GENERAL ARTICLES

WE LEARNED ON OKINAWA

"Italy was never like this," said Canadian Army observers at the suicidal battles on Okinawa, and here's why

JAMES A. MACLEAN July 1 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

WE LEARNED ON OKINAWA

"Italy was never like this," said Canadian Army observers at the suicidal battles on Okinawa, and here's why

JAMES A. MACLEAN July 1 1945

WE LEARNED ON OKINAWA

"Italy was never like this," said Canadian Army observers at the suicidal battles on Okinawa, and here's why

JAMES A. MACLEAN

OKINAWA—Plaster rattled down from the shaky blue upturned tile roof of the mosscovered stone Jap house. Marine Long Toms, their barrels poking out from under a camouflage net dotted with scarlet hibiscus, were at it again from their pits farther up the winding mountain road.

Below, almost hidden by the stunted wind-swept trees and the blackened mouths of gaping Jap hillside hangars, spouts of orange flame lit the base of a towering column of black smoke from one of our oil dumps.

From the sparkling blue bay the wind-borne mutter of ships’ anti-aircraft grew heavier, and the broken glass in the gaping village windows rattled as stubby, barrel-bodied blue Corsair fighter planes rocketed low overhead, propellers screaming as they clawed for altitude, heading out to sea.

The kamekazi boys—Jap suicide planes—were coming in again, just as they had almost daily since our landing. But not so many this time. Maybe 20 or 30.

Outside, a white kid, not much bigger than a rabbit, grazed unconcernedly on the ivy leaves on top of a flame-seared stone wall bordering the narrow street. A column of shrivelled, ageing civilians shuffled past in the dust, their drab black and dark blue kimonos stained and torn, their few effects, the ones they’d carried with them into the caves, bundled on their backs. A leper with a crutch brought up the rear. None looked up.

They never did, not until the Jap planes got overhead. Then they just stood there in the roads, unmindful of the spattering of spent machine-gun bullets, staring at the whirling blue and brown dots locked in dogfights thousands of feet above them.

“Well, here we go again,v the Canadian observer, deep-chested, redheaded Capt. Gordon Eligh, 20, RCASC, of Vancouver, said as he ducked out through the low door. Standing on the planks in the red dust outside, absently lathering his face, he watched the Marine planes circle over the hay.

“Damn the Japs! They’re worse than the Jerries. Always catch me shaving, with my helmet full of water.”

Veteran of Sicily and Italy, Eligh didn’t look particularly worried. Nor did his companion, another Canadian observer, Capt. Samuel J. Simon, 25, Toronto, another of the 20 Canadian Army officers attached to the American invasion force.

Others attached to the marines with whom we jolted ashore over the coral reef on Easter morning in the face of the abandoned shore defenses, included: Lt.-Col. Gerard J. Charlebois, CIC, Acting-Capt. Dudley B. Dawson, RCA, and Capt. Fred B. Palmer, RCSC, with the First Marine Division; Major Richard R. Munro, Canadian Armored Corps, Capt. Robert D. Murray, RCOC, and Capt. Robert S. Richards, RCR, with the Second Marine Division.

Ten . other Canadian Army officers had been assigned to land with American Army divisions on the southern beach. I never did catch up with them. It took the better part of one day to locate Simon and Eligh, and another Canadian with them in the Sixth Marine Division, Acting-Major Lawrence D. McBride, RCEME.

All of them specialists in their field, these Canadian officers and a score or more in the Philippine theatre were sent into the Pacific by Ottawa last summer with the task of sending back full reports on the progress and manner of the war. Reasons behind these reports were obvious. Canada even then was taking the measurements of her job in the Pacific, a role still not fully disclosed or developed.

Outside, the roar of the Marine day combat patrol planes died away, and the ack-ack had slackened. Eligh, sweat rolling down his husky frame, staining his undershirt, grunted and bent to lace his high leather combat boots.

Although only 350 miles from the Japanese home islands, and the airfields of Kyushu, Okinawa was plenty hot—hot enough to be almost tropical for Canadians, and tropical enough to nurture three kinds of deadly snakes. That was one reason why the invasion forces paid so much attention to their boots. A thousand Okinawans died a year because of those snakes, their grass sandals weren’t proof against fangs. Also we’d accidentally bombed out the Okinawa antivenom factory a few days before we landed, a factory which produced the only serum we were sure might work in case of bites.

“Our job is almost over now,” Eligh said. “At least

as far as us observers go. We expect to go home in August. It’ll be up to the rest of the boys after that. [ can’t honestly say I am sorry. You can have my share of this for a bottle of Canadian beer,” he added, waving his hand generously toward the southern end of the Island.

