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The battle for Sugar Loaf Hill seemed like a awful waste of men. Why wasn’t air power used to penetrate the bunkers? We had large bombs, 1000+ lb.

I spent two years on Okinawa, ’51-’53.

Lee Crowder

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Dear Mr. Crowder,

Hindsight is always 20-20. Sugar Loaf Hill and Conical Hill were the anchors of the Shuri Line, a series of elevations which the American forces had to break through in their southbound pursuit of Lt. Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima’s Thirty-Second Army. After two days of fighting the U.S. Army’s 96th Infantry Division, backed by the 763rd Tank Battalion, managed to secure 476-foot-high Conical Hill on the eastern end from its 1,000 defenders on May 13. The 1st and 6th Marine Divisions also had armor support as they assaulted Sugar Loaf on May 12, but while only 50 feet in elevation, Sugar Loaf and two smaller adjacent hills proved to have been much better prepared, with an underground complex of 25 deeply dug-in strongpoints and a multitude of smaller underground passageways that the Americans did not see until they stumbled on them. It was hard to determine where an airstrike would have done the most good, and between the rock and shock-absorbing soil there was no determining what damage a 1,000-pound bomb could even have done. The complex of bunkers and spider holes also tended to make it hard for aircraft to attack Japanese without the danger of their ordnance falling on nearby Marines.

When Sugar Loaf was finally secured on May 18, it had cost 2,600 Marine and about 2,500 Japanese dead. By then Ushijima, realizing it to no longer defensible, had withdrawn most of his forces from Shuri to his next line of defense, making the battle for Shuri Castle (in which my Navy combat photographer father participated alongside the Marines) quicker and less costly than the either of the two anchoring hills.

A more longstanding controversy than the effectiveness of close air support at Sugar Loaf focused on a suggestion that the Marines carry out an amphibious landing around and behind it, which might have compelled the Japanese to abandon it with less of a fight (again, with the benefit of hindsight we know that Ushijima, while resigned to  an ultimate fight to the death, wanted to conserve his troop strength for as long as possible). The suggestion, however, was rejected by overall commander Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, who was killed in action a month later and never had to face questions as to the wisdom or folly of that decision.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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