The bended knee is not a Marine Corps tradition
In 1944, the Japanese Empire was in agony. Its Pacific defensive perimeter had been shattered and was suddenly a very narrow band. The Co-Prosperity Sphere was little more than a memory. The motherland was under threat of invasion. Japanese industries were unable to replace the hundreds of airplanes destroyed by the Americans and their allies. Worse, there were no experienced pilots to train them and no facility suitable for educating a new generation of combat aviators. There were also limited quantities of fuel to propel aircraft. The Imperial Japanese fleet was sitting at anchor at death’s door. The Japanese high command was well aware of this, of course, but had no intention of surrendering to Allied forces. National pride would not allow it. There would be no withdrawals and no surrender. Japan’s new strategy was to cause so many casualties that American public opinion would demand that Roosevelt end the war on terms favorable to the Japanese.
The island of Okinawa lies 330 miles southwest of the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu. If an invasion of the Japanese home islands became necessary, Okinawa would be the place from which the allied attack would come. The Japanese high command knew this. In the White House, there was some doubt about whether a new wonder weapon under evaluation in the United States would work. If it didn’t work, then an invasion of Japan would be inevitable. General Douglas MacArthur told Roosevelt that he estimated a million more Americans would die in a land battle in Japan.
On 7 September 1944, anticipating the need for an invasion of the Japanese home islands, Marine Corps headquarters ordered the formation of the Sixth Marine Division (6thMarDiv) in the southern Solomon Islands. It was a typical Marine infantry division; three rifle regiments with three battalions each, and direct support battalions of engineers, artillery, field medical personnel, pioneer, motor transport, tanks, and headquarters and service battalions. The division organization included the newly reconstituted Fourth Marine Regiment, the 22nd Marines, and 29th Marines.
The division was “new” to the Marine Corps, but it was in no way a “green” division. The men who formed the division previously fought as part of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade on Guam and with the 2nd Marine Division on Saipan. Half of the force in three regiments were combat veterans. The division received its initial training as a combat organization on Guadalcanal. Its first stop on the way to Japan was the island called Okinawa.
The Allied force landed on Okinawa on 1 April 1945. The 6th Marine Division was but one element of the US Tenth Army, consisting of the XXIV Corps (four Army infantry divisions) and the III Amphibious Corps (three US Marine infantry divisions). The 6th Marine Division was one of those. To everyone’s astonishment, there was no opposition to the allied landing.
The Japanese had set their trap, and the Allies walked straight into it. Japan’s strategy called for a defense in depth of Okinawa —a fierce defense similar to that of Iwo Jima, but with significant differences. Commanding a Japanese force of between 96,000 and 130,000 troops [Note 1], General Mitsuru Ushijima would allow the Americans to land ashore unopposed. Once they had, a large Kamikaze force would destroy the allied fleet, thus cutting the allies off from their supply line and leaving the Americans with no opportunity for withdrawal. In this setting, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) would systematically annihilate the men stranded onshore. The construction of Japanese defensive positions had begun in the summer of 1944, which included the use of existing caves, constructing tunnels and underground command posts, establishing interlocking fields of fire, ranged artillery, and spider holes for snipers. Ushijima’s defensive line was along the island’s southern tip, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the East China Sea.
The architect of the Japanese strategy for Okinawa was Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, who served as Chief of Staff to General Ushijima. Yahara prohibited any of his defensive troops from adopting the popular philosophy of “self-sacrifice.” Such notions were self-defeating at a time when Japan needed more, not less, manpower. Instead, he intended that the IJA outlast the allied forces. He intended to accomplish this by establishing a defensive structure incorporating snipers, artillery, mortars, and well-constructed pillboxes. Should the Allied forces continue to press the Japanese defense, then the IJA would fight these Americans in close quarters combat, where they could not use artillery or mortars against the Japanese.
