Kiyoko Tsubota recalls her experiences as a civilian trapped between the battling armies during the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945.

Kiyoko Tsubota recalls her experiences as a civilian trapped between the battling armies during the Battle of Okinawa in the spring of 1945. (David Allen / S&S)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawans still call it the “Typhoon of Steel.”

Sixty years ago Friday, the last — and bloodiest — battle in the Pacific during World War II began with a naval bombardment that shook the island to its rock foundation. An invasion fleet of some 1,500 ships stretched to the horizon and a landing force of 182,000 men, 75,000 more than landed in Normandy on D-Day just 10 months earlier, nervously waited to swarm ashore.

The GIs expected a replay of the previous month, when about 6,000 Marines died wresting volcanic Iwo Jima island from the Imperial Japanese Army.

But Okinawa, at first, was almost a cakewalk.

The Japanese had a new plan of defense: Let the Americans land, then savage their ships with the dreaded kamikazes and lure the ground troops into a trap in the island’s southern third.

U.S. forces, which had planned to take the Japanese airstrips at Kadena and Yomitan by the third day, had them secured by the first afternoon. “It was so smooth that our unit, which was being held back in reserve and not scheduled to land until the late afternoon, was on the beach by 11:30 in the morning,” said Donald Dencker, in a mortar squad with the Army’s 382nd Infantry Regiment, 96th Infantry Division.

Dencker, 80, of Sun Prairie, Wis., wrote “Love Company,” a first-person account of battle experiences of the 382nd’s Company L on Leyte and Okinawa. Dencker, who received a Bronze Star for his actions on Okinawa, is slated to lead a tour group of battle veterans and history buffs to the battlefields in June.

“There was literally no resistance to the landing,” Dencker said in a recent telephone interview. “We didn’t see any Japanese soldiers the first day. And the only civilians we saw were the group I ushered out of a cave after we stopped and dug in for the night.”

Pistol drawn, Dencker led the scared civilians away. “Three women, two children and two old men,” he said. “One old man kept pointing to my pistol and then to his head — he wanted me to shoot him.”

Instead, the six spent the rest of the battle in a refugee camp. They were luckier than some other Okinawans who, believing Japanese army propaganda that U.S. troops were brutes, committed suicide rather than surrender.

The fighting would begin in earnest a week later. By June 22, when the commanding Japanese general committed suicide and the last acre of Okinawa ground was in U.S. control, 12,281 Americans would be counted among the dead — 4,907 of them sailors killed in kamikaze suicide attacks, the highest loss of any service during the battle.

“It was just good luck that I survived the entire 83 days without a scratch,” Dencker said. “Out of 130 men in my company, there were 121 battle casualties.”

The Japanese lost 110,000 soldiers and Okinawan conscripts.

But Okinawan civilians paid the highest price. The island was ravaged; almost a third of its 475,000 residents were killed, many trapped in the no-man’s land between the two armies.

That’s where Kiyoko Tsubota, 82, found herself in May 1945. From the Aragusuku community in Gushikami Village, she’d been mobilized to work in a field hospital in caves near her village.

“One day, an order was issued for everyone who can walk to leave the caves because the caves would be soon surrounded by allied forces,” she said. “Wounded soldiers walked out of the caves, some leaning on their canes and others with a limp. For those who could not move, hand grenades were issued.”

She said she saw countless bodies as she moved south with others from the caves. They wandered between the lines for a week or more.

“One day, bombing started suddenly in a sugar-cane field where we were hiding ourselves,” she said. “I was horrified and desperately got up and ran.

“All of a sudden, a soldier who was ahead of me was shot in his face,” she said. She froze in terror and was captured by Americans who took her to a POW camp because she had been traveling with Japanese soldiers.

“The food at the camp was very good,” Tsubota said. “I still remember how tasty the C-ration was.”

She later married Teruto “Terry” Tsubota, one of the Japanese-American interpreters working in the camp.

Okinawans have no plans to mark the battle’s beginning. Rather, its end will be commemorated in June with the annual memorial at the Cornerstone of Peace Monument. There, in southern Okinawa, 1,200 black marble tablets arranged in groups of zigzagging walls form a wave-like tribute to the fallen. Inscribed on the walls are the names of more than 235,000 people — Okinawans, Japanese, Americans, Koreans and Taiwanese.

Several major military tour groups from the United States plan to arrive for the memorial with the few aging veterans of the battle that marked their youth.

“This may be my last trip back to Okinawa,” Dencker said. “So many of us veterans can’t travel anymore because of health and economic reasons. We have about 20 or 25 people coming back with us in June, but not many are veterans of the battle.”

Dencker’s company was called to the front lines three times; when the unit finally left Okinawa at the end of June, its members were too weak to be considered for the war’s next planned phase — the autumn invasion of Kyushu, one of the main Japanese islands.

“We went back to the Philippines, where we waited for replacements and trained for the invasion of the Tokyo plain scheduled for the spring of 1946,” Dencker said. “No one was looking forward to it.

“Let me tell you, no one in our company objected to the dropping of the atomic bombs,” he said. “We knew we were bound for hell if we had to invade Tokyo.”

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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