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Battle for Okinawa

Argus “Gus” Harold Forbus
AP Photo/U.S. Marine Corps, Arthur F. Hager Jr.

PRELUDE BY STEVE RANSON

EDITOR, LAHONTAN VALLEY NEWS

James Forbus had worked with his father, Argus “Gus” Harold Forbus, in crafting an account of the Marines fighting in the South Pacific during World War II. James Forbus was kind in releasing the manuscript to the LVN last year in which our pages told of his father’s days in preparing and then fighting on Guadalcanal. Unfortunately, because of page limitation, we could not continue Gus Forbus’ narrative on his unit preparing for the invasion of Okinawa during the last year of World War II.

“We arrived off Okinawa the night of March 31, 1945. You cannot imagine the sight, and I hope I never see the like of it again. Ships of every description were as far as you could see. The air was full of fighter planes. All types of guns were firing from the battleships to the LSTs. It seemed that every ship was firing at the island. The planes and ships made coordinated attacks at the island landing beaches while the landing craft took the troops to the beach. The shelling of the island was unbelievable.”

Likewise, space constraints for today’s article have also condensed his reflections on preparing for one of the bloodiest battles in the United States’ methodical island-to-island march to Japan.

The elder Forbus spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps before leaving the service and accepting civilian employment. His travels eventually took him to Fallon where he settled down before his untimely passing in early 2012. Although he retired from the military, Gus Forbus also availed himself whenever help was needed. As I mentioned in my prelude last year, I first met Gus Forbus more than 20 years ago when I was serving as a captain in a Nevada Army National Guard battalion, and he assisted the command staff with his expertise in military-related issues.

As I reflect on Gus Forbus’ accounts on him seeing action in the Pacific, I also am also fast-forwarding ahead to the D-Day celebration on June 6, 2014, when the Allies stormed Normandy to force the German army to retreat. With each passing celebration, members of the “Greatest Generation” are passing away, thus taking their stories with them. It is my intent to share Gus’ Forbus story with the younger generations in hopes they understand the monumental tasks that our fathers or grandfathers encountered in fighting a war on two fronts.

TRAINING FOR OKINAWA

New Caledonia — After the Guam operation secured that hard-won island in July 1944, the Corps formed the 6th Marine Division from the Provisional Brigade, which had the 4th, 22nd and 29th Marine Regiments. The 15th Marine Regiment was the 6th Marine Division’s artillery regiment.

The original 4th Marine Regiment was known as the “China Marines” and was transferred from China to Corregidor just before the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. It was captured, along with the other military units,at Corregidor. The new 4th Regiment was formed from the Raiders and the Para-Marines. Due to their combat records, it was deemed these units were qualified to carry on the title of 4th Marines.

Training for Okinawa was fairly relaxed as the majority of us, especially the NCOs, had combat experience and we understood what we were up against. We knew that unless everyone was properly trained we would be the ones to suffer. I was involved in training green troops headed for the various combat zones. About half of us instructors had had combat experience; we really gave the young officers and new troops valuable training which later, we learned, paid off in reduced casualties. They received close overhead live-fire from machine guns. We instructors were right in there with them to give them moral support. We took them through realistic ambushes – how to set them and how to get out of them when necessary. For training purposes, we had a mock village built, complete with two-story buildings. We concentrated a lot on close-in fighting with a lot of hand-to-hand combat.

This training paid off when we entered Naha on Okinawa. The city had been well pounded by bombing, artillery and naval gunfire, but there were still some snipers and small amounts of troops holding out that caused trouble in delaying our advance. We had several of the troops that were part of that training that were part of our Division and it made me feel good to know that I was part of the training that helped keep him alive on Okinawa.

TRAINING ON GUADALCANAL

Returning to Guadalcanal was a little eerie; it was nothing like it was when we left it in 1942. In 1944, there was tent city with coral roads and almost “civilized” as compared to when we left it. By then, it was like any other Pacific island that the United States had occupied and transformed into a rear echelon area.

Our training for Okinawa was relatively easy since most of us had at least one invasion behind us. We were in the field by daylight and would be back by noon or soon after. We had the afternoons off, or we used the time for training in small groups or by individuals. Later, before we could load up on the LSTs, we had to police the area so that it would be clean for the next group of troops who were scheduled to arrive. Once that was done, we found a way to get into the beer. We had a party to celebrate our leaving Guadalcanal; we knew that some of us were likely not to return to the states after the upcoming operation.