I felt 1 knew exactly what he meant. War in Europe was one thing. But this Pacific business, typhoons and stuff, well, it was different, a lot different.

Down south, where U.S. Army troops were locked in desperate, hand-to-hand battle with the grim defenders of the enemy’s year-old Naha-Shuri-Yonabaru defenselines, it wasaflaming,savagestruggle of a type never seen in Europe. Cave-hidden Jap 75’s fired point-blank on their own machine-gun positions attacked by American troops, heedless that the Japs in those positions were still alive and struggling. Sher-

man tanks floundered and burned in the cabbage patch, the crews unaware that Jap sea mines had been planted there with curved detonating horns hidden by hollowed-out heads of cabbage.

Then, too, a machine gunner and his mate sat back to back on a ridge, the gunner blasting away at screaming, charging Japs attacking through their own hellish hail of mortars, while his buddy poked black Jap grenades back off the other edge of the ridge. These grenades were lobbed by three Japs in a hole a few feet down the slope a hole the Americans had sat over for an hour and a half, not knowing it was there.

Here are some other grimly distinctive features of Pacific war:

Crude Japanese rocket launchers with rear rubber tires and spiked

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front wheels, dragged around from cave to cave by amphibious tanks. Launchers like those had been hard to locate on I wo Jima. Their huge missiles left no trail, and the caves hid the launching flash.

“Rube Goldberg” mines, fashioned with 500-lb. aerial bombs as the explosive charge. Sometimes the Japs balanced a rock on a board and strung trip wires from the board. In theory the rock would fall on the unburied nose of the giant bomb when the wires were accident ally touched. Sometimes the theory worked.

The Jap imitation of the German road mine, long boxes of explosives buried crosswise and spaced just yards apart. The three-kilogram mines they had sowed on many sections of the beach. The boxes of dynamite, even t he; few porcelain mines. The Japanese version of the pole charge, a block of explosive at the end of a four-foot stick, touched off by jabbing a nailshaped trigger at the business end of the pole. The Jap who did the jabbing was instantly killed, of course, but sometimes he got close enough to a tank or a pillbox to be sure he didn’t die alone.

And always there were those honeycombed hills, innocent-looking but deadly, Japan’s “secret weapon’’against, the mightiest, bombardments of the Pacific war. Two cleverly bidden observers’ holes, shoulder wide, somewhere on their summits, leading down through blast-stopping angled tunnels into caves five metres wide and big enough t o hold a platoon, from which a third tùnnel led out through another foot-wide hole somewhere in the bushes at: the hill’s base.

The deadly job of fighting up each hill under withering Jap support: fire from cave-hiddenNambumachineguns, artillery and mortars in surrounding hills, then the immediate eruption of charging crack Jap troops from their hidden gopher holes underfoot. Savage hand-to-hand fighting again, and the eventual bloody victory. Then the cleaning out of most: of the caves with flaming oil dragged up in barrels, with grenades, bazookas and flame throwers after most of the exits had been located and watched. The sealing up of those in which survivors still held out, ignoring demands to surrender, or the caves so badly messed up by the flames that their contents were dangerous for sanitary reasons alone.

And always, the one or t wo Japs bypassed in their holes somewhere on the hill. The ones that stayed hidden for days, firing the occasional bursts at targets of opportunity.

“Yeah, she’s different, all right,” Eligh said. “Italy and Sicily were never like this.”

Starvation or Suicide

Somewhere southeast of the airport a lone gun barked and was silent. That was “Old Mountain Joe-Pete,” a lone Jap 75-millimetre cannon hidden in one of the hundreds of caves in the centre of territory we’d held fora week. They’d hunted for him for the first; two days after the land, when he started cutting loose wit h his t wo or t hree daily rounds from wit hin our lines. Hut JoePete was pretty elusive. He just kept changing caves at night, and he never hit anything anyway, so the hunt petered out. His crew would either starve to death or come down and get caught while looking for food. In the meantime the gun was kind of a mascot. That is it was until yesterday morning, when, with two inaccurate shots, it pinned a high Navy officer and his pilot beneath their plane on the airport for 15 minutes.

That wasn’t showing respect for high rank. So they’re out to get Joe-Pete now, and they will, unless he suicides first..

Earlier that morning I’d been down to t he plateau airfield at the base of this mountain. On the airfield, which the Japs abandoned without a fight, was equipment valued by the Americans as worth $100 millions—to t he Japs.

