At The Sharp End: Okinawa | HistoryNet MENU

At The Sharp End: Okinawa

By John Antal
3/31/2016 • World War II Magazine

YOU decide the fate of Sergeant James Devin and his platoon of Marines in this final chapter of the bloody struggle for Japan’s last Pacific bastion.

Sergeant James Devin wearily rubs his eyes as he tries to ignore the horrible smell around him – that of mud mixed with the sickening odor of decaying corpses. He and the other Marines of the 29th Regiment wait patiently for their replacements, the 4th Marines, who are to arrive in the morning. He is bone tired and can’t even remember the last time he ate or slept, but he knows he must stay alert. The Americans finally took Sugar Loaf Hill yesterday, and the Japanese will undoubtedly want it back.

Okinawa, a tiny Pacific island only 60 miles long and two to 18 miles wide, has turned into hell on earth for the Marines and the Army Soldiers desperately trying to wrest it from Japanese control. Just over six weeks ago, on April 1, they landed virtually unopposed; however, the quiet beginning proved only a cruel April Fools’ joke – the Japanese were just biding their time.

The troops encountered the main enemy defenses at the Shuri Line, a strong barrier that isolates the southern part of the island from the advancing U.S. forces. Rather than try to oppose the Americans and their massive firepower in open battle, the 32d Japanese Army developed an intricate underground defense in depth, carving dozens of miles of caves and tunnels into Okinawa’s southernmost tip.

Beginning May 12 and continuing for six grueling days, the 6th Marine Division battered against the Japanese defenses at Sugar Loaf Hill, a key position in the Shuri Line. Finally, on May 17, Sugar Loaf fell to a combined tank-infantry assault – but not before Marine casualties reached 2,000 killed and wounded.

Although Devin is relieved that he survived, he takes little pleasure in their success. He knows from bitter experience that the Japanese will surely counterattack and that the Americans must hold Sugar Loaf Hill at all costs.

The deadly attacks have left Devin in charge of his platoon; those who outranked him in his unit have been either killed or wounded. Although he neither sought out nor wanted the job, it’s his nonetheless and he will have to use all the combat skills he has learned on Peleliu and Okinawa if his remaining Marines – three squads of five men each – are to have any chance to make it through the upcoming battles.

Hunkered down in foxholes just to the southeast of Sugar Loaf, Devin and his squads await their fate.

“They’ll be coming soon. I can smell ‘em,” Corporal Herald, 2d Squad’s leader, whispers from the hole next to Devin’s. “We should call for mortar flares.”

Devin in turn whispers to Private Cleburne, the radio operator. “Call for mortar flares. Target Able One-Three. Tell them to fire one every 10 minutes to keep the battlefield lit.”

Cleburne immediately relays the request. The private is a recent and very welcome addition to the unit. His radio provides Devin with a means to communicate with the battalion mortar platoon.

Three minutes later an illumination flare pops just north of target A 13. It lights up the night sky and then slowly spirals to the ground, leaving a trail of white smoke in its wake. Peeking over a pile of rocks, Devin scans the surrounding terrain. His eyes take in the surreal image – a scarred, black and white battlefield littered with the bodies of dead friends and foes. The sight reminds him of something straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

Before the flare burns out, Devin checks the positions of his three understrength squads. He realizes that his small force is hardly combat ready. He has too few men and he fears that they are spread too thinly to stop a determined Japanese attack. Nonetheless, he must make do with what he has.

The platoon’s foxholes are grouped with 2d Squad in the center, at the end of a draw that runs from Horseshoe Hill. To the west is 1st Squad and to the east is 3d Squad. Each five-man squad is composed of four riflemen and one Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) operator. The hastily dug, muddy burrows are not very strong cover, but the Marines did their best to dig them deep and pile rocks around the edges for protection.

“Sergeant Devin,” Cleburne suddenly announces, “I have Sugar Loaf on the line. A lieutenant wants to talk to you.”

Devin carefully reaches out of his hole to take the radio. “Sergeant Devin, Sir.”

