The Eighth Marines – Okinawa

 Preface

Okinawa mapToday, Okinawa is the southern-most prefecture of Japan and accounts for two-thirds of the Ryukyu Island Chain that extends for a thousand miles from Kyushu to Taiwan.  It has a long and interesting history extending back to the Stone Age period.  It was once a kingdom in its own right and, because of its location, became an important trade center.  The kingdom entered into the Imperial Chinese tributary system during the Ming Dynasty beginning in the fifteenth century.

In 1609, Japanese warlords from present-day Kagoshima invaded the Ryukyu kingdom and forced the Okinawan king to accept the terms of the Tokugawa Shogun to become a vassal state, while at the same time maintaining is relationship with China as a tributary state.  Despite these two powerful controlling factors, the Okinawan kingdom retained a considerable degree of domestic political freedom for over two hundred years.  Four years after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government officially annexed the kingdom and it became known as Ryukyu-has.  Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in 1879, much to the chagrin of the Chinese.

From the sixteenth century, European seafaring nations began to expand their trade routes west and east.  Driven by the expectation of commercial gain and perceived national interests, early explorers sought and discovered new maritime routes into the Pacific Ocean Area. These voyages of discovery created a demand for larger and faster ships; new shipbuilding technologies met these demands and laid the foundation for the creation of powerful and influential nation states.

The history of European empires is one of maritime interests because sea routes were faster and more secure in delivering raw materials and finished goods from one end of the planet to another.  The age of sail lasted from around 1600 to 1850.  It was also a period of rapid changes in scale, technology, society, and politics … a period when many of the political and legal institutions, scientific ideas, and economic structures shaped the modern world.

Naval and military forces were needed to protect overseas colonies, trading posts, and sea (or trade) routes.  This interest and effort expanded from the 1600s in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, and eventually into the southern, middle, and northern Pacific.  European empires drew significant wealth from their colonies, and given the institution of slave labor, cost them very little money.  Among the most powerful nations engaging in such enterprises was the British Empire, whose trade good included silk, dye, salt, and tea.

Great Britain’s loss of the American colonies, Spain’s loss of its Caribbean and South Atlantic colonies [Note 1] and competition from Russia, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austro-Hungary, Italy, and the emerging United States pushed colonial interests into the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean area.

Until around 1850, most seagoing vessels were powered by sail.  Even after the invention of steam powered engines, most ships used them only as a source of auxiliary power.  Still, the use of steam required coal, so it was incumbent upon these European powers to establish coaling stations and safe harbors for the repair of ships and rest stops for crews.

Before the Civil War, the United States’ only coaling station was located at Key West, Florida.  After the war, when the United States began looking toward the Pacific with increased interest, a coaling station was established at Honolulu, Hawaii.  As the conversion to steam powered ships increased, so too did the demand for coaling stations—and if the competing nations intended to invest the capital for the creation of coaling stations, then they would require an expanded navy and military to safeguard them —as well as protecting established trade routes.

At the beginning of the First World War, Japan agreed to join the allied powers on condition that it would be permitted to seize and retain control over German advanced bases located on several Pacific Islands [Note 2].  While Japan’s contribution to World War I was limited to guaranteeing the security of well-established sea lanes from the German Imperial Navy, its participation did increase Japan’s national prestige and provide justification for the expansion of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

When one considers the Japanese colonies prior to World War I [Note 3], the territories seized from Imperial Germany [Note 4] appears small and inconsequential, but they became part of Japan’s national pride.  And while the Japanese were helping themselves to German foreign territory, they may as well pick up a few additional islands that no one seemed to care about, such as at Iwo Jima.

Following World War I, loud voices demanded world peace and disarmament.  Perhaps the loudest of these voices were from women, who had only just won the right to vote in many “civilized” countries.  The ladies [Note 5] convinced leading politicians that money could be saved, votes won, and the future secured, by putting a halt to the arms race.  In the United States, practically every protestant organization became a strong proponent of international peace.

At war’s end, the United Kingdom still had the strongest navy in the world.  Even so, the British Navy was becoming obsolete and the costs associated with replacing the British fleet were astronomical.  The United States and Japan were quite quickly increasing the size of their respective navies.  Politicians became concerned about the increased rivalry between the United States and Japan [Note 6] in the Pacific Ocean Area.  Many viewed this rivalry as a long-term threat to the peace and security of the world.  To put a halt to needless, expensive, and possibly dangerous arms race, the major powers of the world met to consider a series of naval disarmament agreements.  It was called the Washington Naval Conference (1921-22).