We loaded out from Guadalcanal on troop transports. It was a pretty boring trip, as most of them were. We did go ashore for a few hours at the staging area at the Ulilhi Islands. We were on the APAs transferred onto LSTs since we would hit the beach in amphibian tractors. We were really crowded on the LSTs; a sardine in a can had more room and in a few days we smelled like dead fish. What made it worse was the food was lousy, though the Navy did try to do us better. Life on the LST #794 was somewhat better than on the troop transports since there were fewer troops and they were your own entire unit.

We did almost continuous briefings on the terrain, reptiles and the native population’s history and customs. Weapons and enemy troop numbers were always a strong subject of interest. We spent hours studying maps, which we later found to be useless. When we had time, we practiced loading into the amphibian personnel carrier tractors until each man knew exactly where his position was in the landing craft. Each man not only knew his position in the landing craft, but how to find it in the dark. We NCOs kept the troops as busy as we could.

The morning of the invasion people always hear of the “last meal” before loading into the landing craft being steak and eggs or something exotic like that. If you are a unit leader like me, you don’t have time to eat since you’re so busy you don’t have time to even think of food. The day we landed on Okinawa, my breakfast was a can of cold C rations about 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon after we crossed the Yon Tan Air Field. I didn’t have time to heat them.

OKINAWA INVASION

We arrived off Okinawa the night of March 31, 1945. You cannot imagine the sight and I hope I never see the like of it again. Ships of every description were as far as you could see. The air was full of fighter planes. All types of guns were firing, from the battleships to the LSTs. It seemed that every ship was firing at the island. The planes and ships made coordinated attacks at the island the landing beaches while the landing craft took the troops to the beach.

The shelling of the island was unbelievable; we wondered how anything or anyone could survive the shelling and bombing. During all this shelling our group on the landing craft saw one of our planes shot down by “friendly fire.” It was completely unnecessary as the pilot was well above the field of fire. Some gun crew got over zealous and went after him. The falling, burning plane with the pilot still in it opened our eyes to the reality of it all. That sight definitely changed the attitudes of a number of the younger, inexperienced Marines in our landing craft.

The first wave of troops, of which my squad was a part of, landed on Okinawa on Easter Sunday, April Fool’s Day, 1945. It’s difficult to describe the troops under such circumstances. Many were young and most were scared, and all of us going into the unknown. The invasion plans called for A Company to be Battalion Reserve. I don’t know what happened, but we wound up in the first wave. We hit the beach running. There was practically no resistance to the landing. We did hit some delaying action by Japanese troops between the beach and Yon Tan Air Field. Everyone’s adrenaline was high, especially young Lieutenant Walker. He stuck by me like I was his father, even after we hit the beach. We were moving so fast that it apparently confused the Japanese, which made it easier to take out the machine guns and snipers of the delaying forces. We tried to bypass the snipers when possible and let the following troops take them out, as they were doing very little damage. My squad didn’t lose a man until after we had reached Yon Tan Air Field on the first day.

At the initial landing on April 1, the rest of our company and the battalion caught up with us after we crossed Yon Tan. As far as my squad were concerned, the landing went great. We crossed Yon Tan in about five hours and the battle plan estimated it would take five hard days to attack and occupy. I guess I was feeling cocky and sure of myself after that. We pushed on until we hit more level ground that was traversed by a large dry stream bed that was lined with occupied man-made caves and pillboxes. We had to clear them out with white phosphorus and fragmentation grenades as the Japanese would not surrender — even when it was hopeless.

Once the caves were sealed, we could push on, but the Japanese defense was very stubborn and solid. They had light machine guns, mortars and at least two 47mm anti-tank guns, all manned by well-trained troops. The resistance was so stiff that I had to call in our machine gun section, and then ask for company support or any support available. I didn’t care if it was air, artillery or naval gunfire. I realized that I was in over my head with this heavily defended position and we needed reinforcements or get out of there as we were pinned down and couldn’t move either way. I got the word from the company commander to withdraw for the time being as no help was available. Fortunately, we hadn’t suffered any men killed.

MOUNT YAETAKE

At the north end of Okinawa was a high and extremely steep mountain, Mt. Yaetake, which had to be taken. The Japanese really fought us for that ground, as they had an important command post on top of the mountain. They made a strong defense of the approach to the mountain. It was so steep that no wheeled or tracked vehicles could make it up the mountain to act as our support. We battled for three or four days with scattered resistance before we hit their main line of resistance. It was there that we had a minor, pathetic banzai attack on the second day of the attack, but we easily repulsed it; however, the next day was when we had our first real banzai attack on the island. This attack was terrifying.