With great cunning and ingenuity, General Ushijima and Colonel Yahara organized their ground defense in the Shuri area of southern Okinawa. Japanese security included a series of concentric positions adapted to the contour of the terrain. Caves, emplacements, blockhouses, and pillboxes were built into the hills, connected by elaborate underground tunnels and skillfully camouflaged and concealed positions. Many Okinawan burial tombs were fortified by the Japanese, as well. They even reinforced the reverse slopes of hills. Artillery was placed in the caves and thoroughly integrated into General Ushijima’s defense plan.
The Japanese defensive line consisted of three perimeters. There was no greater example of Japanese ferocity in battle than their defense of Okinawa. The battle for hacksaw ridge began on 24 April; it did not end until 6 May, and then only after imposing massive casualties on the attacking allied forces —and at which time the Japanese fell back to a new position and waited once more for the Americans to attack it.
After going ashore on 1 April 1945, Army headquarters tasked the 6th Marine Division with clearing the island’s northern end. This operation cost the division 236 killed, 1,601 wounded, and seven missing in action. A month later, the division replaced the Army’s US 27th Infantry Division. By 6 May, the 6thMarDiv bivouacked near Chibana, Okinawa, less than ten miles from the battle area’s forward edge. In replacing the army division, the Marines would participate in the Battle for Naha, Okinawa’s capital city.
On 10 May, the 6th Marine Division launched its first attack against the Japanese main line of resistance (MLR) when the 22nd Marines crossed the River Asa in the early morning hours. A demolished bridge necessitated the construction of a footbridge. The enemy, being fully aware of the Marines’ activities, sent sappers to destroy the footbridge.
At 0330, the First and Third Battalions crossed the Asa; the first battalion waded across upstream on the regiment’s left, while the third battalion used the partially destroyed footbridge. At first, Japanese resistance was light, but the opposition became furious with greater awareness of the Marine advance. Despite heavy artillery and mortar fires, the Marines advanced to the first area of ridges. By nightfall, the 22nd Marines had established a bridgehead 1,400 yards wide and about 400 yards deep—but it was a day of heavy casualties.
On 11 May, the regimental commander committed his reserve component, 2/22, to cover the left flank of 1/22, fighting to reduce an enemy stronghold on a formidable coral hill southeast of Asa village. When flanking action failed to secure the hill, the troops withdrew to allow naval gunfire to access the target area [Note 2]. Meanwhile, combat engineers labored under enemy fire to construct a bailey bridge [Note 3] across the River Asa. When completed, Marine tanks rushed across to support the rifle companies. Then, with the added power of tanks, the 1/22 renewed its attack and was successful. On the right, 3/22 fought for three hours before capturing the precipitous cliff area in its zone of action.
On 12 May, the 22nd Marines, with all three battalions online, continued to advance against Japanese positions and did so despite increasing enemy resistance. The regiment was receiving fire from the front, and its left flank, an enemy entrenchment on Wana Ridge; the Shuri Heights permitted the observation of troop movements, allowing the Japanese to bring fire to bear at a moment’s notice. With the Division’s left flank in peril, the Division Commander [Note 4] ordered 3/29 into the line. He would have to commit another regiment to maintain the Division’s momentum.
2/22, and 3/29 continued the assault on 13 May. All that they were able to achieve, however, is about 300 yards. Enemy resistance was vicious. In the late afternoon, 1/29 and 2/29 moved up behind 3/29 and prepared to attack the morning of 14 May.
At about this time, the Commanding General discovered the enemy’s western anchor to their main line of resistance. He also learned that there were three terrain features, heavily fortified and manned, with mutually supporting fires, that formed this anchor. Heavily guarded corridors led into each terrain feature, and no ground offered covered avenues of approach. Before the Division could reach Naha, it would be necessary to pass over these features; features so small that they did not even show up on standard military maps. Cartographers simply listed hill locations as Target Area 7672G. They were later named Horseshoe Ridge, Sugar Loaf Hill, and Half-Moon Hill. Of these, Sugar Loaf Hill was the highest in elevation.
