Mud and Mayhem on Okinawa | HistoryNet MENU

Mud and Mayhem on Okinawa

By Bill Sloan
8/9/2018 • World War II Magazine

In the grisly battle for Okinawa, 2,662 marines would be killed or wounded taking a tiny hill named Sugar Loaf.

By mid-May 1945, the Okinawa campaign had already lasted longer than the fight for either Iwo Jima or Saipan, and most Americans on the island, from the lowliest privates on up to Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. and his division commanders, could tell that the end of it was nowhere in sight. Neither was the end of the infernal rain.

For combat-weary men sunk to their knees in Okinawa’s soupy red mud or treading water in overflowing foxholes with enemy ordnance rumbling overhead, the ceaseless fighting and recurrent downpours seemed destined to last forever. This feeling was amply illustrated in a series of May-datelined letters from Pfc. Al Henderson of the 96th Recon Troop to his wife in Arkansas:

It rained here all night last night and has rained all day today. Sure is sloppy. You can’t hardly walk, the ground is so muddy and slick.…

I don’t think there’s a hill over here that doesn’t have two or three caves running clear through it and twenty or thirty different openings. Looks to me like the Japs have been digging over here for ten years or longer. It sure makes the going slow.…

I didn’t get a letter today, baby doll, but I know they are just held up somewhere. Only four or five letters came in for the whole outfit. I guess it’s so rainy and muddy that the planes can’t take off. It has rained all day again.…

It’s raining here again today. It doesn’t look like it will ever stop. Sometimes I think the big guns cause it to rain—just jar the rain loose from the clouds. I hope it rains all the time when I get home to you, precious, because we will be snuggling every second, rain or shine.…I feel like I’ve been gone a million years, and there’s never been a second of it that I haven’t missed you.…

The morning of May 13 found the thin ranks of the 6th Marine Division’s 22nd Marines, 2nd Battalion, dug in several hundred yards from the foot of Sugar Loaf Hill, licking their wounds from an abortive tank-infantry assault on the hill the afternoon before. Exactly four members of the attacking platoon, along with a handful of men from the other two platoons, had reached the top. Three times that afternoon, marines of G Company had reached the summit, and three times they’d been driven off with horrendous casualties by Japanese mortars and grenades.

Sugar Loaf itself was a puny hill barely three city blocks long, but it was the centerpiece of an ingeniously designed triangle of mutually supporting, intensively fortified enemy strongpoints. It was bracketed by Half Moon Hill to the southeast and a curving plateau called the Horseshoe to the south. Within the Horseshoe’s curve on its reverse side was a deep depression that gave the Japanese near-impregnable mortar positions, assailable only by short-range rifle and grenade attacks.

Each hill rose abruptly from otherwise flat and barren ground, offering no covered approaches into the defensive maze, and each was part of an interconnected labyrinth of deep tunnels: concealed machine gun, mortar, and antitank positions, augmented by pillboxes on both forward and reverse slopes. Any ground force trying to outflank one of the three hills exposed itself to fire from the other two.

Estimates of the enemy force were mostly guesswork, but it was generally believed that each of the three hills was held by only about a company of Japanese. In actuality, the Sugar Loaf–Half Moon–Horseshoe complex was defended by about two thousand fresh troops. Ignorance of these facts was undoubtedly one reason for the decision to send the already disheveled 2nd Battalion—whose F and G Companies had been reduced to skeleton strength in the fighting of the previous days—in for another all-day attack on May 14.

This time, however, the attacking marines would move simultaneously against all three fortified hills, not just Sugar Loaf alone.

The morning of the attack dawned to typical May weather on Okinawa—sullen skies, low-hanging clouds, and incessant rain. Lt. Col. Horatio C. Woodhouse Jr., commanding the 2nd Battalion, spent most of the morning waiting for the go-ahead to move his men out.

