March 30, 2015

Okinawa: The Final Battle Revisited

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Okinawa marine scans Naha resized
Photo above: A Marine looks over the ruins of Naha, capital of Okinawa.

This article first ran July 5, 1995 in the Towson Times and other Patuxent Publishing newspapers in Baltimore County.

It recounts a visit to Okinawa with veterans of the battle on its 50th anniversary, and it appears here for the first time on the Internet exactly as it ran at the time. It was written by Len Lazarick and edited by Cynthia Prairie, both of whom now work on MarylandReporter.com.

Okinawa maps resized

By Len Lazarick Jr.

OKINAWA -These old men have returned to the site of the final battle, where many lost their youth, their innocence, their buddies.

Little they see of Okinawa today is what they have seen these past 50 years in their vivid, often painful memories of that bloodiest battle in the Pacific during World War II.

For my father and for the other infantry veterans who returned to Okinawa in late June to commemorate the battle’s 50th anniversary, there is scant evidence of the scale of tragedy that was here.

Resorts and convention centers dot beaches that U.S. troops once stormed. Traffic-clogged urban centers bustle atop the archaeology of demolished towns. Apartments and golf courses mask hillsides bought in bloody assaults.

Yet there, set in a grove, are 1,184 chest-high granite tablets, carved with the names of the dead — 234,183 in all: 14,005 Americans, 72,907 Japanese and 147,110 Okinawans.

The battle for Okinawa was devastating for this subtropical island, caught between Japanese soldiers, who Okinawans viewed as their protectors, and American troops. who needed the island to launch the ultimate battle — the invasion of Japan.

The Okinawan dead account for one-third of its wartime population, mostly civilians, more civilians than died in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Adjacent to the grove are cliffs, where, to avoid surrender, thousands of Okinawan women, children and old men and Japanese soldiers hid in caves or, more common, jumped or were pushed to their deaths ..

This three-month battle would be the bloodiest of the Pacific war. But few thought it would be the last.

The battle for Okinawa, just 400 miles from Japan, was lost amid the climactic events’ of the European war; the death of President Roosevelt; the fall of Berlin; the newfound horrors of the Holocaust.

Clash of war machines and cultures

It was a clash not just of two great war machines, but of three cultures with sharply conflicting values.

For those who know the story personally, like my father, different lessons have been learned from similar agony. Both victor and vanquished know firsthand that war is hell. But the victors can more easily take pride in their service, their comrades and their military.

The Okinawans, caught in the typhoon of steel and explosives, have learned to despise the military, particularly the Japanese, and they want the 29,000-member U.S. force now occupying the island to leave.

They wish to return to the peaceable kingdom established by ancient Okinawan kings, who banished weapons, which led the people to develop karate, the weaponless method of self-defense.

Thousands of threads weave Okinawa’s tale. The grand battle scheme of the commanders. The memories of local veterans.

Then there is this story of my father and a handful of veterans who returned to Okinawa to commemorate .the 50th anniversary of the battle.

‘I can’t believe this island’

Lazarick sr speaks

Sgt. Len Lazarick Sr. speaks in 2012 at the dedication of the 96th Division plaque at the National Museum of the Pacific War. He is now 91.

When most returning veterans were last here, Naha, Okinawa’s capital, had been flattened. Now it is a city of 290,000, dense with businesses and high-rise apartments.

“I can’t believe this island,” says Len Lazarick Sr., known as “Laz” by his Army buddies. When these Army and Marine vets were last ashore, the island had been shelled to bits from offshore, pounded by land artillery, and bombed from the air unmercifully. An unexploded bomb team estimates it will take 40 to 50 more years to clear the island.

The Japanese defenders, fighting for the first time on what they considered home soil, were dug in to the series of ridges that cross the island. They had expanded the natural tunnels through the limestone to create a labyrinth of defense.

“For the most part, anything that the battle was on has been picked over,” says Sgt. Pete Vitale, one of the Air Force sergeants who escorted us to battle sites during our weeklong stay. Recently, children playing on a building site found human remains and hand grenades in the exposed caves.

“Instead of stopping,” Vitale says, “the developers just crushed all the caves in,” Says Sgt. John Terrell, “Most Okinawan folks … learn very little about the battle here. They just want to forget it.”