The Japanese called it Suribachi Oka [Note 5]. Under normal conditions, a single Marine rifle company would have the task of seizing this hill, but there was nothing “normal” about the Battle for Okinawa. The Marines of the 6thMarDiv would struggle with this hill for ten excruciating days. Ownership changed eleven times. The fighting took place under the worst of all possible conditions: unabated driving rain and rivers of mud.
The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill is the story of a Japanese soldiery determined to keep it, and American Marines, who were more determined to take it.
By this time, the 22nd Marines’ combat efficiency was critical. The regiment had lost over 800 Marines killed or wounded since crossing the River Asa. The capital city of Naha lay open to the 22nd Marines, but the regiment could not advance without taking Sugar Loaf Hill and its two sisters. The problem was that the Sugar Loaf Hill defensive area formed a triangle and was mutually supporting. Troops attacking any one of these three hills received fire from the other two. There was no room for extended maneuver. On the right of the 6thMarDiv was the sea; on the left, the 1stMarDiv, which offered no protection or cover.
Late in the afternoon of 14 May 2/22 attempted a tank-infantry assault, and despite heavy enemy fire that pushed the Marine tanks back, a few Marines from Gulf Company succeeded in reaching the top of Sugar Loaf. The attack caught the Japanese by surprise.
Ordered to hold his position in static defense for the night of 14-15 May 1945, Major Henry A. Courtney, Jr., while serving as the Executive Officer, 2/22, commanded the Marines during a Japanese counterattack. Courtney weighed the effect of a hostile night-time counterattack against the tactical value of an immediate Marine assault and resolved to initiate that assault.
With permission to continue his advance and seize the hill’s forward slope, Courtney explained the situation to his few remaining Marines and declared his intention of moving forward. Promptly moving toward the enemy, Courtney boldly blasted nearby cave positions and neutralized the enemy as he advanced. Inspired by his courage, every Marine took up their arms and followed Courtney without hesitation. Together, these intrepid Marines braved a terrific concentration of Japanese gunfire and skirted the hill on the right, reaching the reverse slope. Temporarily halting his advance, Major Courtney sent guides to the rear for more ammunition and reinforcement. Twenty-six Marines and a Landing Vehicle Track (LVT) soon joined Courtney and his remaining men, the LVT bringing forward several cases of hand grenades. Courtney then stormed the crest of the hill for the purpose of crushing any possible Japanese counterattack before it could gain momentum. Courtney pushed ahead with unrelenting aggressiveness, hurling grenades into cave openings with devastating effect.
Upon reaching the crest of the hill, Major Courtney observed a large number of Japanese forming up for a counterassault less than 100 yards away. He instantly attacked these Japanese and waged a furious battle, killing many of the enemy and forcing the remainder to take cover in surrounding caves. Determined to hold, he ordered his men to dig in and, with cool disregard of enemy mortar fire, rallied his weary troops. With the Marines now “set in,” Courtney tirelessly aided his wounded Marines and assigned his men to more advantageous positions. Although instantly killed while moving among his men, Major Courtney, by his astute military acumen, indomitable spirit, and leadership, contributed to the campaign’s overall success against the Sugar Loaf Defensive line.
Major Courtney received a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor for this action. Camp Courtney, Okinawa, the present location of the 3rd Marine Division and III MEF Headquarters was named in his honor.
The Marine success was short-lived, however. During the night, the Japanese organized a Battalion-sized counterattack that overwhelmed the remnants of Gulf Company and drove 2/22 back to the north and into the area controlled by the 29th Marines. Major Courtney’s assault initiated the most bitter fighting yet seen by the 22nd Marines. 1/29 and 3/29 experienced the same painful refusal to give way to the American Marines.
