In 1865 the United States Navy mustered 700 ships (many of them iron clad and steam powered), mounting 5,000 cannon (many of those rifled, shell guns of the latest design), crewed by 6,700 officers and 51,000 men.  In just five years 92.6 per cent of the fleet had been sold, scrapped or laid up.  Only 52 ships mounting 500 guns remained in active commission.  These, with a few notable exceptions, were crewed largely by the dregs of the waterfront for, as promotion and advancement opportunities stagnated, officers and enlisted personnel left the service in droves taking with them hard won battle experience and years of training.  In this environment the eighteen knot USS Wampanoag[i], first warship to employ super heated steam, was scrapped as congress mandated a return to sail in order to save money on coal.  A post war, isolationist, defensive mentality exacerbated the rush to disarm.  Costal fortifications were deemed less provocative and considerably less expensive than a credible blue water navy.

As the United States bound its wounds and gradually recovered from reconstruction the nation began to look outward again.  Of the forty-eight contiguous states by 1896 all but the Indian Territories had been tamed and entered the Union.  Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma followed shortly after the turn of the century.  Having settled the North American continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific people began to consider transcontinental acquisitions as a natural extension or continuation of “Manifest Destiny.”[ii]  In addition to the social and moral factors at work, a resurgent and increasingly industrialized America faced the prospect of saturated domestic markets further fueling the desire for overseas expansion. [iii]  A renewed interest in foreign trade required a strong Navy to compete with Britain, France and Germany who were building empires in Africa, India and Asia through colonies and spheres of influence.  Following the lean years of the 1870’s, the government was naturally interested in stimulating the economy.  The burgeoning steel and ship building industries also looked with favor on a revitalized Navy for obvious reasons.  In this atmosphere policy makers began to question the traditional commerce raiding strategy of the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War.  Increasingly they called for a fleet of capital ships, which could break any attempted blockade, prevent invasion and expand and protect American interests abroad.  Modern warships required large capital investment at home and bases overseas to take on coal, replenish provisions and make repairs.  Thus the requirements for a rejuvenated navy dovetailed neatly with an expanding economy, territorial acquisition and popular opinion.

In November 1884 as the forces of change grew in the United States a reluctant sailor perused the elegant library of the English Club in Lima, Peru.  Invited to give a series of lectures at the recently established Naval War College he searched the polished shelves seeking inspiration.  Taking up a leather bound copy of Mommsen’s The History of Rome the middle aged officer settled into an overstuffed chair and began to study Hannibal’s invasion of Rome during the Second Punic War.  In that moment was born the most influential book on naval strategy and foreign policy of his era.  In time this event would transform his heretofore undistinguished career and alter world events.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

It is ironic that one of the worst seamen to ever command a ship underway should become one of the most influential naval theorists in maritime history.  In 1861 Mahan drove the Pocahontas into the anchored Seminole.  In 1874 Mahan scored a humiliating hat trick.  While commanding Wasp he struck a barge at anchor, damaged an Argentinean warship during a storm off Buenos Aires and wedged the hapless Wasp into a dry dock caisson where it remained stuck fast for ten days much to the amusement of the citizens of Montevideo and his chagrin.  On a calm sea in broad daylight in 1883 while commanding the Wachusett he collided with a bark under sail.  His most embarrassing moment however came in 1893 when he hit the Naval Academy Training Ship Bancroft with the Chicago at the New York Naval Shipyard in Brooklyn.  In addition to his notable achievements as a historian, Mahan holds the dubious distinction of grounding or colliding every ship he ever commanded except the Iroquois.  This accident-prone Captain alternated his time at sea with tours at the recently established Naval War College where he was noted for his absolutely stultifying lectures.

Unable to bear the stress of command at sea again Mahan retired in 1896 in order to follow his true calling, that of historian and author.  His twenty-one books, 137 articles and 107 letters to the editor had a profound influence not only in the United States but also throughout the world.  His most important work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, published in 1890, grew out of a series of lectures given at the Naval War College.  This book received worldwide attention.  Hailed in England he dined with the Queen.  Cambridge and Oxford conferred honorary degrees.  Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered copies of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History placed onboard every ship of the Kaiserliche Marine and in every school, library and government office.  Japan followed suit issuing translations to all army and navy officers, political leaders and schools.

Like many of his age Mahan believed that every element of human enterprise, be it science, history, social behavior or war, was governed by natural, universal laws ordained by God.  With the proper application of reason these laws could be deduced and applied to ones benefit.  Mahan sought to do for war at sea what Jomini and Clausewitz had done for land warfare.  He argued that geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, number of population, national character and character of government formed the basis of sea power and formulated strategic and tactical principles for the application of sea power based on his study of history.  In his work he called for concentration of force at critical points and preached the ideal of decisive victory.  In Mahan’s mind battleships were the instrument of decisive victory and thus the measure of national power and international prestige.

