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Remembering the Battle of Okinawa

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The Battle of Okinawa, which began 75 years ago, was the last major battle of World War II — and the bloodiest of the Pacific campaign.

At dawn on Easter, April 1, 1945, a fleet of 1,300 U.S. ships and 50 British ships closed in for the invasion of the island, which is part of Japan's southernmost prefecture.

The battle lasted three months and involved four U.S. Army and two Marine Corps divisions.

Smoke billows from a burning ship.
Bunker Hill
The U.S. aircraft carrier Bunker Hill burns after being struck by two Japanese kamikaze aircraft, May 11, 1945, in the waters between Okinawa and Kyushu, Japan.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 450511-O-ZZ999-001M

The landings were relatively unopposed because the Japanese refused to fight on the beaches. Instead, they withdrew into caves in the rocky hills to force a battle of attrition, according to John Ray Skates, a historian with the Center of Military History.

The Japanese strategy worked, he said. "U.S. casualties were staggering, the largest of the Pacific war."

More than 12,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines died during the fighting.

In the waters around Okinawa, the Japanese launched the largest kamikaze, or suicide, attack of the war. Japanese planes rammed into allied ships, sinking 26 and severely damaging 168. Almost 40% of the U.S. dead were sailors lost to these attacks, Skates said.

Two tanks disabled.
Two Tanks
Two U.S. M-4 Sherman tanks are disabled by Japanese artillery during the battle of Bloody Ridge, April 20, 1945.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 450420-O-ZZ999-001M
Man carries flag up rocky slope.
American Flag
Marine Lt. Col. Richard P. Ross Jr., commander of 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, braves sniper fire to place the flag over the parapets of Shuri Castle on Okinawa, Japan, May 30, 1945.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 450530-O-ZZ999-001M

The Japanese military suffered even more, with around 100,000 killed, including many who committed suicide. Around the same number of Okinawan civilians were killed or committed suicide.

Among the Americans killed was Army Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., who was killed by Japanese artillery fire. He was the highest ranking military officer killed during the entire war.

Soldiers stand looking into the distance.
Standing Soldiers
This is the last photograph taken of Army Lt. Gen. Simon B. Buckner Jr., (right), just before he was killed later that day, June 18, 1945. He was observing the battle action when he was killed by artillery fire at this location. The other two staff officers in the photo were not seriously hurt.
Photo By: Marine Corps
VIRIN: 450618-O-ZZ999-001M

The Battle of Okinawa was a series of battles, including the battle for Hacksaw Ridge. An Army medic during that battle rescued 75 of his wounded comrades. For his valor, Cpl. Desmond T. Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor. What makes his service so unique is that he was a conscientious objector who refused to carry a weapon or kill the enemy. A 2016 movie, "Hacksaw Ridge," chronicles his story.

The Allies planned to use Okinawa as a base to attack mainland Japan, dubbed Operation Downfall. However, on Aug. 15, 1945, Japan announced its unconditional surrender, thereby avoiding further bloodshed.

In 1972, the U.S. returned Okinawa to Japanese control. Today, Japan is a valued ally of the United States.

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