The conference resulted in three major treaties: the Four Power Treaty [Note 7], the Five Power Treaty [Note 8], and the Nine Power Treaty [Note 9].  There were a number of smaller agreements, as well.  A subsequent conference was held in London in 1930, fittingly referred to as the London Naval Treaty.  Limitations of naval armaments placed on Japan, which were nationally insulting (given their status as a World War I ally), prompted the Japanese to cancel their agreements in 1936.

Notwithstanding these agreements, all signatories continued to expand their naval power as if there had been no international agreement at all.  In any case, the foregoing explains how Japan attained possessions of the Pacific Islands that American and allied serviceman would spill their blood to recapture during World War II.  Okinawa was one of these … in the Ryukyu Islands.

The Battle

USMC EGA 1775-1992Okinawa was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the Americans against the Empire of Japan.  Seizure of Okinawa was to have been the final step before an actual invasion of the Japanese home islands.  Allied possession of Okinawa would provide air bases for B-29 Bombers and open the way for tightening the blockade of Japanese shipping.  Okinawa would also provide a major staging area for supplies, should an invasion of Japan be necessary.

Late winter, 1945 witnessed extraordinary effort in the preparation for the invasion and seizure of Okinawa, an island only 350 miles from the southernmost tip of Japan.  This would be a joint Army-Navy-Marine Corps operation.  To execute it, the Tenth United States Army (X Army) was created around its commander, Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, who would command nearly 200,000 men and women serving in infantry, artillery, medical corps, quarter master, aviation, and combat engineer fields.  X Army would include 4 US Army Divisions and 3 Marine Divisions.  In addition to these land forces, naval forces included the Fifth Fleet, composed of Task Force 50, Task Force 58, and Task Force 57 (British).  For the total naval force, see [Note 10] and add 450 fighter aircraft of various specifications.

The enemy was commanded by Lieutenant General Ushijima Mitsuru.  He would have around 100,000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) at his disposal.  These forces were augmented by tens of thousands of Okinawan/Japanese civilians, some of whom aided the IJA, most of whom were simply in the way.

The 2nd Marine Division’s role in the upcoming operation would be similar to its initial assignment in the Tinian campaign.  The division would mount a feint assault on the Southeast coast of Okinawa near the city of Minatoga, while the main landings were taking place on the western coast.  Landing Day (L-Day) was scheduled for Easter Sunday, 1 April 1945.

Following the feint, 2nd Marine Division would be on call as III Amphibious Corps Reserve, Major General Roy S. Geiger, USMC, Commanding [Note 11].  “On call” means either as a reserve force or as reinforcements for any other divisional sized command.  The convoy arrived in adjacent waters early in the morning of 1 April.  At 0520, Japanese Kamikaze pilots, flying suicide missions, attacked the task force and struck ships carrying Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (also said as Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/2).  The landings on the Western side of the Island were unopposed by Japanese forces, and so without even getting ashore, the 2nd Marine Division had sustained the only significant casualties on L-Day.

The convoy carrying the 2nd Marine Division steamed off the coast of Okinawa for several days, anticipating that the division would be needed and would soon go ashore.  Concern about aerial attacks resulted in the redeployment of the convoy back to Saipan.  In mid-May 1945, Lieutenant General Buckner specifically requested that the 8th Marines be returned to Okinawa.

8th Marines and 2/10 (artillery) departed Saipan on 24 May.  Its orders were to seize outlying islands near Okinawa in order the long range radar and aircraft detection equipment could be installed to offset the Kamikaze threat.  Shortly after 0600 on 3 June, BLT 2/8 and BLT 3/8 made an unopposed landing on the island of Iheya-Shima, which was 15 miles northwest of northern Okinawa.  The Island was declared secure the following day.  On 9 June, BLT 1/8 made a similar landing on Aguni-Shima, with no opposition, but these Marines did capture two Japanese Navy pilots.

US Army units relieved the 8th Marines a few days later and the regiment was redeployed to Okinawa to reinforce X Army in its final push through the Shuri Line [Note 12], a string of Japanese fortifications established for defense in depth.  By this time, X Army had pushed the Japanese into Southern Okinawa and fought its way into the capital city of Naha.  Fresh troops were needed against the entrenched enemy on the Kiyamu Peninsula.  For this operation, the 8th Marines would be attached to the 1st Marine Division as a relief for the battle-weary 7th Marines.

Men of the 1st Marine Division on Wana Ridge with Browning Automatic Rifle.On 18 June, 8th Marines led off the 1st Marine Division assault.  2/8, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harry A. Waldorf, moved from Mezado Ridge; Lieutenant Colonel Paul E. Wallace, commanding 3/8, marched to contact from Kunishi Ridge.  The regiment would make a lightening strike to the coast.  BLT 2/8 made a rapid advance some 1,400 yards in the face of moderate machine gun fire, individual rifle fire, mortar, and light artillery fires.

