Okinawa Anniversary – Never Forget

Posted on Thursday, April 14, 2022
by AMAC, Robert B. Charles

American history is filled with forgotten, solemn events that changed everything.  We breeze along, checking iPhones for news, mostly irrelevant, calculated to light up neurons, worry or entertain, all totally forgettable.  Most of it is junk.  Not junk is history.  One epic anniversary is here.

In that year, Easter was approaching, as now. Across the United States, a stout, courageous, worried population waited for news.  Snow was receding, snowdrops popping, hope lay to the east, Far East.

Millions of young American boys – and they were boys, 16 to 20 mostly, were dragging.  They were bone-tired, had already been through hell and back, and now looked hell in the face again.  April 1945.

Already, these weary boys had fought and won horrific battles. Just read their gut-wrenching memoirs, US Marines like EB Sledge and Robert Leckie, dozens of others.  They had prevailed against the odds, against a ruthless enemy, and at a terrible cost in places like Guadalcanal, Leyte, Midway, and Iwo Jima.

They faced 100,000 enemies, dug in and well-prepared for their assault on Okinawa. How many Americans can find it on a map today?  Every kid then knew it – and how ugly the fight would be. 

Three hundred and fifty miles south of Japan, a distance from New York City to Virginia, Okinawa was the last major Japanese outpost to be conquered before an all-out assault on Japan’s homeland.

As one WWII veteran from my little Maine town – himself on Okinawa in 1945 – relayed, “the Japanese exacted a terrible human cost …”  These boys knew what awaited – but they knew the stakes, too.  To win the war, America had to beat Japan and take the big island. To do that, they needed to win Okinawa.

No battle was more costly to both sides.  Some 1,465 Japanese kamikaze pilots sank 29 American ships, damaged 120, killed 3000 sailors, and wounded 6000.

Today, young kids ski and hike mountains called “Sugarloaf,” from Maine to Maryland and Michigan, but for Americans in 1945, Sugarloaf was a hill 300 yards long, Okinawa – that took 2,662 young boys’ lives.  

By the time American boys had taken Okinawa, numbers were – by today’s standards – astronomical. We suffered 65,000 casualties, 14,000 dead – 7 times the number America lost to hostile action in Afghanistan during 20 years of fighting.  We lost those 14,000 American boys in less than 90 days.

Japan lost roughly 100,000 soldiers, many committing suicide when the tide turned, plus another 100,000 civilians.  Such numbers boggle the modern mind, but they are all real. 

Were it not for that battle and the commitment of those young men, the war would not have turned, permitting the past 80 years without a world war, seeding of a global system – now challenged again – that has kept civil norms at the forefront of civilized nations, led by the Allied nations that prevailed in WWII.

But this anniversary and victory on Okinawa 77 years ago meant more than an opening for the final invasion of Japan’s homeland. It was a sobering lesson – in carnage.  The Japanese were willing to fight, to the last man, to the last moment, to the death in defense of Okinawa and the homeland.

That changed the American calculus.  In mid-1945, a flotilla of hundreds of Allied ships left to invade Japan. The war room experts estimated that this battle would make Okinawa pale by comparison. As many as a million deaths were expected.

On April 12, 1945 – this week 77 years ago – FDR died.  An untested, plain-talking, poker-playing mid-Westerner named Harry Truman suddenly became President of the United States. 

Briefed on battlefield losses, past and anticipated, he took a decision that would cost at least 130,000 deaths, but arguably saved millions of Japanese and Allied lives; he dropped two atomic bombs. That was summer 1945, the war was over in days.

As we look at Okinawa, the cost of liberty becomes agonizingly clear – yet is so easily and often forgotten.  Some generations bear that cost in high numbers; our grandparents and great-grandparents bore that cost, and for some among us still, a few parents.

Today, of 16 million onetime WWII veterans, we have a mere 240,000 still among us.  In their 90s or more, they die at a rate of 230 a day.

In perhaps three years, we will stand alone on the great hills of this free nation, free by their labors and courage, able only to thank them again in prayer and memory, which we will, of course. 

But today, we can – on this anniversary of Okinawa – take stock of what they did, listen if they speak, thank them for defending liberties we count a birthright.

That American is America, Americans truly free, is not an accident. What it means is that when the chips are down, the onus is on us.  American history is filled with forgotten, solemn events. We honor those who were part of those events, by remembering – never forgetting, as they never forgot us.