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Okinawa Remembered Tales Of Heroism, Horror Still Vivid For The Men Who Fought The Last Major Battle In The Pacific

Sun., April 2, 1995

To reach the home of Desmond T. Doss near Rising Fawn, Ga., you take the Desmond T. Doss Medal of Honor Highway. The folks around there are mighty proud of their neighbor up on Lookout Mountain.

As a 20-year-old in 1945, the shy, slim Seventh-day Adventist became one of the most famous and unusual heroes of World War II. A strict believer in the Sixth Commandment - Thou shalt not kill - he refused to bear arms. But he was willing to serve as a medic, one of the most dangerous jobs the Army had to offer.

One day on the Pacific island of Okinawa, Doss rescued almost a whole company of men who had been cut down by Japanese fire while trying to capture an important hilltop. Crawling out among bullets and shell bursts, he dragged the wounded, one by one, to a sheltered spot behind a rock, tied a doublebowline knot around their chests and legs, and lowered them over a 35-foot cliff to safety.

“Dear God,” he remembers praying over and over, “let me get just one more.”

It took all day, but he got them all. The Army estimated he had saved 75 lives.

It was an amazing story. But, then, Okinawa was a place full of amazing stories. The fight that began there 50 years ago, on April 1, 1945, turned into the biggest combination landsea-air battle of all time. Dragging on for almost three months, it was the last important American battle before the atom bomb ended the war.

Okinawa was the place where kamikaze planes inflicted massive damage on the U.S. fleet, sinking 36 ships and damaging 368 others - where Julian F. Becton of Wynnewood, Pa., led the destroyer USS Laffey in battling 22 suicide planes, five of which crashed into the deck, killing or injuring one-third of the crew. “You couldn’t stop them, they came so fast,” Becton, now a retired rear admiral, recalls.

It was the place where a single Marine Corps fighter squadron, later nicknamed the Death Rattlers, shot down 124 Japanese planes; where Charles W. Drake of Brookside, N.J., a member of that squadron, downed as many as five of those planes in a dizzying 20 minutes. “It was,” he recalls, “a wild, wild scramble.”

For more than 2 years, U.S. forces had been fighting their way, from island to island, toward Japan; from Guadalcanal to Tarawa to Saipan to Guam to Peleliu to Iwo Jima.

In each place, the Japanese had refused to give up, even when they were clearly beaten. Their bushido code of honor required them to die first. Great numbers of Americans died with them. The previous battle, at Iwo, had cost close to 7,000 U.S. lives.

No one was looking forward to Okinawa. It was to be the next-to-last hop in the U.S. island-hopping campaign. The final hop, according to plan, would be to Japan itself.

April 1 was Easter Sunday. As the soldiers and Marines of the U.S. 10th Army went ashore, a fleet of 1,200 ships established a protective ring around Okinawa.

Stationed at the outer edge of the ring was a group of destroyers equipped with the latest radar gear. Their job was to warn the fleet - and the men on land - if planes were coming their way from Japan, only 350 miles to the north, or from major Japanese airfields on Formosa.

Becton, then a lieutenant commander, was captain of a destroyer on this “picket line.”

He already had experienced more combat than most sailors in history. But nothing in his experience prepared him for April 16, 1945.As always, Becton’s crew was at

battle stations when the first glow of light warmed the sky. Dawn was the most dangerous moment of the day, when enemy planes could appear as if from nowhere. Becton was permitting a few men at a time to leave their stations to go to breakfast.

He knew kamikazes were coming his way, if not today, then tomorrow or the next day. The only chance the Japanese had to win the Battle of Okinawa was to sink the American fleet. The best weapons they had left were the brave kamikaze pilots who crashed planes loaded with TNT onto the decks of ships.

Kamikaze means “divine wind” in Japanese. The term referred to the miraculous salvation of Japan in the 13th century by a typhoon that blew away a Mongol invasion fleet. The Japanese longed for another miracle to blow away the Americans.

A few of the kamikazes were skilled pilots. Many more were just kids who knew little more than how to take off and steer their airplanes. Really, they were nothing more than guided missiles, or maybe smartbombs. But they had a religious zeal to die for their emperor.

“They were all brainwashed, I guess,” Becton said recently at his home. “You feared ‘em, sure. They kept on coming. You could shoot ‘em down, but more kept on coming after that.”

At 8:20 a.m., a squall of kamikazes suddenly appeared as spots of white light on the Laffey’s radar screens. The planes were still eight miles away, to the north. The Laffey radioed the alarm to the fleet, and got ready to defend itself.

Soon, lookouts with binoculars saw the first four planes: all Val divebombers, coming in from starboard. Becton’s job as captain was to keep the ship turned sideways to the attackers, so all of the deck guns could be brought to bear.

