The Battle of Okinawa was one of the bloodiest and costliest of World War II in the Pacific. The United States needed a base to stage an invasion of mainland Japan. The island of Okinawa was the crucial final stepping stone for the Americans. For the Japanese, it would be the first time they met the enemy on home soil.
The battle lasted 82 days. More than 12,000 Americans were killed or missing in action -- the highest number lost in a single battle in the Pacific war. More than 70,000 Japanese soldiers and Okinawan conscripts were killed defending the island. Civilians, caught in the crossfire, bore the highest toll -- perhaps as many as 100,000 to 150,000 Okinawan men, woman, and children lost their lives during the nearly three months of fighting.
Just 350 miles from Japan's southernmost main island of Kyushu, Okinawa was home to an ethnically diverse group of people. Many Okinawans had mixed blood, unlike their Japanese neighbors to the north. The island had come under Japanese control in 1875, and an era of "Japanization" began during which Japan treated Okinawans as second-class citizens. As historian George Feifer put it, "With their greater racial 'deviance' than Koreans, Okinawans were made to suffer even more grievously for their failure to be pure Japanese, that most valued national quality."
Caught in the Crossfire
Some civilians had been evacuated, but most were still on Okinawa when the battle began on April 1, 1945. By mid-May, the Japanese 32nd Army was retreating south to its final line of defense at Mabuni. Civilians followed them, and the south became a tangled mess of Japanese soldiers, American soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire. Civilians dodged bullets and sea and air bombardments. Without food, water or shelter, survival was almost impossible. Two who did survive were Zenichi Yoshimine and Shige Nakahodo, both children at the time of battle. Many years later Nakahodo would recollect:
"As soon as we arrived at Mabuni on June 20, a bomb exploded nearby, whose fragment is still in my forehead. The next day, I found my mother alive. We did not know where to go. So, we followed other refugees and encountered a hell on earth: We saw dead bodies, crying and screaming people, and a person who was begging to be shot to death. It was total chaos."
Yoshimine would remember:
"Mabuni was a dead end. We could not go any further. The area was under attack incessantly and the body count increased every day. The bodies and pieces of bodies were on the ground everywhere. After fleeing from the hillside, my mother, grandmother and I were hiding in a small natural cave on the coast. We did not have any food or water."
Many civilians hid in caves to avoid being killed by the bombardments or captured by the enemy. Yoshimine and the others believed the worst of the Allied soldiers.
"We were taught that the Americans and the British were kichiku, or 'ogre-beasts.' The Americans were monsters and beasts, and not humans. So, if you were caught by them, you would have your ears and nose cut off, be blinded, and be run over by the tanks. If you were a woman, you would be raped."
Nakahodo witnessed both the evil and good in human nature during the final days of the battle.
"We were at the Mabuni Hills standing there with our baggage, when a young [Japanese] man, probably a soldier, said to us in the Okinawan dialect, 'We don't have food. We should surrender and turn ourselves in -- with empty hands if you are a woman, in only your underwear if you are a man.' Two Japanese soldiers jumped out from behind the rocks, condemned him as spy, and cut off his head with a sword. He fell on the ground with a splash of blood."
Fear of Surrender
In July, after the battle was over, Nakahodo and her mother continued to hide in a cave alongside Japanese soldiers. One soldier saved their lives.
"The call [from Americans] for surrender continued but we did not respond because we thought we were going to be raped or killed if we went out. We stayed in the cave for five days with only water. There was a Japanese officer in our cave. He disguised himself as a local resident by wearing a female kimono. This officer said to my mother, 'the U.S. Army does not kill civilians. We cannot continue to live like this. Let's surrender.' He led us outside to surrender, and saved our lives."
After the war, Americans occupied and administered Okinawa. In 1972, administration of the island reverted back to Japan, but American military bases remain to this day. They exist not only to defend Japan -- but to also defend the region. The American presence on Okinawa is controversial. Many islanders wish the bases would close and their 50,000 soldiers and families would go home.
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