Vernon Homes Resident Phil Nelson Sr. Served Our Nation Honorably
Editor’s note: The author’s father, Philip N. Nelson, participated as a waveguide in five amphibious assaults during the War in the Pacific during World War II. Waveguides are responsible for getting soldiers ashore at the right place at the right time and typically make multiple trips ashore during an invasion. He kept scrupulous notes and nearly every document that was ever given to him during his years in the service. Later in life, he served for seven years as minister of the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Northfield.
April 1, 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of: The largest amphibious invasion the world has ever seen; the deadliest amphibious invasion America has ever seen; a pivotal event in bringing World War II to an end; an invasion that began on Easter Sunday; a battle that saw almost 5,000 Navy men die, more than any other battle in WWII. Navy losses were double the 2,403 deaths at Pearl Harbor.
If you’re like almost every American, you have no idea what I’m talking about.
I’m referring to the Invasion of Okinawa, which took place on April 1st, 1945. It was the largest amphibious assault and one of the most significant events of the second great war, and yet you will be hard-pressed to find any commemoration of this event. Last year, I visited a major bookseller and noted 66 different cover stories on magazines and periodicals commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, France. Recently, I visited the same store one month before the 75th anniversary of L-Day and found not one cover story. In fact, I couldn’t even find a story noting the 75th anniversary of L-Day.
A forgotten invasion
The war in Europe was over on May 8, 1945, which is known as V-E Day (Victory in Europe). Roughly 11 months earlier, on June 6, 1944, the most famous and celebrated invasion, D-Day, took place. While people celebrated V-E Day both here and abroad, Marines on Okinawa were not yet halfway through Operation Iceberg (the code name for the Okinawa Invasion), intensely fighting an entrenched enemy determined to take so much human life the United States would decide against invading Japan. There were 24 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. soldiers for their gallantry at Okinawa. Notably, the blockbuster movie “Hacksaw Ridge” tells the story of one of those Medal of Honor recipients, Pfc. Desmond Doss. The total number of deaths (attackers, defenders and civilians), associated with the battle for Okinawa is approximately 267,000. In comparison, approximately 53,000 deaths are attributed to attackers, defenders and civilians at Normandy. One more fact to help put the appalling number of deaths associated with the Okinawa invasion into perspective is the total deaths, including delayed radiation deaths, attributed to both atomic bombs (combined), which is approximately 130,000, or less than half of the deaths at Okinawa.
Plans for Operation Downfall, the code name for the two thrust attack on the main islands of Japan were well underway by the time the Okinawa invasion took place. The first thrust, Operation Olympic would have attacked Kyushu, the southernmost main island of Japan. The second, Operation Coronet, would have attacked Honshu, near Tokyo.
The size of these two amphibious assaults comprising Operation Downfall is hard to imagine. Below is information displayed at the National WWII Museum in New Orleans comparing the three invasions:
- Olympic: troops: 335,000; ships: 967; supplies: 1,350,000 tons.
- Okinawa: troops: 183,000; ships: 327; supplies: 750,000 tons.
- Normandy: troops: 150,000; ships: 284; supplies: 570,000 tons.
Remember, Olympic was the smaller of two parts of Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan.
The defenders at Okinawa had two missions: to protect Okinawa and to spare their homeland from invasion.
The Japanese defended Okinawa tenaciously, using extensive cave networks all over the island, about 1,900 Kamikaze suicide planes, hundreds of Shinyo suicide boats and a carefully calculated plan of defense.
At the battle of Normandy, Adolf Hitler had to guess where and when the allies would invade — somewhere along the entire European coastline, although he knew the English Channel was only 150 miles wide at its widest point, making resupply and reinforcements relatively easy.
Japanese General Ushijima knew Okinawa would be invaded and the island measured just 7 miles wide by 66 miles long. He also knew the U.S. had to find a way to supply the invasion force with every item needed months in advance, as the nearest major base was Pearl Harbor, more than 4,500 miles from Okinawa. San Francisco, Calif. was over 6,000 miles away. Thus, if the invasion fleet didn’t have something readily on-hand than it would have to do without, as re-supply was nearly impossible. General Ushijima arrived Aug. 8, 1944 and continued building the defensive preparations started by his predecessor. Japan had more than a year to fortify and establish diabolical defenses on Okinawa.
While the Japanese defenders failed to prevent the U.S. from taking Okinawa, the deaths at Okinawa were so great that President Harry Truman decided to use the atomic bombs, hoping to avoid an invasion of Japan. In this, the defenders of Okinawa did accomplish one of their missions: Japan was never invaded.
Originally, it was expected that an invasion of Japan would be unavoidable. However, because it took 82 days and over a quarter-million human lives to capture Okinawa, the revised predicted loss of life for invading Japan shot up into the millions. The U.S. stockpiled about 1.5 million Purple Heart medals in preparation for the casualties expected in Operation Downfall.
Today, we have finally used most of that Purple Heart stockpile. The cumulative total casualties in the Korean War, Vietnam War, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and every other U.S. military action since 1945 is now approaching the estimated casualties for invading Japan.
In a way, it is too bad Lt. General Mitsuru Ushijima, the Japanese commander at Okinawa, never lived to know that he spared his country from being invaded. On June 22, 1945, he committed ritual suicide, marking the end of the Battle for Okinawa. Six days earlier, he sent the following message to his superiors in Japan. It illustrates the mindset of the Japanese soldier.
