(April 1 – June 22, 1945)
The final battle in the Pacific was at Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyus Islands located at the southern tip of Japan. The invasion of Okinawa, codenamed Operation ICEBERG, would establish the island as a base for training troops, and would give the Allies vital airbases for the invasion of Japan.
The US had already targeted the Ryukyus Islands since September 1944, when bombers raided the Japanese there. On October 10, five waves of bombers totaling about 200 planes struck repeatedly at Okinawa’s capital city of Naha, virtually destroying it. The Kerama Islands, 15 miles north of Okinawa, had been secured by the end of March, as were the four islets of Keise Shima. The Americans were now ready to take Okinawa.
The terrain was rocky, mountainous and densely forested. Heavy rains and fog made combat difficult. Okinawa was also pockmarked with well-defended caves and dugouts. The Americans cleared the northern part of the island, but when they reached the high ground in the south, they met with heavy, sustained combat. The Japanese were well fortified, and attacks from the land, sea and air did little damage to their defenses. On the outlying island of Ie Shima, American forces met with similar fierce resistance, but managed to secure it by April 21. On May 16, the Marines faced the toughest combat yet from a rise at “Sugar Loaf” near the western coast of Okinawa.
Bitter fighting continued through June, with Japanese suicides escalating in the final days of the battle as the Imperial Force’s defensive efforts crumbled. During the week leading up to July 2, sporadic resistance from the Japanese continued to pose a considerable threat. In clean-up operations during the last week of June, the Americans suffered more than 780 casualties. More than 8,900 Japanese soldiers died during this time, while another 2,900 were captured.1
The Nisei soldiers in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) were invaluable to the Volcano and Ryukyus campaign.
A team of Nisei familiar with the Okinawan dialect was trained in preparation for the campaign. Some soldiers found themselves in the difficult position of readying for an attack on all-too-familiar soil, the villages of their parents and relatives.2 Despite such challenges, they remained steadfast to their national duty.
More than any other Central Pacific operation, the battle for Okinawa relied heavily on psychological warfare.3 Millions of propaganda leaflets specifically targeted at Japanese soldiers were prepared and disseminated by the Nisei.
A Nisei team accompanied the 77th Infantry Division when they landed in the Kerama Islands. Nisei linguists also accompanied the Tenth Army in Okinawa. Throughout the campaign, they translated documents, interrogated prisoners of war, flushed caves, and repeatedly encouraged Japanese soldiers and civilians to surrender.
MIS linguists translated several vital captured documents. One such document was the Japanese defense plan for Okinawa, which included a signal codebook. Another was a detailed topographical map of the island, which the Americans did not previously have in their possession. Still another was a chart showing the Imperial Forces’ artillery and heavy mortar positions, which unfortunately was not utilized in time to prevent a scheduled attack that left the Americans with more than 700 casualties.4 Nevertheless, the documents translated by the Nisei provided the American troops with an advantage over the Japanese.
Time and again, the Nisei linguists demonstrated their valor and service during the campaign. Just a few days following the Easter Sunday landing, one unidentified Nisei soldier saved 250 Okinawans who had been hiding in tombs.5 After Ie Shima was secured, Sergeant Vic Nishijima, a veteran of the Guam operation and a volunteer from Tule Lake, managed to persuade 150 civilians out of the cave in which they had been hiding.6 Warren and Takejiro Higa, brothers who had both served on Leyte with the 96th Infantry Division, saved more than 30,000 Okinawans by convincing them to come out from hiding in caves and family mausoleums.7
It was in Okinawa that Hawaii-born Technician Third Grade Takejiro Higa, who had lived in Okinawa for fourteen years, interrogated his former teacher and classmates.8
In securing the Ryukyus, the Americans suffered more than 49,000 casualties, the highest for any Pacific campaign. They lost 36 ships with another 360 damaged, and lost some 760 aircraft. About 110,000 Japanese troops were killed in action, with another 7,400 captured. Sadly, there were also numerous civilian casualties. Although the exact number cannot be calculated because many Okinawans who had fled to the caves likely died there, one estimate numbers these civilian casualties at 42,000.9
Even before the fighting ended, the Americans worked quickly to build airstrips, roads, and ammunition depots to prepare for the invasion of Japan. Yontan, the first American-built airstrip, was up and running by June 17, well before the end of the campaign. By the end of June, five air bases were made ready for the bombers that would attack Japan.10
The battle for Okinawa became the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific war. Both sides were aware that a victory at Okinawa was vital to the outcome of the entire war. Despite high casualties on both sides, American forces emerged victorious.