In 1881 the United States Navy ranked 12th in the world behind Chile, China and Denmark.  When a wealthy socialite lamented America’s lack of antiquities the satirist Oscar Wilde remarked, “No ruins!  You have your Navy!”  Mahan’s writings came at an opportune moment, lending the weight of history and science to popular sentiment for a revitalized navy.  As Mahan grew in status as a scholar he gained influence with powerful men such as Theodore Roosevelt.  As a direct result of his work, the United States embarked upon a massive shipbuilding program devoting as much as 20.7% of the Federal budget to the Navy (see Table One.)

Table One:  Comparison of Naval Expenditures to Total Federal Expenditures 1890-1914 and 2005 DOD / DON Budgets

From Sea Power, Page 187

Fiscal Year Total Federal Expenditures Naval


Per Cent of Total
1890 318,040,711 22,006,206 6.9
1900 520,860,847 55,953,078 10.7
1905 567,278,914 117,550,308 20.7
1909 693,743,885 115,546,011 16.7
1914 735,081,431 139,682,186 19.0
2005 2,400,000,000,000 402,000,000,000 16.75  –  DOD
2005 2,400,000,000,000 120,000,000,000 5.0  –  DON


From 1895 to 1918 the United States commissioned no less than forty-three battleships (see Table Two) in addition to cruisers, torpedo boat destroyers and other craft.


Table Two:  Shipbuilding Program 1895-1918

Year Name Year Name
Comm. Comm.
1895 Maine 1907 Kansas
1895 Texas 1907 Minnesota
1895 Indiana 1908 Mississippi
1896 Massachusetts 1908 Idaho
1896 Oregon 1908 New Hampshire
1897 Iowa 1910 South Carolina
1900 Kearsage 1910 Michigan
1900 Kentucky 1910 Delaware
1900 Alabama 1910 North Dakota
1901 Illinois 1911 Florida
1901 Wisconsin 1911 Utah
1902 Maine 1912 Wyoming
1903 Missouri 1912 Arkansas
1904 Ohio 1914 New York
1906 Virginia 1914 Texas
1906 Georgia 1916 Nevada
1906 New Jersey 1916 Oklahoma
1906 Rhode Island 1916 Pennsylvania
1906 Connecticut 1916 Arizona
1906 Louisiana 1917 Mississippi
1907 Nebraska 1918 New Mexico
1907 Vermont


Although his tactical observations were on a par with his seamanship and he has been blamed for precipitating the naval race between England and Germany Mahan’s fundamental principles remain sound:

Naval power is national power

Sea power and world involvement are crucial to national security


In its time, Mahan’s writings on maritime strategy placed the Navy front and center on the national stage.  As a result the United States Navy was able to transcend its commerce raiding traditions and become the premier instrument of national policy.  In like manner Mahan’s writings also found fertile ground in Germany and Japan precipitating the Naval Arms race between Great Britain and Germany and the impetus for Japan’s investment in her Imperial Navy.  Both would contribute significantly to the outbreak of two world wars.  Never underestimate the power of the written word.


Bradford, James C.  Quarterdeck and Bridge.  Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press, 1997

Calore, Paul.  Naval Campaigns of the Civil War.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002

Clausewitz, Carl von.  On War.  New Jersey:  Princeton University Press, 1976

Creveld, Martin Van.  Technology and War.  New York:  The Free Press, 1989

Jomini, Baron Antoine Henri de.  The Art of War.  London, UK:  Greenhill Books, 1992 – reprint first published 1838

Keegan, John.  The Price of Admiralty.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1988

Luraghi, Raimondo.  A History of the Confederate Navy.  Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press, 1996

Mahan, Alfred Thayer.  The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.  Boston, MA:  Little, Brown & Company, 1890

Musicant, Ivan.  Divided Waters.  Edison, NJ:  Castle Books, 2000

Porter, Admiral David D.  The Naval History of the Civil War.  Secaucus, NY:  Castle Books, 1984

Potter, E. B.  Sea Power, A Naval History.  Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press, 1981

Scharf, J. Thomas.  History of the Confederate Navy.  Avenel, NJ:  Gramercy Books, 1996

Schneller, Robert J. Jr.  Farragut:  America’s First Admiral.  Washington, DC:  Brassey’s Inc., 2002

Simson, Jay W.  Naval Strategies of the Civil War.  Nashville, TN:  Cumberland House Publishing Inc., 2001

Stern, Philip Van Dorn.  The Confederate Navy.  Garden City, NJ:  Da Capo Press, 1992

Sweetman, Jack.  The Great Admirals.  Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press, 1997

Symonds, Craig L.  Confederate Admiral.  Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press, 1999

Taylor, John M.  Semmes: Rebel Raider.  Washington, DC:  Brassey’s, 2004

Tucker, Spencer C.  A Short History of the Civil War at Sea.  Wilmington, DE:  Scholarly Resources, Inc., 2002

Turner, Maxine.  Navy Gray.  Tuscaloosa, AL:  University of Alabama Press, 1999

[i] Quite advanced for their time the Wampanoag class had sleek clipper-ship hulls designed by Donald McKay and powerful engines provided by Benjamin Franklin Isherwood.  Armed with ten nine-inch smoothbore cannon and three sixty pounder rifled guns these ships were 3-4 knots faster than any vessel in the British fleet. Their existence greatly influenced England’s agreement to arbitration of America’s damage claims regarding the commerce raider CSS Alabama.

