The Battle of Okinawa—nicknamed the “Typhoon of Steel”—was the last and largest amphibious assault in the Pacific during World War II. On April 1, 1945, the U.S. Tenth Army, under the command of Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., commenced the invasion of Okinawa, preparing to take on over 100,000 well-entrenched Japanese defenders. Though Okinawa proved to be the final major battle of World War II, it was not expected to be, as the island was intended to be the staging ground for what was codenamed “Operation Downfall”—the Allied invasion of Japan. Yet the Japanese on Okinawa fought as if this were their last stand, unleashing a wave of kamikaze attacks on U.S. ships offshore while the defenders of the island hid in caves, only emerging to rain mortar and machine-gun fire upon the advancing Americans.
The carnage on Okinawa was staggering. U.S. casualties numbered over 72,000—over two and a half times more than on Iwo Jima. Among the dead were famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle and General Buckner himself—the highest-ranking American officer killed by enemy fire during World War II. Japanese military casualties numbered over 90,000, with over 100,000 civilians dead. The ferocity of the fighting, combined with the massive number of casualties, led American military strategists to seek an alternative means of ending the war, as the destruction on Okinawa would pale in comparison to any invasion of the Japanese home islands. While continued fire-bombing of Japanese cities might have forced an eventual surrender short of invasion, the deployment of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki convinced the Japanese to finally surrender, with what most historians agree was fewer casualties than additional fire-bombing campaigns or a land invasion. Yet had Okinawa not been so bloody, an amphibious invasion of Japan would have been a distinct possibility.
At the American Veterans Center’s 9th Annual Conference last fall, four veterans of Okinawa—Donald Dencker, John “Bos” Ensor, Leonard “Laz” Lazarick, and Renwyn Triplett—recounted their experiences in infantry combat against the Japanese. In this issue of World War II Chronicles, we share their remarks, as they remember the bloodiest battle of World War II.
Donald Dencker: The 96th Infantry Division, of which we were a part when we landed on Leyte in 1944 and later Okinawa, was a typical Army triangular division consisting of three infantry regiments, three light supporting 105mm artillery battalions, one heavy 155mm artillery battalion, an engineer combat battalion, a medical battalion, and a recon troop. The table of organization strength was 14,253 men. We were never at that strength, however. We landed on Okinawa with about 13,000 men. Okinawa is located on the Ryukyu Islands chain, about 340 miles south of the Japanese home island of Kyushu. We landed on the China Sea side—the west side—of Okinawa with four divisions: the 1st Marine Division, the 6th Marine Division, the 7th Infantry Division, and the 96th Infantry Division. It was April 1st—April Fool’s Day, and we were the fools, I guess.