At mid-day, Lieutenant General Buckner (and staff) paid a visit to Colonel Wallace, the regimental commander.  While at the 8th Marine command observation post overlooking 3/8’s sector, six shells from a Japanese 47mm anti-tank gun slammed into the position.  General Buckner was mortally wounded by jagged pieces of coral that were thrown up in the explosions.  This was a tremendous loss to the Marines, whom Buckner admired, and which occasioned his visit.  Roy S. Geiger was promoted to Lieutenant General and assumed command of  X Army.

By mid-afternoon, 2/8 had seized the Kuwanga-Makabe Road and the Marines prepared to set in a perimeter defense late in the afternoon.  Company B, 1/8 was sent forward to assist in the night defense.

OFFICIAL U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO 120562The next day, 3/8 advanced through the lines of the 2nd Battalion to storm the heights of Ibaru Ridge.  On the heels of an American artillery assault, the battalion moved out under cover of dense phosphorus smoke and rushed the Japanese defenders at the top of the ridge.  Surprised by the sudden attack, the Japanese were pushed down the other side of the ridge into the sea.  By 1700, all elements of the regiment had broken through the Japanese defense and were on the beach.  This breakthrough severed the enemy’s defense structure on the peninsula and the Battle of Okinawa was almost over.

For the next two days, the 8th Marines worked with the units from the 1st Marine Division and 6th Marine Division to clear pockets of resistance.  India Company, 3/8 incurred heavy losses during one clearing operation on 20 June.  In retribution, the town of Makabe was overrun by the 8th Marines on 21 June.  There would be no more resistance from that town.

Okinawa 002On 22 June, 8th Marines participated in a final search and destroy operation into Naha.  On that afternoon, General Geiger announced that the island had been secured.  It had been 82-days of bitter and bloody fighting with this important victory going to the United States and allied forces.

In its brief participation in the Battle of Okinawa, 8th Marines and its attachments lost 48 killed, 357 wounded.  The 8th Marines were returned to Saipan on 1 July, where they rejoined the 2nd Marine Division.  They immediately began training for the invasion of Japan.

On 15 August 1945, the Emperor of Japan made a radio announcement that the Empire surrendered to US and Allied Forces.  No invasion of the homeland would be necessary.  Instead, the 2nd Marine Division was ordered to Kyushu, Japan to begin a period of occupation duty.  On Kyushu, the 2nd division joined the 5th Marine Division and 32nd Infantry Division.  8th Marines was assigned a sector of responsibility, and their mission was:

  • Disarm and demobilize all Japanese military forces
  • Enforce the terms of surrender
  • Assume control of all military installations
  • Dispose of all ordnance, explosives and weapons
  • Apprehend war criminals
  • Process military and civilian personnel returning to Japan from various regions of the Empire.  In connection with this last assignment, the Marines had to also process thousands of Koreans, Taiwanese, Okinawan’s, and Chinese and return them to their native lands.

When the 5th Marine Division received a new mission and departed from Japan, 2nd Marine Division assumed its area of responsibility and duties.  Afterward, the Marines would also take over the Army division’s duties as well.  

On 25 February 1946, BLT 3/8 was detached from the regiment and returned to the United States, where the battalion was deactivated.  In June, the 2nd Marine Division received orders to redeploy to the United States, turning over its duties to the 24th Infantry Division.  The 8th Marines, consisting now of only two battalions, sailed for Norfolk, Virginia, bringing to an end four and one-half years of combat deployment to the Far East.  Henceforth, the home of the 8th Marines would be Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

Post Script

Most other Japanese-held Islands were either uninhabited or had evacuated its civilian population.  This was not the case with Okinawa, which had a very dense indigenous civilian populace.  In planning for this operation, Army officials estimated as many as 300,000 civilians were on Okinawa.  A third of these people died during the Battle of Okinawa.

War changes men permanently, and quite often, terribly.  One American soldier admitted that there was a time when American troops tried to distinguish between the uniformed enemy and civilians, but after 82 days of bitter fighting, the troops reached the point where they didn’t care if their targets were soldiers or civilians.  If people were moving, those people were going to die.