“But then the planes split,” he said. “Two of them went for our fantail, and two of them were off to our left. We got the ones that were closest to us. … We shot them down and then swung around to the others. We got the third one and then …”

And then a small vessel, a landing craft, got the fourth.

The guns suddenly fell silent. Men on deck began to cheer, but Becton barely had time to “exhale one deep breath of relief” before another divebomber appeared high in the sky.

The ack-ack guns on the starboard side opened up. Some of them, double-barreled 20mm guns known to sailors as pom-poms, could spit out 450 rounds a minute. Others were 40mm guns that could do 160 a minute. The plane broke into pieces and splintered into the water.

Now the fight was beginning in earnest. Japanese planes were coming from what seemed like all points of the compass, from high and low. Wearing a steel helmet and a life vest, Becton had to stand out in the open so he could see what was going on.

“The first plane that hit us came right in over the stern,” he said. The plane crashed into the big gun turret on the fantail. Then a second plane crashed into the ship. Then another. And another. And another.

“Each time one crashed, there was always a flood of gasoline from the plane - and one hell of a fire.”

“Near the end of the action, one of my officers, Frank Manson, came to me and said, ‘Captain, we’re in pretty bad shape aft. Do you think you’ll have to abandon ship?’

“It never entered my mind to abandon ship. The ship might sink under us. We might not be able to sail her. But I wasn’t going to abandon her.

“So I said, ‘No, Frank, I’ll never abandon ship as long as a gun will fire.”’

That last statement, later conveyed by Manson to reporters, was to become a famous slogan in Navy history.

The Laffey remained in almost continuous combat for an hour and 20 minutes, an unheard-of length of time. Besides the five planes that crashed into it, there were two that dropped bombs on it. On its own, it managed to down nine of the 22 attackers. Thirty-two men aboard ship were dead and 71 were wounded. The ship couldn’t be steered, and had to be towed into port.

But it was still afloat. Fifty years later, it remains a famous ship of Okinawa, now a museum piece in dry dock at Charleston, S.C. For his role in saving it, Becton won the Navy Cross in recognition of “extraordinary heroism.”

The planes that the Laffey didn’t get, the CAP did. The acronym stood for combat air patrol. It was a job for Second Lt. Bill Drake and the three dozen other pilots of VMF 323, a.k.a. Death Rattlers.

Drake’s friends knew him as “Duck.” He had been a freshman at Dartmouth College when the war broke out. His father was a colonel in the Army Quartermaster Corps, “but I always wanted to fly.” So he took naval cadet training, after which he had a choice: Navy or Marines. He chose Marines.

It wasn’t until June 1944 that his squadron reached the Pacific. The battle for Saipan was wrapping up at that time, and Peleliu lay just ahead. But the squadron still hadn’t seen combat months later when Okinawa came along. It was the pilots’ first test in combat.

They passed; that’s for sure. Twelve pilots, Drake included, would end up as “aces” - a recognition that they had shot down five or more enemy aircraft.

They flew the Corsair, the fastest plane in the Pacific. It could not twist and turn like its principal foe, the Japanese Zero, but it could outrun the “Zekes” by going 450 miles per hour. The ungainly looking Corsair had a gull wing and one giant propeller, stuck on a nose that resembled a basement water heater.

“A great airplane,” Drake said at his Brookside home, near Morristown, N.J.

The Marine pilots performed two jobs at Okinawa. One was to provide close air support for Marines fighting on the ground. The other was to help protect the fleet from kamikaze attack. Their base was at Kadena, an airfield on Okinawa captured from the Japanese.

A contingent of Marines, pinned down somewhere, would radio for an air strike. Drake and his buddies would fly over and drop bombs or canisters of napalm on Japanese positions. Though napalm would be more closely associated with the Vietnam War a generation later, it was widely used late in World War II. Drake remembered it as “jellied gasoline - nasty stuff.”

Close air support was important work. But aerial combat was much more glamorous.

Drake shot down his first plane on May 4. “That first one - I was almost more proud of that than the five I shot down later. … It was really a dogfight. Hundreds and hundreds of planes, and they were attacking the fleet.”

The day he became an ace arrived a month later, June 3. That morning, he and three other pilots led by Lt. Cyril A. Dolezel had been in the air for about an hour, watching over the fleet. The destroyers on the picket line picked up radar blips indicating that a swarm of planes was headed their way from the direction of Japan. Drake and his buddies were alerted to intercept them.

They flew right to the spot where the destroyers had said they would find the Japanese planes, but none was in sight. Drake remembered hearing a panicky voice from the ships: “You’re gonna pass ‘em. You’re gonna pass ‘em.”

He looked up, he said, and saw a thin layer of clouds. “As we broke through the clouds, there they were - 24 of them, all Zekes, all very modern. We were in their blind spot, so we had time to get up and get behind them. We got behind them and started taking potshots at them. The first two I got were like shooting fish in a barrel.”

