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June 10, 1945
Tank commander Jack H. Armstrong was bleeding from both ears, addled by a concussion, and deafened by the shell that had just ripped a jagged eight-inch hole through the center of his Sherman tank, missing Armstrong by a foot or two at best.
The M4A1 Sherman was one of three tanks that had moved out ahead of infantry units of the First Marine Division this morning to scout enemy-infested Kunishi Ridge, the last remaining Japanese stronghold near the southern tip of Okinawa. When they'd come under intense artillery fire, the other two tanks managed to beat a hasty retreat, but Armstrong and his crew, grinding along in the lead, weren't so fortunate.
In the soundless void whirling around him, acting Sergeant Armstrong wondered if he was seriously wounded,maybe dying. Death was a constant companion these days for men of the First Marine Tank Battalion, and the expectation of being killed or maimed at any moment was as much a part of life as breathing. But now death felt especially close and intimate, and, as Armstrong squinted through the tank's smoldering innards at the young second lieutenant sprawled a few feet from him, he understood why.
The lieutenant, who'd come along on their mission strictly as an observer, was still writhing in agony, but it was obvious that he'd be dead soon. His belly was split wide open, and his intestines spilled out into his lap. His left forearm hung by a thin strand of mangled flesh. This was the lieutenant's first combat mission. It would also be his last.
The lieutenant's mouth moved, and Armstrong read the plea on his bloody lips without hearing them:
"Oh God,Mama, help me."
Armstrong turned to see Corporal Stephen Smith, the tank's driver, crawling toward him. As tank commander, it was Armstrong's responsibility to take charge of the situation.
He nodded toward the lieutenant. "I hate to move him, but let's try to get him outside," he told Smith, feeling the words vibrate in his throat. "If we take another hit, we're all dead."
Armstrong watched as the lieutenant pulled out his Ka-Bar knife and severed the thread of tissue that bound his ruined left arm to his body. When the arm fell away, its former owner dropped the knife and looked at Armstrong. "That might make it a little easier," he whispered.
With Armstrong attempting to hold the lieutenant's exposed organs in place, he and Smith half carried and half dragged him down through the escape hatch in the floor of the tank. Behind them, Private David Spoerke, the designated loader for the 75-millimeter cannon, moved to aid the Sherman's bow gunner and assistant driver, PFC Ben Okum, who was moaning and bleeding from wounds in his arm and leg.
It took what seemed like an hour for the five of them to make it to a nearby shell crater that was barely far enough away to keep them from being blown up with the disabled tank if it should explode. By the time they laid the lieutenant in the deepest part of the hole, his eyes were glazed and his face was grayish.
"Give me some morphine, and get out of here," he whispered. "They may open up on us again any second."
Armstrong's hearing was beginning to come back, and the lieutenant's words were faintly audible. "We can't leave you here like this," Armstrong said. "We'll try to get you a medic."
"Just go, Jack," the lieutenant said."Don't waste your time."
Smith broke open one of the needle-equipped morphine packets that each Marine routinely carried and injected the dying man in the neck. Armstrong put some extra packets beside the lieutenant's right hand, and Spoerke tried to tie a belt around the stump of his left arm to slow the bleeding.
"Get moving," the lieutenant said. "That's an order."
The lieutenant was a new replacement who'd just joined the battalion as a platoon leader, and he'd been around only for a day or two. Armstrong couldn't even remember his name, but he seemed like a decent enough guy. He was a friendly, easygoing sort who got along well with the tank crews. He was also a helluva lot tougher than he looked.
Any man who can cut off his own arm with a Ka-Bar has to be one gritty SOB, Armstrong thought, even if he's too deep in shock to know what he's doing.
"Aye, sir,"Armstrong said. "We'll send help back as soon as we can."
In his dazed condition, Armstrong almost forgot that he was under strict orders to destroy the gyrostabilizer unit on the tank's 75-millimeter gun to keep it from falling into enemy hands, so he had to stagger over to the Sherman, drop a grenade into the unit, and scramble back to safety.
