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Killing Ground on Okinawa: The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill, by James H. Hallas, Praeger, Westport, Conn., 1996, $24.95.

When American forces landed on Okinawa on April 1, 1945, it looked as if the island would fall with minimal resistance. But as the Japanese forces commanded by Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima withdrew to the southern third of the island, the advancing U.S. Marines ran into a nightmarish network of enemy defenses consisting of caves, trenches and emplacements affording enfilading fields of fire. To make matters worse, Japanese kamikaze attacks were wreaking havoc on American ships offshore.

At the western end of Ushijima’s defense line were fortifications dominated by a 60-foot hill dubbed “Sugar Loaf” by the Americans. Barely 300 yards long, the hill was honeycombed with tunnels and caves manned by well-armed Japanese troops and Okinawan conscripts. Automatic weapons, mortars and anti-tank guns had intersecting fields of fire. The Japanese soldiers were to “stay in their holes and kill as many Americans as they could before they were themselves killed,” notes author James Hallas.

U.S. ground force commander Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner opted for a conservatively planned frontal assault on the Japanese defenses–exactly what Ushijima had hoped for. When elements of the 6th Marine Division attacked on May 12, enemy enfilading fire swept the approaches to Sugar Loaf. As the Marines struggled uphill, Japanese snipers fired from cave mouths, narrow spider holes and behind boulders. U.S. armored support bogged down under furious assaults by suicide demolition squads and point-blank anti-tank fire.

American commanders did not understand the precision with which the Japanese defenses had been laid. U.S. rifle companies were fed piecemeal into the battle, often lacking the demolition and flamethrower support needed to seal tunnel entrances. Fire from nearby hills, which the Americans had named “Horse Shoe” and “Half Moon,” riddled attackers attempting to scramble up Sugar Loaf’s slopes. The grenade became the weapon of choice because concealment was essential for survival.

James Hallas has drawn from numerous written memoirs and interviews of the American combatants in order to reconstruct the horrors of the assaults on Sugar Loaf and the other nearby heights. He includes stories about acts of individual courage along with examples of the violence and carnage experienced by both sides. It was not until May 18 that Sugar Loaf was finally seized. By May 31, the Japanese were forced to relinquish the remnants of their western defense lines and retreat to final positions and eventual defeat.

Kenneth P. Czech