After two atomic bombs, Japan surrendered on September 2, and Allied forces did not need to invade the homeland. While many other American soldiers went home, the work of the Nisei in the MIS had just begun. Until 1952, countless Japanese American soldiers served as peacetime linguists during the occupation of Japan – helping to rebuild governance, establish democracy, and restore relations between the two former foes.
- 1Arnold G. Fisch, Jr., “Ryukyus: The US Army Campaigns of World War II,” US Army Center of Military History, last updated October 3, 2003, accessed January 3, 2015
- 2Warren T. and Takejiro Higa were two brothers serving with the 96th Infantry Division as Okinawan language specialists who had both grown up in Okinawa. See James C. McNaughton’s discussion of Takejiro Higa’s response to learning of the upcoming invasion in Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II (Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military History, 2006), pp. 356-7
- 3Ibid, p. 358.
- 4McNaughton, p. 361.
- 5Ibid, p. 359.
6Lyn Crost, Honor by Fire: Japanese Americans at War in Europe and the Pacific (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997), p. 276.
- 7Ibid, p. 280.
- 9Fisch, Jr.
ORAL HISTORY CLIPS
Takejiro Higa [tape 075]
Starts on Tape Two, between 24 minute mark and end of tape
TAKEJIRO HIGA: Then couple of days later I get an urgent call from our G2 colonel, Colonel Lindsey. They called me junior, see, because my brother and I served together in same outfit and they had a hard time to try to attempt to pronounce my Japanese name Higa Takejiro, so they called me Junior. “Hey Junior, go to corps headquarters with Captain Fernandez.” So okay, I went. I was wondering what corps headquarters wants me – just plain but staff sergeant with T T3 – what they want to know from me. So anyway, I went to corps headquarters. As soon as I entered the corps headquarters G2 tent my hair stood up and I had cold sweat because in the center of the tent there was a huge map of the southern half of Okinawa hanging. My first thought was, my God, next invasion is Okinawa. So I had actually cold sweat. So I just stared at the map and the picture hanging over there. So the captain said, “Higa, come sit down.” And he said, “You lived in Okinawa for some years?” I said, “Yes, sir.”
Victor Nishijima [tape 005]
Starts on Tape Six, between 4 and 6 minute marks
[Victor Nishijima talks about his experience rescuing 150 Okinawan civilians from the tombs.]
VICTOR NISHIJIMA: And, well, getting back to rescuing these people out of that—the tomb, I was telling—I was running out of time. And I know I had to get ’em back. If I got lucky enough to get ’em out of the cave, I had to take ’em back to the beach which was a mile and a half or two miles back to the beach. So I was kind of getting desperate. So when—just when we pulled back and she nodded her head, our demolition—our Bomb Squad was picking up these—they had land mines. They made land mines out of 500-pound aerial bombs. And they were down below the—where we were at. Well, one of the guys set one of those bombs off and the whole thing blew up. And the concussion, although I was a long way above them and I had a cord tied around me, almost blew me right through that little opening. So, I says, “See, I’m telling you. They’re blowing those tombs up. So you’d better come out or they’re gonna blast you, you know, seal you up in there.” Then I luckily—that convinced them and they came out. I think they got that one group out. Then they went to the next tomb. I think they wound up with 150 or so.
Victor Nishijima [tape 005]
Starts on Tape Six, between 20 and 22 minute marks
VICTOR NISHIJIMA: Then after that, went up the line and they said, “Hey, there’s this woman’s up there with a little child. Go up there and get her.” So I thought, well, I didn’t give it a second thought, if you will, you know, you just go for broke. I just went out there, I didn’t even say one word to her, I just grabbed ’em and ran. Got ’em back so . . . Yeah. And I was thinkin’, “What the hell am I doin’ out in front of the front lines?” You know? Yeah.