In the corridor leading to the Half-Moon, 3/29 reduced a pocket of Japanese resistance, but the fight was so intense that it prevented further advance. On the afternoon of 15 May 3/22 moved up to relieve 2/22, which had lost over 400 men since 12 May. 1/22 assaulted along the ridge overlooking Asato but could advance no further due to heavy fire from Horseshoe and Sugar Loaf. Japanese mortars and artillery rained down on the Marines throughout the night of 15-16 May. It was also raining cats and dogs. Among these Marines, there was no rest for the weary.
Early the next morning, the 6thMarDiv, with its 22nd and 29th regiments in the assault, again attacked to seize Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills. Enemy fire was withering, and it was apparent that the Japanese were rushing reinforcements to bolster the Sugar Loaf Hill system. Working its way into position on the regimental left, 3/22 prepared to assault Sugar Loaf Hill. Behind the battalion, tanks and artillery lobbed round after round into Sugar Loaf Hill. On the signal to go, 3/22 rapidly advanced up the pitted slope in the face of the enemy’s entire arsenal of weapons. Several times, the battalion reached the top of the hill and engaged the Japanese in hand to hand fighting but were driven back. With devastating casualties, 3/22 withdraw.
The Division commander hoped that the 29th Marines might seize Half-Moon Hill. Supported by tanks, these Marines moved forward to the edge of the ridge by late afternoon, but before they could organize defensive positions, the Japanese poured in so much fire from Shuri, Sugar Loaf, and their reverse slope positions of the Half-Moon Hill that the troops had to withdraw under cover of smoke. Casualties were extremely heavy. 16 May was the bitterest day for the Marines of the 6thMarDiv; two regiments had fought bitterly contested battles without achieving their objectives. The 22nd Marines had lost so many men that it was nearing combat ineffectiveness. General Shepherd shifted the attacking force’s burden to the 29th Marines; he ordered the 22nd Marines to hold their positions.
Before the 29th Marines’ attack, Japanese positions in the Sugar Loaf defenses received a massive pounding from 16-inch naval artillery, 8-inch howitzers, and 1,000 aerial bombs. Then, with tanks in close support, 1/29 and 3/29 edged their way to the northern edge of Half-Moon Hill. 3/29 seized a slim foothold on the hill’s northwestern border, but Japanese fire made their position untenable, and the battalion withdrew. Meanwhile, Echo Company 2/29 maneuvered for a flanking attack on the east side of Sugar Loaf. Despite heavy mortar fire and Japanese grenades, the company drove to the top of the hill three times. Each time, the Japanese counterattack drove them off the hill. Finally, around 1830, the company made a fourth assault. This time the Marines defeated the Japanese counterattack, but there were so few men left alive that the company didn’t have enough manpower to defend it. Echo Company pulled back to better ground for the night.
At dusk, Marines observed the Japanese rushing in troops to reinforce the hill. Almost immediately, twelve battalions of American artillery took the Japanese under fire and inflicted so many losses that they discontinued the effort. While it was true that Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon hills remained in Japanese hands, the 6thMarDiv had made substantial but unrealized gains at the time. The Japanese had suffered so many losses that Ushijima was unable to sustain his stalwart defense. As the barrage was going on, the 29th Marines moved into position for an assault on the next morning.
At 0830 on 18 May 1/29 and 3/29 again, assaulted Japanese positions on Half-Moon Hill. Once the Marines established a foothold, the battle turned into a slugfest. With the Japanese thus occupied, 2/29 tried to surround Sugar Loaf Hill. Enemy mines, 47-mm fire, and artillery disabled six Marine tanks and drove the battalion back. 2/29 then launched a combined arms attack with infantry and tanks in a coordinated maneuver. One tank managed to edge its way around the hill’s west side and commenced firing into the enemy’s reverse slope positions. As the Japanese moved to counter this threat, another tank worked its way around to the east side of the hill and emptied its machine gun into the backs of the Sugar Loaf defenders. It was pure pandemonium as troops swarmed over the hill and engaged in brutal fighting. After an hour, the Marines held the hill. Marines from Fox Company, 2/29 assaulted Horseshoe Ridge and destroyed enemy mortar positions by fire and close combat.