Okinawa populaceThis sad fact wasn’t unique to the American military.  According to the Okinawan Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, Japanese soldiers demonstrated complete indifference to civilian safety and its soldiers even used civilian as human shields.  There were also instances where Japanese soldiers murdered their own citizens to steal their food.  A Japanese commander ordered the execution of 1,000 innocent civilians as a demonstration of what would happen to the Okinawan people if they were caught spying for the American.  For the most part, however, Okinawan civilians were killed by artillery barrages, by starvation, disease, and suicide.

It’s enough to make an old man cry …

Sources:

  • Santelli, J. S.  A Brief History of the 8th Marines.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, USMC, 1976
  • Rottman, G. L.  U. S. Marine Corps World War II Order of Battle, 1939-45.  Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002
  • Rottman, G. L.  Okinawa 1945: The Last Battle.  Osprey Publishing, 2002
  • Manchester, W.  Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War.  Boston: Little, Brown, 1960
  • Feifer, G.  The Battle of Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb.  Lyons Press, 2001
  • Hastings, M.  Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007
  • Sledge, E. B.  With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.  Oxford University Press, 1990
  • Potter, E. B. And Chester Nimitz.  Sea Power: A Naval History.  Prentice Hall, 1960.

Endnotes:

  1. And abolishment of the slave trade.
  2. Japan’s primary role in the First World War was to secure the sea lanes in the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans against the German Imperial Navy.  This arrangement enabled the Japanese to expand its sphere of influence in China and gain recognition as a “great” power in postwar geopolitics.  Seizing these islands cost the Japanese very little, and benefitted the Japanese a great deal.  Seizing German-held Islands was actually the brainchild of the Japanese themselves in 1914.
  3. Taiwan, Korea, Okinawa, Southern Sakhalin, Kuril Islands, and Port Arthur.
  4. South Pacific Mandate Islands and Shandong, China.
  5. International Council of Women; International Woman Suffrage Alliance.
  6. At the end of World War I, the United Kingdom was still a close ally of Japan but the Anglo-Japanese Alliance was getting ready to expire (1923) and, viewing Japanese activities in China, Korea, and its war with Russia, the British began to think that it would be better for their long-term interests to broker a close alliance with the United States, rather than with Japan.
  7. United States, United Kingdom, France, and Japan.  All parties agreed to maintain the status quo in the Pacific by respecting the Pacific territories of the other signatories, not seeking further territorial expansion, and mutual consultations in the event of a dispute.  The Four Power Treaty voided the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902.
  8. United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Japan.  All parties agreed to limit the construction of battleships, cruisers, and aircraft carriers.  The numbers of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines were not limited, but restrictions on tonnage were imposed.
  9. United States, United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the Republic of China.  This treaty affirmed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China as well as the “Open Door” Policy.  The Open Door Policy legitimized the notion that all nations should be permitted to trade with China on a equal footing and that China would not “close its door” to trade with signatory nations.  The Nine Power Treaty lacked any enforcement mechanism.  Japan blatantly violated this treaty when it invaded Manchuria in 1931.
  10. US Combat Ships: 11 Fleet Carriers; 6 Light Carriers, 22 Escort Carriers, 8 fast Battleships, 10 old Battleships, 2 large cruisers, 12 heavy cruisers, 13 light cruisers, 4 anti-aircraft light cruisers, 132 destroyers, 45 destroyer escorts.  US Amphibious Assault Ships: 84 Attack Transports, 29 Attack Cargo Ships, and numerous LCI, LSM, LST, and LSV ships.  US Auxiliaries: 52 submarines, 23 fast minesweepers, 69 minesweepers, 11 minelayers, 49 oilers.  Royal Navy Ships: 5 Fleet Carriers, 2 battleships, 7 light cruisers, 14 destroyers.
  11. Roy S. Geiger (1885-1947) joined the Marine Corps in 1907 and served as an infantry officer and naval aviator in his 40 years of active duty.  As a flag officer, he commanded the 1st Marine Air Wing, I Amphibious Corps, III Amphibious Corps, Tenth US Army, and Fleet Marine Force, Pacific.  He is the only Marine Corps officer to command a U. S. Army.  Geiger passed away from cancer while still serving on active duty in 1947, aged 62-years.  He was posthumously advanced to the rank of four-star general by the 80th Congress of the United States.  His personal decorations included the Navy Cross (2), Navy Distinguished Service Medal (3), and the Army Distinguished Service Medal.
  12. The Shuri Line was constructed to incorporate the fortification known as Shuri Castle.  The castle was constructed in 1429 and served as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom.  It was almost completely destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa.  On 31 October 2019, a fire destroyed the reconstructed main hall and adjacent buildings.  In all, six buildings were completely gutted.  The fire was attributed to an electrical fault.  It was the fifth time the castle had been destroyed.  The Japanese plan to rebuild it.