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Published: 4/1/2005

WW II veterans recall bloodiest battle of Pacific

BY CLYDE HUGHES
BLADE STAFF WRITER
William O'Connor, a former Toledo Fire Department captain, was a medical corpsman on the attack transport USS Okanogan, above, during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. William O'Connor, a former Toledo Fire Department captain, was a medical corpsman on the attack transport USS Okanogan, above, during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
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Dr. William Stewart served as a U.S. Marine Raider during the entire Battle of Okinawa. Dr. William Stewart served as a U.S. Marine Raider during the entire Battle of Okinawa.
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Dr. Stewart is a retired dentist. Dr. Stewart is a retired dentist.
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Sixty years ago today, the bloodiest battle in the Pacific theater of World War II began to take shape when U.S. soldiers landed on Okinawa's Hagushi Bay.

Dr. William Stewart, 85, a retired Toledo dentist, was there along with some 60,000 allied troops who hustled ashore on Easter. He was a member of the U.S. Marine Raiders and would be on the island for all of the fierce fighting until just before the first atomic bomb fell in Japan in August.

"You knew when you were leaving that nothing else in your life would be as difficult as what you just went through, and it wasn't," said Dr. Stewart, who earned his degree in pre-medicine at the University of Toledo and was married for six weeks before receiving the call to war. "[Okinawa] has been an important part of my life."

William O'Connor, a retired Toledo Fire Department captain, saw much of the carnage firsthand as a young medical corpsman on the attack transport USS Okanogan. He left Central Catholic High School to participate in the war.

Mr. O'Connor, now 79 and living in Rossford, said he is dismayed by how many people have forgotten about the battle that helped set the stage for the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.

The bombs helped force Japan to surrender less than a month later and prevented a bloody, protracted invasion of the country.

"They should know what their fathers and grandfathers did for the country, and for them," Mr. O'Connor said. "We were planning on invading Japan. [The atomic bombs] saved about a million American lives."

Okinawa is part of the Ryukyu islands at the southern tip of Japan. About 60 miles long and ranging between 2 and 18 miles wide, Okinawa was important to the U.S. military because the military sought to gain control of four airfields there.

By taking Okinawa, the Allies also could cut off Japan's sea lines of communications and prevent raw materials from being shipped to the mainland.

After conducting extensive bombing runs, Allied forces came on shore fairly unopposed April 1, but the lack of opposition was a Japanese strategy designed to limit its own casualties and to draw Allied forces to fortified positions in caves and tunnels.

On April 7, Americans sunk the Japanese battleship Yamato, at the time the largest warship ever built, and destroyed numerous other ships as the fleet moved from Japan to Okinawa, making it Japan's final naval action of the war.

Dr. Stewart said Allied troops on the ground had the advantage of aircraft cover as they began the slow, painstaking task of rooting out Japanese soldiers from their heavily entrenched positions.

U.S. soldiers endured monsoon-season rains that turned open ground into muddy fields littered with decomposing bodies as the Americans worked to capture the island inch by inch.

"We went from hill to hill, ridge to ridge, cave to cave, and tunnel to tunnel," Dr. Stewart said.

"We had to dig them out and kill them. The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill was probably the toughest because it rained for nine days straight.

"Everything was under water. They couldn't move and we couldn't move. Everything was at a standstill."

Dr. Stewart, who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart during the fighting, said he doesn't read much about the war because it brings back too many bad memories.

He is part of the U.S. Marine Raiders Association, made up of the Marines who fought under that banner during the war, but he said the roll call is getting smaller each year.

Mr. O'Connor, the fire department's historian, recently looked through a thick booklet of legal-sized white paper, titled "USS Okanogan" and marked "Confidential."

It was the list of the injured and dead soldiers the ship carried from Okinawa to Saipan on April 27, 1945. It's a little part of history Mr. O'Connor managed to keep through the years - a reminder of the immense sacrifice that began 60 years ago today.

"There were days we would have 159 wounded," he said. "They were all over the ship. If we got them back to [hospitals] alive, it was a good day."

Contact Clyde Hughes at:

chughes@theblade.com

or 419-724-6095



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