The Battle for Okinawa, long over-shadowed amidst the vast chronicle that is the Second World War, was the single-most crucial engagement of the War in the Pacific. This epic struggle, nearest to the home islands of Japan, and the closest among all previous Pacific engagements, became “The Rising Sun’s” last opportunity and hope of stopping the Allied forces from entering the mainland – epitomizing for Japan, the term: “total war.” Japanese citizens – young children, old men, even women – were prepared to fight alongside the remaining two-million Japanese soldiers in the event of an Allied invasion of the home islands. That apocalyptic-like scenario, for either adversary, failed to materialize. Saving hundreds of thousands of lives, some historians even suggest millions – for both sides – from the carnage of war in Japan was the largest land-sea-air battle in history – the Battle for Okinawa.
The Allied nations achieved victory on Okinawa in June of 1945. Six weeks later Japan surrendered – the war was finally over. But what had transpired between 1 April and Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s surrender message to his people on 15 August? Much had happened – the largest land-air-sea battle in history occurred. Mankind entered the nuclear age forever with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan; the first on Hiroshima (6 August ‘45) and the second on Nagasaki (9 August ’45), both incinerating thousands of Japanese civilians. The Soviet Union renounced its pact of non-aggression (the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact) with Japan and invaded Manchuria on 9 August 1945 – thereby creating the potential for the largest pincer movement in military history – save for the Sea of Japan.
This paper will explore the role of Okinawa in the Emperor’s decision to sway the Supreme Council for the Direction of the War towards capitulation – and the role popular history has played, unintentionally, in manipulating the significance of this battle. The traditional thought for Japanese capitulation is also explored. My thesis contends that the fighting and losses by Japan on Okinawa had a devastating effect on morale –this realization by the Emperor that war must end started the talk of surrender before the atomic bombings and the Soviet entry in to the war against Japan. This is explained in more detail later on under the subtitle “Hirohito and the Supreme War Council.”
What Role in History?
The 82-day Battle of Okinawa was over-shadowed by one the most dramatic photographic images in history: the Flag Raising on Mount Suribachi; itself, forever embedded in history in its own battle on Iwo Jima. The Battle of Iwo Jima had culminated in Allied victory a mere 37 days prior. The ninth of August 1945 saw another iconic image – the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan. Overlooked in history between these two dramatic events was Okinawa – the beginning of the end for Japan’s war. There were no bond drives created as a result of its fighting; led by then-and-now legendary flag raisers, or iconic photographs taken amidst the fighting on Okinawa. Could this account for Okinawa’s marginalized role in the Pacific and Allied victories? My contention is that it can – in similar fashion to the western treatment of the Soviet Union’s role in Allied victory over Germany in Europe.
This marginalization of Okinawa’s critical role is noted by George Feifer in The Battle for Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb:
While Washington’s honored place for the statue of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima is entirely proper, the indifference to the longer, harder-fought, much more costly Battle of Okinawa is baffling … [another] puzzle is why so little is remembered – more precisely was never appreciated, even then – about the relatively huge American sacrifice. The whole nightmarish experience went into a kind of black hole of national memory.
Feifer notes the indifference in popular culture of Okinawa: “Although hundreds of books have been written about the atomic devastation, the far greater Okinawan one – cultural, material, and spiritual, as well as corporal – remains unknown to most Americans.” There have been far fewer books written about the Battle of Okinawa and its consequence than of the atomic bombings or the Battle of Iwo Jima.
In 1946, Roy E. Appleman, James M. Burns, Russell A. Gugeler, and John Stevens completed Okinawa: The Last Battle which was the result of their work while leading historians of the 1st Information and Historical Service, Tenth Army during the war. Okinawa is a complete battle history that reads like an after-action report. The group was created to write the history while it was taking place – to ensure accuracy and legacy. From the concluding paragraphs, the team offers: “The military value of Okinawa exceeded all hope. It was sufficiently large to mount great numbers of troops; it provided numerous airfield sites close to the enemy’s homeland; and it furnished fleet anchorage helping the Navy to keep in action at Japan’s doors.” At the book’s writing and completion in 1946, this team of US Army historians was already aware of the historical significance of the battle.
How could this monumental and heroic effort by US and other Allied forces become relegated to secondary status? One possible explanation might offer the role of media and mass culture and their effects on public consciousness as a factor. Familiarity with western culture as opposed to lesser known facets of Eastern culture might explain the predilection to the history of the War in Europe for example. Far more has been written on D-Day and the War in Europe than any other battle or theater of the Second World War. This fact may begin to offer insight into aversion for history from the Pacific War and Eastern cultures. Consider how little has been written on the China – Burma – India Theater from the war. A similar search for bibliography through Amazon returns little on Okinawa during World War II.
