Bayonets and Atomic Bombs

April 01, 1995

Fifty years ago today [apr. 1] the last battle of World War II began. It was also the bloodiest of all the Pacific battles. It was also the most influential in a sense, because of a later momentous event it was in large part responsible for.

The battle was the U.S. invasion of Okinawa. Okinawa was the largest of a string of islands the Japanese had annexed in the 19th century. It was only 350 miles from the Japanese home island of Kyushu. Thus control of it meant a fleet harbor, a staging area for huge numbers of troops and airfields for bombers on the very threshold of Japan.

No wonder that the Japanese fought so viciously to prevent the conquest of Okinawa. An historian writing 40 years later characterized the fighting, which lasted till late June, as "hand to hand and bayonet against bayonet." It was that and more. In addition to the 49,151 battle casualties among U.S. Army and Marine forces and over 100,000 Japanese killed, there were 150,000 Okinawan civilian deaths; 52 vessels of both navies were sunk and 372 damaged, and over 8,000 planes were lost.

It was not realized at the time that this would be the war's last battle. Many Americans believed a worse blood bath lay ahead. The official U.S. Army history of the Okinawa campaign, written in 1945 and 1946, put it this way: "As soon as the fighting ended, American forces on Okinawa set themselves to preparing for battles on the main islands of Japan, their thoughts sober as they remembered the bitter bloodshed behind and also envisioned an even more desperate struggle to come."

Okinawa loomed large in the memories and visions of war planners and national leaders as they contemplated an invasion of Japan. Winston Churchill later recalled his bleak mood this way: "I had in my mind the spectacle of Okinawa Island, where many thousands of Japanese, rather than surrender, had drawn up in line and destroyed themselves by hand grenades. To quell the Japanese resistance man by man and conquer the country yard by yard might well require the loss of a million American lives and half that number of British -- or more. . . ."

President Truman and many of his chief advisers had similar Okinawa-generated fears -- as they debated in the early summer of 1945 whether to use atomic bombs on Japan.

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