Roy Exum: The Horror At Okinawa

Monday, June 19, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

On this day in 1945, as the sun came up on Okinawa Island, the Americans had the Japanese on a desperate run and the fiercest battle in all of World War II was just days from victory. In the 84-day fight for the tactical gemstone, 110,071 Japanese had been killed in combat. Additionally, a full half of the Okinawan population – 300,000 at the start of the invasion – had been killed or were missing. And on June 13, a full 4,000 Japanese sailors — including Admiral Minoru Ota — all committed suicide within the hand-built tunnels of the underground Naval headquarters rather than surrender to the Americans.

The United States suffered over 20,000 casualties, some 14,000 in the fierce two-plus months of constant combat, but there was another horror that came to light as never before, per this excerpt in an account of the battle presented in Marine Corps Gazette:

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“More mental health issues arose from the Battle of Okinawa than any other battle in the Pacific during World War II. The constant bombardment from artillery and mortars coupled with the high casualty rates led to a great deal of personnel coming down with (what was then called) “combat fatigue.” Additionally the rains caused mud that prevented tanks from moving and tracks from pulling out the dead, forcing Marines (who pride themselves on burying their dead in a proper and honorable manner) to leave their comrades where they lay.

“This, coupled with thousands of bodies both friend and foe littering the entire island, created a scent you could nearly taste.

“Morale was dangerously low by the month of May and the state of discipline on a moral basis had a new low barometer for acceptable behavior. The ruthless atrocities by the Japanese throughout the war had already brought on an altered behavior (deemed so by traditional standards) by many Americans resulting in the desecration of Japanese remains, but the Japanese tactic of using the Okinawan people as human shields brought about a new aspect of terror and torment to the psychological capacity of the Americans.”

* * *

Many historians believe the victory on Okinawa is what broke the backs of the Japanese during the War of the Pacific. By taking the island – about 70 miles long and seven miles at the widest – the Japanese mainland was within easy reach of Allied airplanes and immediately it became a central geographic piece for harboring ships and staging airplane strikes.

Actually, some of that theory would never be known because about six weeks after Okinawa was won, our bombers hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9. Japan’s formal surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri was a month later in Tokyo Harbor.

In the last month --- as I found a lot of us old men do – I have read a good deal about Okinawa. The Japanese would take boys between the ages of 14 and 17 and put them on the front lines, clearly to make any Marine question his being after having to shoot children. They would use women and smaller children as human shields. Rape and other atrocities were commonplace.

Seven men earned the Medal of Honor at Okinawa, one on a battlefield know as Hacksaw Ridge – our own Desmond Doss. Earlier this month I found I had another friend who was valiant in the taking of the island, a fellow named Ralph Jordan.

Ralph had endured four beach assaults in Europe. As a matter of fact he was a Captain in the first wave to hit Utah Beach in Normandy. He was guiding some engineers to blow up a seawall when a shell exploded, his left arm hurt badly. He refused to leave the beach, demanded to be stitched up in order not to desert his men.

It was critical they blow up the seawall so the American tanks could breach the obstacle and begin to chase the dastardly tank genius Rommel. The Captain came up missing late that first afternoon and his anxious men found him leaning against the seawall, gulping down a cigarette trying in vain to get a grip on the intense pain. A medic tried to get the shrapnel out but the pain was too severe. So they got the Captain to a hospital ship, into surgery, and then the doctors told him his war was over.

Not Ralph. Two days later he was bandaged heavily but back with his men. He earned the Bronze Star for his bravery and then his company went halfway around the world to fight for 84 days and nights at Okinawa, after which he was awarded many citations for bravery, duty to country, and more.

In the fall of 1945, he finally made it home. It was a good thing, too. Finally people in the U.S. knew how to pronounce his name: JURD-an. As in Ralph or his childhood nickname, “Shug.” He became the winningest football coach at Auburn. He was also a heckuva baseball coach at Auburn and Georgia but he never talked much, if ever, about Okinawa. That’s how bad it was back in 1945 on this very day.

Shug Jordan, the war hero, died from leukemia in the spring of 1980 but not before his instate rival, Bear Bryant, said more than once, “Shug has more courage in his little finger than I do in my entire body.”

* * *

In early 1970, I went to Auburn to meet him for the first time. He stepped away from the field to greet me warmly, noticing that I was younger than some of his players. “I’m looking forward to visiting,” he said warmly, “but before I’ll talk you must stand at my door and recite ‘The Six P’s of Success.’”

I had no idea what he was talking about but about then his beloved assistant, Sam Bailey, sidled up and grinned before he stage-whispered, “Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance!”

“Coach JURD-an” and I became wonderful friends and we talked often until his death. He helped me a lot – a whole lot – become the writer I turned out to be and he always had time to take my calls. What a man! What a hero. What a friend.

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