12 Okinawa

Okinawa is a fairly large island, seventy miles long and between three to fifteen miles wide. There were at least 75,000 Japanese troops stationed there. This was by far the largest operation in which I had participated. Six divisions were involved, including three Marine Divisions and three Army Divisions, plus a large number of attached units.

Figure 73. Love Day "Plan of the Day" for the USS Newberry. From the phonetic alphabet, in which "L" becomes Love." Plan through the courtesy of Dr. Jack Runninger, one of the ship's officers at the time of the initial assault.

We arrived off the island on the first day of April. The Second Marine Division had been placed in reserve. As usual, the Navy was bombarding enemy installations and had been for several days.

Just as first light was breaking, I went topside to see what was going on. This I should not have done, as we were at general quarters and my position was below deck. Somehow I had not heard the call to general quarters and I was curious as to why not as this was always standard procedure in a combat zone. In this instance, my mistake may have saved our ship. I opened the hatch and stepped out on deck just in time to see a kamikaze plane diving on our ship. Not only was the plane almost there, but it was lined up exactly on me. I had no time to run, but sweeping my right arm wide I gave the pilot a wave-off. It worked! He pulled up and flew past just barely overhead, leaning over to look at me as he did so. He flew right through some of our rigging and was so low I could clearly see his face and our eyes made contact in that brief period. He then shoved his plane over and went into the side of another ship about half a mile away, causing a tremendous explosion.

The kamikaze was Japan's newest weapon. Everything was stripped from the plane that was not absolutely necessary and the plane was loaded with high explosives and enough gasoline for a one-way trip.

The pilots were inexperienced with just enough training to be able to take off, find their target, and dive into it. They were very accurate and deadly, and as we were only 300 miles from Japan it was easy to reach us.

I have often wondered why my wave-off was successful, and I think it was just because it was such a surprise to the pilot that he reacted before he had a chance to think. A similar situation would be if you were driving down the street and someone suddenly stepped in front of your car. You would automatically jerk the steering wheel to the side before even realizing that you had done so. The pilot had picked a blank side of the superstructure to line up on, then just before impact a person was suddenly there. It was all just a matter of timing. The little ivory elephant had proven its worth again.

There are a couple of interesting sequels to this story. Years later, on the twenty-first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a group of fellow police officers was telling war stories and I related that one. One of the police officers present, James Corey, exploded. It turned out that he was a gunner on the ship that was hit. Corey stated they saw the kamikaze diving on our ship, then unexplainably pull up and go into theirs, which was the USS Telfair. He had never known before why the pilot had suddenly changed his mind. Their ship was severely damaged, but did not sink. Corey had some pictures showing the damage which I found interesting to look at, being as I had helped cause it. Both Salem papers heard of the story and each ran a good-sized article about the incident, complete with pictures.

The next I heard about the USS Newberry was many more years later in January 2004, when I received e-mails from two of her former crew members who had found my story. One, David E. Beneze, stated he was a QM3C at the time and was stationed in the secondary Conn, which was on the poop deck aft of the bridge and just short of the stern. He said they saw the plane coming in and thought they would be hit, and in fact had passed that information on to the men who were in the after-steering engine room. He had never known why the plane had pulled up at that last second until reading my story.

A full two years later I received a follow-up on that information in the form of an e-mail from Harold Jacobs of Juneau, Alaska. He stated his father, who lived in Sitka, had also been a QM3C on the USS Newberry and had been stationed in the aft-steering room at that time. His father had read my story and said that when they received word that a Kamikaze was going to strike their ship all of the crew had fled the room, but he had stayed at his post. He told them he was going to put them on report for their action but did not follow through. Unfortunately his father could not elaborate on this as he had passed away a little over a year before the son wrote to me.

Other e-mails were from Dr. Jack Runninger in Rome, Georgia. Jack was the Combat Information Officer and was stationed in the radar shack. As they had no outside view, he was unaware of the close call at the time. But as he said in an e-mail. "Thanks for probably saving my life," as the radar shack was by the bridge and just over my head, about where the plane would have hit.

The Newberry had been named for Newberry County in South Carolina and Jack had written an article for that county's local newspaper telling the wartime history of the ship. In it, he had mentioned my description of the wave-off and kindly sent me a copy of the article along with other interesting material.