Back at the crater, he took a last look at the lieutenant, who was silent and ashen but still appeared to be breathing. Then he bit his lip and turned to help Smith with the wounded gunner. As they stumbled back along the draw they'd come down a few minutes earlier, a burst of fire from Japanese rifles and automatic weapons kicked up dust inches from their heels. Armstrong took one brief glance over his shoulder at a hillside literally crawling with Japanese, each of them firing at the fleeing tankers. Then he ran for all he was worth, pulling Okum along by his good arm and thinking: Those guys must be the worst shots in the Japanese army! How can all of them possibly be missing us?
This was the third tank that had been blown out from under Armstrong in just over a month -- the first by a volley of armor-piercing shells from a Japanese antitank gun, the second by a land mine. Four or five guys -- both tank crewmen and members of the infantry fire team accompanying the tank -- had been wounded in the blast from the land mine, at least two fatally, and Armstrong had lost a damned good driver to the antitank gun. But this third time seemed worse than the others. The image of the lieutenant lying in the shell hole haunted Armstrong, and he couldn't block it out of his mind.
Okum was dragging his bad leg behind him, and Armstrong was gasping for breath and wondering how much farther he could run when he spotted a rice paddy dead ahead. He pushed the driver over the bank into the shallow water and jumped in after him. Then both of them slogged desperately through the oozy, reeking mixture of mud and human excrement toward the safety of a rear area a half mile away.
A couple of hours later, his ears still ringing and his head pounding furiously, Armstrong made a distressing discovery: The shell that had doomed his tank hadn't come from enemy artillery. It had been fired from one of the First Marine Division's own 105-millimeter howitzers.
"We heard that General Buckner himself, commander of the U.S. Tenth Army, was directing the fire,"Armstrong would recall long after the incident. "I understand he apologized to our battalion CO, Colonel Jeb Stuart, but that didn't make us feel a whole lot better."
His third close brush with death left Armstrong gun-shy. He'd always heard that every near miss brought a guy closer to the "big one." If that was true, the odds were bound to be catching up with him. If the third time was the charm, like they said, what about the fourth? Part of him chafed to get back into action, but he felt a surge of relief on learning that no replacement tank was immediately available. And when a fellow tank commander invited him to ride along on a mission to resupply a frontline rifle company, Jack said, "Thanks, but no thanks."
Each of Armstrong's three lost tanks had borne the same handpainted nickname -- "Ticket to Tokyo." The name had a brash, bold ring to it that had appealed to all the guys in the original crew. They'd all had a hand in picking it, and they'd gotten a big chuckle the first time they'd seen it.
In those early days on Okinawa, most of Armstrong's buddies had kiddingly called him "Wheaties," for the breakfast cereal that sponsored a popular radio program called Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy. It had been typical of the wisecracking and bravado that characterized the First Marine Tank Battalion then. Before Okinawa, the Sherman tank had operated with near impunity throughout the Pacific theater, where the "sardine-can" enemy tanks were no match for it in armor or firepower. Not anymore, though.Now the Japanese had antitank weapons that could make a Sherman look like a hunk of Swiss cheese -- and frequently did.
This was one reason why, in recent weeks, Armstrong's sense of humor had gradually gone dormant. Not many things seemed funny anymore, much less cute or clever. Living with death day after day and seeing your friends killed or crippled could make you old and grim before your time, and many of the guys who'd kidded "Wheaties" Armstrong about his heroic fictional namesake were gone now.His assistant driver and close friend, Corporal Alvin Tenbarge, had been blown apart in the land mine explosion, and Corporal Harlan Stephan, one of the best drivers in the battalion, had -- like the young lieutenant -- lost an arm to an armor-piercing shell. The difference was that Harlan was still alive, the last Armstrong had heard.
The casualty list grew longer each day, with the end of it nowhere in sight, and as nasty as Okinawa was, it was merely a warm-up, or so everyone believed. Next loomed an invasion of Japan itself, and every man in the First Marine Division who could still fire a weapon would be issued his own one-way ticket there.
We'll have a million casualties, maybe more, the rumor mill needled. Eighty percent of us'll never make it back to the States in one piece. Make a joke out of that if you can.
And yet, if he should be given a fourth tank to command, Armstrong knew it would bear exactly the same name as the first three. Plenty of other names were available -- like "Sweet Mary" for a girl he'd known in Melbourne an eternity or two ago, or "Lone Star" for his native state of Texas, or "Jap Zapper" just for the hell of it. For that matter, there was no law that said a tank couldn't simply remain anonymous.
