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The Battle of Okinawa

Was Sugar Loaf Necessary?

by Laura Lacey
Sixth Marine Division Historian
November 2016

Sugar Loaf Hill

In May 1945, the Sixth Marine Division suffered over 2,000 casualties on a small hill — Hill 52, nick-named Sugar Loaf. The hill would be assaulted eleven times; some companies would be literally wiped out twice. I once asked Dick Whitaker (29th Mar-2-F) how he could go up that hill knowing what had happened to those who had preceded him? His answer was that he was taught to follow orders. They did what they were told; their training had become instinctual. The frontal assault of Sugar Loaf was very controversial at the time. Was the loss of life worth folding the Shuri Line?

The Japanese military had been unsure of where the Allies might land and had moved troops from Okinawa to Formosa. This condemned Japan’s Thirty-Second Army to fight a defensive battle. The Japanese were not on Okinawa to win, but as a delaying force. General Mitsuru Ushijima and his Thirty-Second Army were there to buy time while mainland Japan readied itself for an invasion. Or to make the Allied Forces so weary of war that perhaps it would cause a stalemate.

Rather than meeting the Tenth Army at the beachhead as they had in previous encounters, the Japanese moved to the Shuri-Yonburu line. This high ridge essentially cut the island in two just north of Naha on the eastern side of the island. Its center was the pride of the Okinawans, Shuri Castle. The Thirty-Second Army's goal was to inflict as much damage from that spot as possible. From the walls of Shuri Castle, the Thirty-Second Army's headquarters, Ushijima and his staff watched the Americans land. They positioned their many guns, the Japanese soldiers dug interconnecting tunnels, and they waited. For Ushijima, it was a war of attrition. He had to use his men effectively, knowing that they were all going to die. So he established strong defensive lines — a dreadful plan for the Tenth Army, which was planning a frontal assault.

When the Marines landed on Okinawa in April 1945, they understood their job was to take Okinawa, in particular the northern end of the island. They quickly advanced and twenty days later the First and Sixth Marine Divisions secured the northern half of the island. However, word began to filter back that events were not going smoothly in the south. The Army had mired down after running into stiff opposition north of Naha at a hill known as Kakazu. One of the Army units, the 27th, already had a reputation for having performed poorly in previous island fighting. Now the Marines felt they were being ordered to bail them out.

At first General Buckner wanted to use the Marines piece meal in the south — this did not sit well. Hearing about a possible split, First Marine Division Commander, General Pedro del Valle became furious. "They can have my division," he complained to General Roy Geiger, "but not piece-meal." Del Valle had other concerns. Marine Corps tankers and infantry trained together as teams. The First Marine Division had perfected tank-infantry offensive attacks in the crucible of Peleliu. Committing the tanks to the Army without their trained infantry squads could prove to be a disaster, and he was not willing to risk it. Generals Roy Geiger and O.P. Smith made it clear to Buckner that using the Marine divisions in that manner was not a good option, and Buckner conceded. The Marines headed out, and the First eventually broke through at Kakazu.

In April, General Alexander Vandegrift, Marine Corps Commandant, visited Okinawa and discussed an amphibious assault on the southern end of the island, rather than Buckner's plan of continued frontal assault. This has become a major point of debate in the battle's history. The debate revolves around the contention that a southern assault would have been less costly. It would have involved using the Marines, including the Second Division that was in reserve, to conduct an amphibious landing on the Minatoga Beaches. This was at a time when the concept of frontal assaults seemed to be falling out of favor. The heavy losses in battles such as Pickett’s Charge during the Civil War and the meat grinder of the Western front in World War I had taught warfighters that modern killing machines made frontal assaults a costly endeavor. However, for Buckner, although a decent tactician, “grinding forward with the relentless use of superior firepower” suited him better.

Military leadership finally agreed that Okinawan terrain made other options less feasible, and they concluded that frontal assaults and grind-the-enemy-down tactics were just about the only way to dislodge, destroy, and defeat the Japanese. Still, the continued bloody fighting along the Shuri front remained in the forefront of Buckner's attention. His plan prevailed, and at the end of April, the Marines began replacing the Army on the front lines. They were about to run head on into the Shuri-Yonaburu Line. As casualties grew alarmingly, Buckner decided to concentrate all his resources on a single front. On 27 April he assigned the First Marine Division to XXIV Corps. During the next three days, the division moved south to relieve the shot-up 27th Infantry Division on the western (right) flank of the lines. The Sixth Marine Division received a warning order to prepare for a similar displacement to the south. The long battle for Okinawa's southern highlands was shifting into high gear.

A problem for the Tenth Army was the rain, which by 9 May had begun in earnest. Everything became muddy. Moving supplies and equipment proved almost impossible and often had to be accomplished hand-over-hand. Asa Kawa River seemed to be the biggest obstacle between the Sixth Marine Division and Naha, the capital of Okinawa. The river would be breeched by the 22nd Regiment a yard at a time. Then all that stood between the division and Naha were three "insignificant" hills: Half Moon, Horseshoe and Sugar Loaf.

May 12-18 would be filled with some of the most savage fighting in Marine Corps lore. The Shuri Line cut the island in half east to west. It consisted of mutually supported defensive positions, including mortar, artillery, machine guns, and interconnected tunnel complexes. These tunnels, an estimated sixty miles of interconnected passageways, made movement and flanking maneuvers easy for the Japanese. In addition, the Marines ran into what they referred to as “spider holes.” Flush with the ground and covered with brush or dirt, these hideaways kept the men constantly vigilant about what might be behind them. The Marines had found the flank of Ushijima's Shuri Line of defense, and the Japanese were unwilling to give it up without a tremendous payment.

Finally, under the cover of darkness during a rainstorm, the remnants of Japan’s Thirty-Second Army headed further south. Here they prepared for a final stand on the southern tip of Okinawa. As Colonel Hiromichi Yahara says in The Battle of Okinawa, “The beautiful countryside of the Amekudai plateau, where in times past I enjoyed riding with General Ushijima, was now steeped in the blood of thousands of soldiers — Japanese and American.” The Marines of the Sixth were left at Sugar Loaf to recover their dead and wounded and then move on for the next confrontation.

So, could lives have been saved in the Battle of Sugar Loaf? Anyone who has seen the height of the rock crevices on the southern side of the island and the tremendous Japanese artillery emplacements there would probably agree that a southern landing would have been even more costly than Sugar Loaf. However, it is important to remember that the Japanese aim on Okinawa was to make it costly for the Allies. Frontal assaults or amphibious landings — the final battle of the war was meant to be baptism in blood for the Sixth.

Sugar Loaf had to be taken. Folding the Shuri Line meant the beginning of the end for the Thirty-Second Army.