In subsequent correspondence with Jack he sent me more information. He is a retired optometrist and award-winning state humor columnist. He sent me a copy of one of his published columns titled "I've never met my best friend," in which he relates my story of the kamikaze wave off and credits me with probably saving his life.

Figure 74. The USS Newberry, the ship that was spared from the Kamikaze attack. The photo was provided by Harold Jacobs who reports that the ship survived until 1983 in the James River fleet in Virginia when it was finally scrapped.

Although we were in reserve on D-day, it did not mean we had the day off. The main landing was on the west coast of Okinawa, so our transports went around to the southeast coast and conducted fake landings in an attempt to confuse the Japanese. Once again, it did not pay to be in reserve. Several of our ships were hit by kamikaze planes and the Division suffered several killed and wounded. In contrast, the real landings were unopposed and the assault troops had no casualties.

On D+l, we made some more fake landings, while ashore the combat teams were still moving forward without making contact with any enemy troops. Because of the heavy damage being inflicted by the kamikaze planes, the decision was made to move our convoy away from the island. For about a week we just cruised around in the East China Sea. Meanwhile, as things were still going smoothly on Okinawa, we were ordered to return to Saipan rather than remain exposed in such a vulnerable location. On April 16th, we docked again at Tanapag Harbor.

Shortly after moving back into our old camp things started getting bad on Okinawa, which was beginning to turn into a brutal campaign. Most of the smaller islands in the Ryukyu chain were still in Japanese hands and we were asked to take them. As these islands were rather small, only the Eighth Regiment would be sent and the other three Regiments would remain on Saipan.

On May 16th, I boarded an LST (landing ship, tank), and put back to sea. An LST was a shallow draft ship which could come fairly close to shore. A ramp could be dropped in the ship's bow and tanks could be driven directly out of the hull. In our case we were carrying amtracs, so we would board them right aboard ship, drive out of the front ramp, and disembark on dry land. During the course of the war great progress had been made in the method of getting assault troops onto the beach.

Figure 75. An LVT-4, loaded with Marines of the 8th Regiment, launches in June of 1945 from the bow of a tank landing ship and heads for the beach at Iheya Shima, 15 miles northwest of Okinawa. From The Marines, by the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.

On June 3rd, the 3rd Battalion went ashore on Iheya Shima. We were warned to expect heavy opposition. Two amtracs brought our platoon ashore, landing about seventy-five feet apart, then moving up onto the beach a short distance. Before we could go over the side, however, one of our own planes strafing the beach hit our other amtrac. Two men were killed and our platoon leader lost a leg. The rest of us started moving forward.

I was carrying a BAR (Browning automatic rifle), and I fired a short burst to be sure it was working properly. Those were the only shots I fired on Iheya Shima. We advanced all day without making contact and dug in for the night. We were then informed that all of the Japanese troops had been moved to Okinawa prior to the initial landings. Talk about good news!

Iheya Shima was really quite a beautiful island, especially as no one was shooting at us. The civilians were actually friendly. We soon learned to avoid walking through buildings with thatched roofs, though, as fleas by the hundreds would drop off the thatch onto us.

We were on the island for over a week and a half, and it was quite enjoyable. One day, a friend and I were just exploring and we found a trail that led back into the mountains. The trail went through a narrow cleft in the hills, then opened into a hidden valley that was completely unexpected. It was most attractive. There were two farm houses located in the valley and they had their own rice paddies. Once again, I wished I had a camera.

On the 15th of June we went back aboard the LST bound for Okinawa. The following day we landed across the bay from Naha, the capital city, and immediately moved up to the front.

By the 18th of June we were crossing a mountainous area bound for the east coast. There were a few trees and some brush, but mostly the area was quite open. We kept coming under sporadic artillery, mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire. We were following a trail and had just stopped for a break. I was thinking this was not a very good place to be when I saw a small contingent of men walking up the trail toward me. As they passed, I could see the man in the lead had three stars on each shoulder and on his shirt collar. This was Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, Commander of the U.S. Tenth Army. To say I was amazed would be putting it mildly. In the first place, I had never seen a high ranking officer on the front lines. Secondly, I had never seen as high a ranking officer as a Lieutenant General in my life. Thirdly, officers never wore their insignia in a combat zone. I recognized two of the other officers who were with General Buckner. They were Colonel Clarence R. Wallace, Regimental Commander of the 8th Marines, and our Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Paul E. Wallace, an old-time "China" Marine. Many of the Marines who served prior to the United States entering World War 2 had been stationed in China, and those who could claim that distinction were always respected above all others.

