soldiers on Okinawa, 1945
Why the soldiers on Okinawa were glad when Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner was killed in June 1945
by former Corporal Howard Keylor
Army veteran of the Battle of Okinawa, 1945
TThe military command anticipated that the defeat of the Japanese army on Okinawa would take at most one month; instead it took almost three months of bloody conflict to finish the operation. In spite of the precedent of the Iwo Jima operation the army command had not calculated that the Japanese who had occupied the island since the late 1800s would build a complete and complex series of underground bunkers and tunnels in the entire mountainous southern part of the island. This included openings where artillery, mortars and machine guns could cover the entire front. Many of the artillery and mortars were on rails enabling them to be pulled back from the entrance during enemy artillery bombardments and then run out near the openings to fire on advancing infantry. For most of the battle of Okinawa there was massive shelling of the island from the largest naval fleet ever assembled standing just off shore as well as land based artillery. These shelling operations would go on for hours. When a lull came in the shelling we knew that the infantry was again being thrown into frontal assaults on the mountains and ridge lines where the Japanese were holed up. The shelling was almost totally without effect on the defending soldiers deep underground. Some cave and bunker firing openings were closed or sealed by artillery fire but there were many others which gave the same field of fire.
U.S. Marine and infantry casualties were extremely high. The 96th U.S. Army Division had 50% casualties the first month of the three month battle and had to be pulled back into reserve. That was the division to which most of the men whom I had trained with from July to September of 1944 had been assigned. Just as aside, the only Congressional Medal of Honor awarded during the three month battle was to a Navy medic who was a very religious and who refused to carry a weapon.
The only practical way to have proceeded would have been to sneak up on the cave and bunker firing openings under the cover of darkness and seal them shut with satchel charges. This was usually not possible since as soon as it got dark Japanese soldiers would slip out and conceal themselves in "spider holes" to pop out and kill the American infantrymen sneaking up on them. In spite of a lack of training and experience in night fighting that is substantially what did take place during the grinding last phase of the battle. For the most part the U.S. infantrymen were sent repeatedly into daylight assaults climbing steep ridges and hills to attack well entrenched and completely secure Japanese soldiers. The U.S. attackers did find that flame-throwers were partially effective against Japanese firing from the bunkers but getting close enough to bring them into effective play often required several teams to take over after the preceding one had been killed.
Two weapons that were available on a very limited basis to the U.S. infantrymen were the "snooper scopes" and "sniper scopes". As far as I know Okinawa was the first battle in which these were made available to the U.S. army enabling them to take part in night operations. The hand held snooper scope was the first observation device utilizing an eyepiece which could detect objects emitting infra red rays such as a human body. The sniper scope was the same device mounted on a 30 caliber carbine. Only 3 of these devices were issued to each infantry division about the second month of the battle. About 12 of them were issued to Tenth Army Headquarters many miles to the rear in an area which had been completely cleared of Japanese soldiers early on. I know because my Quartermaster Headquarters unit was issued one each of these and I was really impressed at being able to detect a human body in complete darkness from about 100 yards away. We used them during guard duty at night. One of our units detected a cow wandering around at night and once an Okinawan civilian trying to find his farm house wandered into our perimeter. The point here is that the regular army officers had little consideration for the infantrymen who so desperately needed these weapons for night operations. No Japanese stragglers ever wandered into the Army Headquarters area.
I think that the Pacific Command may have understood that General Buckner was ill-fitted for the command of such an operation but he was so well-placed that he could not be relieved of command. It is significant that when he was killed the Pacific Command did not fly in another army Lieutenant General to replace him but reached over to the Marine Corps to spot-promote a Major General to Lieutenant General to take command of the 10th Army; the only time in history that a U.S. army in battle was commanded by a Marine aviator! The concern of the U.S. command was reflected in the fact that General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell was flown in from the China, Burma, and India Theater to take command shortly thereafter. Stillwell was probably the most able U.S. commander in the Pacific and the timetable for the Invasion of Japan was being delayed by months. Stillwell was well regarded by the ordinary enlisted men because he had always taken much concern for the lives of non-officers.
Could the promotion of a Marine to take command reflect the fear of the U.S. army that more incompetent army generals might be hit by friendly fire? We will never know. Good plot for a short story or novel.