The plan called for units of the 1st Marine Division to move forward and cover the attackers’ left flank, but logistical problems caused a delay. Finally, at 11:30 a.m., Brig. Gen. William T. Clement, assistant commander of the 6th Division, arrived at Woodhouse’s command post with a written order: “You are to attack immediately and continue the attack at all costs. Repeat—at all costs.”

“It sounds like something out of World War I,” Woodhouse worriedly told one of his officers. “It’s not the school solution, but we’ve got to comply.”

By the time the attack started, it was after two o’clock. Woodhouse had assigned just one Fox Company rifle platoon each, supported by several tanks, to seize the Horseshoe and Half Moon. Once the crests of the hills were in marine hands, the platoon on the Horseshoe was to be relieved by E Company while G Company relieved the other platoon on Half Moon. At that point, all three F Company rifle platoons would converge to capture Sugar Loaf. That, at any rate, was the wishful plan.

By about 2:20 p.m., aided by covering fire from artillery and tanks, Lt. Rodney Gaumnitz’s 1st Platoon of Fox Company made it to the top of the Horseshoe but was pinned down under heavy enemy fire from Sugar Loaf. Meanwhile, a few members of the 2nd Platoon, led by Lt. Robert Hutchings, reached the summit of Half Moon, but they took dozens of casualties along the way from fire on their unprotected left flank and left rear, and the survivors were soon forced to withdraw.

By three o’clock, Woodhouse knew his battalion would have to have help if it hoped to hold any of the ground it had taken, much less gain more. After he contacted regimental headquarters to plead for more troops, K Company of the 22nd Regiment’s 3rd Battalion was ordered into the fight—but this concession didn’t come without a price.“General Shepherd has ordered that the division objective (Sugar Loaf) must be taken before dark,” said the curt message from regiment,“without fail and regardless of consequences.”

Faced with this ultimatum, at about 4:30 p.m., Woodhouse ordered his battalion forward one more time to make a final attempt while it was still daylight. Supporting artillery pounded all three hills for half an hour. Then, under a smoke screen, led by four tanks, and with E Company providing covering fire, F and G Companies jumped off a few minutes after five. It took more than two hours before survivors of the two companies reached the base of Sugar Loaf. Of more than one hundred fifty marines who started the advance, only four officers and forty enlisted men—the equivalent of a single rifle platoon—were still able to stand. Three of the four supporting tanks lay disabled behind them.

Among the survivors, spirits were abysmally low. Soon it would be dark, and the drained, demoralized troops were a long way from friendly ground.

As the little group of marines huddled at the foot of the hill, Maj. Henry A. Courtney Jr., executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, called them together to propose a drastic plan. Courtney’s idea was straightforward, unorthodox, and dangerous, and it violated precepts instilled in every marine from his earliest days at boot camp.

The major wasn’t known as a particularly persuasive talker, a charismatic leader, or an officer who enjoyed great rapport with his enlisted men. In the six months since he’d joined the 2nd Battalion, Courtney had picked up the sardonic nickname “Smiley” for the dour expression he often wore. Yet within the next few moments, Courtney somehow managed to transform a few dozen tired, nervous young men into a fighting machine that refused to quit or accept defeat. “Men, if we don’t take the top of this hill tonight, the Japs will be down here to drive us away in the morning,” he told them. “I have a plan, and if it works, we’ll take the top of the hill. I want volunteers for a banzai charge of our own!

“When we go up there, some of us are never going to come down again. You all know what hell it is on the top, but that hill’s got to be taken, and we’re going to do it. What do you say?”

Normally, marines didn’t attack at night; in fact, any marine who ventured from his foxhole in the dark risked being shot by his comrades. But, except for a few dubious veterans, the enlisted men rallied to Courtney’s call. “We’re going to need lots of grenades for this trip,” Courtney said. “Let’s round up all we can find and take as many as we can carry with us. When we get near the crest of the hill, I want everybody to throw grenades over the top and onto the reverse slope as fast as you can.”