Okinawa by the Overwhelming Numbers
After D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, the amphibious invasion of Okinawa was the largest in history. The numbers represented over-whelming odds for the Allies – post-war records suggest a two-to-one ratio, in favor of the attacking United States Marine Corps and Army assault units. Okinawa represented a final stand for Japanese troops; and as such, represented the most vicious fighting of the war. The casualties nearly equaled those of the previous three years of war in the Pacific – including Pearl Harbor. The United States Navy suffered more casualties at Okinawa than any previous engagement in either ocean. More than twice the number of American service members were killed or wounded in the Ryukyu Islands campaign than on Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal – combined. Okinawa took the lives of more than 100,000 Japanese soldiers, sailors, and aviators; as compared to over 12,000 Americans. Equally as alarming was the number of Okinawan civilians that had perished – as many as 150,000 or one-third of the entire population. This island battle represented the worst defeat of the war for Japan and the genesis of dilemma for Japanese Emperor Hirohito and his leaders: “… the emperor intervened early and often for he believed – as he told Chief of Staff [Yoshijiro] Umezu – ‘if this battle [Okinawa] turns out badly, the army and navy will lose the trust of the nation. We have to think about the impact it could have on the future war situation.’ ”
This final defeat for Japan represented something far greater for Hirohito and the Supreme War Council – they were convinced that the Allied forces would be stopped in the Ryukyu Islands. Japan was prepared to ground their super battleship Yamato in the vain attempt to turn the decision in their favor: “… the last real sortie of the Imperial Japanese Navy the ships were used as diversionary bait. A dash was to be made by the mighty battleship Yamato and accompanying ships, designed to draw off as many American carrier planes as possible, thus leaving the Allied naval forces vulnerable to a large-scale kamikaze raid.” (The Yamato was sunk by Allied naval bombs and torpedoes on April 7th) The Japanese troops at Okinawa were considered their best; the fight which they were to bring was to be the most ferocious of any battle in the Pacific. In the aftermath, the Japanese 32nd Army lost its crack 9th Division to the Allied firepower. On the island, American marines and soldiers outnumbered the Japanese by a ratio of two-to-one. Japan gave all it had to the fight but still suffered defeat – their war was over.
Hirohito & the Supreme War Leadership Council
Realization that the war was going badly in April of 1945 (fighting of Okinawa has commenced April 1st) had set the Emperor in motion – Hirohito removed his cabinet members and took steps to install a new government under retired Admiral Suzuki Kantaro. At that point, there was no indication or movement to change the government’s policy towards peace. It was only after the loss on Okinawa that Hirohito “indicated his desire for peace and started looking for ways to end the war.”
The crisis was so grave following the defeat on Okinawa that the Supreme War Council put the topic of surrender to a vote on August 9th. Split three versus three, the council invoked the right of the emperor (allowable under the Meiji constitution) to cast the deciding vote: “The Japanese race was in danger of extinction if the war continued; preserving even part of the nation left a glimmer of hope that it could rise again in the future. Emperor Hirohito was unexpectedly masterful at making the decision that it was best to ‘bear the unbearable, endure the unendurable, and seek peace.’ ” This observation by Carol Gluck and Stephen R. Graubard in Showa: The Japan of Hirohito, highlights the turning point for Japan and its quest for peace and their new search for a way out of the war which they had created.
Herbert P. Bix in his masterpiece Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan notes that “The twin psychological shocks of the first atomic bomb and the and the Soviet entry into the war, coupled with Kido’s and the emperor’s concern over growing popular criticism of the throne and its occupant, and their almost paranoiac fear that, sooner or later, the people would react violently against their leaders if they allowed the war to go much longer – these factors finally caused Hirohito to accept, in principle, the terms of the Potsdam Declaration.’ ”
The Japan of the Showa era was steeped in the Bushido, or warrior code. To be so soundly defeated on Okinawa, only the wisdom of the Emperor himself could cast the deciding vote for the Supreme War Council and stop the war for Japan, thereby preserving the Japanese people from further annihilation on the main island.
Re-evaluation of Traditional Thought
My thesis dismisses the propositions by other historians which defer to the quick-and-easy schools of thought; those that neatly suggest the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the Soviet entry in to war against Japan as a reason for Japanese capitulation. These over-simplified explanations, found in volumes of history, ignore important data and evidence offered previously.
University of Chicago Political Science professor Robert Pape suggests Japan’s ultimate consideration for capitulation as: “The principal cause of Japan’s surrender was the ability of the United States to increase the military vulnerability of Japan’s home islands, persuading Japanese leaders that defense of the homeland was highly unlikely to succeed. The key military factor causing this effect was the sea blockade, which crippled Japan’s ability to produce and equip the forces necessary to execute its strategy.” This naval sea blockade was made possible by many factors in the Pacific. The US Navy was able to utilize undersea submarine warfare as the strong-arm effecting this blockade. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison writes in The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War that “The United States submarine was destined to be one of the most devastating weapons in the Pacific. General Tojo, after the war, said that the destruction of her merchant marine was one of three factors that defeated Japan, the other two being leapfrog strategy and fast carrier operations.” Not coincidentally, these preceding factors allude to the victory on Okinawa as the culminating point of decision for US and Allied victory over Japan.
Max Hastings, in Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45, in his discussion of legacies in hindsight writes that “they [Japan] were induced to quit by fuel starvation, the collapse of industry caused by blockade and in lesser degree aerial bombardment, together with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria and the atomic bombs.” Interestingly, he minimizes the effects of the Allied victories in the Philippines, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa – a stance that I cannot find agreement with.
