THE COAST GUARD AT OKINAWA

by Dr. Robert M. Browning, Jr.


In late March 1945, nearly 1,300 ships began converging to participate in the largest operation of the Pacific war--the invasion of Okinawa and the Ryukus Islands. Unknown to all the participants, this tremendous Allied effort would be the final major operation of the war before the surrender of Japan. Military planners codenamed the plan to capture the Ryukus Islands, operation "Iceberg." Attached to the tremendous naval fleet that assembled was the largest group of Coast Guard ships to participate in one operation during the entire war. In all, 7 Coast Guard manned transports, 29 LSTs, the cutters Bibb and Woodbine, 12 LCIs, and 1 Coast Guard manned submarine chaser, took part.

When the Allies attacked and captured Iwo Jima they breached a defensive perimeter that the Japanese leaders believed was imperative to hold. At Iwo Jima, the Allies' so completely surprised the Japanese that they could do nothing to stop the campaign. The Allies, trying to keep momentum, planned to follow up this victory quickly and pierce farther into this zone and land on the back porch of Japan--Okinawa. Okinawa lays only 360 miles from Japan and constituted part of the Japanese colonial empire. The Japanese leaders designated Okinawa as a key point to defend and firmed their resolve to defend the perimeter of the East China Sea. For the defense of Okinawa they assembled hundreds of aircraft, small boats and manned torpedoes and began emphasizing suicide training. The Japanese also extensively fortified the island and committed 120,000 troops to its defense.

In contrast, the Allies committed over one half million men for the operation. Three Marine divisions and four Army infantry divisions sailed with the invasion fleet. In addition, a fifth infantry division waited in reserve in New Caledonia.

The military planners chose April 1st as L-day. As in previous campaigns the Allies committed the necessary forces to insure that they had complete control of the air and sea before the invasion. The Navy brought up two naval bombardment forces and for over a week before the landings, carrier planes, B-29 heavy bombers and naval ships all hit selected targets to weaken any potential Japanese resistance.

Six days before the landings the naval forces, including the cutter Bibb, and six Coast Guard manned LSTs landed troops of the 77th Infantry Division on the Kerama Retto islands about twenty miles west of the southern tip of Okinawa. These men set up an advanced fueling and repair base to serve the fleet during the attack and subsequent campaign. The Coast Guard manned LST-829 had the distinction of landing the first troops to invade and capture a Japanese colonial possession during World War II.

The various ships of the landing forces sailed over the horizon off Okinawa in the early morning of Easter Sunday. The Allies planned to land four divisions abreast over an eight mile front. They chose to make the initial assault on the western and southern side of the island because two important enemy airfields lay nearby. At 0830, the fire support ships began laying down an intense barrage. Additionally over 500 carrier planes also swarmed over the landing areas to knock out enemy positions.

On L-Day, the LST-884 approached with the invasion fleet, steaming at three knots towards Okinawa. At 0548, in the moonlit morning, general quarters was sounded for the Coast Guard crew and the 300 Marine passengers. Less than thirty minutes later lookouts spotted three Japanese planes flying about 250 feet above the water and bearing down on the invasion fleet.  The LST-884s port guns as well as the gun crews in the other ships opened fire. The intense gunfire brought down two of the aircraft. The third burst into flames, and crashed into the port side of the LST. The aircraft passed through the shipfitter's shop and continued into the tank deck where it exploded with a tremendous roar.

Repair parties worked to put the fire out but unfortunately the plane had crashed into mortar ammunition stowed on board. The intense fire and the exploding ammunition made it impossible for the crew to effectively fight the fire. They managed to get three fire nozzles into vents near the point of impact. Despite these efforts, the fire spread into the engine room and heavy smoke began to fill the ship. As the fire burned out of control, the danger of the flames reaching the fuel tanks increased and at 0555 the commanding officer LT Charles Pearson, USCG, ordered the ship abandoned. The surviving men cleared the ship by 0610 and went on board a destroyer, an LST and a LSM. Nineteen Marines and one Coast Gurdsman perished in the inferno.

Despite this setback, overall the landing proceeded more orderly than perhaps any other in the Pacific. The transports hove to in the unloading areas off the beaches after midnight on March 31st. Several hours later, the control craft left for the beaches prior to the landing craft to establish a line of departure. Each of the control craft displayed a unique colored banner to correspond with the beach it controlled. A guide boat then directed each wave of craft from the line of departure to the beach. These boats also flew a pennant that corresponded to the beach color. Additionally the landing craft on the initial waves had the color of the beach where they were to land painted on the topside of the craft. As the first wave reached the shore the men erected a colored banner to guide the landing craft arriving later to the proper sites. This color coordination simplified the movement of the boats to the line of departure and to the beach and helped the beachmasters to recognize their boats and direct them to the proper landing areas.

