chinese of the Ming dynasty seized the opportunity to embrace them as a tributary. That is to say, they made them pay for the right to be dominated by a foreign country. This went on for a hundred years or so until the Tokugawa regime of the evil empire of the north saw what a good thing a tributary country could be, and when the Chinese weren’t looking, took over their role. This remained the status quo until the Japanese decided a more formal relationship was in order and annexed Okinawa in 1872. No, this doesn’t mean that Okinawa got the same status as other prefectures of the Japanese empire. It was more of an ugly stepchild kind of relationship which got worse, much, much worse during WWII. Let me elaborate.
It is Okinawa’s lot to be geographically situated in a location which lends itself to both offensive and defensive strategies of war. Japan used it to great effect in its efforts to expand its domain in South East Asia. It was also seen as a substantial line of defense against the inevitable effort of the U.S and allies to encroach on Japanese space. The U.S., on the other hand coveted Okinawa as a jumping off point for their ultimate invasion of the Japanese mainland. In addition, it’s proximity to Japan made the job of our B-29’s much easier. So there you have it…the set up for the momentous Battle of Okinawa which began in April of 1945 and raged on, and on, and on for 82 terrible bloody days. It’s informative to know that the Japanese referred to the battle as “Tetsu No Ame” or the Typhoon of Steel. You can easily imagine why.
I won’t try to detail the to and fro of the fight. I will only say the the battle was substantially in doubt until the very end. The Japanese had clearly drawn a line in the sand, and as it turns out, the line was clearly marked in the blood of their own soldiers, the civilian population of Okinawa as well as U.S. troops. The U.S. suffered over 14,000 KIA’s, and the Japanese army reported 77,000 killed including almost 50,000 of the good citizens of these formerly peaceful islands. It was the intensity and barbarity of the Japanese defense that marks this battle as different from others in the Pacific campaign. In a word, the Japanese were getting desperate, and they would, and did, do things that can only be characterized as barbarous. They used civilians, (men, women, and children) as human shields to deter the artillery of the U.S. forces. They formed military units of middle schoolers, 12-15 years old, and used them as fodder in set piece battles. Perhaps the act that most defies our understanding is their program of handing out grenades and encouraging, even ordering. civilians to commit suicide in the face of the enemy.
The outcome of the Battle of Okinawa was important on many levels. It gave the big lie to the invulnerability of the Japanese in defense of their homeland. It also gave us the highly desirable forward air base and jumping off point for further prosecution of the war, however we might proceed. Most importantly, though, was the prima facie evidence it offered of the inhuman ferocity which could be expected in any invasion of the home islands. In fact, many historians now say that it may have been the crucial body of evidence that turned the tide of the strategic argument for use of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, in the after analysis of the Battle of Okinawa, the casualty estimates for an invasion of the home islands was raised considerably at a time when the American appetite for additional war casualties was rapidly waning.
I dunno why Truman ultimately decided on the use of the “Bomb”, but I do know that it changed the course of history, not just for the culmination of WWII, but for all time for all mankind. I suspect that the Battle of Okinawa was part of the calculus.