Minatoga: A Missed Opportunity

One of the still-unexplained puzzlers of the Battle for Okinawa is why Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner allowed two veteran Marine divisions to stand idle in the north—the First for a month, the Sixth for nearly two weeks—instead of using them to relieve one or two Army infantry divisions badly battered in his three-division assault on the Naha-Shuri-Yonabaru line. The answer, unpleasant though this speculation may be, seems to be that Buckner wanted the Army infantry to have the honor of crushing the Japanese Thirty-second Army.

There is nothing especially biased or prejudiced in such an attitude, and it is actually much more common among commanders of rival services than is generally understood. A similar decision by a Marine general occurred when Major General William Rupertus, commanding the First Marine Division at Peleliu, hesitated much too long before relieving his crippled First Regiment with a regiment from the Eighty-first Infantry Division. He did it only after ordered to do so by Major General Roy Geiger, who was commander of the Third Marine Amphibious Corps. But Buckner’s reluctance was somewhat more surprising in that the First Marine Division was probably the most experienced fighting formation in the American Armed Forces; 70 percent of the Sixth—though new to battle as a unit—was composed of veterans from other divisions in other campaigns.

It was not until April 28 that Buckner decided to put fresh troops into his renewed down-island offensive. The Seventh would remain in place on the left, and the Ninety-sixth would be relieved by the Seventy-seventh. The First Marine Division would relieve the Twenty-seventh Infantry Division on the Seventy-seventh’s right with the Sixth Marine Division holding the western flank. Thus the line, Seventh, Seventy-seventh, First, Sixth: Twenty-fourth Corps, Third Corps.

Almost simultaneously with this realignment there arose a dispute over a proposal made by Major General Andrew Bruce of the Seventy-seventh. Just before Cho’s counter-attack, Bruce had suggested that his division envelop Ushijima’s rear by storming the Minatoga Beaches below him. On Leyte, Bruce’s Seventy-seventh had made a strikingly successful landing behind the Japanese line at Ormoc—where “the 77th rolled a pair of sevens”—and he was confident he could do the same on Okinawa. Once ashore, his division could either move inland to take Iwa, a road and communications center on the island’s southern tip, or push north to join the Seventh near Yonabaru.

Buckner gave no serious consideration to the suggestion after his supply officer, Brigadier General David Blakelock, reported that though he could supply food for the operation, Tenth Army had not enough ammunition to spare for it. On the last count, Blakelock’s analysis was correct; for even Tenth Army’s splendid service of supply had not yet been able to compensate for the loss of those two ammunition ships on April 6. Buckner was also aware that Tenth Army planners had rejected the Minatoga Beaches before L-day: the reefs were too dangerous, the beaches inadequate, and the area exposed to strong enemy counter-attack. Beach outlets also were commanded by a plateau, and Bruce’s landing would be too far south to receive support from Hodge’s corps in the north and was also out of range of his artillery.

These were indeed daunting considerations, although hardly more formidable than the drying reef and seawall at Tarawa or even the reefs and seawall at Hagushi. Other division chiefs besides Bruce supported his proposal, although not necessarily to be executed by his division. Major General Pedro del Valle of the First Marine Division believed a Minatoga landing was advisable, although it should be made by the more experienced Second Marine Division, still in Third Corps reserve. Major General Lemuel Shepherd of the Sixth said later he had suggested use of the Second several times to Buckner, pointing out that the logistics argument did not apply to this formation because it had enough beans and bullets of its own to sustain a thirty-day assault. A landing by the Second, he wrote later, “would have seriously threatened Ushijima’s rear and required him to withdraw troops from the Shuri battle or employ his limited reserve to contain the landing.”

Army historians of Okinawa in their book on the campaign were agreed that Minatoga would have produced logistical difficulties and might have failed, but only if it were attempted before the end of April. If made after May 5—the date that Cho’s abortive counter-strike was shattered—it could not have been opposed by more than two or three thousand men. Colonel John Guerard, Tenth Army operations officer, had learned by late April of Ushijima’s order for the Japanese Twenty-fourth Division and Forty-fourth Brigade to move north into Shuri, where they joined Cho’s assault. This left Minatoga lightly defended, and Guerard, who had originally opposed a landing there, now strongly recommended it. So did General Hodge, who went to Tenth Army headquarters to urge Buckner to envelop the enemy there. But the Tenth Army commander did not agree, again basing his rejection on the logistics argument even though he now knew that the Second Marine Division could operate for a month on its own supplies.

Buckner’s decision became highly controversial in the stateside press even before the Okinawa campaign had ended. Such influential newspapers as the Washington Star and the New York Herald-Tribune, probably at the urging of Admiral King, flatly stated that the secondary landing should have been made. Some historians in defense of Buckner have suggested that if the Tenth Army commander had even suspected that the Okinawa fighting would continue through May, and then for almost another agonizing month in June, he might have preferred to risk a quick end to it by landing in Ushijima’s rear. This is a specious argument, the purest conjecture apparently based upon nothing more substantial than a desire to exonerate the Tenth Army commander for having failed to take what can only be described as a gamble with little risk. All the odds after May 5 were in Buckner’s favor: an inferior foe defending against his own superiority in the number and quality of his troops, as well as in supply and in control of the air above and sea surrounding Okinawa.

Caught between four American divisions to his front, with another in reserve and a garrison division also available behind them; and in his rear a seventh veteran division; pounded from land, sea, and sky; hopelessly isolated and cut off from reinforcement or supplies, with the kikusui attacks of no help on land, Ushijima’s Thirty-second Army could either be starved into submission or—if surrender was still so unthinkable to Samurai such as Ushijima, Cho, and Yahara—compelled to make a final “glorious” sally that would be broken in blood ending in mass suicide.


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