The last thing Jack wanted anymore was a ticket to Tokyo -- or any place else in Japan. The only ticket he wanted now was one that would take him home alive to a quiet street in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. But to give his next tank a different name would dishonor the men who'd bled and died in its predecessors.
Almost two and a half months earlier, just after the landing, the battalion had been supremely confident -- cocky even. Despite all the hype and horror stories that had circulated beforehand, the Okinawa campaign started as smoothly and uneventfully as a training exercise. Except for the kamikazes bedeviling U.S. shipping, it looked as if the Japanese no longer had either the stomach or the heart for an all-out fight. In fact, it seemed at first that the American invaders might roll unimpeded down the entire sixty-mile length of Okinawa without ever getting their gun barrels hot.
During those first few days, it had seemed like a piece of cake. Then the cake had blown up in their faces.
Okinawa was the last battle of the largest war since civilization began and the deadliest campaign of conquest ever undertaken by American arms. It rang down the curtain on one momentous era in the earth's political/military history and raised the curtain on another era even more momentous.
It started on April 1, 1945 -- which happened to be Easter Sunday as well as April Fool's Day -- when tens of thousands of U.S. assault troops stepped ashore uncontested into an eerie silence.When it ended nearly three months later, the battle for Okinawa had claimed the lives of some 240,000 human beings, according to best available estimates.
Okinawa pitted the 541,000-member U.S. Tenth Army -- including 183,000 combat troops -- against the 110,000-man Japanese 32nd Army in a grinding struggle of attrition that lasted until June 21, 1945. It matched the greatest U.S. naval armada ever assembled against the bestorganized, most determined corps of suicide fighters in history -- the kamikazes.
Most of the ground fighting took place amid a picturesque countryside framed by hills and mountains and dotted with hundreds of farms and scores of small villages and towns where the bulk of Okinawa's civilian population lived. The number of civilians killed, many by their own hands, can only be estimated, but some authorities place the figure as high as 140,000 -- or nearly one in every three of the island's residents in 1945.
When the shooting finally stopped, the bodies of 107,539 Japanese soldiers were counted. U.S. losses totaled 12,274 dead and 36,707 wounded in combat. An additional 26,000 American servicemen were evacuated with so-called "nonbattle injuries," most of them neuropsychiatric disorders caused by constant, ceaseless stress -- the highest number of any World War II battle.
In a very real sense, each American survivor of Okinawa now alive still carries his own personal scars from the ordeal. Some scars are as obvious as a missing limb, some as unobtrusive as a fragment from an enemy mortar shell buried deep in flesh or bone. Other scars may exist only in the mind yet can be traced to some of the most grievous wounds of all.
In a perverse sort of way, however, survivors of the battle also know that they owe a debt of gratitude to Okinawa and to what they suffered there. The toll they paid in blood and misery was the decisive factor in convincing President Harry S. Truman to unleash the awesome power of the atomic bomb. Without it, many of the U.S. assault troops who lived through Okinawa would have faced the ultimate horror: an invasion of Japan itself, months of block-by-block street fighting in Japanese cities, and projected American casualties of 1 million or more.
In the sixty-odd years since the Okinawa campaign ended, the United States has fought many other battles in many other parts of the world but none as massive, desperate, or brutal. Today's push-button warfare and weapons of incalculable destructive power have rendered many of the military concepts and tactics employed at Okinawa -- as well as the vast legions of men required to activate them -- as obsolete on the battlefield as spears, arrows, and stone catapults.
In view of this, it seems doubtful that another battle the likes of Okinawa will ever be fought between America's armed forces and anybody else's. Beyond being the last battle of World War II, Okinawa may one day be recalled as the last great human struggle of its size and scope ever waged on Planet Earth.
If so, Jack Armstrong and the scores of his U.S.Army,Navy, and Marine Corps comrades who tell their personal stories in the following pages may be the last human eyewitnesses to a spectacle as vast and soulsearing as was Okinawa in the spring of 1945.
They would tell you -- to a man -- that they fervently hope so.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Bill Sloan