[ii] The term “Manifest Destiny” has a long and fascinating history.  Having conquered Wales, Ireland and Scotland, England’s expansionist impulses found outlet in the New World in the form of the thirteen colonies.  Born of colonization and given its vast, open frontier continued expansion came naturally to colonial America.  The roots of Manifest Destiny in the United States can be traced to John Winthrop’s “City upon a Hill” sermon given in 1630.  He was echoed by Thomas Paine, who wrote in Common Sense in 1776, “We have it in our power to begin the world again.”  To this concept in 1787 James Madison added, “This form of government in order to effect its purposes, must operate not within a small but an extensive sphere.”  Thomas Jefferson took concrete action of this idea with the Louisiana Purchase.  First termed, “Continentalism” John Quincy Adams, instrumental in obtaining Florida from Spain and formulation of the Monroe Doctrine, wrote to his father in 1811, “The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to peopled by one nation. . .  I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union.”  In 1843 Andrew Jackson described the process as “extending the area of freedom.”  In 1845 New York journalist John L. O’Sullivan gave nave to America’s self-imposed mission in the world when he wrote of, “our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”  The appellation struck a resonant chord with congress and the general public.  No less a luminary than Herman Melville took up the call for continental and maritime expansion, writing in 1850, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time:  we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”  In 1863 Abraham Lincoln described the United States as, “the last, best hope of Earth.”  This romantic notion took a more commercial form at the turn of the century when Theodore Roosevelt wrote that it was “of the utmost importance” that the United States secure “the commanding position in the international business world…especially at a time when foreign markets are essential.”  Even the noted progressive idealist Woodrow Wilson acknowledged, “If America is not to have free enterprise, then she can have freedom of no sort whatever…We need foreign markets.”  Only later did he speak of making the world “safe for Democracy.”  In one form or another, the concept of Manifest Destiny continues to influence American foreign policy to this day.

[iii] During the period under consideration the American economy grew fourfold – from $9.1 billion (GNP 1869-1873) to $37.1 billion (GNP 1897-1901).


Nomonhan and Okinawa: The First and Final Battles of the Pacific War



            All man’s activities impact not only the present but also the future[i], none more so than war.  As Winston Churchill remarked, “Great battles change the entire course of events, create new standards of values, new moods, in armies and in nations.”  War sends major and minor shock waves through time affecting distant generations in ways unimaginable in the present.  These influences may be as trivial as shorter hemlines to conserve fabric or steel pennies in place of copper or as significant as an ‘Iron Curtain’ separating former allies and heralding a fifty-year Cold War.  On a grand scale, empires may rise or fall with a single battle.  More immediately, wars dramatically impact families, continuing some lines, brutally ending others.  As Herodotus observed, “In war, fathers bury sons rather than sons fathers.”

This paper examines the confrontations at Nomonhan and Okinawa, the first and final battles of the Pacific War, appraising not only the immediate consequences of these encounters but also their long-term effects.


            Background.  An editorial in the 20 July 1939 New York Times described the conflict between the Soviet Union and Japan on the border of Outer Mongolia and the puppet state of Manchukuo as “A strange war raging in a thoroughly out-of-the-way corner of the world where it cannot attract attention.”  Indeed, geography, the compulsive secrecy second nature to both combatants and the subsequent outbreak of World War II in Europe combined to overshadow this little known but nonetheless critical, battle.  Boasting the most extensive use of tanks and aircraft since World War I, Nomonhan or Khalkin Gol, as it was called by the Soviets, impacted World War II in areas far beyond the immediate scope of the battlefield.

Nomonhan was the culmination of nearly fifty years of Russo – Japanese rivalry in the Far East.  The Russo – Japanese War of 1905 followed Japan’s occupation of Korea.  Japan then antagonized the new Soviet state when she intervened in Siberia during the Russian Civil War.  Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, renamed Manchukuo, in 1931 created a 3000-mile border between two suspicious, hostile, diametrically opposed ideologies.  The Changkufeng / Lake Khasan incident of 1938 was but a dress rehearsal for further hostilities.  Consequently, what began as a minor clash between Soviet sponsored Mongolian cavalry and Japanese supported Manchukuoan cavalry on the Halha River rapidly escalated into a major campaign with far reaching consequences.

Description.  In May 1939 Soviet units crossing the Halha River into disputed territory were driven back by Japanese forces but immediately returned the following day in greater strength.  Reacting to this affront the Kwantung Army dispatched the Yamagata Detachment with orders to drive the invaders out and seal the border.  In the ensuing battle one regiment was encircled and destroyed, the remaining troops routed and driven from the field.  Acting against direct orders from Tokyo the Kwantung Army unilaterally decided to retaliate sending the 23rd Infantry Division augmented by two tank regiments plus significant artillery and air support to settle the issue.

Phase two of the offensive began in early July with the 23rd Division crossing the upper reaches of the Halha while mechanized elements struck directly at Soviet forces on the right bank of the river.  After making some initial gains the Japanese attack stalled.  When the Soviets counterattacked, the Japanese found their lightly armored and under gunned tanks hopelessly outclassed by Soviet BT models.  The Japanese rushed additional infantry, armor, aircraft and heavy artillery to the front, renewing the offensive in late July.  Stopped cold, the Japanese now dug in and waited.

