The U.S. invasion of Okinawa began on a sunny Easter Sunday, almost peacefully, with surprisingly little of the bloodshed, death and mud yet to come during the 82 days of the last great battle of World War II.
“The question on everybody’s lips was, ‘Where are the Japanese?”’ Marine veteran Benis M. Frank recalled at Saturday’s national commemoration of the landing’s 50th anniversary.
The emotional gathering of about 500 veterans and relatives, officials and honor guard units was held on the Potomac River shore beside the Pentagon, facing the monuments of Washington.
Frank, a 20-year-old combat Marine on “L (Landing) Day,” April 1, 1945, is now chief historian of the Marine Corps.
None of the U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines engaged in the massive amphibious operation realized at the time that Japanese forces “by design had left the beaches undefended,” said Army Undersecretary Joe R. Reeder.
By nightfall, more than 50,000 American soldiers and Marines were ashore in a large beachhead.
But their euphoria faded as the Japanese defense plan unfolded later that week: “A relentless island campaign of attrition, well away from the invasion beaches, contesting every foot with carefully laid out, dug in, and interlocking positions,” as Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., the current U.S. Marine Corps commandant, described it in his speech.
Okinawa cost 13,241 American lives, including 8,343 sailors, coast guardsmen and Marines, the highest single campaign toll in U.S. naval history.
At the end, “more than 200,000 on both sides lay dead, more American blood than had been shed at Gettysburg” and many times as many Japanese as killed earlier at Iwo Jima, Reeder said.
To minimize strain on their postwar alliance, the U.S. and Japanese governments have held diplomatic discussions about their World War II anniversary observances.
U.S. official commemorations stress appreciation to U.S. veterans.
The event had no foreign guest list but a television team from NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting system, filmed it for a coming documentary to be called “Hiroshima, an American Perspective.”
Shiyo Migita, a co-producer of the documentary, told a reporter that recent controversy over whether the U.S. atomic bombings that ended the Pacific War were justified indicate “it is very important for Japanese to better understand the American perspective.”
Reeder told the veterans at the commemoration: “America and Japan each left part of their soul on that island. Today America and Japan are friends and allies … working together to strengthen world peace - a peace that must have seemed very distant to you who fought so fiercely on Okinawa.”
He told the veterans they are the “benchmark for bravery, for heroism, for selfless sacrifice” for all service members since World War II.
“When I served in uniform, you were my role models,” said the undersecretary, a 1970 U.S. Military Academy graduate who has pursued a legal career in the military and in private practice.