The burst of our own artillery shells was clearly discernible as they landed on the hill in billows of flame and smoke and the whistle that accompanied them and then the boom of the guns in the rear. Our ears were filled with the din of the battle and the smell of gunpowder penetrated our nostrils with the burning sensation. This, however, was almost overcome by the stench of rotting flesh while the sting and the stickiness of the flies became almost unbearable. The … dirty, slimy troops around us seemed somewhat oblivious to most of these happenings, only concentrating on their particular job.
—From George Feifer’s The Battle of Okinawa
The absence of signage made finding it a challenge. It was a steamy-hot autumn day. Leaving the comfortable air conditioning of the taxi, my sunglasses immediately fogged-up. As a native of the American South, I am used to heat and humidity, but this was something different. A half-hour later, Zachary and I were soaked with sweat from walking up a nice, gentle sidewalk leading to what the U.S. Marines who fought here called “Hacksaw Ridge.”
Standing on the edge of this escarpment—one of many on Okinawa with similarly bloody histories—we tried to imagine it as it was then. That is, of course, difficult for several reasons, but complicating things still further was Hacksaw Ridge now. Looking out over the peaceful, green slopes below, it bore little resemblance to the black and white photographs of a gray, muddy mass where nothing, not even grass, grew in those violent spring days that locals still call “the Typhoon of Steel.” On the contrary, in the middle distance one sees a beautiful coastline that is now populated with hotels, resorts, and industry instead of the battleships and landing craft that filled these waters between April – June of 1945. How could such a place be the site of some of the most brutal, merciless fighting in the history of warfare?
It was more than mere curiosity that brought us here. I had come to see this place, indeed, to feel the power of it, that I might be reminded of the extraordinary sacrifice that was made for Americans like me. Yes, Americans like me who have never known the privation and suffering that comes with life under a totalitarian regime. Most Americans have been spared that experience because of men like those who clawed their way, inch by inch, across this island and dozens of other islands in the Pacific just like it. What sort of mighty men were they who fought and died here? Greatest Generation, indeed.
I have walked a dozen battlefields, from Hastings and Normandy to Marathon and Moscow, but there was something especially savage about the fighting in the Pacific Theater of Operations during the Second World War. Read Alabama-born E.B. Sledge’s classic memoir With the Old Breed and you get a glimpse of one man’s personal horror on this and other islands. Only the fighting on the Eastern Front between Germany and the Soviet Union matched it in ferocity. And while Americans quite rightly celebrate Operation Overlord (more popularly known as “D-Day”) and the subsequent liberation of Europe, the Battle of Okinawa was similar in scale, longer in duration, and saw far more casualties, but, for some unknown reason, it remains obscure in the American mind.
Consider it statistically. According to historian George Feifer, 22,000 tons of matériel were delivered to Iwo Jima daily during the heat of that battle. That is only 15 percent of the total necessary to sustain soldiers on Okinawa. Moreover, the invasion force consisted of 1,457 ships covering more than thirty square miles of ocean and involved roughly half a million men. In contrast to the cross-Channel Overlord invasion, forces for “Operation Iceberg,” the code name for the Okinawa invasion, were deployed from bases in San Francisco—6,200 miles away—and Pearl Harbor—more than 4,000 miles away. It was an awesome feat of logistics. By the time the Battle of Okinawa was over, 14,000 American boys—and they were, mostly, boys—had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Was it worth it?
Our forefathers thought so. Having made the logical connection between the atrocities to which Imperial Japan was subjecting Asia and Oceania—genocide, rape, slaughter, suicide bombers (i.e., kamikazes), expansionist ambitions—they were resolved to unseat the ideology that had given rise to those evil actions.
And let’s be very clear on this point: they were fighting an enemy that was every bit as fanatical as ISIS or Al-Qaeda. At Okinawa alone, approximately ten Japanese soldiers fought to the death for every one that surrendered. In addition to Hacksaw Ridge, Zachary and I sought out the cliffs from which Okinawan women hurled themselves and their children; the tunnels where Japanese soldiers committed suicide; and the jungles where they rushed headlong into American machine-gun emplacements armed with no more than sharpened bamboo sticks. Such was their ideological devotion, that the last Japanese soldier did not surrender until 1974.
Even so, our forefathers, with perseverance and a steely determination, fought them, from one bloody Pacific rock to another, until they had defeated them and supplanted the evil ideology that had produced such fanaticism in the first place. So successful were they that to visit modern Japan is to visit one of the most democratic, peaceful nations on earth. More than that, America is, generally speaking, popular with the Japanese. As one Japanese woman told me, “The Japanese people are envious of America: your way of life and your freedom. America is the standard.”
Returning from Hacksaw and the beaches that saw Americans drive a stake through the heart of Japanese fascism, I glanced at my phone and saw this headline: “Muslim Scholar Says Stop Pretending Orthodox Islam and Violence Aren’t Linked.” What was this, a satirical piece in The Onion? Not at all. It was in Time. Such a headline is to state the obvious to any rational person only casually acquainted with terrorist acts like 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo. With my heart and mind full of a place that symbolizes America’s total commitment to the demolition of an ideology very much like radical Islam, I tried to imagine a similarly idiotic headline in December 1941: “Japanese Scholar Says Attack on Pearl Harbor and Japanese Emperor-worship Are Linked.” But it was too much. That was a very different America.
Not unlike America’s enemies today, the Empire of Japan had judged America to be a spiritually weak nation that lacked the will to fight. In this, they were spectacularly wrong. One wonders, however, if now such an assessment of our national character rings with more than a little truth.
Americans might do well to remember who we once were.
Image Credit: Flickr