Figure 76 (above). Lt. General Simon Buckner (right) was killed by artillery fire shortly after he entered this Marine observation post on Okinawa. Also shown in the picture are Colonel Clarence R. Wallace (center) and Major William Chamberlain (left). From Follow Me, by Richard W. Johnston.

Figure 77 (below). This memorial on Okinawa near Naha now sits at the site of Buckner's death.

I remained seated by the trail and watched with fascination as this group of five or six people walked past me and continued about a hundred yards. I was still watching when a Japanese antitank shell landed right among them. In just another few moments General Buckner came by me again, only this time he was lying on a stretcher. Some reports say he was still alive upon reaching the aid station and died on the operating table, but he sure looked dead and unresponsive to me as he was carried by. General Buckner was the highest ranking U.S. officer killed by direct enemy action, on any front, during the entire war. Ironically, our regiment reached the east coast the next day, which completed the capture of Okinawa. Not only did the next day complete the Okinawa campaign, but this was also the last campaign of the war as there was no further ground action before Japan surrendered. For all practical purposes, you could say the General was killed just one day before the war ended. Incidentally, after the General was carried out, I began worrying once more.

An interesting comment needs to be added here. In February 2005, I received an e-mail from Paul S. Wallace of Arden Hills, Minnesota. He stated he had read my story with great interest as his dad was the Lt. Colonel Paul E. Wallace to whom I had referred. His father had passed away in 1987 after a distinguished career in which he had risen to the rank of Brigadier General. He added that his dad never talked about his wartime experiences except for the story about General Buckner. He had thought they were stupid for standing in the open and had just started leaving when the mortar round landed. Fortunately he had not been injured.

Paul Wallace (the son) had grown up on Marine Corps bases and had many interesting stories to tell. He thought it was unique that both the regimental and battalion commanders at this time had been a Colonel Wallace. He said that in the regiment they were known as Big Wallace and Lil Wallace. Of course to me, a low-ranking PFC, both men were considered big! Paul added that on December 7, 1941, his father was commanding officer of the Marine Detachment on the USS Pensacola, which happened to be at sea on that fateful day. The son and his mother, however, who worked for Naval Intelligence, were both at the Submarine Base, Fleet Headquarters, Pearl Harbor, and had a first-hand introduction to the event that drew the U.S. into World War 2. Because of his familiarity with the Marine Corps, Paul asked my permission to print a copy of my story and place it in the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, Virginia. Of course, I agreed to that honor!

My stomach started bothering me again and I checked into the aid station to see if they had something I could take. To my great surprise, the doctor ordered me to be evacuated. I was taken to Naha and went aboard the hospital ship, USS Relief.

Never was a transformation so complete. I was given a very comfortable bed that had a real mattress on it and even included white sheets. I could hardly imagine such luxury. Not only did my quarters have air conditioning, but it also came equipped with Navy nurses. I added up all my benefits. In all my prior seagoing experience I had either slept on the steel deck or else had canvas bunks, which sometimes were as many as six high, and always located in congested, hot and smelly quarters. I had not even seen sheets and mattresses since leaving the States, and I had forgotten when I had last talked to a woman. The nurses not only looked nice, they even smelled nice. I could hardly wait until I had a shave and a shower as I knew I reeked. My uniform was discarded, burned no doubt, and I was given pajamas and a bathrobe to wear. Soon after, we sailed again for Saipan.

There was only one fearful aspect of the trip. The Geneva Convention prohibited firing at hospitals or hospital ships, but this provision was not always honored. In accordance with the Convention, the Relief was painted all white with a large red cross on the superstructure. At night all of the ship's lights were left on and floodlights illuminated the big red cross. We did not zigzag, but sailed in a straight line. After having sailed thousands of miles under wartime security, this blatant disregard of everything that had been drilled into me was rather frightening. Nothing happened, however, on our way to Saipan. If any Japanese submarines saw us they honored the Convention. I could not help often standing up on deck, though, looking for telltale streaks of a torpedo.

Last Modified: 01/01/2019
One Man's View by Leonard E. Skinner (2001)