To those historians who remain steadfast in their assertion that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki facilitated the surrender decision, Pape’s research suggests otherwise. Pape’s expertise lies within coercive strategies of airpower and bombing strategies; his first book Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War, argues that bombing campaigns do not succeed in bringing a country or its people to surrender. To the contrary, Pape says, such bombing campaigns only serve to unify the targeted population, its government, and leaders. The conventional bombings of mainland Japan, in the months preceding the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulted in more deaths – suggesting that bombing alone might not be the sole reason for final surrender.
The Soviet Union’s entry in to the war against Japan has been the less-cited of the two more popular conventional theories postulated by historians. There seems to be the most contentious debate between the role of the Soviet invasion and the atomic bombings. Historians make effective arguments in either case as noted here. Taken however in parallel with the atomic attacks, the Soviet’s new role had a dramatic effect in hastening decision, as noted by Richard B. Frank in Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire:
Soviet intervention would very likely have shaped the prospects for success of any intervention by the Emperor to end the war, but in which direction is not certain. Without the impetus provided by atomic weapons, the Soviet attack might have come one or two weeks later in August, but delay would have eased, not diminished, the Soviet triumph on the continent. Under an optimistic scenario, a later Soviet attack grants more time for the Japanese to assess the implications of the rail bombings, thus increasing the impact of the Soviet intervention and enhancing the chances of surrender. Further, the spectacle of Soviet troops landing on Hokkaido, with the possibility that they could reach Honshu, would significantly increase the incentive for capitulation.
Frank notes however that “… the Imperial Army had already written off Manchuria” in 1945. “Soviet intervention did not validate the Ketsu-Go military and political strategy.”  Frank provides the following quote from Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki in December 1945, which refutes any merit to Soviet entry into the war as a determining factor:
The Supreme War Council, up to the time [that] the atomic bomb was dropped, did not believe that Japan could be beaten by air attack alone. They also believed that the United States would land and not attempt to bomb Japan out of the war. On the other hand there were many prominent people who did believe that the United States could win the war by just bombing alone. However the Supreme War Council, not believing that, had proceeded with the plan of fighting a decisive battle at the landing point and was making every possible preparation to meet such a landing. They proceed[ed] with that plan until the Atomic Bomb was dropped, after which they believed the United States … need not land when it had such a weapon; so at that point they decided that would be best to sue for peace.
University of California Professor of History Tsuyoshi Hasegawa in Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan, offers that there was competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to be the first to secure the surrender – a struggle for control of the post-war Far East.  Hasegawa is convinced that it was the Soviet entry into the fray and not the atomic bombs that induced surrender. His work in Racing the Enemy is excellent, but offers little merit to Okinawa and the Emperor’s deciding vote of August 9th.
There can be no argument that the final months of 1945 saw a complexity of events that ultimately brought about the final surrender of Japan. Any entry-point into the discussion, whether it be the Soviet Union’s ending of the Neutrality Pact of 1941, or atomic weapons, will eventually lead in either of two directions – Hirohito’s surrender speech to his people or the final set-piece battle of the entire war on Okinawa. The defeat on Okinawa was the impetus for Emperor Hirohito to seek peace and find a way to end the war.
Displaced in popular history and western consciousness as “another island battle” fought somewhere in the Pacific by the US Marine Corps, US Navy, US Army and naval personnel from Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, there are those educated to the appropriate distinction attributed to the aftermath of those eighty-two days in the Ryukyu Islands. Okinawa was the battle that history will reflect as the most difficult and consequential struggle of the entire Second World War.
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Bix, Herbert P. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.
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McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
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Wetzler, Peter. Hirohito and War: Imperial Tradition and Military Decision Making in prewar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.
 George Feifer, The Battle for Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 1992) xi.
 Ibid., xi-xii.
 Ibid., xii.
 Roy E. Appleman, James M. Burns, Russell A. Gugeler, and John Stevens, Okinawa: The Last Battle (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2011) 474.
 Max Hastings, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (New York: Vintage Books, 2009) 371.
 George Feifer, The Battle for Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 1992) 413.
 Ibid., xi.
 William Craig, The Fall of Japan: The Last Blazing Weeks of World War II (Greens Farms, CT: Wildcat Publishing, 1967) 16.
 David McCullough, Truman (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992) 395.
 Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000) 484.
 Paul S. Dull, A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945) 333.
 George Feifer, The Battle for Okinawa: The Blood and the Bomb (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 1992) 429.
 Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000) 493.
 Peter Wetzler, Hirohito and War: Imperial Tradition and Military Decision Making in Prewar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998) 166.
 Carol Gluck and Stephen R. Graubard, eds., Showa: The Japan of Hirohito (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990) 97-98.
 Herbert P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000) 511.
 Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963) 493.
 Max Hastings, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 (New York: Vintage Books, 2009) 542.
 Richard B. Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2001) 356.
 Ibid., 347.
 Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.) 2-4.