Okinawa: Why World War II’s Last Great Battle Was Hell on Earth

    Warfare History Network

    Security, Asia

    And why so many people lost their lives.

    To the Americans, Okinawa represented a major stepping-stone toward the final defeat of the Japanese Empire. The successful occupation of the island by American forces would provide air bases and naval facilities that would allow for attacks on the Home Islands themselves. To the Japanese, the surrender of a base so close to the heart of the empire would seriously compromise the ability of their armed forces to defend the homeland. Capture of the island would also interdict the critical flow of petroleum to Japan from Borneo, Sumatra, and Burma.

    Okinawa is the largest and most densely populated island in the Ryukyu chain, some 380 miles southwest of the Japanese Home Island of Kyushu. With a total area of 485 square miles, Okinawa is approximately 60 miles long with a width of 2 to 18 miles. The island’s northeastern area is very rugged, mountainous, wooded, and lightly populated.

    In 1945 the population of Okinawa was estimated to be approximately 500,000, two-thirds of whom lived in the southern one-third of the island. Unlike the north, the south had large open areas suitable for cultivation. Before World War II, the Okinawans maintained a largely rural, agricultural society. The islanders fished and raised sugar cane, sweet potatoes, rice, and soybeans. They tended to concentrate in small villages rather than in large cities. Ancestor worship dominated their religious practices, and the tombs of those ancestors dotted the countryside.

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