The Soviets also pushed strong reinforcements, many of them veterans of the Spanish Civil War, to the region and their logistics system proved remarkably adept considering the distances involved.  On 20 August they launched a two pronged mass attack.  In a pattern that would become all too familiar to the Wehrmacht, mechanized units, heavily supported by artillery and aircraft, spearheaded the assault.  Japanese lines crumbled.  Threatened with encirclement, her shattered forces fell back.  Only the German invasion of Poland prevented their complete destruction and further Soviet exploitation.  Recognizing Hitler as the greater danger and anxious to avoid a two front conflict the Soviets offered a cease-fire in mid September, which the battered Japanese eagerly accepted.

Consequences.  At the battles peak the Japanese fielded approximately 75,000 men, the Soviets perhaps 100,000.  While the Russians claimed 50,000 enemy casualties the Japanese acknowledged losses of 8,400 killed and 8,766 wounded.  The Soviets conceded 9,284 casualties.  A relatively minor engagement by World War II standards, why is Nomonhan significant?

  • The Kwantung Army demonstrated it was a law unto itself making policy decisions rightfully the purview of the government.  Its continued obsession with China and independent actions there eventually destroyed Imperial Japan[ii].
  •  Nomonhan launched the career of General Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov[iii], future Marshal of the Soviet Union, savior of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, and architect of the crushing Soviet counteroffensive that began at Kursk and ended in Berlin.
  • Zhukov’s methods – elaborate defense in depth; intricate deceptive measures; mass artillery, aircraft and armor; battles of encirclement and methodical destruction; complete disregard for human cost – became the stock and trade of the Red Army.
  • Observing Soviet actions in Finland rather than Nomonhan, Hitler drew erroneous and ultimately disastrous conclusions regarding the Red Army’s capability and resilience.  Stalin’s purges decimated the Red Army Officer Corps.  Consequently inexperience, inadequate training and pure fear of Stalin’s displeasure resulted in a prodigious waste of manpower.  When capably led by an experienced general such as Zhukov, who escaped Stalin’s paranoid cleansing of all possible rivals, the Red Army was still a credible force.
  • Nomonhan revealed critical weaknesses in Japanese arms, armor, tactics, doctrine and especially logistics.  The lessons learned led to the creation of triangular (heavy) divisions designed and equipped to meet the Soviets on equal terms and pentagonal (light) divisions organized to fight the Nationalist Chinese and for counter insurgency operations.
  • Until Nomonhan the Japanese favored a Northern or Army strategy of continued expansion in China and eventual war with the Soviet Union.  This shocking defeat convinced the Japanese to adopt a Southern or Naval strategy centered on the vital resources of Southeast Asia even at the cost of bringing the United States into the war.  In so doing Imperial Japan turned away from possible victory (a coordinated Axis attack on Russia in 1941) to certain defeat (war with America).


Background.  Okinawa is the largest and most important island of the Ryukyu group.  Located just 400 miles south of the four main islands of Japan, Okinawa was the linchpin of Japan’s inner defensive perimeter.  If the Empire was to survive, the Americans must be stopped at Okinawa.  Equally vital to Allied strategic goals, the planned invasion of Okinawa was the culmination of a two pronged drive that began in the Central and Southwest Pacific after Midway.  With Okinawa in its possession the Allies could tighten the blockade of Japan, intensify the bombing campaign against her industry and stage the men and materials necessary for an invasion of Kyushu.  Given its strategic importance, ample time to prepare and the enormous resources allocated by both sides Okinawa earned the dubious distinction as the largest amphibious invasion, last major campaign and bloodiest battle of the Pacific War.  As with Nomonhan however, other actions overshadowed the battle and its significance was lost in the rush of events following the death of President Roosevelt 12 April, the surrender of Germany 08 May and the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Japanese Plans.  Under the initial Tei-Go plan formulated by Imperial Japanese Army Headquarters (IJA HQ) the Ryukyus and Formosa were to form an impenetrable zone of mutually supporting air bases, each with a cluster of airfields.  While planes were abundant, by 1945 experienced pilots were not.  In addition aggressive American submarine patrols made it impossible to deliver sufficient quantities of fuel, ammunition, anti-aircraft artillery, construction equipment, building materials and supplies to carry out such an ambitious operation.  Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima, commander of the 32nd Army, charged with the defense of Okinawa, possessed a more pragmatic appreciation of strategic and tactical realities.  Thirty years of established doctrine[iv] dictated an offensive response to any American invasion.  Ushijima took a more reasonable approach however.  Realizing the beaches would be untenable due to overwhelming American firepower Ushijima decided to abandon them as well as the northern portion of Okinawa.  Instead he resolved to dig deep, contest the chosen ground foot by foot and counterattack selectively.  In choosing an area strategically critical to the capture and control of Nakagusuku Bay and Naha Harbor yet favorable to defense and thoroughly preparing it Ushijima was able to maneuver offensively but fight defensively.

