WASHINGTON — A handful of World War II veterans were the center of attention and respect Wednesday at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the long, fierce Battle of Okinawa.
At the National World War II Memorial in the nation's capital, a wreath was presented to honor the 183,000 allied servicemembers who fought in the 82-day struggle on Okinawa that began April 1, 1945.
“It was the bloodiest land battle of the Pacific,” noted Jim Riffe, 93, who served with the Army National Guard’s 27th Infantry Division. Then-1st Lt. Riffe came ashore on April 3, 1945, as a platoon leader, but that job didn’t last long, he said.
Officer casualties were so high, Riffe said, he soon found himself serving as a company commander, then as a battalion intelligence officer, and then promoted to the rank of captain as he became his battalion’s plans and operations officer.
“In my company, there were seven officers,” Riffe recalled. “In four weeks, there was two of us left.”
Of the 38 men initially under his charge when his platoon first came ashore, Riffe said there were just eight left after a month of fierce fighting. The company’s platoons were so depleted, it took three platoons to make one, he said.
To this day, Riffe said he doesn’t know why he survived when others, some standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him, didn’t.
“When you have somebody that close to you who gets killed and you can hear the bullets going by your head, you say ‘Why not me?’
“I remember most the people that I served with who got killed or got wounded and I never saw them again.”
The numbers of dead and wounded in the battle for Okinawa are staggering:
- More than 12,500 U.S. servicemembers were killed in combat; another 38,000 were wounded.
- More than 70,000 Japanese troops were killed or committed suicide.
- Another 100,000 to 150,000 civilians on the island lost their lives during the fighting.
“I had a lot of sympathy for the Marines and the Army guys that really had a rough life as well as being exposed to the ultimate,” said Carroll George, 95.
A Coast Guard ensign at the time, George served aboard the USCG cutter Taney — the command ship for Rear Adm. Calvin Cobb, who had operational control of allied naval forces on the west side of Okinawa.
“We were absolutely the most protected ship there was. It was not a large target, only a 327-foot cutter,” said George, who marveled at being “right in the middle of the Battle of Okinawa, completely and totally protected.”
An engineering officer, George said he spent most of his time below decks, but he was above deck to witness a Kamikaze pilot hit another ship close by. “The flames went up over two or three times the height of the ship itself,” George recalled.
On another occasion, however, George saw his crew shoot down a friendly aircraft. “Unfortunately, we shot down an American plane… Evidently his identification was not in operation,” he explained.
At Wednesday’s ceremony, mention was made of the rapidly-dwindling numbers of WWII veterans, and a plea was made not to let their legacy be forgotten.
“We are slowly, in the fullness of time, losing touch with these heroes,” said Josiah Bunting III, chairman of the Friends of the National World War II Memorial. “These are men who, in their lives, embody what it means to be an American at our best. Among other things, they tend to be modest ... they served their country honorably, with great distinction, with bravery.”
After giving a round of applause to the veterans in attendance, Bunting turned to the crowd and urged the spectators to do their part to ensure that their local schools teach World War II history accurately, not passing over the heroic deeds performed by the “greatest generation.”
Navy veteran John Cassidy was in agreement, noting that the American public doesn’t “have enough” ceremonies like Wednesday’s to highlight the achievements of those who fought in the war.
“It’s terrible to say, but too many people forget about everything,” said Cassidy, 99, who served on a destroyer, the USS Brown, and a battleship, the USS Iowa, during the Battle of Okinawa.
“You go to the high schools, and they’re not teaching anything about World War II. As a matter of fact, in one situation, they said that because we dropped the atom bomb on Japan, that we were the aggressors — you know, after they knocked the crap out of us.”