ON June 1945, the United States Navy was fighting for its life in the Pacific - a battle it almost lost.
The two-ocean war had ended. Hitler was dead. And although US carrier planes and submarines had sunk the bulk of Japan's capital ships, its high command had unleashed a new threat: huge kamikaze (suicide) attacks.
US naval vessels were trapped around the 60-mile-long island of Okinawa. They could not simply withdraw out of range of the tiny attackers. Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.'s 10th Army, fighting the biggest land battle of the Pacific war, needed their logistical support and their big guns against the determined and well-dug-in island defenders.
Japan's Lt. Gen. Ushijima Mitsuru had allowed US forces to land on Okinawa almost unopposed on Easter Sunday, April 1. He fell back south to an almost impregnable defense line near historic Shuri Castle and forced the Americans to come to him. Japanese ground forces stoically accepted that they were doomed. Their final gift to their emperor was to delay the Americans, to gain time for Japan's high command to smash the enemy fleet with massive, coordinated raids by hundreds of aerial kamikazes.
Now from the island of Kyushu only 350 miles north of Okinawa, and from air bases on Formosa, equidistant, they began to hammer the Americans with mass kamikaze attacks called kikusui (floating chrysanthemums). The Navy had to stay and take it. Japan had used kamikazes the year before in the Philippines and at Iwo Jima. But the raids reached their climax at Okinawa.
More than 350 kamikazes swarmed in on the first raid, with a like number of regular bombers. US casualties mounted. Some of the Navy's greatest aircraft carriers were knocked out - the Franklin, the Wasp, the Yorktown.
The raiders included a new twist: the oka (cherry) was carried into battle under the wing of a bomber. When the stubby-winged flying torpedo was released, the solo pilot turned on his rocket engine and, with almost no maneuverability, plunged into a ship or into the sea.
Before the Okinawa sea-air battle ended, more than 21 US warships had been sunk, 43 had to be scrapped, and 23 needed such repairs that they were effectively out of the war.
Comdr. Edward Peary Stafford, a naval historian then serving aboard a destroyer on the Okinawa picket line, described it as "a nightmare of sleeplessness, fatigue, flash reds, bogies, and General Quarters." He calls the Okinawa campaign "the longest and costliest action in the history of the US Navy."
Meanwhile, the Japanese home islands were under attack. Besides losing the Yamato, the world's biggest and most powerful battle ship (sunk by US carrier planes as it made a suicidal sortie to Okinawa), the Japanese were undergoing nightly B-29 firebomb raids.
With fighter protection from the newly opened air base on Iwo Jima, the big "super forts" from Tinian, Saipan, and Guam in the Marianas became much more effective. Damaged planes could find a halfway haven on their 1,500-mile return flight from Japan. Many did. An estimated 2,400 planes - with their 12-to-14-man crews - made emergency landings on Iwo Jima, saving perhaps as many US lives as had been lost in the taking of the island (5,931 killed, 17,372 wounded).
US submarines had also effectively cut off Japan from its Southeast Asian supplies, especially oil, a commodity for which the country had ostensibly gone to war. And after V-E Day, planes, ships, and troops were leaving Europe for the Pacific.
Yet Japanese militarists were not thinking of capitulating. In June, Japan convened an extraordinary session of its Diet. The world waited for any indication that Japan might seek peace.
But in a speech carried on the front page of The Christian Science Monitor on June 9, 1945 (see Page 10), Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki declared that "the enemy's boastful talk about the unconditional surrender of Japan means nothing but the outright death of all 100 million people in this country." Admiral Suzuki himself was not especially a firebrand, but like many others he dared not even hint at surrender for fear of assassination by Army extremists.
Japan was battered but far from beaten. Its forces were fighting fiercely on Okinawa and were on the offensive in Burma and parts of China. They were tenaciously holding out in the hills of the Philippines and other islands. At home, the leaders still had 2 million men under arms and 8,000 warplanes. Only young, little-trained pilots were being sacrificed to the suicide raids. The best flyers were being held back for the expected invasion of the home islands, to participate in the final battle and then become "floating chrysanthemums" themselves. Okinawa and Iwo Jima showed what lay ahead. On the mainland, civilians, including women, were training with bamboo spears. The coastline was lined with pillboxes; guns and ammunition were being stockpiled in caves.
After the war, I got to know Japanese naval captain Tsunezo Wachi, former commanding officer of Iwo Jima, alive only because he had been transferred from Iwo prior to the US landing. Captain Wachi told me that his next assignment was to command 600 suicide torpedo boats on the south coast of Kyushu. They kept them in caves, coming out after dark to train.
As he described these high-speed plywood craft with torpedoes or dynamite in their bows, I asked him about his own boat: Was it different? What color was it?
"Mine was pink," he replied, "a good color for dying."
On the US side, preparations for the landings were progressing. My own 4th Marine Division was studying plans for operations Olympic and Coronet - first a landing on Kyushu and then a two-pronged drive on Tokyo from both sides of Tokyo Bay. As combat veterans we knew what lay ahead - or thought we did.
In early June, a fresh flight of B-29s flew from the United States to Tinian. The mysterious new unit, the 509th Composite Group, moved into special quarters and was segregated from those who were flying the daily, now almost routine, bombing runs. The new unit operated alone, flying only practice runs with 10,000-pound orange-colored bombs.
The mystery did not last long.
At that moment, back in the US, physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was erecting a steel tower at Alamagordo, N.M Its purpose: to test a device nicknamed "The Gadget," which exploded in the desert dawn of July 16, 1945.
Other stories in this series ran Jan. 30, Feb. 13, March 6, April 10, and May 5.