It was just before seven, and dusk was settling over Half Moon Hill when Acting Sgt. Walt Rutkowski, a nineteen-year-old G Company rifle squad leader from the south side of Chicago, saw Lt. Robert Nealon, his platoon leader, approaching.

“There’s only fifty of us left in George Company,” Nealon told him.“I want you to take twenty-five men, and Corporal [Steve] Stankovich can take the other twenty-five…”

“For a second, I was sure Nealon was gonna tell us to withdraw back to our lines and get some rest,” Rutkowski recalled. “It was like a big weight was being lifted off my shoulders.”

Then Nealon went on: “…and get over to that other hill [Sugar Loaf] on the double as soon as we get some smoke. When it gets full dark, we’re going to the top of the damned thing.”

Rutkowski caught his breath as the weight of Nealon’s order slammed down with crushing force.

The overcast sky was completely dark when the group started its ascent, the only light coming from flares fired by navy ships offshore and reflected off the low clouds. “Courtney was in a hurry to go,” Rutkowski recalled nearly sixty-one years later, “but some of my BAR guys hadn’t shown up yet, and I wanted to wait for them.”

“What’re you waiting for?” Courtney demanded.

“We need some more BARs,” Rutkowski said.

“There’s no time,” the major snapped. “We’ve got to move.” He called for supporting mortar fire, then turned to the waiting marines. “I’m going up to the top of Sugar Loaf Hill. Who’s coming along?”

The men surged forward en masse, closing around Rutkowski and pushing him ahead of them until he and Courtney were shoulder to shoulder. As they mounted the steep, slippery forward slope, Courtney was a few feet away on Rutkowski’s immediate left, and a Fox Company BAR man was on Rutkowski’s right.

They stopped a few feet short of the crest and flattened themselves against the rocky hillside. Then Courtney hollered down the line: “Use your grenades!”

Almost simultaneously, at least a hundred grenades sailed over Sugar Loaf’s crest, and the little hill shook from the force of their explosions on the reverse slope. The marines’ ears were still ringing when Courtney jumped to his feet, waved his arms, and started clambering up the hill. Rutkowski was close beside him, his boondockers sliding on the wet rocks. To his right, Rutkowski saw the BAR man struggling forward, and as another flare momentarily lit the sky, he caught a glimpse of Corporal Stankovich off to his left.

Seconds later, they were on top of Sugar Loaf and trying to dig in on the rocky summit. Machine gun and rifle bullets buzzed around them like bees, but Rutkowski got the feeling that most of the fire was from adjacent hills and that the Japanese were shooting blindly. He was more concerned about the enemy grenades that now began sailing up from the reverse slope and exploding on the crest. There was also intermittent mortar and artillery fire.

“We need a shovel to dig with,” the BAR man said. “I think I know where I can find one.” He handed his BAR to Rutkowski and disappeared.

Courtney abruptly nudged Rutkowski. “I see a bunch of Japs down there,” he said, pointing almost straight ahead toward the edge of the reverse slope. “They just came out of a hole, and it looks like there’s about twenty of them.”

Rutkowski’s eyes darted to where Courtney pointed. The enemy soldiers were no more than thirty yards away, and even as the major spoke, they started hurling grenades. Rutkowski swung the BAR in their direction and opened fire.

A short distance away along the hilltop, Pvt. Wendell Majors of G Company ejected one eight-shot clip from his M1 and reached for another. As he did, he realized to his horror that the nest of Japanese he was firing at, lurking just below the crest of Sugar Loaf on the reverse slope, was using the bright flashes from marine rifles as aiming beacons for their grenades—Majors’s own red-hot M1 included.

Majors had spent much of that afternoon watching his buddies being shot to pieces around him in the assault on Half Moon Hill. “The Japs cut us down like a mowing machine in a hayfield,” recalled the erstwhile country boy, who’d grown up on an eighty-acre farm near Searcy, Arkansas.