“Devin, this is Lieutenant Smith. I’m glad you’re still alive.”

“Yes Sir,” Devin replies, “but I won’t give you odds on how much longer that’ll last.”

“Same here,” Smith retorts. “Listen, here’s the situation. Fox Company is scattered across the eastern slope of Sugar Loaf. The Japs are everywhere, and they’ll probably attack soon to try to take back the hill. As our eastern flank, your platoon must stop any enemy advance and hold the line throughout the night. I have no reinforcements to send you, so you’re on your own.”

Taking a deep breath Devin replies, “I’ll do my best, Sir.”

“I know you will,” Smith says appreciatively. “Tell your men to keep their eyes peeled and their heads down. The Japs are probing our lines all along the front. Once they find out where you are, they’ll call in their mortars. Use your grenades instead of rifles so they can’t see where your fire is coming from. That should help keep your positions hidden as long possible.”

“Understood, Sir.”

“Good luck,” Smith says grimly. “Out.”

As another mortar flare illuminates the battlefield, Devin inches his head up over the rocky parapet once more and swiftly scans the area.

“Well, Sarge, what’s the word?” Herald asks.

Devin ducks back down. “It’s just us, Corporal – no reinforcements. I didn’t see any live Japs out there, but I got a feeling they’ll come crawling outta their caves and spider holes tonight and attack. Our orders are to hold the line.”

Herald sighs in resignation.

Devin passes the word to his exhausted Marines, and as usual his comrades make him proud. They dutifully work without rest to improve their positions, check their weapons and redistribute ammunition. They verify fields of fire and lay grenades nearby so that they can grab them quickly when needed.

In the midst of the preparation for the inevitable attack, a Japanese voice shouts out from somewhere in the dark, “MacArthur son of a bitch!”

Several of the Marines laugh, cheer and clap their hands in response, irreverently letting the enemy know that they agree with the sentiment of the taunt. Devin smiles at the men’s foxhole humor but admonishes them to keep quiet. He doesn’t want them to give away their locations.

The Japanese voice then angrily shouts, “You will die Marine!”

The Americans greet this jeer with stoic silence. Still, Devin thinks to himself that the Jap might be right on that point.

The minutes drag by and the men listen restlessly to the echoes of distant fighting. The immediate area, however, is eerily quiet. The stillness sets Devin’s nerves on edge. “Those Jap bastards are up to something,” he whispers to Herald. He listens intently for the telltale sound of imminent danger – the stealthy approach of a Japanese infiltrator, or the odd clink or rattle of battle equipment as the enemy force masses for an attack. But mostly he waits, as do his 15 tired, scared Marines.

Suddenly a grenade explodes somewhere near 3d Squad. Devin realizes that one of his men must have tossed it at a Japanese target instead of using his rifle. A moment later, a second grenade detonates. This one found its mark – a loud scream in Japanese pierces the inky darkness.

“Marine! We are coming to kill you!” a voice threatens.

Soon another grenade explodes, this time near 1st Squad. Its blast is immediately followed by an eruption of M-1 rifle fire. Red tracers from the squad’s BAR streak through the air and ricochet off the rocks to the southwest.

“Cease fire!” Devin yells. But by now the entire 1st Squad is in on the action and the noise drowns out his command. The mad shooting finally ends and the battlefield becomes quiet again except for the distant rumble of artillery and machine-gun fire somewhere west of Sugar Loaf.

“Damn it,” Devin curses angrily. “I told them to hold their fire.” “Our guys are exhausted,” Herald offers in the men’s defense. “They’ve been pushed to the brink and asked to do more than anyone should be asked to do. We can’t enforce fire discipline under these conditions. Hell, we’ll be lucky if we can hold this line at all.”

“They’re Marines – they’ll hold it,” Devin replies defiantly. Then with less confidence he adds,“The Japs are just testing our lines to locate our positions. Once they find out that we’re only made up of three weak squads, they’ll rush us and …”

Devin doesn’t need to elaborate. Herald already knows what the “and” implies.

