Obituaries for members of “America’s Greatest Generation” often carry a phrase about their World War II service that conveys much about their lives.
Most Americans know something about D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge, but few have ever heard about the battle for Okinawa, even though nearly a quarter of a million civilians and military people died during the campaign.
The 70th anniversary of the start of that invasion is this month. My uncle, Ray Jensen, was there aboard one of the hundreds of supporting ships. And, by then, my future father-in-law Marine was already in the hospital, and he refused to talk about the war for the rest of his life.
The brutality of the battle for Okinawa set the stage for the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. It was the last major island that needed to be captured as American forces had leapfrogged across the Pacific after Pearl Harbor. The GIs and Marines landing there knew it would be a struggle to the death of the last man. The Japanese code of Bushido demanded death before dishonor — surrender was never an option.
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During the 1944 battle for the island of Saipan, Emperor Hirohito had gone so far as to send a message to the 25,000 civilians there suggesting they commit suicide rather than surrender to the Americans.
Old news films show American GIs watching in horror as mothers held their children’s hands as they leaped to their deaths from ocean cliffs.
In 1945, more than 6,800 Marines died in just 36 days of fighting on the island of Iwo Jima — only 216 of the 22,000 Japanese defenders were captured alive. At Okinawa, tens of thousands of civilians and about 110,000 Japanese military personnel were killed. On the American side, nearly 14,000 Marines, soldiers, sailors, and pilots were killed and another 50,000 wounded in just 82 days of fighting.
Offshore, where my Uncle Ray was located, 36 U.S. Navy ships were sunk. By then, his ship had already supported the fighting on the island of New Guinea in 1943 and survived near misses by Japanese bombs at the island of Biak.
By 1944, he was at Leyte Gulf as the Americans began the invasion to retake the Philippines, and he saw the first Kamikaze attacks after the enemy fleet was virtually destroyed. Japan was clearly desperate by the time of the Okinawa invasion, as it offered bases allowing the U.S. to launch its final assault on their mainland just 400 miles away. Thousands of Japanese planes were loaded with bombs, and pilots attempted to achieve an honorable death with a suicide dive into an enemy ship.
On land at Okinawa, 200-man companies of soldiers and Marines would often emerge with just a dozen unwounded survivors after just a few days of combat. Afterward, President Harry Truman’s generals told him a million Americans would be killed or wounded and millions of Japanese would die in a full-scale invasion of their country.
He made the awful decision to try to end the war by dropping the atomic bomb. Hundreds of thousands of baby boomers owe their subsequent conception to his choice to send their future fathers home alive.
Thankfully, Uncle Ray returned to Fresno to raise his family and manage a successful business — he is about to celebrate his 96th birthday. He now is retired in Spokane, Washington. My wife’s first memory of her own father came three months after the war ended, when he was released from the Oakland Naval Hospital and hitchhiked home to Sandy, Utah.
She was just 3 years old but remembers being swept up in his arms — and that he was carrying the Thanksgiving turkey that was given to him by a farmer who provided his last ride.
The veterans of that awful war were members of the greatest generation who didn’t wait for President John F. Kennedy to say 20 years later, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
If you haven’t asked your grandparents what they did during that war — do it now. We at least owe the survivors of Okinawa and elsewhere an oral history that can be passed down through the family generations to follow.