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The bloodiest 82 days to secure Okinawa

By Steve Ranson Nevada News Group
In this photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, tired Sixth Marine Division leathernecks fighting the stubborn Japanese for the possession of Naha, on Okinawa Island, rest from the battle behind a protecting wall in the suburbs of the capital city, May 28, 1945
AP Photo/U.S. Marines/Sgt. Claude MacIntosh

‘Operation Iceberg’ marks the 75th anniversary of 3 months of intense fighting against the Japanese army

In 2013, The Lahontan Valley News printed excerpts of a journal written by retired Marine Argus “Harold” Forbus and his son Jim on the battle for key islands in the Pacific during World War II. The months of April through June, though, mark the 75th anniversary of “Operation Iceberg” or the Battle of Okinawa, a strategic point for the U.S. troops and allies to use as a staging area for a future all-out attack on Japan. The 2016 movie “Hacksaw Ridge” gave a fairly good description of the intense fighting on Okinawa, but Forbus, as a young Marine, was there from the beginning until he was evacuated after a sniper wounded him. For Memorial Day 2020, Forbus gives his account of his participation in the invasion.

The final push to Tokyo launched April 1, 1945, and for 82 days, thousands of Americans and allies stormed Okinawa after months of island hopping in the western Pacific. The attack on Okinawa’s southernmost island known as “Operation Iceberg” became the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater that included an invasion force of more than 200,000 U.S. military personnel to include 103,000 soldiers, 88,000 Marines and 18,000 sailors and aviators.

Securing Okinawa became the bloodiest battle in the Pacific for both the Americans and Japanese.

Okinawa, which sits less than 500 miles from the southern tip of Japan, held significant importance as a final staging area for the invasion of the Japanese main island, but those plans never came to fruition after two atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, respectively. The two attacks caused Emperor Hirohito to call for a surrender and ceasefire less than one week after the B-29 Superfortress Bockscar dropped its devastating load on Nagasaki.

Forbus and his son Jim wrote an account on the Marine’s island hopping during World War II, which the LVN published sections in 2012 and 2013. The elder Forbus, who died eight years ago, belonged to an invasion force that landed on Okinawa 75 years ago. He spent 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps before working in the civilian sector and eventually moving to Fallon where many relatives still reside.

TRAINING BEFORE THE INVASION

Before landing on Okinawa, the 6th Marine Division trained on Guadalcanal after securing the island in July 1944. For Forbus and the other Marines, they described the training as “fairly relaxed” since many of them had combat experience and knew the warfighting traits of the Imperial Japanese Army. Forbus used his experience to train the new troops and young officers.

“They (Marines) received close overhead live-fire from machine guns,” Forbus recounted. “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.”

In the morning, the Marines trained in the field and then the instructors used the afternoon for small unit or individual training.

Once training ended, the Marines procured beer to celebrate their departure from Guadalcanal, knowing that many of them would not return to the United States alive. The Marines boarded troop transports for their 3,300-mile journey to Okinawa for what many described as a “pretty boring trip.”

Forbus said on the morning of the invasion, the Marines heard the call for “last meal” before loading on the landing crafts, but Forbus didn’t have time. Instead, his early afternoon breakfast consisted of a can of cold C rations.

STEPPING FOOT ON OKINAWA

“We arrived off Okinawa the night of March 31, 1945,” Forbus remembered. “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 (landing ship tanks). 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.”

Forbus and the first wave first stepped on the island on Easter Sunday, which was also April Fool’s Day. He described many of the young Marines as scared. Everyone’s adrenaline was high. When the Marines hit the island, they encountered very little resistance and moved quickly to take out the enemy’s machine guns and snipers. Forbus said he didn’t lose a man on the first day until after they reached Yon Tan Airfield. The Marines crossed Yon Tan in about five hours and continued to press on until they reached man-made caves and pillboxes, which they cleared out with white phosphorous and fragmentation grenades because the Japanese soldiers refused to surrender. Once the Marines sealed the caves, they began to advance although the Japanese defense was stubborn. Unable to receive additional company support, Forbus’ platoon withdrew.