During the night, Japanese troops counterattacked the Company F position, driving the Marines back to Sugar Loaf. Marine attempts to regain the hill were unsuccessful. On the left flank, 1/29 and 3/29 held their positions at the base of the Half-Moon Hill and did so despite intense enemy fire.
To exploit the Division’s gains, General Shepherd brought in the 4th Marines to replace the 29th on 19 May. On the right of the Division’s front, the 22nd Marines remained in their positions but were in no condition to continue the attack. After relieving the 29th Marines, the 4th Marines prepared to attack to seize the upper reaches of the Asato River. During the night, the Japanese made full use of their artillery to pound the Marine positions, but American casualties were light.
The 4th Marines launched their assault on the morning of 20 May and managed to seize a part of Horseshoe Ridge. As the fighting raged, the Japanese positions on Shuri Hill massed their weapons and hit the 4th Marines’ flank with heavy fire. At 2130, following a massive mortar barrage, the Japanese counterattacked Sugar Loaf. The Japanese focused on 3/4 as its primary objective —their assault lasting until after midnight. The use of naval illumination allowed artillery spotters to target the Japanese; six battalions of American artillery defeated the counterattack, but before driving the Japanese back, the 4th Marines committed part of its regimental reserve. Nearly 300 Japanese died, with only one Marine killed and 19 wounded.
Marines made slight gains the next day within the interior of Horseshoe Ridge, but they were unable to exploit their foothold on Half-Moon Hill. Until the Shuri Line fell, it would be impossible to seize the Half-Moon in its entirety. On 22 May, the 4th Marines advanced slowly to the Asato. General Shepherd was ready to exploit his gains by employing a holding attack [Note 6] on the left of the Division’s front. After a reconnaissance, the 4th Marines moved two battalions across the river in the afternoon of 23 May. What the Marines found was determined enemy resistance. The situation facing the 4th Marines was challenging but not precarious. All of its critical supplies had to be hand-carried across the river. Massive amounts of rain made the terrain water-logged; the mud was above ankle-deep, and stretcher-bearers moved wounded Marines to the rear with much difficulty. Marine vehicles had an impossible time navigating through the morass of mud and slime.
The 4th Marines continued their attack on 25 May, seizing most of the north-south ridge west of Machishi. A company-sized attack by the Japanese kept 3/4 busy for most of the night, but the 4th regiment continued its advance into the eastern outskirts of Naha City. The Division Reconnaissance Company (ReconCo) crossed the Asato near its mouth and penetrated Naha west of the north-south canal. Enemy Resistance was light, with only a few snipers challenging the Marine advance. The next morning, with rain falling in buckets, the 4th Marines confined its efforts to aggressive patrolling, and the ReconCo moved further into Naha.
On 26 May, the Marines observed signs of an enemy withdrawal. Shepherd ordered all units to commence patrolling so that he could determine the extent of the enemy’s departure from the Shuri Line. 2/22 passed through the ReconCo and pushed further into Naha. By this time, the city was almost a total wreck; only a few buildings remained standing, and these only barely. The 4th regiment’s patrols moved 300 yards forward and found only weak opposition.
On 27 May, General Shepherd reoriented his assault by ordering the 22nd Marines to complete Naha’s capture and prepare to advance through the hills that overlooked the Kokuba River. The 29th Marines relieved the 4th Marines and prepared to continue the attack southeast toward the Shichina hills. The regiment completed its mission on 28 May. Initially, the 29th Marines were to carry out a holding attack while supporting the 22nd Marines by fire. On 29 May, the 22nd Marines crossed the north-south canal and commenced to fight through the low hills leading to Shichina, which ran parallel to the Kokuba River. Initially, the assault progressed rapidly but slowed considerably with increasing enemy resistance, a rearguard force stationed in the hills. Japanese resistance continued through 1 June. From its position on the Kokuba River, Shepherd could observe the Naha-Yonabaru Cross-Island highway; across the river, he could see the materials abandoned by the withdrawing Japanese.
The Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest campaign of the Pacific Theater during World War II. In total, US and Allied forces gave up 14,009 dead, with 55,162 wounded in action [Note 7]. An allied estimate of Japanese killed in action was between 77,166 to 110,000. The 6th Marine Division gave up 1,700 killed and nearly 8,000 injured from early May to 21 June 1945, making the Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill the island’s bloodiest battle. Marine gallantry and intrepidity during this horrific battle earned the division the Presidential Unit Citation [Note 8], which reads as follows:
For extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces during the assault and capture of Okinawa, April 1 to June 21, 1945. Seizing Yontan Airfield in its initial operation, the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced, smashed through organized resistance to capture Ishikawa Isthmus, the town of Nago, and heavily fortified Motobu Peninsula in 13 days. Later committed to the southern front, units of the Division withstood overwhelming artillery and mortar barrages, repulsed furious counterattacks, and staunchly pushed over the rocky terrain to reduce almost impregnable defenses and capture Sugar Loaf Hill. Turning southeast, they took the capital city of Naha and executed surprise shore-to-shore landings on Oroku Peninsula, securing the area with its prized Naha Airfield and Harbor after nine days of fierce fighting. Reentering the lines in the south, SIXTH Division Marines sought out enemy forces entrenched in a series of rocky ridges extending to the southern tip of the island, advancing relentlessly and rendering decisive support until the last remnants of enemy opposition were exterminated and the island secured. By their valor and tenacity, the officers and men of the SIXTH Marine Division, Reinforced contributed materially to the conquest of Okinawa, and their gallantry in overcoming a fanatic enemy in the face of extraordinary danger and difficulty adds new luster to Marine Corps history and the traditions of the United States Naval Service.
- Astor, G. Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II. Dell Books, 1996.
- Frank, R. B. Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. Random House, 1999.
- Hastings, M. Retribution—the Battle for Japan, 1944-45. Knopf Books, 2007.
- Nichols, C. S., and Henry I. Shaw. Okinawa: Victory in the Pacific. Battery Press, 1989.
- Stockman, J. R. The Sixth Marine Division. Historical Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1959
 Ushijima was in dire need for ground troops. The HQ IJA ordered the 9th Infantry Division to Formosa (Taiwan), which forced Ushijima to mobilize the entire civilian population on the Island to augment his 32nd Army.
 Naval gunfire was provided by the USS Indianapolis.
 A portable, prefabricated truss bridge developed by the British for use during World War II. Components of the bridge are small and light enough to be carried in trucks and lifted in place without the use of a crane.
 Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., a future Commandant of the Marine Corps.
 This Japanese word describes a bowl or kitchen implement whose purpose was to grind to a pulp whatever was placed inside it. A mountain or elevated terrain referred to as Suribachi would resemble a bowl turned upside down.
 A holding attack is one designed to hold the enemy in his position, to deceive him as to where the main attack is being made and prevent him from reinforcing his positions. A holding attack may also force the enemy to prematurely commit his reserve force at an unwise location.
 The numbers of US and allied servicemen killed and wounded are estimates and vary among those who cite the statistic. These numbers also include US and allied navy casualties that resulted from massive Kamikaze attacks off the coast of Okinawa.
 The Presidential Unit Citation recognizes US and foreign/allied units for extraordinary heroism in actions against an armed enemy after 7 December 1941. To qualify, the unit cited must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission, under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions, so as to set it apart from and above all other units participating in the same campaign. The collective degree of valor against an armed enemy by the unit nominated is the same criteria that would justify an individual award of the Navy Cross medal.