Now the surviving marines of G Company looked to be in an even worse position. In fact, Majors couldn’t imagine how their situation could be more desperate. He shut his eyes for a moment, remembering what his older brother, also a marine, had told him when Majors announced his intention to enlist in the Corps:

“Take my advice, little brother, and join some other branch of the service—any other branch but the marines!”

As if in reply, he heard someone shouting his name: “Majors! Majors!”

Majors didn’t answer. If he could’ve gotten his hands on the shouter, he would’ve strangled him. Every marine knew the Japanese would seize any opportunity to kill an American officer, and if any spoken word signaled “officer” louder and clearer than “Majors,” Private Majors had never heard it. Self-preservation had been his main reason for assuming the nickname “Deacon,” but now, in the heat of battle, someone had forgotten, and there was going to be hell to pay.

It came in the form of a sputtering enemy grenade that sailed out of the darkness, hit the ground a couple feet from Majors’s shallow foxhole, and hopped right in. Majors recognized it instantly for what it was, and he groped frantically around the bottom of the hole in search of it—only he couldn’t find it. All he could do, at the last possible second, was jump out of the hole and throw himself away from it.

The blast blew dirt and fragments of rock all over him and hurt his ears, but he was okay otherwise. He rolled into a firing position, leveling the M1, and was wondering what to do next when he remembered the trick that Gary Cooper had played on the Germans in the World War I movie Sergeant York. Maybe— just maybe—the same trick would work with the Japanese.

Majors cupped his right hand around his mouth and made a low gobbling sound in a good imitation of a strutting turkey gobbler.

Ten seconds passed…fifteen…twenty…Majors repeated his gobble, and a helmeted Japanese head appeared over the rim of the hill about forty feet away. A moment later, another appeared beside it.

He emptied another eight-round clip, killing both enemy soldiers. But his shots caught the attention of a Japanese machine gunner, who opened fire immediately as Majors scrambled into a slight cleft in the hilltop.

By now, Majors’s rifle was too hot to touch, and its wooden stock was actually smoking from the ceaseless fusillade he was laying down. But as he tried to run and reload at the same time, singeing his fingers in the process, Majors stumbled and jammed the barrel of the M1 into the muddy ground, rendering it useless. He couldn’t find the foxhole he’d left, so he jumped blindly into another one—landing squarely on a rifle propped against the side of the hole with its bayonet pointing upward. The blade stabbed through the back of Majors’s thigh and came out his groin.

“Ohhh God!” he muttered through clenched teeth as he struggled to pull the blade free. When he did, a stream of blood gushed out. To Majors, it seemed to spurt a foot into the air. He was sure for a while that he’d severed a main artery and was going to bleed to death, but he kept stuffing sulfa powder into the wound and applying pressure until the bleeding finally stopped.

A little later, a G Company comrade, Pfc. Jack Houston, jumped into the foxhole and put a field dressing on the wound. By this time, Majors was dozing periodically but waking at intervals to wonder what tricks of fate had conspired to place him in this sorry mess.

Actually, Majors had made a valiant effort to obey his brother’s advice and enlist in the navy. In fact, he had enlisted in the navy, but one day later, when he arrived at the induction center, he’d found a marine gunnery sergeant waiting to pounce. The sergeant grabbed up Majors’s papers and yelled: “Come on, Majors, you’re a marine, too!”

Now, as he lay in a sea of darkness and pain, Majors could only ask himself the same question over and over: What could that gunnery sergeant possibly have had against me?

Acting Sgt. Walt Rutkowski was still sandwiched between Major Courtney and the F Company BAR man, who had just returned with a shovel, when he heard the telltale sound of an incoming round—either a mortar or artillery shell—a split second before it exploded two or three yards behind him.

The force of the blast blew all three of the men forward and knocked them to the ground. As the sound of the shell burst died, Rutkowski distinctly heard Courtney and the other marine let out almost identical groans. He also felt a peculiar sensation in his left arm, just above the elbow.