“With a burning desire to destroy the arrogant enemy, the men in my command have fought the invaders for almost three months. We have failed to crush the enemy, despite our death-defying resistance, and now we are doomed. Since taking over this island our forces have, with the devoted support of the local population, exerted every effort to build up defenses. Since the enemy landing, our air and land forces, working in concert, have done everything possible to defend the island. To my great regret, we are no longer able to continue the fight. For this failure, I tender deepest apologies to the Emperor and the people of the homeland. We will make one final charge to kill as many of the enemy as possible. I pray for the souls of men killed in battle and for the prosperity of the Imperial Family.”
Remarkably, on June 18, 1945, just four days before the end of the battle for Okinawa, the commander of U.S. ground forces on Okinawa, Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. was killed by Japanese artillery fire while at a forward post. General Buckner was the highest-ranking U.S. officer killed by enemy fire in all of WWII. In a strange twist of fate, neither commanding general at Okinawa lived to see the end of the battle. Another high profile casualty of the battle for Okinawa was the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was killed on Le Shima, a small island just off the coast of Okinawa, April 18, 1945, less than three weeks into the Battle for Okinawa.
A personal connection
The individual stories of the men who comprised our fighting forces at Okinawa are diverse and unique. Their sacrifices throughout their service during WWII are in stark contrast to the standard of living enjoyed by us today. I have read much and am privileged to know one of the veterans of Okinawa well. My father, Philip N. Nelson, a lieutenant (junior grade), was a waveguide in five Pacific invasions: Kwajalein, Guam, Peleliu, Leyte and Okinawa.
Born in Woodbridge, N.J. in 1920, my dad had a childhood that was fairly typical for his generation.
He was in college on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He had an older brother in the Navy who was stationed at Pearl Harbor that fateful day. Weeks later, his family was relieved to learn his brother was OK. Dad decided he would take the time needed to finish his bachelor’s degree then enlist in the Navy.
Upon graduation, he tried in vain to enlist. He was a few pounds under the minimum required weight. And while he tried everything to reach the minimum weight, it was to no avail. Eventually, he had to resort to traveling in ever wider circles, until finally encountering a recruiter willing to overlook the weight discrepancy — off he went to training.
In training, he excelled in the classroom but the Navy required all officers to be able to swim. His body mass index was so low that he sank like a rock. He struggled for weeks; the swim instructor denied him leave until he passed the swim test.
Dad never successfully swam, but the swim instructor was so impressed by Dad’s persistent efforts that he finally passed him, saying, “It really doesn’t matter. If your ship is sunk, and you don’t die then, you probably won’t survive anyway.”
From basic training, he went on to amphibious training as an ensign in the Navy who was underweight and couldn’t swim. He was assigned the job of wave guide. A wave guide is a person who is responsible for leading assigned waves of Marines to the right beach at the right time. Typically a wave guide would lead two or three waves ashore at each invasion.
After leading their assigned waves, they reported for miscellaneous assignments, continuing to support the assault until reassigned somewhere else.
Being an amphibious assault officer meant he was never permanently assigned to a ship or base. He constantly bounced around from one temporary assignment to another between invasions.
Since he was never permanently assigned anywhere, he was technically a visitor when on transport ships to and from invasions. As a visitor, he had to pay for his meals because he wasn’t a member of the ship’s company. It didn’t seem fair, but that’s just the way it was. His job required knowing many details of the pending invasion he was assigned to.
Accordingly, he was provided copies of attack orders, landing maps, codes, timetables, tide tables, and dozens of other details to ensure the waves of Marines entrusted to him — at age 24 — would get to the right place at the right time.
At Kwajalein, he skippered an LCSS Mk2 rocket boat. This was a top-secret landing support craft armed with rockets and machine guns to provide cover fire for landing troops. Only the first two waves had small craft fire support. After that, there was a danger of friendly fire casualties. The LCSS was used in only one operation in the Pacific. It was more widely used in Europe and Africa.
At Guam, after leading in his assigned waves, Dad and four other officers skippered boats that conducted the evacuation of wounded from the beaches while landings were still underway. They were under persistent Japanese mortar fire while doing this and later received a special commendation for their actions.
At the other invasions, he skippered different Higgins Boat variants, including LCVPs, LCMs and LCM6s. The LCM6 was simply an LCM (Landing Craft Mechanized) that had been cut in half with a 10-foot extension welded in to provide sufficient buoyancy to float one Sherman tank.
After Okinawa, Dad received his orders for his role in Operation Coronet.
He said he wasn’t so sure he’d come back from that one.
Fortunately, the war ended. He was honorably discharged not long after Okinawa and went on to work for major U.S. corporations in New York City before deciding to leave the business world and enter the ministry. At age 44, he returned to college at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, near Boston, and earned a degree in divinity. He has enjoyed more than 50 years of service in the ministry, including seven years as minister of the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Northfield.
He is now fully retired at age 99 and living at the Advent Christian Homes in Vernon, Vt.
I asked him once if his war experiences influenced his decision to enter the ministry. After some reflection, he said “yes.”
The second great war affected a lot of Americans in a lot of different ways. We should never forget that chapter in our history or the battle for Okinawa and L-Day. April 1, L-Day, has earned the right to be hallowed at least as much as D-Day. Maybe someday it will be.
Phil Nelson is from Vestal, New York. His father, also Philip Nelson, 99, resides at the Vernon Advent Christian home in Vermont.
Article originally published in the Greenfield Recorder, April 4, 2020