“Except for the aviation gas, which we could only use in our trucks, it wasn’t worth a tinker’s damn to us,” one expert told me.

To protect that airfield the Japs had employed 40.000 labor troops to dig miles of intricate fire trenches, had built hangars sunken into the sides of hills, constructed supply sheds and thousands of storage caves and tunnels around it for an area of 70 square miles. It; was an airfield on which they had propped up 70 dummy guns and 35 dummy planes, woven carefully from straw and set on top of oil barrels amid the wreckage of genuine fighters. They had abandoned the day before we landed.

I’d walked over that airfield, more than a mile from the beach, the day we went ashore with Maj.-Gen. Roy S. Geiger, silver - haired commanding officer of the three Marine Divisions. We hadn’t expected to get there in less than three days of heavy fighting, and

for Geiger « virtually unopposed landj ing was something new.

“I’ve never before been on a battlefield like this,” was the way he phrased it, as he walked bareheaded across the 4,000-yard-long Jap runways, while his personal guards fanned out ahead like quail hunters, scouring the spider-trap ¡ foxholes and fire trenches for possible enemy snipers.

The defenses were deserted, except ! those littered wûth children’s schooli hooks, the odd fountain pen or two and a broken phonograph. Noguns, nofood, no shells were left behind. Around us the field still smoked from the initial i rocket, bomb and naval barrage laid I down before the landing.

“Nope, you can’t figure the Japs out.

! That’s for sure. They’ll do something I unexpected every time,” Eligh said,

I slipping into his sweat-stained Marine ! greens.

He was right. There were the Baka bombs, for instancethe seven we found undestroyed by the retreating Japs, with their detonating wires still attached, and the 17 gaping 25-yard wide craters where the rest of the deadly brood had been stored.

Not pleasant to look at, those slim, rocket-propelled suicide bombs, with a fuselage not much longer or thicker than a freight canoe and a speed of roughly 500 miles an hour. The American gunners who shot down the first ones dropped on our invasion forces complained about that speed. “You hardly get time to see fhc ornery little things,” one gunner said. “But we got ’em, and wc got the bombers that dropped ’em, too.”

■ “It’s hard to imagine what goes through a kamekazi pilot’s mind,” said Eligh. “I can understand the Japs getting their kids so hipped up on the glory of dying for the Emperor that after a few flying lessons they’ll take off from an airfield and dive their planes, bomb load and all, into our shipping. But I can’t understand the guys that fly these Bakas.

Commissioned For Death

“You get told - if you are a Jap— that you will be automatically commissioned an ensign for making such a flight. Okay, so to a Jap that’s an honor. An ensign is a big shot. So the ground crews wheel out your Baka on I its little three-wheeled dolly and they fasten it, to the belly of a Betty (t winengined bomber). You climb into the bomber, and you stand there, all four feet of you, jabbering away to the pilot, until the time comes. Over Okinawa you climb down into the Baka through a hatch in the floor of the bomber. Then you pull the teardrop cover over vour head and sit there, waiting. Maybe you fiddle around with the oxygen hose. You’re at 50,000 feet. Then the light flashes on your dashboard. It’s time to drop . . .

“Nop«', I still don’t know what a guy can he thinking of when he yanks that switch.”

Neither did 1. Nor how t he pilot was able to keep from blacking out, once hehad dropped the 10,(XX) required feet, until he was travelling fast enough so

that the Baka answered to her tiny controls.

For that matter neither did the little Jap pilot we captured two days later, his face all puffed up and bruised and his arm badly wrenched.

Sullen and dazed when he was pulled from the sinking wreckage of his plane, which had crashed while attempting a suicide dive on a ship, he brightened and smiled when by gestures a correspondent induced him to sign his name to the correspondent’s short snorter.

He signed his name all right, in English and Japanese. And sure enough, he claimed the title of ensign for the flight on which he’d failed. But beneath his signature he wrote a syllogistic little poem, bewailing the disgrace he felt it was to he a captive of t he Americans. The fact that he was an officer seemed to make his humiliation all the deeper.

Snakes, Sickness and Civilians

Okinawa, in reports we’d had before we landed, wasn’t, exactly healthy, what with the snakes and the diseases, some of which we had no serums to cure. Diseases like liver flukes and scrub typhus, for instance. Then, of course, there were the lepers, one or two in every village. Most Okinawans were tubercular, a • high percentage had syphilis, and all were suffering from malnutrition. In one arm I had had these injections: eowpox, triple typhoid shots, triple tetanus shots, double plague shots, and two cholera shots. I’d skipped the yellow fever ones.