The Citadel.  Concentrating his forces in the highly defensible and strategically critical southern portion of the island, his men constructed a defensive citadel of fantastic proportions.  Realizing survival depended upon their own initiative the men of 32nd Army threw themselves into the work.  Working almost entirely by hand they created an intricate defensive complex of pillboxes and gun emplacements 3 – 12 miles wide by 16 miles long.  Sixty miles of tunnels honeycombed the complex with defensive positions above and below ground.  Ushijima chose his battleground well.  The hilly and irregular terrain of southern Okinawa provided numerous interlocking, mutually supporting fields of fire.  Natural caves were expanded and connected to shelter the entire army.  These caves functioned like warships with engineering, command, weapons and crew spaces.  Vast quantities of food and ammunition were laid up for a prolonged siege.  Okinawa began to resemble Iwo Jima on a much greater scale, dug into solid earth and stone rather than soft lava rock.  One flaw marred Japanese preparations.  Since each unit was responsible for fortifying its own assigned area with little inter-unit coordination the various sections were not well interconnected.  Once battle began the units suffered from poor communications especially in calls for artillery support.

Japanese Order of Battle (OOB).  Ushijima mustered an impressive force on Okinawa – 67,000 regular army combat and support troops augmented by 9,000 naval personnel, 24,000 militia (Boeitai or Home Guard) and 15,000 laborers.  During the course of the Pacific conflict a great deal of war materiel had been shipped to Okinawa destined for outlying areas.  As American submarine actions reduced Japanese shipping capacity many of these stores were stranded on Okinawa.  Ironically the same submarine patrols that reduced the effectiveness of other island garrisons ensured 32nd Army was well supplied.  The following chart provides an overview of the Japanese Order of Battle (OOB).


Unit Strength Subtotal
32nd Army HQ 7,055
24th Infantry Division 14,360
62nd Infantry Division 11,623
44th Independent Mixed Brigade 4,485
21st AAA Command 3,131
27th Tank Regiment 750
19th Air Sector Command 4,303
66th Engineering Unit 1,085
215 & 259 Motor Transport CO 363
49th Communications Unit 2,641
3rd Independent Anti-tank BN 1,262
3rd Independent Machinegun BN 1,349
11th Shipping Group 9,112
5th Artillery Command 5,098 66,617 (Army)
Imperial Japanese Naval Forces 8,825 75,442
Boeitai (Home Guard) 23,350 98,792
Impressed Labor Forces 15,000 113,792


Let us now consider some of the major units in greater detail:

  • Drawing upon previous experience the Kwantung Army organized the 24th Infantry as a triangular division with three companies per battalion, three battalions per regiment and three regiments per division.  Designed to fight the Soviets on equal terms the 24th also enjoyed abundant combat support units with artillery, engineers, transport, anti-tank and reconnaissance elements organic to each regiment.
  • In contrast the 62nd Infantry was a pentagonal division comprised of five companies per battalion, five battalions per brigade and two brigades per division.  Organized by the China Expeditionary Army to fight against other light infantry forces and for counter insurgency operations the 62nd enjoyed some engineering, medical, signal and artillery elements at Division level but possessed little heavy firepower or mechanized transport.
  • The 44th Independent Mixed Brigade (IMB) was another heavy unit composed of two triangular regiments.
  • The 5th Artillery Command boasted four regiments of 150-mm howitzers and cannons.  The 21st Anti-aircraft artillery command, 3rd Anti-tank Battalion and divisional artillery added one hundred-seventy 75-mm artillery pieces, seventy-two 75-mm anti-aircraft guns, twenty-four 320-mm Spigot mortars and ninety-six 81-mm mortars as well as numerous smaller caliber weapons to the mix.  Each weapon was strategically sited and carefully emplaced for maximum effectiveness.
  • The 27th Tank Regiment consisted of one heavy company of 14 tanks, one light company of 13 tanks, an artillery battalion, an infantry company, a maintenance company and an engineering platoon.
  • 9,000 naval personnel were stationed at Oroku Naval Air Base.  Arming themselves with excess army weapons and machine guns cannibalized from disabled aircraft these men were converted to light infantry forces and proved rather effective.  17,500 men in various sea raiding squadrons, airfield battalions, service and support units were also reorganized and converted into light infantry.
  • On 01 January 1945 the 32nd Army Staff ordered total mobilization of all Okinawan males over the age of 18.  Of the 39,000 men drafted 24,000 were formed as Boeitai or Home Guard.  Another 15,000 labored on the vast defensive complex under construction.

Allied Forces.  Well aware of Okinawa’s strategic importance to Japan and hoping to avoid a repeat of Iwo Jima the Allies assembled a vast armada for Operation Iceberg.


