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FEATURE REPORT

The bloody battle for Okinawa: Veterans recall the luck, grit that got them through

Flame-throwing tanks and riflemen move up toward the front lines on May 11, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa.

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Virgil “Bub” Simmons’ Army demolition squad unit was called to the front to blow up a cave as the 82-day Battle of Okinawa was winding down. Walking up a trail, he heard a “clip-clop” and ordered his men off the trail.

Next thing he knew, he was face to face with a Japanese officer on horseback in a “beautiful” dress uniform. Simmons raised his .45, ordering the man to drop his pistol. He obliged.

Then Simmons noticed he had unsheathed his sword. The officer reared back.

“I just couldn’t take it,” the 91-year-old recalled in June, when he and four other veterans returned for the 70th anniversary of the battle. “I could see my head laying there on the trail. So I touched one off. I blew him out of the saddle.”

The man’s name was Army Maj. Gen. Sadaichi Furuyama of the Infantry Corps. Simmons collected his dog tag and still has it.

The dog tag was once a young man’s war trophy. Now it carries an unwanted memory because he still ponders his decision to fire: Was Furuyama going to use the sword? He wasn’t going to wait to find out.

The Battle of Okinawa is one of the bloodiest and most tragic chapters of the Pacific war, claiming the lives of 110,000 Japanese troops, 140,000 Okinawan civilians and 12,520 American servicemembers.

It’s etched in the memory of every survivor. Though their numbers are dwindling — most are in their early 90s — they all have stories to tell, including the moral quandaries they faced.

INTERACTIVE | KEY MOMENTS DURING THE BATTLE FOR OKINAWA

Widget design: Michael S. Darnell. Research: Catharine Giordano, Norio Muroi

From the archives: Reporting from Okinawa

With brutal detail, Stars and Stripes reporters on Okinawa wrote about the  inches, yards and hills hard-won as they followed Marines and soldiers along the way. We present these archive reports as they were written by the reporters in the field. Please note the graphic and politically incorrect language used may be offensive to some readers.

Simmons was with the 96th Infantry Division and was already a seasoned combat veteran when he arrived on Okinawa in April 1945. He had been shot in the leg in the Philippines, where he earned a Bronze Star for valor.

On Okinawa, the division’s task was to cut the island in two and push south, he recalled. Simmons’ job was to destroy caves where Japanese troops — or civilians — were hunkered down.

“I was ordered to go up and blow this cave,” he said. “So I went up there and all I saw was children and women. And I refused to blow the cave. It was huge. I just couldn’t do it.”

His superiors told him it was OK this time, but that he better follow orders. He blew several more as they moved south and was wounded when an artillery shell peppered his body with small metal shards.

Ozzie Aasland, now 92, remembers the island defenders allowing the 6th Marine Division to land with little resistance. They wanted the Marines concentrated in one area so they could decimate them.

“It kind of backfired on them,” he said.

Aasland would remain there for 103 days, firing 105mm Howitzer rounds.

The only time he really felt scared was during a strafing run by an enemy aircraft.

“The bullets were tracking along like a sewing machine,” he recalled. “You only had a few seconds to know what was coming and analyze if it was going to hit you. You’re thinking, ‘Is this my time?’”

The gunfire missed.

Don Bryan, a 96th Infantry Division medic, also can’t forget his close calls.

One night, after hunkering down with three others a short ways down the slope from Needle Rock, on Hacksaw Ridge, a Japanese grenade landed in the middle of them. The enemy had crawled up to their position under cover of darkness.

The men had no time to react. They all just hit the deck. The grenade went off.

Miraculously, no one was injured.

After breakfast the next day, Bryan was returning to their position to retrieve his belongings when he saw a Japanese squirter running away with one of their machine guns. Another grenade landed nearby. He ran.

“I got hit in my left arm,” he said. “So that was the end of it for me.”

Roman Klimkowicz, a forward observer from the 96th, remembered a one-in-a-million shot that possibly saved the lives of his comrades and likely doomed one of the last Japanese defenders of the island.

Klimkowicz recalled sitting in a foxhole near the bloody Kakazu Ridge with a lieutenant, a captain and a few others when they heard a flurry of small arms fire.

The captain ran out with his .45 to see what was going on. Klimkowicz ran out with his carbine.

Supported by bazookas, Marines assault a ridge two miles north of Naha on May 4, 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa.

They spotted a pigeon, already out of range from whomever had been shooting at it. Klimkowicz took aim and fired.

“I hit the thing by accident,” he recalled. “We went out to get it. It had a tube on its leg with all of our guns marked on graph paper… It must have been a Jap that had been overrun but hadn’t been picked up yet and he had some pigeons … It was a lucky shot.”

Sailor Bill Haligas joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army but didn’t get a free ride either.

He arrived on the USS Maryland just in time for the Battle of Saipan. Assigned to the lower powder-handling room, his job was sending powder by elevator up to the gun room. Tightly secured below the waterline, it surely would have been his grave had anything happened, he said.

During the Battle of Saipan, the Maryland was torpedoed but was saved by the ship’s damage control team. They were able to limp back to Hawaii.

Then, the Maryland was put back into service and participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where it was struck by a suicide plane.

“The kamikaze airplanes were flying around like mosquitos,” Haligas said. “They were so desperate by that time because we were getting so close to Japan.”

The kamikaze struck on the bow between turrets one and two, he recalled. Its 500-pound bomb went through the deck and detonated in the sick bay, killing most of the doctors and patients.

Tank-borne infantry moving up to take the town of Ghuta before the Japanese can occupy it in April 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa. The men are members of the 29th Marines.

Again, they limped back to Pearl Harbor, and again, they were put back in service, this time to Okinawa.

The Maryland arrived prior to the landing to soften up the island’s defenses, Haligas said. On April 7, they were once again hit by a kamikaze, right on top of turret three.

The plane, the fuel and another 500-pound bomb cracked the 18-inch-thick steel on top of the turret, but somehow didn’t penetrate it.

“If it had, I wouldn’t be here today,” Haligas said. “Because all the powder would be like the Arizona. All the powder would have exploded and we’d be gone.”

Marvin Goldberg of the USS Diachenko arrived in Okinawa in June. He had missed most of the fighting but the devastation spoke volumes.

“The only thing I seen in Okinawa was Naha, and it was flattened,” he said.

“It was about killing them off until they were wiped out is what it basically amounted to,” said Donald Dencker, an artilleryman also from the 96th. “We outlasted the Japanese.”

What these men saw and did had a direct impact on who they would become and the lives they would lead.

Simmons and wife Fay never leave each other’s side. They do everything together, from sailing to Mexico to skydiving on their 60th wedding anniversary.

“My life has been a big joke,” Simmons said with an easy smile. “We had fun.”

burke.matt@stripes.com

Stars and Stripes researchers Norio Muroi and Catharine Giordano contributed to this report.

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