No, Okinawa wasn’t healthy when we landed, even without counting the 50,000-odd crack Japanese Manchurian troops and the 450.000 natives—about whose loyalties we had been very doubt ful in view of past experience.

But the civilians had offered little trouble, except in nuisance value. They were always underfoot.

Hundreds lined the roads in refugee columns in the first few days, being herded, from the holes in which they had hidden, to the rear of our lines. One or two I saw were dressed in full Japanese Army uniforms, but they were neither soldiers nor labor troops. The Jap garrison on Okinawa, as we found out later, had for years made a practice of selling castoff military clothing to civilians too poor to buy clothes elsewhere.

“Did you hear about the conscripts?” Simon chuckled. “About 10 or 11 Okinawan men apparently had been ordered to report to their draft board on April 1, the day we landed. They’d been issued uniforms and had been up north chopping trees for tank traps and road blocks. Comes April Fool's Day, and although they’d heard our bombardment. of the beaches they didn’t know we’d landed. So out of the woods and down to tHe village they scampered

six miles with Marines taking them forsoldiers and firing at them all the way. They were scared silly, hut they made it all right, and reported in as ordered. Only an American colonel was sitting behind the Jap officer’s desk.

Then there was the woman who strangled her two babies when the Marines closed in around her home.

“She was just scared crazy by the atrocity propaganda the Japs had fed her, I guess,” the Marine who prevented her from strangling her third and last child told me. Like the gaunt, aged crone screaming and writhing, completely unclad, down hv the beach yesterday, while two young, tall embarrassed Marine youngsters held her arms and clumsily tried to rewrap her in the dirty black dress she’d torn off while trying to escape. Finally they had

to tie her arms and legs with the dress, and carry her down to an enclosure along the beach.

I saw her five hours later, her blackened, decayed teeth showing in a huge grin as she munched on a can of American rations.

But then you could never be sure who were civilians and who were not. Take the case of the suicide swimmer the morning we landed. 1 was standing on the bridge of our transport, talking to Gen. Geiger, then clad in a New Zealand-made battle-dress jacket with the coiled yellow-red dragon patch on his shoulder, and his battered brownstained helmet low down over his iceblue eyas.

He was staring intently at t he beach, listening to the incredible radio reports about lack of resistance as our first troops hit the shore. An hour passed and not a Marine casualty had yet been reported. “If this keeps up,” he told me, “you’ll have wasted your time.”

Then came a delayed report from an LCM. “Suicide swimmer sighted at 0816, hut escaped.” That was 16 minutes after our initial wave had gone ashore. A Jap soldier, dressed in civilian clothes but wearing the familiar split-toed Jap army sandal, had staged a one-man amphibious counterattack, swimming alone out to sea with a bundle of grenades.

As it turned out later, that Jap did not escape, as the skipper of the landing craft had believed. Someone, probably one of the ship’s guard posted to watch for attacks by suicide speed boats, had shot him before he got where he was going. We found his body, sprawled face up and bloated, on the coral next day, after the tide went out. His grenades in their bundle lay beside one split-toed shoe.

That one little incident, one Jap swimming out to sea to meet our fleet of more than 1,300 ships, the biggest invasion fleet of the Pacific war, convinced me that from now on all Japs will fight a suicide fight. Nothing that has happened since would indicate anything else.

Coming, Mr. Moto !

Later, I left Okinawa to go on the invasion of íe Shima, where we seized still another Japanese airfield. When I got back to Okinawa after that shortlived campaign in which Ernie Pyle was killed by a Jap machine gunner, things on Okinawa had changed.

Passenger planes and transports were flying off the Yontan field on clocklike schedules. All over the island new American-built runways were being slashed and gouged out of the once green countryside. Onion and beet crops had disappeared in t he upheaval. The Canadian observers had moved on too, down to the south where bitter hand-to-hand fighting raged for Naha, Yonabaru and Shuri. Simon and Eligh were down there someplace, making notesnotes on the way the desperate Jap garrison, repeatedly driven into their deep burrow's and two-decker caves,charged outagain and again, once the barrage let up. Notes on how the heaviest bombing, naval and artillery shelling, of the entire Pacific war served only to drive the Japs into their holes once more, where they holed up and reduced the fighting to a basis of man to man—flame throwers, burning oil and bayonets, against Jap grenades.

For the Canadian observers, their job, as they said, was almost done. They’d passed full notes on the development of the fighting, and on the Jap and American techniques, back to Ottawa for use at some future date when battle-wise Canadians storm ashore to avenge Hong Kong.