The battle started at 18,000 feet and wound round and round, down and down. Besides flying skill, the Marines had two advantages to make up for the 24-to-4 odds. The first was speed - “If I got one on my trail, I’d dive away from him,” Drake said - and the second was armor-plating. The Americans had two inches of steel behind their seats; the Japanese had only a volatile fuel tank behind theirs.

Drake’s Corsair had a bubble canopy. He constantly had to look up and around for the enemy planes. The Corsairs were painted navy blue; the Zeroes, brown.

His gun trigger was on the stick that controlled the direction the airplane was headed. A pull of his right index finger unleashed six 50-caliber machine guns mounted three-and-three on the wings, a massive amount of firepower.

His left hand was on the throttle, which controlled speed, while his feet operated the tail rudder, right and left.

Pilots normally flew in pairs, one man protecting the other. But in a dogfight, Drake said, “it’s every man for himself. … The reason I shot so many down is I picked on the poor pilots and ran away from the good pilots.”

Each American plane had wing cameras, which followed the action. The officers who later studied the film credited Drake with four “kills” and one “probable” that day.

He won the Navy Cross for heroism.

Ashore, all this time, one of the most ferocious land battles of World War II was taking place.

The air-sea battle was awesome, with nearly 5,000 Americans killed. But the toll on land was even grimmer. About 7,000 soldiers and Marines were killed, including the 10th Army commander, Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner. At least 70,000 Japanese died, along with 80,000 native Okinawans.

“It was a very bloody affair,” said historian Ronald Spector, author of “Eagle Against the Sun,” an account of the Pacific War. In all, Okinawa cost the United States close to 32,000 casualties, including dead and wounded.

Yet Okinawa’s fame has been eclipsed by Iwo Jima’s. “I don’t know why,” Spector said in an interview. Iwo Jima, he said, was a smaller battle in every respect.

The island of Okinawa itself is many times bigger: 60 miles long and 18 miles wide. The Japanese knew they couldn’t defend all of the shoreline there, so they withdrew to defensive positions and waited for the Americans to advance.

The job of blasting them out of their bunkers, trenches and caves fell to units such as the Army’s 77th Infantry Division, which included a young medic who already had proven his bravery on Guam and Leyte: Pvt. Doss.

Doss had grown up in the Seventhday Adventist Church, whose members worshiped on Saturdays. At his home, then in Lynchburg, Va., his father had hung a framed scroll of the Ten Commandments on the wall that depicted the biblical Cain murdering his brother, Abel.

“I looked at that picture hundreds of times. And I always wondered, ‘How could his brother do such a horrible thing?’ I reckon it put a horror in my heart for killing.”

But he figured that being a medic meant he would be saving lives, not taking them. And that seemed OK.

Hanging behind him, as he talked, was the same framed scroll of the Commandments he remembered from his youth. His house today sits on the piney crest of Lookout Mountain ridge, not far from the Tennessee line and the city of Chattanooga. Out back is a small pond. The American flag and Georgia flag hang by the door.

At Okinawa, he said, his outfit was given orders to assault the Maeda Escarpment. That was a jagged hilltop, one side of which dropped away in a sheer cliff. From there, the dugin Japanese could direct artillery fire for miles in all directions.

His company decided to climb up behind the enemy: They would scale the cliff with ropes and ladders.

“We went up and pushed over against the Japanese position, got pinned down and couldn’t move,” Doss recalled. Another company was supposed to take the opposite side of the escarpment, but word came that they had been “all shot up,” he said.

“We had to take the whole thing by ourselves. How’d you like to be pinned down, where you couldn’t move, and get an order like that. But Uncle Sam has to sacrifice lives. This was holding up the works.”

The battle started on April 29. It was May 5 when Doss performed the principal deeds that resulted in his winning the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for heroism. President Harry S. Truman himself would place the medal around his neck on the White House lawn in October 1945.

“We had orders to withdraw,” Doss said, “but I couldn’t leave my men. In combat, you get very closely attached to each other. When you see your buddy hit, you just can’t leave him out there. It’s like a mother with a house on fire. She don’t think of herself; she’s thinking about that child. And that’s the way I felt about my men.”

Exposing himself to mortars, grenades and machine guns, he crawled out into the open and dragged the wounded back to cover. The Army at first said he had rescued a hundred. “I didn’t see how it could be more than 50, and I still don’t. So they settled on 75.”

“I didn’t think I’d get killed. But I felt it would be worth getting wounded if I could save just one more man. I kept praying for the Lord to help me, and He did.”

Doss himself believes that what he did wasn’t humanly possible.

“It’s not what I did, but what the Lord did. To me, it was as much a miracle as what I read about in the Bible.”

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