Unexpectedly the Japanese did not the contest the landings with the exception of some minor air attacks and light artillery and mortar fire on the beaches. On the first day the naval forces landed 50,000 troops. Within two days the troops had driven across to the east side of the island and cut the Japanese forces into two groups.

The Coast Guard manned transport Cambria sailed on 28 March from Ulithi Atoll and arrived off Okinawa just before 0500. The transport served as a flagship for one of the transport groups and spent three days unloading troops and cargo. On April 3rd, a beach party of three officers and forty-three men went ashore to expedite the movement of supplies.

The Joseph T. Dickman arrived at the transport area at 0540. It had on board a total of 1368 troops from ten different units. It also carried 99 vehicles and over 83,000 cubic feet of cargo for the invasion forces ashore. The Dickman remained at Okinawa until April 9th unloading supplies and men. It was the heterogeneous nature of the troops and the supplies on board, not the weather nor the enemy that delayed the unloading. Some of the troops did not debark until L-day plus seven.

The Coast Guard-manned LSTs performed like work horses with their usual efficiency. These awkward looking vessels had arrived after about a week at sea, overloaded and overcrowded with troops and supplies. They lay close to the beach and daily made smoke to screen the anchorage as the crew dashed to general quarters during the numerous air raids.

The beachmasters and their men waged their own battle with an unseen enemy. The coral off the beaches at Okinawa complicated the unloading of supplies. The LCVPs and LCMs had only six hours a day, near high tide, to unload the craft. The beach parties blasted many coral heads to allow a greater number of craft access to the beach. Due to the tremendous needs of the campaign the beachmasters found it necessary to unload as many of the craft at high tide, pile the supplies on the beach, and then move the material inland at low tide. This kept the transports at anchor for a long period of time and offered the Kamikaze pilots, suicide boats and torpedo craft ample time to strike at the fleet.

On April 6th, the Japanese began their counter attack against the fleet off the island. These Kamikaze attacks sank six ships, heavily damaged seven more and slightly damaged four others. During the entire campaign the Japanese sank or damaged nearly 120 ships. The Japanese also employed "Kaiten" torpedoes to strike at the Allied ships. The word Kaiten means "the turn toward heaven." They were manned torpedoes that were used in the same way as the kamikaze aircraft. The Japanese also used small, fast boats, loaded with one or two depth charges to attack the fleet. The Japanese had hidden over 250 of these suicide boats around the island, but fortunately the Allied forces quickly captured the coastal areas and the Japanese were never able to use most of them.

The Japanese failed to stop the landings with the individually manned suicide craft and they became more desperate to disrupt the operations at Okinawa. They sent the world's largest battleship Yamato, a cruiser, and eight destroyers on a suicide mission to achieve this goal. With no chance of success the huge 72,000 ton battleship and its consorts sortied to attack the invasion fleet. Nearly 300 American carrier planes caught this fleet at sea. Nine torpedo hits and numerous bombs finished the Yamato. Also sunk were the cruiser and three destroyers with the loss of about 3,700 men. Incredibly the Americans lost only 10 planes and twelve men.

On land, the Japanese fought tenaciously, entrenched in pillboxes, concrete emplacements, fortified caves, and other ingenious prepared defensive positions. Despite the tremendous numerical superiority it took the Allies nearly three months to secure the island. The battle for Okinawa was one of the costliest of the war. The battle claimed over 13,000 American lives and wounded nearly 36,000 more. The Japanese suffered tremendous casualties in their fanatical attempt to defend the islands. Including the pilots and naval casualties, their losses mounted to probably over 120,000 dead.

The Coast Guard continued to be active with the amphibious forces until the Japanese surrender and afterwards. The Coast Guard participated in the landings at the oil port of Balikpapan, Borneo in July. The Allies subjected the Japanese to three weeks of naval and air bombardment before landing the American and Australian troops on 1 July.

After Japan's surrender, the cutters and transports landed men for the occupation in Yokosuka, Yokohama, Tokyo, and Nagasaki. The Samuel Chase landed troops in Yokohama on 1 September, and later landed contingents of the 77th Division, U.S. Army three weeks later. Cambria also remained active after the Japanese surrender and debarked the 2nd Marine Headquarter's Company at Nagasaki, Japan on 23 September. Afterwards Coast Guard cutters performed various operations with the occupation forces, including mine-sweeping activities. The Coast Guard transports finished their major work in the Pacific by transporting thousands of men home in the "Magic Carpet" trips.

The Coast Guard made a tremendous contribution to the war effort as part of the amphibious forces in the Pacific. The men of this nation's smallest military service proved as heroic and valiant as the men in the other branches. When the Coast Guard was returned to its peacetime role in 1946 Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal stated that during the war the Coast Guard "earned the highest respect and deepest appreciation of the Navy and Marine Corps. Its performance of duty has been without exception in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service." The Coast Guard motto, "Semper Paratus," was well-earned given the important, varied, and sometimes mundane and unglamorous roles that the Coast Guard played during the war.

 


 

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Last Modified 1/26/2012