Remembering Okinawa

APRIL 1 marked yet another World War II anniversary: the American assault on the island of Okinawa, the last stepping-stone to Japan. Americans saw the battle as the beginning of the end, the Japanese as virtually their last chance to repel the West. The Japanese forces had little chance, but Japan maintains its willful amnesia regarding the key event in its modern history.

The battle roared on for 82 days. Japanese soldiers, starving in wet caves and bunk-ers, were desperately trying to hold this vital outguard to their homeland, barely 350 miles away. The Americans were enraged at having to risk death when a Japanese surrender seemed logical.

The Okinawans suffered terribly, driven by their Japanese rulers into American bombardment. The upshot was the deaths of 12,000 Americans, 90,000 Japanese, and perhaps 150,000 Okinawans, fully one-third of the population.

Here was a fearsome example of what heavy firepower could do in a crowded Asian setting. Contrary to the revisionist argument that Japan was ready to quit, and that dropping the atomic bomb was hasty, brutal, and racist, the Japanese 32nd Army was willing to die in its tracks. One soldier asserted, ''The battle here is over but Japan is still fighting. If we decrease the enemy's power by even one or two men, that is our duty.''

The Japanese conscripted thousands of young Okinawans. Untrained, hungry, ill-equipped, they died in droves.

Attrition had long since become Tokyo's strategy. Even if five or six Japanese die for every American, the generals proclaimed, no son of the emperor would crack, unlike those soft, materialistic, self-centered Americans. No mere democracy could defeat the samurai spirit. Okinawa, the generals insisted, has given us three months to prepare the militia to join the counterattack -- even though with longbows and bamboo spears -- against the inevitable American invasion. That this would mean national suicide did not dissuade the Japanese military. As one officer later put it, ''It would be useless for the people to survive the war if the structure of the State itself were to be destroyed.''

The naval air force already had contributed to suicidal militarism. The first de facto cruise missile, the Kamikazes of the ''special attack forces,'' had emerged against the American invaders of the Philippines in October 1944.

From an official viewpoint, having pilots crash their bomb-laden planes against American ships was perfectly rational. If death was inevitable, why not make it useful?

And so huge mixed flights of conventional bombers and single-motor Kamikazes, their pilots keyed up by centuries of emperor worship, left Japanese airfields to strike the Fifth Fleet off Okinawa. Ten mass attacks hit the Americans with some 6,000 sorties over three months.

And were repelled -- in what surely was the finest hour of the United States Navy. Many planes were splashed by American fighters, even as ships' crews fought off fear and exhaustion. Thirty-four Navy vessels sank, another 368 were damaged, 4,800 men were wounded, and 4,900 died -- the highest figure ever in a single US Navy campaign.

Okinawa represented the essence of a war of antagonistic races, conflicting ideologies, and long enmities. Only the emperor might have halted Japanese resistance -- had he dared. He didn't; the military continued monopolizing power, until the atomic bomb brought the brass hats down and ended the war that was pulverizing Japan.

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