Allied Order of Battle
5th Fleet Spruance Overall Command
Task Force 57 Rawlins Air Defense & Support Ops
Task Force 58 Mitscher Air Defense & Support Ops
Landing Force Turner Naval Gunfire, Amphibious & Supply Support
10th Army Buckner Overall Command
XXIV Corps Hodge 7th, 27th, 77th & 96th Infantry Divisions
III Amphibious Corps Geiger 1st, 2nd, 4th & 6th Marine Divisions


Looking at some of the major units in greater detail reveals the extent of Allied preparations:

  • TF57, under Vice Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlins, Royal Navy, consisted of four carriers with armored decks (an innovation the Americans would soon envy and later copy), two battleships, five cruisers and fifteen destroyers.
  • Ten battleships, nine cruisers, twenty-three destroyers and 117 rocket gunboats comprised the bombardment group.  On D-Day they unleashed a ‘storm of steel’ or Tetsu no bow of 44,825 rounds five inch or greater, 33,000 rockets and 22,500 mortar shells.  Unfortunately for the infantry and marines about to go ashore Japanese redoubts proved impervious even to sixteen-inch shells.
  • Designated as 5th Fleet, Admiral Spruance commanded forty carriers, eighteen battleships, 200 destroyers, 365 amphibious vessels and hundreds of support ships and landing craft – 1,300 vessels in all.
  • 10th Army mustered no less than 183,000 soldiers and marines 60,000 of whom landed on the Hagushi Beaches on the first day.

The Battle.  The battle for Okinawa may be divided into four phases:

  1. Advance from the Hagushi Beaches to the East Coast bisecting the island 1 – 4 April
  2. Clearing the Northern portion of Okinawa 15 – 18 April
  3. Capture of the outlying islands 10 April – 26 June
  4. Reduction of the Southern citadel 6 April – 21 June
  5. Assaulting the Shuri Line
  6. 04 May counterattack
  7. Withdrawal to Kiyamu Peninsula
  8. Gyokusai

According to plan, the Japanese did not contest the beaches of Okinawa.  Consequently, the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions along with the 7th and 96th Infantry Divisions landed virtually unopposed on 01 April 1945 and immediately pushed inland, securing Yontan and Kadena Airfields and establishing a solid beachhead fifteen miles long and 3 – 10 miles deep on the first day.  By 4 April American forces reached Chimu Bay on the East Coast bisecting the island.  As some elements turned north, major forces pushed south.  The easy advance ended and the bloodbath[v] began on 8 April when American forces reached the Shuri line.

Terrain and Ushijima’s careful preparations forced the Americans to fight a thousand small firefights in isolated pockets rather than one large battle in the open where their vastly superior firepower would prevail.  Paying a heavy price in killed and wounded initially, the soldiers and marines of 10th Army learned to take advantage of small gaps in arcs of fire to isolate and destroy Japanese positions one by one.  In a relatively even contest between American tank / infantry teams and Japanese pillbox / infantry teams casualties mounted.  The mobile warfare and flanking movements of Europe were impossible.  Movement stagnated and, reminiscent of World War I, progress was measured in yards.  Monsoon rains began at the end of May turning the battlefield into a putrid morass, part garbage dump and part graveyard.  As conditions deteriorated, sanitation problems increased and disease ravaged both armies.

From beginning to end a personal battle raged between Ushijima’s subordinates.  The more doctrinaire Chief of Staff, General Isamu Cho, urged an immediate counterattack while the more pragmatic Senior Operations Officer, Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, urged prolonged defense.  The stalemate between the opposing forces and on the 32nd Army staff continued until 04 May.  At the insistence of Cho and IJA HQ Ushijima acquiesced to a major counterattack.  The four-day battle was a disaster.  By abandoning their protective caves and tunnels and coming out into the open the 32nd Army lost most of its artillery and first rate combat troops.  Without sufficient men to hold the Shuri line Ushijima now had no choice but to retreat to the Kiyan Peninsula, reform and fight on.  Movement began on 23 May while rearguard actions held the Americans in place until the operation was complete.  So skillful was the withdrawal that US forces were caught totally unaware.  When the Americans followed on 01 June the remnants of the 24th Division held the right flank of a new line anchored on Mount Yoko Dake.  The 44th IMB held the left wing with the 62nd Division protecting the coast and acting as a reserve.  The best Japanese troops had been squandered however.  All that remained were Headquarters, service, support and construction units.  Most telling was the loss of light and heavy weapons.

Realizing their mistake and capitalizing on the weakened condition of the enemy 10th Army redoubled its efforts.  Tanks, anti-aircraft artillery, anti-tank guns, any type of direct fire, flat trajectory weapon that could be brought to bear and flame-throwers were used to drive the Japanese from the mouths of caves.  This allowed infantry to approach and either clear or destroy the position.  When airshafts were found GI’s poured gasoline down them followed by phosphorus grenades while their buddies covered the exits.  Some caves were simply sealed and bypassed.  An estimated 20,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians were entombed in this manner.

By 19 June organized resistance remained only at Mabuni, final position of the 32nd, 62nd and 44th Headquarters and Medeera, final location of the 24th HQ.  On 22 June Ushijima issued his “Stand to die in order” directive.  In a Gyokusai[vi] or ‘Honorable Death Attack’ each unit made final Banzai charges.  His duty complete and honor preserved Ushijima wrote an elaborate letter of apology to the emperor and committed Seppuku[vii] along with most of his senior officers.  Still the ordeal was not over.  Isolated units continued to resist and so-called mopping up operations (23 –29 June) resulted in an additional 9,000 Japanese killed and 3,800 captured.