075 Takejiro Higa [tape 075]
Starts on Tape Four, between 4 and 6 minute marks
This more emotional one, is, uh, interrogating my two classmates, almost towards the end of the Battle of Okinawa. These shabbily-clothed Japanese uniform soldiers came in. He got caught and first he was… they were in hiding in the cave but they didn’t come out. So the engineer blew out the entrance… blew the entrance and sealed them up. But two of them frantically dug themself out. This time the American GIs were waiting outside and so they didn’t make any resistance and surrendered and they were caught and brought into the division headquarters for interrogation. They looked very, very shabby, you know, looked really hungry. So I offered them DA ration. DA ration is a hard chocolate candy. It’s very hard, but, you nibble on them and then drink lot of water. One bite is equivalent to one meal, I understand. So before the invasion they give two, two each to each guys. By then, the [???] coming with kitchen equipment [???] regular meal. So emergency ration, they give it to the ration.
So I tried to give them. They wouldn’t eat. I said “Why aren’t you eating this?” “Oh, there may be poison.” [???] I said, you know, “You stupid.” So I nibbled at them to show them that this is not laced with poison. They gobbled up in no time. So I asked my brothers… my brother and his group, “Hey you guys still have the D ration left?” So I got two more. And give two more to each… I mean, one each to, again. And give them lot of water. By then their stomach is full and they were satisfied and, you know, hunger is gone. So give them time to compose themselves and start my interrogation. First, name, rank, and the unit they come from, where they come from, the village they come from, and how old are they, school they went to. And when they say school they attended, oh the name sounds, Okinawa name sounds [familiar]. And, I say, “What village you come from?” And they say a very familiar name. So I say “By the way, what school did you attend to?” Oh, they mentioned the name [???]. I said, “That’s the school I went to”.
Same school, my ears perked up. “Eh? [???] Then I start testing, one by one, detailed question.
“Was there, in your school, was there a school teacher named [???]?” They look at me. “How do you know Sensei Nakamura?” “Well, I tell you, I’m a graduate of United States Military Intelligence Language School, so I know everything about you guys. Don’t lie to me.” So “hoi-hoi-hoi” you know. Sensei was okay. I just saw him not too long ago because I saw him in another camp. He was, he got, he was digging a sweet potato and got caught, and, and, he was thrown into the compound, detention compound, but again MP saw him, and he was kind of husky and straightforward man, so suspected him being a soldier. Camp was close to my division headquarters so I got called in. And I recognized and said “Sensei” right away. Sensei, he looks at me. “Oh, it’s you.” So that’s it. Just two words. I called him “Sensei”, and he called me “Oh, it’s you.” So I explained to my escort officer, Captain Fernandez, “Oh, this guy used to be my school-teacher, 7th and 8th grade teacher at the [???].” “He’s not soldier?” “He’s a civilian. So please send him back to the camp where his family is detained.”
The detention camp was, I think, close by. I don’t know where the, exactly, where the camp was, but anyway, he was sent back. So I interrogated Sensei, just two words, you know: “Sensei.” So I know Sensei was okay and mentioned this to the two guys. [???] It’s the same words, but, for some reason, they changed the name to Nakamura. [???] is okay. I met him not too long ago.”
Same thing again. “How you know [???] Sensei?” “I told you I know everything about you guys, so don’t lie to me, you know.” “Hoi-hoi-hoi.” Then [???] start questioning about myself and them. “By the way, in your class, from Shimobuku, village of Shimobuku, was there a person by the name of Takejiro Higa?” “Huh? How do you know him?” “Didn’t I tell you, I know everything about you guys. Don’t lie to me.” “Yeah, yeah.” “Do you know where he is now?” One guy said, “I think he went back to Hawaii.” Other guy said, “Oh, we haven’t seen each other for so long. Probably we don’t recognize him.” “I see. If you see him today you won’t know, eh?” “No, I don’t think so.” “So okay.”
So I start questioning, questioning, and finally I was positive these two guys were my classmate. I yell at them and said, “Goddamn it! Don’t you recognize your own classmate?” They look at me, in shock, you know. So, and, they start crying. “Why are you crying?” “Well, we, until now, when this, after this interrogation is over, and our usefulness is over, you guys might take us over the hill and shoot them. Now knowing that our own classmate’s on the other side of the fence, we figure our life will be saved. So we’re crying for happiness.” That kind of hit me. So three of us grabbed each other’s shoulders, and I don’t mind telling you, we had a cry.