“Are you guys all right?” Rutkowski asked. He listened intently, but there was no answer. He tried to crawl toward Courtney, but his arm refused to cooperate.“Corpsman!” he yelled weakly.“We got men hit over here!”

In less than a minute—or so it seemed to Rutkowski—a medic showed up and crouched down beside Courtney. “Who is this guy?” he asked. “Do you know him?”

“Yeah,” Rutkowski said. “It’s Major Courtney.”

The corpsman’s voice was unimpressed. “Well, he’s dead,” he said, crawling over to the BAR man. “This one’s dead, too.”

“But I was right between them when the shell hit,” Rutkowski said, “and both of ’em were groaning afterward.”

“Then you must’ve been damned lucky,” the medic said wearily. “These other two weren’t.”

The corpsman put a dressing on Rutkowski’s arm, told him it was broken, and gave him a shot of morphine. “You’ll be okay,” he said. “We’ll get you evacuated as soon as we can, but I can’t say when that’ll be.” Then he vanished as quickly as he’d come.

Rutkowski drifted off for a while—he had no idea how long—until another exploding shell jerked him back to consciousness. This one hit about as close as the first one, only much nearer to Courtney. It blew the major’s body two or three feet into the air and hurled it completely over Rutkowski.

Rutkowski was too numb to know if he’d taken any additional shrapnel from the latest shell, but he did know he was lucky.

Thank God I’m still alive, he thought. Now if I can just make it through the night…

It was about 2:00 a.m. on May 15, and a cold rain had been blowing in off the East China Sea for the past several hours when Lt. Reginald Fincke, the recently appointed CO of K Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Marines, reported to Colonel Woodhouse for the second time that night. “According to the reports I’ve gotten, only eight or ten men are still holding out on top of the hill,” Woodhouse told him.“If we lose Sugar Loaf, we’ll lose everything we’ve gained and paid dearly for. I want you to take your company up there and hold it at all costs. I want to see you there in the morning.”

Within minutes, K Company moved out in the darkness from the positions it had held on the Horseshoe, and its ninety-nine men and four officers reached the crest of Sugar Loaf by about 2:30 a.m. without a single casualty.

As he climbed the hill, carrying a tripod and ammo for his .30-caliber machine gun, Cpl. Ray Schlinder saw scores of bodies, too many to count, sprawled and scattered in every direction. “I crawled over dead marines and pieces of dead marines all the way up the hill,” Schlinder said. “I wondered if some of them might still be alive, but I couldn’t take time to check.”

Schlinder’s light machine gun was one of eight carried up the hill by K Company, and his first priority on reaching the top was to find a place to set it up. “All right, men,” he heard Lieutenant Fincke say, “find yourself a hole and get in it.”

“All at once the hill was alive with bursting shells,” Schlinder recalled. “I don’t know how I ever made it, but I finally jumped into an empty slit trench near the reverse slope. I was about as close as you could get to the backside of the hill. There were a bunch of Nips right below me—practically underneath my trench—so I got the idea that I might do better with grenades than with my gun.”

Schlinder passed the word to marines behind him to bring up as many grenades as they could, and was soon rewarded with three full cases. During his high school days in Milwaukee, Ray had played catcher on the baseball team, and he’d gotten pretty adept at throwing out runners trying to steal second base. “There was this one group of Japs that was maybe fifty yards away,”he recalled. “I didn’t think I could throw a grenade that far, but I decided to try. I came up a little short, but I sure scared the shit out of them.”

For close to an hour, the Japanese kept coming, and Schlinder kept tossing grenades over the edge of the cliff as fast as he could pull the pins. As best he could calculate, he threw 300 of them altogether.

Make that 301.

“I was busy throwing when I felt something hit me in the right thigh,” Schlinder recounted. “I looked down, and it was a Nip grenade. In reflex, I jerked it up and pitched it back over the edge. There were so many explosions around me that I never knew if it went off or if it was a dud, but I really got into it after that. I made up my mind to clean out the whole damned front of the hill.”