Casualties.  76,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors augmented by 39,000 Boeitai militiamen and conscripted laborers confronted US forces on 01 April 1945.  Out of a total force of 115,000 only 7400 surrendered.  Of these, most were recently conscripted Home Guard or impressed laborers.  The remainder died for the Emperor after extracting a heavy toll from the enemy.  Estimates of civilian casualties during the campaign range from 50,000 to 150,000.  Taking the median figure approximately 200,000 Japanese citizens perished on Okinawa.

Allied forces paid an equally heavy price for the conquest of Okinawa as detailed below:

Army Marines Navy Total
KIA 4,582 2,938 4,907 12,427
MIA 93 0 0 93
WIA 18,000 13,708 4,824 36,532
Non-battle 15,613 10,598 0 26,211
Total 38,288 27,244 9,731 75,263


In exchange for 76,000 combat troops the 32nd Army inflicted almost the same number of Allied casualties.  To put these numbers into perspective, from 01 April – 02 July, 2,500 men, women and children perished every day for 82 days.

Kamikazes.  While the battle raged on land an equally fierce life and death struggle took place at sea.  Determined to inflict maximum casualties on the Americans in order to discourage any invasion of the homeland during the course of the campaign the Japanese staged 896 air raids on the Allied fleet flying from bases in Japan, China and Formosa.  At a cost of 7,830 aircraft, approximately half of which were kamikazes the Japanese inflicted 9,731 casualties upon the sailors supporting Operation Iceberg.  In addition to the human cost 5th Fleet suffered 34 ships and craft sunk, another 368 severely damaged many beyond repair and 763 aircraft destroyed.  Okinawa was the most costly single battle in US naval history.

Survivors Stories.  Numbers present the big picture but the survivor’s stories reveal the true horror of Okinawa.  Junko Isa is such a survivor.  When her village was bombed she and her family fled.  All were killed except herself, her younger sister and ten-month-old brother.  She writes, “I remember glancing over once to see an arm hanging from a tree branch.  Just below that was a decapitated body.  There were body parts absolutely everywhere.  I think I became sort of numb to the sight.  My father always warned me not to be captured by the Americans.  They will do with you as they please he used to tell me.  When I was eventually discovered, they took me to a field hospital up North where they fixed my ankle and fed me.  I couldn’t speak or understand English, so I had to tell them with hand gestures that I couldn’t walk.  They nodded and prepared two bamboo baskets, one for carrying me, and the other for my baby brother.”

Okinawa rivaled the worst of the Somme or Verdun.  E. B. Sledge, a 1st Marine Division veteran, wrote in With the Old Breed, “The mud was knee deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one dared to venture there.  For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain.  There wasn’t a tree or bush left.  All was open country.  Shells had torn up the turf so completely that ground cover was nonexistent.  The rain poured down on us as evening approached.  The scene was nothing but mud; shellfire; flooded crater with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knocked-out tanks and amtracs; and discarded equipment – utter desolation…. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horror of war…. In the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay.  Men struggled and fought in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”

The official history of Okinawa describes a gruesome scene discovered by army troops in a small valley, “In the morning they found a small valley littered with more than 150 dead and dying Japanese, most of them civilians.  Fathers had systematically throttled each member of their families and then disemboweled themselves with knives and hand grenades.  Under one blanket lay a father, two small children, a grandfather, and a grandmother, all strangled by cloth ropes.  Soldiers and medics did what they could.  The natives, who had been told that the invading “barbarians” would kill and rape, watched in amazement and the Americans provided food and medical care; an old man who had killed his daughter wept in bitter remorse.”

Commander Frederick J Becton, USN, Commanding Officer of the destroyer USS Laffey (DD-724), describes one kamikaze attack, “The action had lasted an hour and twenty minutes.  We had been attacked by 22 planes, nine of which we had shot down unassisted, eight planes had struck the ship, seven of them with suicidal intent.  Five of these did really heavy material damage and killed a lot of our personnel.  The fires were still out of control and we were slowly flooding aft.  We had lost 33 men, killed or missing, about 60 others had been wounded and approximately 30 of these seriously wounded.”  Miraculously Laffey survived and is now part of the memorial at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, SC.

Aftermath.  Ushijima intended to make the battle for Okinawa so costly to the Americans that they dare not repeat the ordeal on the mainland.  In a note to 32nd Army he spelled out his objective  – “One Plane for One Warship; One Boat for One Warship; One Man for Ten of the Enemy or One Tank.”  Japanese losses were closer to 10:1 than 1:1 never the less the battle gave the Allies pause.  What were the immediate and long-term consequences?

