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A Gentle Island Witnesses the Ferocity of War

November 05, 2000|CHARLES A. WELSH | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Probably because it was my first full picture of invasion, Okinawa was fascinating to me. Of course, it was a fearsome sort of fascination, something like a bird must feel under the eyes of a snake, but that part slides into the background with time and the other picture stays sharp and clear.

Always before we had operated with the big, sleek, new battleships, carriers, cruisers that were only somebody's dream put down on paper when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. This time we joined the prewar fleet, much of it that the same Japanese thought they smashed forever at the same Pearl Harbor.

The island itself was fresh and green, a rim of sandy beach giving way to gentle hills rising toward the middle where the higher ridges lay. It was interlaced with roads that looked surprisingly smooth and wide as they wandered among the fields and over the hills. And everywhere you looked closely were little hamlets of a half-dozen clustered-together houses. In those days we saw no people. Later there were a few, but I never was quite sure whether they were civilians or Japanese troops.

All that week we bombarded, patrolling slowly up and down our sector by day, fighting off air attacks morning, noon and night.

Bombarding soon becomes a boresome task. You stand long watches, get little sleep; the roar of the big guns rings in your ears day and night and often, when you must stand too close, the concussion of the guns is like a physical blow. Sometimes it felt as though I were being struck sharply on the throat.

Where the shells land you see only gray-brown blobs of smoke and shattered earth. Curiously, the snapping crackle of the five-inch guns I found more annoying than the deeper rumble of the eights. Sometimes from a distance we felt the jarring thud of the 12-, 14- and even 16-inch battleship guns, heard the ghostly rustle of the shells overhead.

But there are, sometimes, little incidents. One was the day we wrecked the lighthouse.

The lighthouse stood on a promontory of rock at the entrance to Naha Bay . . . an excellent observatory from which Japanese binoculars could chart our moves, and eventually it might be an easily defended fort. So the eight-inch guns went to work.

The first salvo was over; we could see the brown dust and rocks fly from the hillside beyond the target. The second was a little short and a corner of the rock crumpled into the sea. The third was to right and a portion of the house caved in.

Fourth salvo--all this in five minutes--was "on target."

Shells Falling Like Rain

We went on to other targets. On the airdrome were the gaunt steel skeletons of two hangars, either never finished or else burned out. We left them alone. And we left alone, too, some realistic-looking dummy planes the Japanese had left on the airstrip. But we blew the hell out of some underground hangars and neatly demolished a couple of real planes the Japanese thought they had hidden.

All that week we bombarded methodically. . . . Saturday night we steamed away from the deserted island. Sunday morning before dawn hundreds of ships were there. Then began the real bombardment, and for an hour shells of all sizes rained on the beach and the adjoining hills.

Slowly and deliberately, while we shelled, the little landing craft circled, loaded, circled again and then in lines moved toward the beach. With them went the rocket ships and as the warships fell quiet the little fellows went to work. It's awesome to watch flight after flight of rockets spring upward from the little ships--first an arrow with a tail of fire, then nothing until the shattering showers of death and destruction on the beach.

The sound came out to us--whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, then a solid roaring as they struck and exploded. A great cloud of dust covered everything. The troops went ashore.

The first day the fate of Okinawa, the course and ultimate outcome of the battle, were signed, sealed and delivered to us. The soldiers and Marines swarmed onto the beach; we watched them race almost unopposed up the hill, and by nightfall they held Yontan and Kadena airstrips.

Through that first week the carriers and pilots of Task Force 58 stood between us and Japan, covered us with an aerial umbrella that, while it didn't keep out all the rain of planes, enabled most of the Kamikaze to attain their divine objective of death for the emperor with comparatively little trouble. And as we held and began to use Yontan and Kadena, the pressure gradually eased.

Not that it was easy, or pleasant. It's my recollection that we were under air attack for 18 or 20 consecutive days and nights. The bugle seemed to be blowing almost hourly, and we griped and lost sleep--the Japanese lost planes and pilots.

We kept on bombarding, moving with the troops toward Naha, watching through field glasses a little of the fighting--tanks, men and guns streaming along the Okinawa roads, past burning houses where the war had touched, through fields cratered by shell and bomb.

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