Memorial Day: Remembering the Final and Much Forgotten Battle

By Len Lazarick

On Memorial Day 65 years ago, the final bloody battle of the Pacific was still being fought on Okinawa, the capital of a once peaceable kingdom where weapons had been banned and karate invented to replace them.

Like all those islands bought with blood, its name was unfamiliar to folks back home who were well acquainted with the better known and more hospitable battlegrounds of Europe. Okinawa was a strange and far-off place with inhabitants unlike ourselves.

Many people perhaps first learned some of the story of Okinawa just this month from episode nine of The Pacific, the HBO miniseries. Several of its episodes contain some of the most gruesome depictions of war you’re likely to encounter on TV. Okinawa is one of the least depicted because, as the episode made clear, it is a tale of death and destruction so woeful as to be unimaginable except that it actually occurred.

My father, Leonard W. Lazarick Sr., fought and earned two of his three Purple Hearts there in the 96th Infantry Division, which like all four divisions of Army and Marines on the island, experienced a casualty rate of over 100 percent wounded or killed. I went with him in 1995 for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of that final and much forgotten battle.

The anniversary included the dedication of the Cornerstone of Peace on the cliffs of Mobuni, where thousands had flung themselves to death rather than face the rape and torture they had been told would come from the Americans.

The acres of polished black granite stones are etched with the names of 234,183 dead –- 147,110 Okinawans, mostly civilians; 72,907 Japanese soldiers; and 14,005 Americans, many of them sailors, killed in the most ferociously desperate kamikaze attacks of the war. The rest were other Asians conscripted by the Japanese. In this one battle were three times more U.S. troops than in Iraq, though the civilian casualties may be about the same.

A Typhoon of Steel it has been called. The Pacific series pointed out that it was the first time the Marines had encountered civilians in their slog up the island chains. As the episode depicted, Japanese soldiers had mixed in with the locals in thousands of caves, and many civilians were killed inadvertently or intentionally to root out the enemy.

It is the stuff of nightmares, and many of the young U.S. soldiers brought them home with them, as did my father, and did not talk much of their experiences except among themselves.

Now in their 80s and 90s, they are ready to talk and remember.

We remembered Okinawa last month at Fort Benning, Georgia, where seven 96th Infantry veterans and their families gathered to dedicate a monument that will be placed on the Walk of Honor at the National Infantry Museum, which opened last year. A retired major general who heads the 96th Division Deadeye Association was to deliver the speech, but he was ill and my father read it for him. “Where have you ever heard of a buck sergeant replacing a major general,” my father joked to the small audience that included current brigade commander and other current Army officers.

At 86, my father is among the younger of these veterans. These men do not celebrate war or glorify it – they have experienced it too intimately. As my father told an interviewer in a video for the History Channel: “You’ve got to be scared. Maybe wet your pants. Sweat. Tremble — sometimes cry.” He recalled the unmistakable smell of dead bodies, American or Japanese, baking in the sun. “If you just get a whiff of it, that stench of death you’ll never forget.”

But these once young men do honor the warriors, past and present.  Immediately prior to the dedication ceremony, we attended the graduation ceremony for Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry at the adjacent parade field.

As the ceremony began, two squads of soldiers came through smoke in full field gear with the latest in gadgetry and protection as they warily approached across the grassy parade ground. “The American soldier carries the fight to the enemy around the world,” said the announcer.

Thousands of cheering, stomping moms, dads, wives, siblings, girlfriends and buddies greeted the graduating class of 250 young men who in the space of nine weeks had gestated from civilian life into combat infantry, entitled to wear the rifleman’s badge that is displayed atop any other medal the soldier might wear. If not a celebration of war, it was a celebration of the warrior.

The old warriors I was sitting beside observed the ceremony closely, laughing when one of the men marched passed the reviewing stand clearly out of step. They wondered how much the new gear weighed. A lot, they were told.

They were once this young in a battlefield far away that forever changed their lives – a small but significant part of the war that changed the world and established the American Century. There is disagreement among historians about whether the ferocity of the Okinawa battle and its heavy cost in lives truly was the determining factor in the dropping of the atomic bomb two months later. But there is little doubt in these veterans, who were on ships preparing for the invasion of the Japanese home islands, that the atomic bomb saved their lives.

So on this Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, and first established to honor the dead of America’s bloodiest war, the Civil War, we recall the many who died in war and those who served.

And so I embrace the sentiment of a button I have on the lamp in my office: Honor the Dead, Heal the Wounded, End the War. Not just the wars we’re in that have lasted twice as long at World War II – but all wars.

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