Minutes pass and a single Japanese mortar shell explodes to the front of 1st Squad’s position.

“The enemy forward observers must have a good fix on 1st Squad by now,” Devin whispers, “and that means they’ll fire a barrage of mortars on them soon. Once they smash us with mortar fire they’ll attack in force – and if they break through us and flank Sugar Loaf Hill, all our hard work of the past several days will be for nothing.”

“What should we do?” Herald asks.

“Whatever it is, we have to act fast,” Devin replies.

Moment of Decision

The pressure of a life-and-death decision weighs on the young sergeant’s mind as he calculates the imponderables of battle. In many ways the outcome is a matter of fractions: Can a Marine act a fraction of a second faster than his opponent and throw a grenade or pull the trigger before his foe does? Is his head low enough to dodge machine-gun fire or is it a fraction of an inch too high? Can he decide the right thing to do in time or is he a fraction of a second too late?

Given the recent tactics used by the enemy, Devin suspects that once the Japanese launch a mortar barrage on 1st Squad they will initiate their counterattack. With little time to waste he quickly develops two potential plans to try to fulfill his orders and save his men’s lives. He then briefs Herald on the options.

COURSE OF ACTION ONE: PLATOON FALLS BACK

“Our first possible course of action is to pull back our entire platoon about 40 yards to the north and arrange the men in a single tight defensive line. From there, we can avoid the enemy fire that will soon fall on 1st Squad’s original position. When the Japanese infantrymen attack toward our current foxholes, we can engage them from the distance of our new location.

“There are drawbacks to this plan, however. Although it should allow us to avoid the worst of the mortar barrage, my biggest concern is the time it will take us to reposition and form a new line of defense.”

COURSE OF ACTION TWO: 1ST SQUAD FALLS BACK

“Another option would be for 2d and 3d Squads to sit tight while 1st Squad moves 25 yards north. The Japanese already know where 1st Squad is, so if they see those men pull back they might believe all three squads are on the run. I’m counting on them not knowing exactly where 2d and 3d Squads are, and I hope to use this to our advantage.

“I believe this plan can help protect 1st Squad from the enemy’s mortars while still allowing the remaining Marines to hold the line. However, this option is not without risk. First Squad’s withdrawal will decrease our firepower and create a gap in our defensive line that the Japanese could exploit and use to destroy our entire platoon.” Devin checks his watch. It is 2:15 a.m. – decision time!

You Chose Course of Action One: Platoon Falls Back

Devin decides that keeping his Marines together is his most important consideration. He elects to pull back his entire platoon 40 yards, where they will form a single tight defensive line.

After announcing his decision to Herald, Devin explains, “The Japs already know where 1st Squad is. They’ll smash those men with mortars and then rush the rest of us. If we all move farther north, the barrage will hit unoccupied positions. Once at our new location we can surprise the Jap infantrymen and stop them when they attack.”

“I follow you, Devin,” Herald replies,“but our guys are exhausted. We’ve worked hard to build fighting positions right here. If we pull back we’ll have no foxholes to protect us. Surely you don’t think we can relocate and then reset our defense in time?”

“This ain’t a debate, Corporal,” Devin snaps. “Get ready to move on my order.”

A flare explodes high in the night sky, casting an eerie glow over the battlefield. Devin waits 25 tense seconds for the flare to descend to earth. Once darkness has blanketed the area again, he stands up. “First Platoon,” he shouts, “all squads pull back 40 yards to the north and re-form the defense.”

The members of 2d Squad collect their gear in preparation for the move. However, Devin does not hear any indication that the other men are following suit. While he can understand their trepidation, there’s no time to hesitate. “Let’s go, Marines!” he shouts again.“First Squad, 3d Squad! Move it – to the rear! Now!” A second later everyone obeys.

Devin remains in his foxhole until the last man departs. Just as he’s leaving, a Japanese mortar flare illuminates the terrain. The sudden brightness impels the Marines to race across broken ground littered with rocks and shell holes. Devin turns around just as a mortar shells explodes on top of 1st Squad’s old position. He grins – he made the right decision.