Many sites were like Kakazu Ridge, one of our first stops. It has a commanding view of the landing beaches up at Kadena, and what it lacked in natural defenses it made up for with pillboxes of reinforced concrete several feet thick .

“This is the first time I ever got a perspective of what we were up against,” says Laz. My father and many of the veterans in this group were members of the 96th Army Infantry Division that landed with two Marine divisions on April 1, April Fool’s Day, L-Day, Easter Sunday 1945.

“The intensity of the battle was terrible,” says Don Dencker, a 96th Division veteran and tour leader who has been back before .

The 96th had the “dubious distinction,” says Laz, of having 100% casualties.

Adds Dencker, “There wouldn’t have been a 96th Division if it hadn’t been for replacements.”

‘The real heroes aren’t here’

“The real heroes aren’t here. Those are the guys who are dead,” Dencker says, echoing a common sentiment. But there was plenty of heroism to go around; acts of bravery were routine. Those who left with their lives were just lucky.

There is little telling of battle stories, except one-on-one, among the veterans. The talk is of chow and weapons, chicken and rice soup and coffee cooked over plastic explosives, of humorous incidents.

“You had to be in real combat to know how to appreciate its fears, danger and misery: And you can’t explain it to others,” says Laz.

But you can try. Last year, prompted by author Gerald Astor’s request for help with an oral history of the battle of Okinawa; my father recounted his 42 days in Company K of the 382nd Regiment. Good chunks of his account are in Astor’s new book, “Operation Iceberg.”

The 96th saw its first action at Leyte, the invasion of the Philippines, where the 21-year-old Lazarick was wounded 15 minutes after he hit the beach. He didn’t rejoin his unit until the preparations for Okinawa.

Like many units that landed on Okinawa in the early going, Laz’s battalion met only light resistance on April 1 and the days soon after as they swung south. The night of April 3, “We heard rifle shots from a foxhole just 30 feet away. Not too many rounds were fired and we didn’t discover until daylight that we had killed an elderly man and woman and a younger woman with a baby.

“We were told that pamphlets had been dropped on the island instructing civilians not to move about at night. A sad tragedy of war when the innocent are killed — especially babies. I was assigned to the detail of digging a grave for the dead right on the spot.”

Killing civilians

Killing civilians who were on the move at night was common. Countering the American leaflets, the Japanese told civilians that Americans would rape and torture them. Later on, however, Japanese soldiers would use civilians as shields or dress in their clothes to hide.

As demolition expert of his squad, one day Laz threw a satchel charge into a small cave where shots had come from. Laz borrowed a carbine “to make sure all the occupants were dead.”

“There was some slight movement among the eight bodies in the cave, so I emptied the carbine on the occupants to make sure. It was an unwritten code of warfare against the Japs not to take prisoners and that’s my justification. Almost 50 years have gone by and I can still see that slight movement in those Jap bodies and bullet holes made by the carbine.”

As Laz carne out of the cave, he spotted an old friend, Pfc. Martin ‘Moe’ Horowitz “charging the next small hill. He waved and smiled and five minutes later he was dead from gunshot wounds. It was not a banner day for me.”

The platoon dug into position, then couldn’t move for nearly a week.

“On another night, after the customary shelling, a platoon of Japs attacked our position,” Laz said.

A Japanese soldier, carrying 40 pounds of picric acid on his back, jumped into the next foxhole, where Pfc. Archie Clowers was. The soldier “blew himself up — Archie and his buddies were severely wounded, but they survived. Pieces of the Jap were strewn all over the area. One of his legs landed outside our hole.”

“The Jap officer leading the attack charged a water-cooled machine gun, screaming and waving his saber. The machine gun jammed before the GI could get off a shot. So he grabbed the Jap by the throat and … choked him to death.”

Tombstone Ridge

None of these sites was on the tour, but Tombstone Ridge was. The ridge was named for the traditional Okinawan hillside tombs that were a favored hiding place for Japanese.

My father recalled vividly the time he was ordered to blow out one tomb with a satchel charge to eliminate a Japanese machine gun that had a wide line of fire down on the approaching troops and tanks.

“The hill above the tomb was steep, so I took off all my gear and set it aside with my rifle while others lowered me. I carefully slid down the hill on my belly, dragging the satchel’ charge with me.”

