The Battle of Okinawa: Summary & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The Battle of Okinawa was the largest and deadliest campaign in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Learn about this culminating and crucial battle and some of its key facts in this lesson.

Towards Victory

Did you know that the atomic bombings of Japan ended World War II in the Pacific Theater? That end result was due to battles undertaken on many key Pacific Ocean islands by the United States and its allies. These battles, though burdensome and costing many lives, were vital to the defeat of the Japanese Empire. One such engagement, the Battle of Okinawa, (oh-kee-now-ah) was the deadliest of the war, yet helped enable hostilities to end. In this lesson, discover the lead up to the conflict, the order of the battle, and its aftermath.

War in the Pacific

On December 7, 1941 the Japanese Empire covertly bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The surprising and cunning attack devastated the nation. Revenge was vowed, yet at the onset things did not go well for the U.S.; the Japanese kept expanding and conquering in the Pacific and seemed unstoppable. The U.S. and its allies rallied and were able to start gaining ground at the Battle of Midway in 1942.

Military leadership realized early on that, considering the vast area the Japanese controlled, taking over the many islands dotting the Pacific would be crucial to victory. Over the next three years, American soldiers, sailors, and marines fought on little specks of land in places many Americans had never heard of: Tarawa (tear-ah-wuh), Midway, Saipan (sigh-pan), Luzon (loo-zone), and Cape Gloucester (glowh-stir).

With each skirmish, there was significant bloodshed. The Japanese fought ruthlessly to the end in all cases, refusing to surrender even in the face of obvious defeat. The Allies began to push the Japanese off occupied islands and Japan started to run out of ships, planes, and soldiers as the war continued.

FACT: Japanese soldiers fought to the death because of the samurai code of Bushido; they believed in death before defeat.

A Crucial Campaign

As 1944 turned into 1945, the Japanese were pushed back onto what they considered their 'home' territory on the Ryukyu (Rye-oo-kajoo) Islands, one of which was called Okinawa. This island was crucial to the American war strategy; from there, they could successfully launch bombing raids on the Japanese homeland.

On March 24, 1945 the U.S. Navy sent volleys of artillery bombings and air raids on the island to weaken the forces located there. Eight days later, hundreds of thousands of soldiers landed on Okinawa's beaches in what was called Operation Iceberg. Their mission: capturing or destroying the island's air bases. From here, mainland Japan was easily accessible.

FACT: The original landing had 287,000 U.S. troops versus 130,000 Japanese soldiers.

Landing on the Beach at Okinawa

For two and a half months, the American soldiers fought in four critical areas of the island with specific strategies: take the eastern coast of the island, followed by the northern part, then take the outlying islands surrounding Okinawa, and finally defeat the embedded Japanese troops. Sounds pretty straightforward, but this battle was different.

In prior battles, the Japanese tended to engage their enemies right on the beach. At Okinawa, they fell back into the jungles of the island to gain what little advantage they could as a defensive force. The Japanese used caves, pillboxes (fortified positions), and the jungle to their advantage. They also resumed a deadly tactic on the seas: kamikaze attacks. Brave pilots loaded their planes with high explosives and crashed into ships, destroying several, including their attached aircraft.

Japanese pillbox at Okinawa

FACT: Kamikaze pilots were really the only offensive approach used by the Japanese during the Battle of Okinawa.

The aircraft carrier U.S.S. Bunker Hill burns after being hit by a kamikaze plane
USS Bunker Hill

As mentioned, the battle plan was to take the airfields via four fronts. The first three were very swift, but defeating the embedded troops was not as easy. The Japanese mentality of fighting to the death, combined with their stealth-like tactics, cost many lives on both sides. One civilian survivor, in discussing the bloodshed, said that, 'It was a scene straight out of hell.' Such violence continued until June.

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