The barrage pummels the empty foxholes. Then, as more flares fill the sky, the fire shifts and falls closer to the Marines barreling their way north.

Devin feels the blood rushing through his veins as he dashes madly to avoid the explosions; however, he soon realizes he cannot outrun them. He takes cover behind a pile of rubble, and the enemy mortar fire immediately sweeps over his platoon like a terrible wave. The shells hit with tremendous force and hot metal fragments whistle through the air. Curling into the fetal position, Devin cradles his M-1 in his arms and prays for the barrage to end.

After several frightening moments, the shelling finally stops. Devin’s ears are ringing from the blasts. He quickly gathers his senses and looks around for his men – but to his horror he sees no one. Raising himself up on trembling legs he shouts, “2d Squad, sound off!”

“Over here!” Corporal Herald yells.

In the waning light of a falling flare, Devin makes out Herald’s waving arm. He begins to hurry toward the corporal when he senses movement to his rear. Glancing around he sees a mass of Japanese soldiers charging right for him! The night is suddenly filled with shrill shouts of “banzai!”

Devin attempts to fire his M-1 while on the run. Meanwhile his comrades open up on the advancing Japanese with their rifles and BARs. Nonetheless, the platoon’s response is ragged – the men just did not have enough time to set up a coordinated defense. The enemy bombardment has left them stunned and disorganized.

With more flares popping overhead, the battlefield is bathed in the bright white light of burning magnesium. Within seconds the Japanese overtake the platoon and the two sides engage in desperate hand-to-hand combat. Two Japanese soldiers tackle Corporal Herald and wrestle him to the ground. Before Devin can save 2d Squad’s leader, a couple of enemy infantrymen try to rush him too. He blasts one attacker with his rifle and the man crumples into a heap.

The second opponent thrusts a bayonet toward Devin’s chest. The sergeant parries the jab with the stock of his rifle. Knocking the assailant off balance, Devin is able to “butt stroke” him and fire several rounds into his body at close range. The Japanese soldier falls limply to the ground.

From the corner of his eye – for only a fraction of a second – Devin sees the flash of a sword as it reflects the battlefield’s ghostly glow. Instinctively he swings his rifle to deflect this new attack, but he is too late. With a high-pitched scream, a Japanese officer slashes across Devin’s neck and chest with his razor-sharp samurai sword. Devin drops to his knees, groping helplessly at the hideous wound. As he takes his final breaths he is enveloped by the frenzied noise of his outnumbered Marines being slaughtered by the Japanese.

Devin has fought and died. His plan failed because his exhausted Marines could not withdraw, reposition and take up a new defensive line in the short amount of time available. Gauging the limits of what people are capable of in any given situation is the essence of skilled leadership. While pulling back the Marines might have been the right tactic under better circumstances and with rested troops, in this desperate situation and with the Japanese within shouting distance it was simply too much to ask.

You Chose Course of Action Two : 1ST Squad Falls Back

Devin doubts the ability of his exhausted platoon to fall back and reorganize in time to fend off a banzai charge. Therefore, he decides to relocate only the vulnerable 1st Squad. He will move those Marines 25 yards north while leaving 2dand 3d Squads to defend from where they are.

“The Japs already know where 1st Squad’s located,” Devin explains to Corporal Herald. “If I don’t move those men, the enemy will squash them like bugs with their mortars.”

“Maybe so,” Herald counters,“but if you relocate 1st Squad and keep the rest of us in place, won’t that leave a break in our line of defense?”

“Not if we cover the squad’s former position with fire – besides, I’m not about to let 1st Squad be blasted to bits where they sit. I want you to reposition your BAR to cover their old location. If the Japs try to rush through the gap, I expect you to stop them.”

“OK,” Herald replies, “you’re the boss.”

An illumination shell launched by the Japanese explodes high over Devin’s head, lighting up the dark sky. He watches as the magnesium flare slowly floats to the ground. Once it is extinguished he shouts, “Listen up, 1st Squad! Pull back 25 yards to the north and form a firing line! The rest of you stand fast and prepare to defend!”