He got close enough to swing the charge into the entrance of the tomb. “Seconds later, the charge’ went off” and the tomb fell quiet.

“As I was crawling back up the hill, the strangest thing happened,” Laz says. “A young, unarmed Jap soldier in a clean, well-pressed uniform walked no more than 10 feet in front of where I was lying on my belly. The Jap was between me and my rifle so he could have easily picked it up and shot me. Maybe he was in a daze from all the earlier shelling — or maybe he was on drugs or sake.”

The tombs now are surrounded by apartments, bordered by a highway and a car graveyard.

“At this point in the battle, our platoon of 40 men and one officer was down to 15 men and no officer.” Other units were in worse shape.

On April 21, having taken all of Tombstone Ridge, the depleted platoon faced a company strength counterattack. “We were shooting and reloading as fast as possible … I don’t remember how long this fight lasted but we were able to stand fast and hold them off – some Japs who turned to run away were shot down.”

“After the counterattack was repelled I noticed that my hands were blistered. I had burned them on the hot barrel of the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle). A bullet had grazed both my legs and my face was peppered with small grenade fragments.” A medic patched Laz up, then sent him back to the line.

But the next day, the decimated 96th unit was sent back for a rest. Laz was promoted to sergeant and replacement troops arrived.

“I was only 21, but some of the new riflemen seemed awfully young to me — 18 and 19 years old. … We wanted. to train them to survive against a tough and wily enemy.

“We did our best to get to know our new buddies — but not too well. Old friendship could be snuffed out in an instant and the closer the friendship the harder to face the loss.”

One final visit: Zebra Hill

Zebra Hill sits between Item and Harriet hills, on the way to Dick. Early in the week, in the parking lot of the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital, we had been on one side of Zebra, but could not see the spot where my father saw his last action on Okinawa, May 12, 1945.

On Sunday evening, June 25, 1995, we approach it from the south. Sgt. Pete Vitale is at the wheel of his Japanese car, navigating up Route 29, looking for Zebra Hill.

Under the new expressway, off the road by the gas station, we start around the western face of Zebra, by the sugar cane fields and corrugated barns, on a little pockmarked macadam road. Guided by 50-year-old military maps, we wind around toward the top surrounded by Okinawan tombs.

“On a rainy May 9, 1945,” writes my dad in his memoir, “We slogged through the mud and up the slopes of a hill overlooking two small hills that were about to have a. huge impact on my future.” ‘

Over the next three days, there would be several frontal assaults on Item Hill. One was led by Lt. Seymour Terry, who would be awarded a Medal of Honor — posthumously. Laz’s best friend, Sgt. Jim Peters, would be seriously wounded in the leg.

“When he was out of earshot, I quietly began to cry. My best friend was gone — the war was over for him — and I was now in charge of his squad, which was already dawn to seven men.”

“They essentially wiped out half our platoon,” and my father would receive a bronze star for evacuating the wounded.

On May 12, the order to move out comes again, with Laz in the lead. “All hell then broke loose with mortar and small arms fire. I realized that a very good marksman had me in his sights. Bullets were whining around me and crackling over my head.”

“I was at a full run when the shooter finally hit me in the left shoulder. The shot knocked me down and my rifle flew out of my grasp. My entire left side was numb and my arm I limp. To this day, I’m not sure if some GI in L Company mistook me for a Jap 100 yards away.”

Fifty years later, we are near again. Item Hill is there, says Laz, In the distance is the wide expanse of Buckner Bay. A mile away is Conical Hill. We’re getting close.

The knoll has been graded recently. But this is it.

“I can ‘t believe we found it,” Laz repeats several times. This is still undeveloped property and, except for new tombs, it looks much as it did then, covered in high grass. “This is it. This is it.”

My father steps away; overcome by emotion. He shakes it off. We do not talk. Three men here. It is too close. The emotion is too raw. But a few minutes later, he tells Pete how shaken up he’s been: .

The bullet went right through him, missing the shoulder socket and barely missing the apex of his lung. He left the front alive, in one piece.

On the flight home from Okinawa, my father reiterates what he’s told several other reporters. “This is to make the bad memories go way. This is to close the chapter in the book.”

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