I was pulled out of the infantry and put into 10th Army Headquarters while the command structure was being assembled in Hawaii in February of 1944. During my brief period in Army Headquarters during the battle of Okinawa I found to my shock and horror that the regular Army officers had hatred and utter contempt for the enlisted soldiers. The first week to 10 days I was with units unloading and transporting Army Headquarters equipment from ships stationed off the West coast of the island. This was a normal assignment with only minimal danger of being hit by shrapnel from the massive anti-aircraft fire against wave after wave of kamikazes attacking the fleet. But then when we had finished that job my partner, another former infantryman, and I got an "unofficial" assignment. The major in charge of personnel took us to an isolated place and told us to go outside our perimeter and scour the countryside searching abandoned farmhouses for the Okinawan lacquerware that was known to be the worlds best. We were to loot these items, bring them back, wash them and package them for shipment home by the highest ranking officers in the unit (not including the major who was a quite decent guy). We were told to tell no one about this assignment; that if we ran into any U.S. army patrols we were to tell them that we were looking for Japanese army stragglers who had been reported in the area. Under no circumstances were we to tell anyone that we had been ordered to loot for the high ranking officers of our unit. A "scouting patrol" of two men armed with silly little carbines was not a normal operation but I guess we were considered expendable. We did in fact find about 12 of these absolutely amazing pieces of lacquerware that had probably been family heirlooms.
I managed to get transferred out of Army Headquarters although narrowly missing a court martial. The evil trick I played on the regular army officers which led to my banishment is another story. About the early part of May I was assigned to a large center to process requisitions for all kinds of non weapon supplies and gear. I never will forget the haggard and ragged Marines with the "thousand yard stare" who came in demanding shoes, clothing, tents, blankets etc and threatening to shoot anyone who would not give them what they so desperately needed. Now for a short digression. The Marine Corps, unlike the Infantry, did not have a quartermaster resupply system or organization. The theory was that Marine Corps operations would take at most a few weeks during which the stuff they went ashore with would suffice. No real resupply system was put in place for the Marines. In fact we had several catalogues of materials available at a Navy base for which we could issue requisitions although these were rarely utilized. It rained constantly the first two months of the battle and of course the Marines shoes, clothing and other equipment deteriorated rapidly. I was supposed to go through a process of taking the typed up requisitions to a higher officer who might or might not get to countersigning it that day or the next day. With the Marines I forged the commanding officer's signature and immediately gave the signed requisition that I had typed up back to them in the most comradely manner possible. I think that the word got around because whenever Marines came to our center they always waited until I could process their papers.
General Buckner was the grandson of a Confederate Army general in the American Civil War. After I wrote this brief article several years ago I learned more about Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner.
General Buckner was in charge of the Alaskan military district when the Alcan Highway was built in 1942. When he was informed that three Black Engineer Regiments would be assigned as part of the operation he objected strenuously. When told that they would be assigned to his command he then demanded that those troops be kept in remote areas and have no opportunity to interact with Native Americans or approach their villages. He argued that these "Nigro" troops would interbreed with the Indians and produce the "worst and most useless half-breeds the world has ever seen". The soldiers were kept isolated so Buckner's worst fears were not realized.
The Engineer regiments who built the highway suffered terribly from mosquitoes including the infamous "no seeums". Vast quantities of mosquito repellant had been sent to the Pacific and European theaters of war but NONE was sent to Alaska. Either the fools did not know that mosquitoes were a real hazard in Alaska or the omission was a deliberate move to try to punish and kill the Black Engineers. People and animals have actually died from mosquitoes in Alaska during the summer.
Later General Buckner was in charge of the U.S. military campaign to retake the Aleutian Islands that had been occupied by the Japanese military early in the war. The troops were not issued cold weather clothing and equipment so that half the soldiers were immobilized with hypothermia and frostbite. A case in point of the remarkable incompetence of the corps of professional staff officers assembled by Buckner over his long career; the same assholes that I found in 10th Army headquarters on Okinawa.
Who was responsible for killing about one third of the Okinawan civilians during the three month battle? Conventional history has tried to place the blame on the Japanese military for bringing civilians into the caves and bunkers. This was actually minimal. The capitol city of Naha was totally leveled by a massive bombardment before the invasion. The city was not a legitimate military target and was not defended. When I walked through the abandoned remains of the city about 5 months later the smell of decaying bodies buried in the rubble was still present. The Japanese military did not defend the beaches but had rapidly retreated to the mountainous southern part of the Island. The Okinawan civilians took refuge in the large open mouth burial caves. The military command issued orders to the Marines and infantry to sweep all the heavily populated already cleared areas and throw hand grenades into the caves. They were told that Japanese soldiers were hiding in those caves. No Japanese soldier's bodies were found after these operations but tens of thousands of bodies mainly of women, children and older men.
I knew of a number of marines and soldiers who admitted to me what they had done. A case in point was my niece's father-in-law. He had never told his family that his nightmares came from reliving the horror of throwing hand grenades into the burial caves and then counting the Okinawan civilians' bodies. He told only me (many decades later) because I told him that I knew what had happened and did not blame the Marines or soldiers.
This policy came from the extreme racism and ignorance of the high ranking professional officers who referred to the Okinawans as "Japs".
This is one of the best kept secrets of the Invasion of Okinawa April-June 1945.
Former Corporal with the 10th Army Headquarters
posted June 19, 2011
ALSO BY HOWARD KEYLOR
What caused the Port Chicago disaster? by Howard Keylor, retired longshoreman