Screaming Japanese soldiers rushed headlong at our positions with fixed bayonets, firing wildly. We would push up the hill and the Japanese would push us back down the hill. We would not go beyond our wounded, not after what the Japanese on Guadalcanal had done to our wounded. In the end, we finally pushed them back up the hill and they kept going off the hill in retreat. It was a good thing, as we were almost out of ammunition and out of hand.

We pressed on to Mount Yaetake and it strong opposition. The terrain was rolling ground defended by veteran Japanese infantrymen. Air strikes were called in, as was naval gunfire from the battleships and cruisers anchored off the coast. Tanks were a great help, but often fell prey to the well-hidden anti-tank guns. Once we got to the foot of the mountain, it was so steep that no ground vehicles, even tanks, could maneuver. To deal with the defended caves, since the tanks couldn’t get close enough to deploy their flame throwers, we had to rely on the flamethrower men who accompanied our squads. Mount Yaetake was so steep that we had to claw our way up the mountain. The Japanese were not going to make it easy for us. C Company, our sister company, was on our right; a sheer cliff was on our left and a lot of determined Japanese in our front who were going to keep us off of the mountain.

We would push the Japanese back up the mountain a short way, but then they would reorganize and come back at us with bayonets, grenades and rifles blazing. We’d have to dig in to stop them and it seemed to go on forever. It was Marine against Japanese — man to man. Our casualties were very high; theirs were much higher but they would not give up and withdraw. At least our right flank was protected by Company C, so we didn’t have that worry that the Japanese would hit us there and really inflict serious damage and drive us off of the mountain.

We had re-distributed rifle and machine gun ammunition a couple of times. We had run out of grenades and couldn’t get re-supplied. If they had come at us again, we would have had to resort to K-Bar knives, machetes and the Marine Raider stilettos since none of us had bayonets. We always managed to stop the Japanese before they got to our wounded. The Japanese were brutal with wounded or prisoners, horribly torturing and killing them.

We finally drove the Japanese off Mount Yaetake and had it to ourselves, so we thought. The night after we thought it was secured, the Japanese regrouped and attacked us with a large force. We had replenished our ammunition and grenades. We had intelligence that they would be attacking, so we were waiting. The attack was stopped in short order and we didn’t have any more trouble.

We used every weapon that we could summon. Air strikes, which were very effective, along with naval gun fire and tank, because no ground vehicle could maneuver on the steep slopes. Our flame throwers were effective since it took a long time to get the tanks to our lines, then into position to fire into the caves. We were so close to the Japanese and there were so many large trees that we couldn’t call in air strikes or naval gunfire — there was no other way to take the mountain but by infantry attack. The attack was brutal; infantry against infantry. The Japanese would push us down the hill until we could stop them and drive them back up the hill.

Some of the worst fighting went on with us trying to dislodge the enemy from their stronghold. Our battalion got into some real banzai attacks. We were out of ammunition when we pushed them back the last time. If they had not kept going, we were reverting to K-bar knives. Our casualties were quite high. We licked our wounds from the beating we had taken on the approach to Mt. Yaetake as well as when we took it. We thought that since we’d pushed the Japanese off the mountain and out of their command post that we would be finished with them for a while; unfortunately, that was wishful thinking. However, that night, they attempted a banzai counter-attack armed with mostly bayonets and knives. We easily repulsed it since we had been re-supplied with hand grenades and rifle ammunition. Once the attack was shattered by our fire power, it was quiet the rest of the night.

The next morning we moved out with my platoon in the lead. George Mayfield was watching every move I made – he was still babysitting me on the Lieutenant’s orders. We patrolled several hundred yards and couldn’t find any sign that the Japanese were still active in the area. The battalion commander held us up and we established a temporary defensive position. We ran small patrols out in all directions as a safety measure since we never knew if the Japanese were still lurking in the area.

After being replaced, we headed south walking to take our position in the line. Later that day, we met a convoy of Army trucks loaded with soldiers. It was the Army’s 27th Division on their way north to help the National Guard division. Fortunately, we didn’t have to walk the entire way south to our new positions. Trucks came by and gave us a lift part of the way to a rear echelon area which was out of the range of small arms fire. We spent a few days there getting replacements and necessary equipment and ammunition.

