Crucible of Hell: The Heroism and Tragedy of Okinawa, 1945 by Saul David

Everything about the Battle of Okinawa was big, except for the island itself. The Americans gathered together the largest open sea armada in history — 1,200 aircraft, 1,300 ships, 540,000 servicemen and 747,000 tons of cargo. The landing, on April 1, 1945, was admittedly smaller than the Normandy invasion, but this attack force had to cross the Pacific Ocean, not the narrow English Channel. Gargantuan supply and meticulous organisation were devoted to capturing an island less than 80 miles in length.

Okinawa was the prelude to a planned invasion of the Japanese mainland, scheduled for November. It was, writes the military historian Saul David, “by far the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War, and one of the costliest in America’s history”. (Superlatives prove useful when describing this battle.) “We were in the depths of the abyss,” one American soldier wrote, “the ultimate horror of war … Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”

Pride and Prejudice

Both sides came armed with cultural preconceptions that hardened resolve. Americans assumed that “Japs” were not really human. The commander, Lieutenant-General Simon Bolivar Buckner, carried with him a photo supposedly showing American soldiers who had been “butchered and eaten by Japs”. Okinawans, on the other hand, were told that Americans would “strip the girls naked and do with them whatever they wanted, then run them over with tanks”. That explains why so many eventually chose suicide over surrender.

In anticipation of the attack, the Japanese culled the civilian population, to lessen the burden of protection. Entire villages were herded northwards, on the pretence of seeking shelter. On reaching their destination, they were gathered together and instructed to yell “Banzai!” — “Long life!” — to the emperor three times. As Shigeaki Kinjo, a 16-year-old local, recalled: “We knew that this was what Japanese soldiers did when they were going to die on the battlefield. The village head didn’t exactly tell us to commit suicide, but by telling us to shout banzai, we knew what was meant.”

Grenades were supplied to make the task easier — but there were not enough. Kinjo dutifully killed his mother: “We tried to use rope at first, but in the end we hit her over the head with stones. I was crying as I did it and she was crying too.” His obedience exhausted, he then ran.

“The village head didn’t exactly tell us to commit suicide, but by telling us to shout banzai, we knew what was meant.”

Before the invasion, the American warships fired 44,825 shells, 33,000 rockets and 22,500 mortars, in just three hours. Infantry then swarmed on to beaches that were eerily quiet. “All of us were in disbelief over the total lack of opposition,” one soldier recalled. “We had not heard a single shot fired by them.” It seemed to some a perfect Easter Sunday stroll, to others something ominous. By nightfall 60,000 men were encamped on a beachhead 15,000 yards wide and no more than 5,000 yards deep. Buckner, sorely lacking in field command experience, assumed that he had outwitted his enemy.

The Americans had in fact walked into a trap. Aware of their own weakness in personnel and firepower, the Japanese decided to lure their enemies inland towards well-entrenched positions. Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, architect of the plan, delighted at how perfectly the Americans played their assigned role. “They must be thinking gleefully that they have passed through a breach in the defences,” he wrote. “It is amusing to watch the American army so desperately intent in its attack … like a blind man who has lost his cane.”

The Japanese sought to recreate a First World War battle of attrition — a meatgrinder. Buckner obligingly co-operated, launching unimaginative frontal assaults that achieved minuscule gains at horrendous cost. Rather like Field Marshal Haig, he possessed an arsenal of banalities designed to turn adversity into triumph. “We are making slow but steady progress and killing lots of Japs,” he wrote to his wife. “It is tough-going … but I feel we have control of the situation.”

The Japanese used the protracted infantry battle to exploit the vulnerability of the American flotilla, mainly through suicide attacks. About 1,850 kamikaze (or special attack) planes, in addition to piloted flying bombs (Ohkas), motorboats packed with explosives (Shinyo) and human torpedoes (Kaiten) were hurled at the American navy. Japanese raids sank 31 ships and damaged another 210. Kamikaze pilots, descending like swarms of wasps, seemed to confirm American prejudices about the temperament of their enemy.

Human History

Historians of the Pacific War too often display those same prejudices. The Japanese, as a result, are portrayed as soulless automatons fighting relentlessly without qualms or fear. David restores a human dimension to this battle — both sides are brave, stoic, frightened, barbaric and occasionally cowardly. This is narrative history at its most visceral as battles unfold almost in real time. At one point, a fierce fight on Sugar Loaf Hill is interrupted when an American war dog escapes his lead, charges an Okinawan mutt, mounts her in no-man’s land, then obediently returns. The battlefield falls briefly silent while dogs copulate, and then annihilation resumes.

In short chapters David shifts between American and Japanese fronts, providing a gripping reconstruction of the action. In the process, Japanese soldiers are rendered distressingly human. In a casualty station, “Pus would squirt into the student nurses’ faces as they tried to clean their patients.” “I can still hear the cries and shrieks of those in the throes of death,” one nurse recalled, “it was hell itself. We didn’t have enough anaesthetic.” “Kill me!” a soldier pleads; “Shut up!” his surgeon replies. “You’re a Japanese soldier, aren’t you?”

This is narrative history at its most visceral as battles unfold almost in real time.

Kamikaze pilots, given their ephemeral contribution, are seldom assigned personality in accounts of this war. David deftly does so, rendering their role all the more uncomfortable to contemplate. They gather together before a big mission and tell bawdy jokes, boasting of sexual experiences they don’t actually have. Bathos quickly shifts to pathos when they board their planes and mumble farewell to their mothers. One kamikaze pilot asks permission to marry his stepsister before his mission. She understands that she cannot refuse. They’re hastily wed, spending one night together. He dies and she finds she is pregnant. She gets no details of his mission, but does receive some clippings of his nails and hair.

The Battle of Okinawa lasted 82 days. The Americans suffered nearly 50,000 casualties, 12,500 of whom were killed. That pales in comparison with Japanese losses: 100,000 soldiers and 125,000 civilians died. All that destruction carried ominous portent. “Okinawa,” wrote one soldier, “seemed to presage an even bloodier struggle for the Japanese homeland.” An American artilleryman told his family: “We hope to be home in a year or year and a half.”

Two atom bombs abruptly terminated that slow attempt to destroy Japanese will. Many Americans saw those bombs as a better way to end the war. I’ve always rejected the premise that, relatively speaking, Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been a more humane conclusion than invasion offered. After reading this book, I’m not so sure.