It was about 5:00 a.m. on May 15 when a knee mortar round hit within three or four feet of Ray Schlinder and finally ended his grenade-throwing epic. It rammed a golf ball–sized fragment into his chest cavity, sliced completely through his right lung, and knifed into his liver. Another fragment also buried itself in his left wrist, but that was a minor concern compared to the other wound. Dazed by the blast, he thought at first it had merely knocked the wind out of him, but as he gasped for air, he felt something warm and wet running down his side.

“I pulled off my shirt and sweatshirt,” Schlinder recalled,“and I saw this hole in my chest. It was about the size of a silver dollar, and bleeding pretty bad, and I started thinking about what a helluva mess I was in.”

I’m the farthest guy out on top of this rock, he thought, and if the Japs take the hill again, I’ll lie here and bleed to death. Clutching the hole in his chest, Schlinder pulled himself to his feet and ran as well as he could toward the north slope of Sugar Loaf. Within a few seconds he was totally winded, and his wound seemed to be bleeding faster than before. Wobbly and dizzy-headed, he slid over the slope and tumbled a few yards down until he hit a pile of rock and rubble and lay there panting.

After a few minutes, he caught his breath sufficiently to let out a few weak yells, and miraculously, his cries were heard by Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Frank Mack, a navy corpsman.

“Damn, I’m glad to see you, Doc,” Schlinder muttered.

“Just take it easy, and I’ll do what I can, but I’m almost out of everything,” Mack told him. The only thing the corpsman could find to plug the hole in Schlinder’s chest was a small first-aid packet, now empty of its original contents but bulky enough to slow the bleeding. Mack also pulled Schlinder under an overhanging ledge where he was somewhat protected, both from the Japanese and the elements.

“Hang on,” Mack whispered. “We’re trying to get some amtracs in here to pick up the wounded. We’ll get you out as soon as we can.”

“Do me one last favor before you go, okay?”

“What’s that?” Mack asked.

“Hand me my .45,” Schlinder said. “If the Nips come down this slope, I’d like to take as many of them with me as I can.”

Mack took the pistol from its holster and pressed it into Schlinder’s right hand. “Good luck,” he said.

Schlinder lay motionless until the sun came up.“I was almost out of blood when they loaded me on the tank, but a lot of guys were worse off than me,” Schlinder recalled. “I saw guys in all kinds of bad shape. One of my buddies, Pfc. Fred Sanchez from New Mexico, was hit in the guts and dying. He didn’t live to get to the aid station.”

Schlinder later learned that only three of the sixty-five able-bodied men who had marched south a week earlier with K Company’s weapons platoon emerged unscathed from the Sugar Loaf ordeal.

“I spent the next nine and a half months in military hospitals, and I’m still carrying a piece of shrapnel around in my liver,” he said nearly sixty-one years later. “But I was damned lucky. I’ll never know how any of us made it off that hill alive.”

At 7:30 a.m. on May 15—just thirty minutes before a planned new marine assault on the Sugar Loaf complex—a powerful Japanese counterattack drove the last few remaining men from Major Courtney’s group off the summit of Sugar Loaf. Within an hour and a half, the enemy counterattack stretched along a 900-yard front and it kept rolling until early afternoon. By the time the advance was halted, much of the hard-won ground in front of Sugar Loaf had also been lost.

By now, the Second Battalion of the 22nd Marines had lost more than four hundred men, 40 percent of its strength, and the next day was relieved by the 29th Marines. Courtney would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his valiant charge, ultimately futile though it was. For despite all of the valor and sacrifice shown by his men, there would be four more days of equally brutal fighting before the complex of hills would be taken at last.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Bill Sloan. From the forthcoming book The Ultimate Battle by Bill Sloan to be published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y. Printed by permission.

Originally published in the November 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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