At first the men do not react to his order. Devin can understand their hesitation, but there’s no time for that now. Frustrated, he shouts again. “Let’s go, 1st Squad! Move it – 25 yards to the rear!”

“We’re heading out now, Sarge,” the squad leader yells.

Carrying their weapons and ammunition, the men of 1st Squad crawl out of their foxholes and make their way northward across the broken terrain. Less than a minute after their departure, a Japanese mortar shell bursts in front of their former positions. Luckily they are out of the explosive’s range.

“Well Sarge, looks like you guessed right,” Herald concedes.

Devin has no time to reply. He hugs the dirt as more blasts follow the first one and additional flares illuminate the battlefield. Most of the shells are still landing near the abandoned foxholes.

Suddenly the Marines of 2d and 3d Squads are surprised by a chorus of Japanese voices screaming, “Banzai!” A mass of enemy soldiers charges through the gap where 1st Squad used to be.

Devin jumps up from his protected position and blasts away with his M-1 rifle. “Fire!” he screams. “Let ‘em have it!”

Herald opens up with his BAR, and 3d Squad’s BAR gunner quickly follows suit. The weapons discharge a blazing stream of tracers, and soon the 20-round magazines are expended and must be reloaded. Meanwhile the other Marines hold back the attackers with a wall of fire. The air is soon filled with the crack! of M-1 rifles and the boom! of grenades.

The relentless Japanese shout out “banzai” once again and head directly for Devin’s foxhole. The men of 2d Squad fire in unison, cutting down the leading enemy soldiers. These, however, are promptly replaced with others willing to give their lives for the island of Okinawa.

Within seconds the opposing sides are locked in bitter hand-to-hand combat. Herald immediately drops one Japanese soldier with his M-1 at close range, but another aims at him with his pistol. Seeing the action unfold, Devin swings around and plugs the attacker with a shot from his rifle.

Suddenly – for only a fraction of a second – Devin sees the glint of a sword out of the corner of his eye. He instinctively pivots his body to parry the thrust of the blade but realizes he is too late. Before the Japanese officer can drive home his deadly weapon, Herald shoots the assailant in the chest. The officer staggers and falls, dropping his sword at Devin’s feet.

All three squads plaster the Japanese attackers with rifle and BAR fire, finally driving the outgunned opponents back south. In less than 15 minutes the ordeal is over. Devin and his Marines have held the line.

As the sun begins to spread its light across the battlefield, Devin assesses the carnage. He counts 31 killed Japanese and six dead Marines. Of his nine remaining men, three are walking wounded. He realizes, however, that victory always comes at a price.

Shortly after daybreak, the 4th Marine Regiment relieves the 29th Regiment in the Sugar Loaf area. Yet the Japanese are not ready to give up; the men of the 4th fight all day to keep them at bay.

But for Devin and his platoon, the battle is over. Ordered to the rear, they begin hiking north as if in a daze. En route they encounter sporadic Japanese mortar fire. Finally they make it to the seawall by the Asa Kawa River – far enough away from Sugar Loaf to be considered out of the front line.

At the end of their journey, Herald surprises his platoon leader with a gift. “Here,” the corporal says, handing Devin the same samurai sword that almost took his life. “This is yours – no one deserves it more.”

Shaking his head, Devin replies, “No, keep it. You earned it.” “Take it!” Herald insists. “You are the reason the nine of us made it through that hell alive. We’d all be dead if not for you.”

Devin reluctantly accepts the sword. He then closes his eyes and prays that this is his last battle.

Devin has survived one of the most difficult small unit actions of World War II. By keeping most of his exhausted Marines in their original defensive positions and withdrawing only 1st Squad, which was under imminent danger of being blasted by a mortar barrage, he gave them the best possible chance of defeating the banzai attack.

Colonel (Ret) John Antal has published over 50 magazine articles and six books, including “Armor Attacks,” “Infantry Combat,” “Combat Team” and “Proud Legions.”

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