The Marines headed north to Mount Yaetake, Okinawa’s highest mountain which had to be taken. Once again, Japanese resistance made it difficult to secure the landmark.

 “It was so steep that no wheeled or tracked vehicles could make it up the mountain to act as our support,” Forbus wrote in his account. “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.”

Forbus said screaming Japanese soldiers with fixed bayonets rushed their positions. The Marines finally pushed back the retreating enemy, which Forbus said was good, because they were almost out of ammunition. When Forbus and his men neared Mount Yaetake, they encountered more opposition from Japanese infantrymen. Neither ground vehicles or tanks could maneuver on the mountain’s steep foot. Flamethrowers had to accompany the squads as the Marines clawed their way up the mountain. Forbus described the Japanese as determined not to allow the Americans on the mountain.

The Marines pushed the Japanese back a short distance, but the enemy reorganized and charged the squad with bayonets, grenades and rifles firing. Fighting eventually evolved into man to man with casualties mounting on both sides and neither side willing to wave a white flag and retreat. Ammunition continued to dwindle, and resupplies weren’t available. The fighting’s intensity caused the Marines to think of alternatives.

“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,” Forbus described. “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.”

The Marines sucked it up, drove the Japanese off the mountain and secured it … so they thought. The enemy regrouped and attacked the Marines with another large force, but the Americans had replenished their grenades and ammunition. Intelligence tipped off the Maines that the Japanese were regrouping for an attack. Once again the Marines pushed back the Japanese up the hill. Because the Marines were so close to the enemy, Forbus said the Marines couldn’t call for air strikes or naval gunfire. The only way to take the mountain was by direct combat — infantry against infantry. Forbus described the combat as some of the worst fighting by dislodging the Japanese from their stronghold. Casualties soared on both sides, but the Marines eventually took Mount Yaetake; yet the Americans anticipated another enemy surge, and the Japanese didn’t disappoint. They mounted a banzai attack with bayonets and rifle ammunition, but the Marines overwhelmed the Japanese with grenades and rifle fire.

The rest of the night was quiet once the Americans repelled the latest attack.

“The next morning we moved out with my platoon in the lead,” Forbus recalled. “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.”

Forbus said the company moved out after being replaced. Army trucks stopped to give the Marines a lift to the rear echelon area where the leathernecks received replacements and grabbed necessary equipment and more ammunition.

PUSHING TOWARD NAHA

In May, the Marines pushed north toward Naha, Okinawa’s largest city an capital, and on June 4, the Americans made another full-scale landing on the peninsula. The Marines initially encountered light resistance before the enemy made a final attack to push the Marines back. The regiment made a second full-scale landing, but the Marines fought the Japanese steadily during the night.

When Forbus and the other Marines entered Naha, they discovered the bombing, artillery and naval gunfire had pounded the Okinawan city except for pockets of snipers and soldier that impeded their advancement. Once the Americans and their allies secured their area, Forbus said he avoided a close call when leaning against a Sherman tank — a sniper wounded him.

“He missed me, but the copper and lead in the bullets hit rapidly against the tank splattering me with shrapnel,” Forbus said. “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.”

Forbus reported to an aid station, and medics removed most of the shrapnel and lead. He returned to his platoon. Another sniper, though, nailed Forbus several days later by firing a round through the Marine’s right thigh missing the bone and femoral artery. After arriving at the aid station, Forbus evacuated by a hospital ship to a mobile hospital on Tinian Island.

The Americans paid a step price in securing Okinawa. More than 12,500 soldiers, Marines and sailors died, while more than 36,000 suffered wounds. On the other hand, more than 110,000 Japanese soldiers died, and another 100,000 Okinawan civilians perished.

The years of fighting in the Pacific and the final months of the war left Forbus with a profound thought on fighting against the Japanese: “It is never good to look back as we usually don’t see what we would like to see. Any adult who has lived through a war understands that war is hard to cope with and has lasting effects on everyone. Whether or not they participate in combat with the enemy or in the rear echelon supporting those actively engaged in combat, or those serving on the home front — all are affected. When in combat, we accept many things as part of the battle that we have to cope with. Afterward, we try to understand what happened and why and was there a better way to accomplish the task.”