Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Book Review - The battle for Okinawa by Hiromichi Yahara

The battle for Okinawa by Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, translated by Roger Pineau and Masatoshi Uehara, with an introduction by Frank B. Gibney

New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995.                             ISBN 0471120413

The battle for the island of Okinawa was the bloodiest of the whole Pacific War. From the opening bombardment in April through to July, much of the island became an inferno of fire, explosive and steel, in which both sides took staggering casualties, and the Japanese Thirty-Second Army was destroyed. The battle saw the first widespread use of Kamikaze tactics, and was the also the first time that Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner in any sort of numbers.

One of those prisoners was the author of this book. Col. Yahara was not just any prisoner, he was a senior staff officer of the Thirty-Second Army, so his views on the battle are worth having - and we so nearly didn't have them at all. Not only did he survive the fighting - his commanding officer denied him the right to commit suicide by ordering him to report to Tokyo - he got captured trying to escape the island. He went through a crisis once in custody, but, through his realization that the government wasted the lives of all those on Okinawa and was going to do the same in Japan, he decided that the Empire was not worth dying for after all.

This refusal to succumb to that prevailing ethos damaged Yahara's post-war life and career, and he didn't write this book until 1973, near the end of his life. It was his attempt to set the record straight after years of myth-making by both sides.

The book as we have it here consists of two sections: the first dealing with the creation of the Thirty-Second Army and preparations for the battle, and the second dealing with the last phase of the battle, Yahara's attempted escape and eventual capture.

Yahara was a clear-sighted and rational man, and so knew even before he set about planning the defence of Okinawa that the Japanese would lose the battle. He knew that, despite the regime's trumpeting of the indomitable will of the Japanese soldier, the Allies overwhelming superiority of men and material meant that there could only be one outcome. Yahara did, however, believe his superiors when they told him that the invasion force would be met with a heavy air response in the initial hours and days. Therefore he developed a battle plan that focused on attritional warfare, with troops well dug in to fortified positions, instructed to wait for the Americans to come on to them.

Yahara's strategy was probably the correct one, but he was overtaken by events, and his superiors. The envisaged air attack on the landing never eventuated, and, his superior officers being of the old school, many troops were wasted in futile frontal attacks. When Yahara picks up the story again in the second half of the book, the troops are retreating to their final positions, and are running low on food and ammunition. This section of the book becomes hard to read, as more and more people are sacrificed for no reason, as the following extract demonstrates - "Our new infantry units were poorly trained. For want of antitank weapons, we had to use Okinawan conscripts armed with bamboo spears. They were all destroyed in one day....It was frustrating to see our men being killed by a well-equipped enemy, while we had nothing left to fight with."

There is no thought of surrendering, even when General Buckner asks them to - it was not the way of the Samurai. Yahara had a more nuanced view of such a proposal - he had spent time in the USA in the thirties, and knew the horror stories spread by high command about the treatment of prisoners by the Americans were not true. He expands somewhat on this in his text: "Indeed, it is a high ideal to fight to the end to maintain national morale. But were our leaders worth the sacrifice of an entire people? With the end of the war in sight, they shout at us: " Millions of people must die for our nation." Why? ...It was foolish to force everyone to die, simply because Japan had never before lost a war."

At the time Yahara could not bring himself to espouse this view, and the battle raged on until nearly all the Japanese were dead. Yahara stayed on in the headquarters cave until his superiors committed Seppuku, and then got into civilian clothes and tried to escape. He caught up with a group of other civilians hiding in a cave, and helped them surrender to the Americans rather than get killed. He then tried to get to the north of the island to find a ship to Japan, but was betrayed by another Japanese soldier.

The book has insertions from Frank Gibney, who was in Okinawa working for US Army intelligence. He sets the scene for readers of the book, and includes a transcript of Yahara's interrogation, which took place in August (on the day of the Hiroshima bombing), and focussed more on preparations for the invasion of Japan, which is fascinating in itself.

While the first half of Yahara's book covers the poor preparation for the invasion of Okinawa - not enough munitions, the inability of the navy and air force to get troops to the island without being shot down or sunk - his idea to run a battle of attrition had a big effect on US strategy. The enormous losses suffered by the US on Okinawa, combined with the fact that the main islands of Japan only offered a few places to mount an invasion, led the Army to predict a million casualties from such a landing.

Faced with this horrendous prediction, the new President, Truman, made the fateful decision to use the atomic bomb, which led to a quick surrender by the Japanese.

A fascinating read, this book is one for aficionados.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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