NAHA PENINSULA

We stayed in the assault lines until we were well into the city of Naha before we were relieved. The weather was definitely against us with one of the hardest rains I ever experienced. The mud and grime was so bad that no type of vehicles could move. Again, we depended on “man power” for supplies. This severely handicapped us and made it very difficult to keep the troops’ morale up. By the time we got into Naha, there were considerable unclaimed Japanese bodies that drew flies and tore up the Marines’ morale. We were finally relieved and went to the rear echelon. We got replacements and on June 4, we made another full-scale landing on the Naha peninsula. We landed at Naha airfield with light resistance for the first two hours, and then they came after us in a concentrated effort to kick us off the peninsula.

Our regiment had to make a second full-scale landing, this time on the Naha Peninsula. The theory was that the 22nd Marines were driving on Naha and our landing would put the Japanese defenders in a pincher movement that would destroy them. The landing initially was easy, but after two hours, the Japanese came after us. Their defense was well organized and we fought them steadily until night, when they broke off and established their night defense. That night, they tried to infiltrate our lines with snipers, hand grenades and satchel charges. We were able to locate them all. The next morning, there were several bodies in the immediate front of our company.

The peninsula was rough going. Our battalion had pushed ahead of the other units from our positions along the Asato River and on Horse Shoe Hill towards Naha, the largest city on Okinawa. We had to establish positions in Naha to keep the attack going since the 1st Marine Division on our left was moving fast on the attack after being held up by the attack on Shuri Castle so that their flank was protected. The weather also kept the armor support from assisting in the attack, which slowed their advance down.

By the time we got into Naha, there were considerable unburied Japanese and Okinawa civilian bodies in the rubble that drew flies and the stench that really affected the Marines’ morale. I kept my men moving around, doing something, as much as possible under the conditions. I’d learned from first-hand experience that you could not take sitting in one place for long periods of time and maintain your sanity.

Our losses during May, I’m sure, were heavier than in June; I know they were much greater than in April. April losses were relatively light in our battalion except April 11-17 when we had to take Mt. Yaetake. The Japanese were well dug-in and determined to stay. In our approach to the mountain and finally taking it, it was very expensive in the lives of Marines, Japanese and Okinawans. My platoon was practically decimated with losses during the Japanese banzai attack, which turned into hand-to-hand combat. The Japanese losses, though, were much higher than ours were. We were trying to push them off of the mountain and they were determined not to go. Our battalion looses were 200 killed or missing and over 700 wounded.

In May, we were put against the Shuri/Machinato defense line that had a series of fortified ridges and valleys such as Kakazu Ridge, Yonabaru, Shuri Ridge, Dakeski Ridge, Wana Ridge, Wana Draw, Hills Charlie and Horse Shoe and then there was Sugar Loaf. Sugar Loaf changed hands at least fourteen times before the Marines finally took it for good. In May was the drive into the city of Naha. By the time my platoon was relieved after taking Naha, we were again practically decimated.

On June 9, 1945, according to my citation, I was detailed to take the remnants of my platoon and part of our 1st Platoon, with three tanks, into an area in our line of attack. Our assignment was to keep the Japanese suicide troops away from our tanks. The Sherman tanks were to clean out the artillery and machine guns that had stopped us the day before. The tanks had done their job and it was pretty quiet. I was leaning against a tank when a Japanese machine gunner used me for target practice. He missed me, but the copper and lead in the bullets hit rapidly against the tank splattering me with shrapnel. I was hit in my left shoulder, left hand, the left side of my face and head. I thought that I’d had it. I didn’t think a person could lose so much blood from the fine punctures from the shrapnel and bullet fragments. It really scared the hell out of me, but my ace squad leader was probably more scared. He was afraid that he would have to take over the platoon and he knew it was a high-risk job. I stopped by the aid station and they picked out most of the shrapnel and lead, and then bandaged my head. I returned to my platoon in fair shape.

Two days later on June 12, I was wounded in the right leg by a sniper. It was a flesh wound that went through my right thigh, fortunately missing the bone and the femoral artery. I had been squatting down, pointing out our plan of attack to my two unit leaders when I was hit. The bullet went through a bundle of nerves, the shock freezing my leg in a bent position. The corpsman and Cpl. George Mayfield, even with my assistance, could not straighten out my leg. They put me on a stretcher and started to the aid station with me, but the Japanese sniper was determined to stop me and kept firing at me. The bullets were getting just a little too close, so I jumped off of the stretcher and started running, rather hopping on one leg, since the wounded leg still wouldn’t straighten. I managed to outrun the stretcher-bearers to the aid station. I hobbled into the aid station without the bandage on my head from two days before. I was evacuated by hospital ship to a mobile hospital on Tinian.