  • Even as the battle raged Army Engineers and Navy Construction Battalions (CB’s) transformed Okinawa into a major air and naval base in preparation for the invasion of Japan.  By 04 July four heavy and five medium bomber groups were operating out of Okinawa.  By late July the first of twelve planned B-29 groups began arriving. So costly was the battle on land and at sea however that President Truman and his advisors began to seriously consider alternatives, i.e. – the atomic bomb.
  • Casualty projections for Operation Downfall[viii], both Allied and Japanese, based on the fighting at Okinawa ran in the millions lending weight to the decision to use the atomic bombs.  Considering what 100,000 Japanese soldiers accomplished on Okinawa the prospect of fighting an estimated 2 million regular army soldiers plus 30 million militia troops was truly daunting.
  • As terrible as the atomic bombs were the alternative was worse.  General Curtis LeMay intended to assemble a fleet of 5,000 B-29’s augmented by 5,000 B-24’s and B-17’s plus 1,000 British Lancaster bombers to carpet bomb and totally incinerate Japan prior to any American landing.
  • In the final analysis the bloody resistance of 32nd Army on land and the terrible Kamikaze attacks at sea both succeeded and failed.  The planned invasion of Japan was thwarted but in so doing Imperial Headquarters brought unparalleled destruction upon their land and their people.
  • In some respects by insisting upon “Unconditional Surrender” the United States won the war but lost the peace.  Rather than ending war the atom bomb precipitated the Cold War.  The subsequent arms race gave rise to war by proxy with the Soviet Union fomenting insurrection throughout the world.  It is no exaggeration to state global terrorism has its roots in the guerrilla wars of the recent past.
  • The cave system of Okinawa proved an excellent counter to American firepower and mobility surpassing even the trench systems of World War I.  When it constructed the tunnel system of Chu Chi, the North Vietnamese Army demonstrated it learned the lessons of Okinawa well.
  • The battle of Okinawa degenerated into a matter of  “body count” rather than maneuver and conquest.  Young officers and NCO’s took that mindset and the stereotypes of warfare in Asia with them to Korea and Vietnam.
  • The lessons of the Kamikazes are a double-edged sword.  In the mind of a terrorist, a minimum of technology, when combined with ideological fanaticism or religious zeal is seen as a way to achieve military parity even with the greatest super power.  This equation is the basis of asymmetric warfare giving hope to any militarily backward or technically inferior foe as long as they command blind obedience.  Although the kamikazes ultimately failed, the western world will continue to pay a heavy price for their actions for the foreseeable future.
  • Ironically one of the stated intentions of the Greater Southeast Asia Co-prosperity Sphere has come to past – the end of colonial empires.  And China, once victim to all countries with imperial ambitions is now a major power in her own right.

Conclusion.  Few people know of Nomonhan.  Far more recall Iwo Jima than Okinawa.  Although both were pivotal events, each battle was overshadowed by subsequent actions and essentially lost to history.  Yet Nomonhan influenced the outcome of World War II and the repercussions of Okinawa can be traced to 11 September 2001 and Iraq.  As the United States searches for answers in the new millennium our leaders would be well advised to heed the counsel of Heraclitus, “War is the father, the king of us all.”  As it has in the past what happens today on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan will send major and minor shock waves through time affecting distant generations in ways unimaginable in the present.




[i] Consider asbestos, miracle product of the forties and fifties, bane of the eighties and nineties.

[ii] China was to Japan what Russia was to Germany – a bottomless pit into which she poured the majority of her troops and resources even as the British and Americans closed in.

[iii] Born in 1894 the son of a shoemaker Zhukov was apprenticed to his uncle, a furrier, after graduation from school.  There he might have remained but historic events revealed other talents.  Drafted in 1913 Zhukov served with distinction in the cavalry and was selected for NCO training in 1916.  One year later he joined the fledgling Red Army where his audacity and intelligence earned him a commission in 1920.  During the Russian Civil War Zhukov served with such future notables as A I Yeremenko and K K Rokossovsky.  Assigned to Frunze Academy from 1929 – 1930 excerpts from his fitness reports highlighted character traits that would lead him to the top of the Red Army – “Commander of strong will and decisiveness” -“Wealth of initiative” – “Loves military matters and constantly improves himself”  During his long career Zhukov earned a well deserved reputation as a tough, no nonsense commander.  Envied for his success and feared for his popularity Zhukov was banished in 1946 by Stalin and again in 1957 by Kruschev.

[iv] Conceived of as a superior light infantry force the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) relied upon rapid maneuver, bold attack and close combat to prevail.  An excellent doctrine against Chinese and colonial armies these qualities were completely inappropriate when confronted by the irresistible firepower and tremendous logistic capability of US forces on restricted terrain.

[v] General Geiger urged an invasion of the southern coast to ‘open a second front’; stretch the Japanese thin and prevent reserve units from reinforcing the Shuri line.  Lt. Gen. Buckner has been roundly criticized for not doing so.  Certainly the manpower and amphibious capability was at hand.  Instead he followed what has been termed ‘a slugfest, an unimaginative, direct, frontal assault.’  In his defense logistics over the southern beaches was limited and the troops that would have been used were needed to relieve battered units on line.

[vi] Literally “Smashing the Imperial Jewel”

[vii] Seppuku – ritual disembowelment / Hara-kiri – belly slicing

[viii] Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, was scheduled for November 1945.  Operation Coronet, the conquest of Honshu, was planned for the spring of 1946.