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September 9, 2015

6

Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill Okinawa

by dianeshort2014
By Scott Sumner USMC 1978 – 1984

My uncle James M. Barrett was a World War II Marine. He was born in Nov. 1923 in Minnesota. He had a promising career as a welterweight boxer, 1until his country’s call became too loud. On January 18, 1943 he reported for duty with the United States Marine Corps. He went through recruit training in San Diego, Calif. and on the first of May was sent to Sitka, Alaska and in October to Attu, Alaska. The Army had finished cleaning the Japanese off the island, and he drew guard duty for the winter.

The battles in the Pacific had taken their toll and the Marine Corps needed more men for the fighting. My uncle was sent to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. for additional infantry training in May 1944. On December 27, he, and many others, embarked on a troop ship for Guadalcanal, where the Sixth Marine Division was being formed. The replacements were given additional training, and assigned to their units. Uncle Jim was assigned to George Co. 22nd Marines. The Division loaded on ships on March 14, 1945 and sailed to Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands.
2Uncle Jim and George Co. were then moved to USS Brewster County (LST-483) and sailed March 25 to Okinawa Shima, Ryukyu Islands. In the top bunk on the right in this photo is Uncle Jim talking to famed journalist Ernie Pyle.On April 1, the division landed on Okinawa, moved across the island to cut it in half, and then moved north. The Marines were assigned to clear the northern part of the island, the Army was assigned to clear the southern part. Their advance moved steadily north, routing the Japanese forces that materialized, but never encountering strong resistance. After twenty days, the Sixth Marine Division was ordered south to “rescue” the Army. Uncle Jim and the Marines of George Company were not happy. They thought they had done their part, but orders were orders, so they headed south.

Moving south toward Naha, the capitol city of Okinawa, the 6th Marine Division approached the Asa Kawa River. A 45-man patrol crossed the river and moved up a low ridge when they took increasingly heavy fire.

3Two men were killed when the patrol leader decided it was time to leave the area. When the combat patrol leader was debriefed at Division headquarters, he let it be known that a frontal assault on such a well-fortified position should not be attempted. When Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, the 10th Army commander, was notified of the delay, he told Marine Division commander, Maj. Gen. Lemuel Shepherd Jr, to continue the advance. Shepherd argued for an amphibious assault to the rear of the Japanese defense line, but his proposal was rejected by Bolivar. That refusal led to a controversy that has continued to this day.

On May 12, 1945 to the Division’s front lay a low, loaf-shaped hill. It looked no different from other hills seized with relative ease over the past few days. But “Sugar Loaf Hill” as it became known, was undeniably different. It was a key point in the Japanese defensive line of a complex of three hills holding the western anchor of General Mitsuru Ushijima’s Shuri Line, which stretched from 4coast to coast across the island. Sugar Loaf Hill was critical to the defense of that line, preventing U.S. forces from turning the Japanese flank.

George Company, 22nd Marines were assigned the first assault on the 50 foot high, 300 yard long hill on the morning of May 12, 1945. The higher ups did not think the hill would require more than a company of men and a platoon of tanks to secure. The assault was to begin at 0730. Unknown to higher headquarters, however, was Sugar Loaf Hill was defended by a large Japanese force manning 25 sophisticated defenses, supported by heavy firepower in all directions.

Capt. Owen Stebbins was reforming his platoons and evacuating casualties when the jump off time arrived, 5but the tanks had not showed up, so he had his scouts moved forward, while waiting for the tanks. At 0807 the tanks arrived and the men of George Co. moved forward. Lt. Robert Nealon’s 2nd Platoon and Lt. Ed Reuss’s 1st Platoon (I believe my Uncle was in 1st Platoon but he never spoke of this day, so it is speculation on my part) began taking fire from the Shuri heights to their east. As the men moved forward more enemy guns opened up. The men used the tanks to silence the machine guns but casualties were being taken at an alarming rate.As the Marines were moving up the slope the Japanese began rolling grenades down on them. Lt. Ruess asked Capt. Stebbins for tank support. Some of his men were on the hill, but trapped. Lt. Ruess thought his platoon could move forward with the help of a tank. A little later in the day Lt. 6Ruess would be hit three times in the legs while drawing machine gun fire so his men could eliminate enemy positions. He died a couple of days later in the Division’s 6th Medical Battalion. Lt. Ruess was awarded the Silver Star (Posthumously). Capt. Stebbins was also hit in the legs during the morning assault. He would survive. George Company would try again later that day, but it would take 11 repeated assaults on Sugar Loaf Hill by the 22nd Marine Regiment, the 29th Marine Regiment, and the 4th Marine Regiment before the hill was taken on May 18, 1945.

Thousands of men were lost to death, wounds and combat fatigues. My uncle was also shot in the leg that terrible day. He said he was flown to Saipan, where on May 21st, with his leg in increasingly bad condition, it was amputated.

Two days later the Japanese mounted a tenacious battalion-sized counterattack in an effort to regain their lost position, but the Marines held.

7My uncle went home to Minnesota, married, started a family, and used the G.I. Bill to go to college and become an accountant for a small Company known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, or 3M. I always saw him on crutches, or hopping around on one leg. He said, he could not stand the fake legs the VA tried to give him. In 2003, one of the last times I saw him he walked up to me and said, “The G*# D*&% VA finally came up with a leg I can wear comfortably.” He passed in 2005. I do not know if he ever knew the inspiration he was to me, but he was the main reason I joined the United Stated Marine Corps.

The information for the facts of this story came from, “Killing Ground on Okinawa, the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill” by James H. Hallas. And some of the things my Uncle Jim related to me over the years. In this emotionally compelling account of the fierce fight, Hallas chronicles the extraordinary courage and tactical skills of the 6th Marine 8Division’s junior officers and enlisted men as they captured a network of sophisticated Japanese defenses on Sugar Loaf Hill while under heavy artillery fire from surrounding hills.

To give human dimensions to the story, the author draws on his many interviews with participants and skillfully weaves together their individual stories of the sustained close-quarter fighting that claimed more than 2,000 Marine casualties. Pushed to their physical and moral limits during eleven attempts to capture the fifty-foot-high, 300-yard-long hill, the Marines proved their uncommon valor to be a common virtue, and this detailed record of their courage and commitment assures them a permanent place in history.

Battle footage and commentary on the taking of Sugar Loaf Hill:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t19rs7sQvfA

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. pastopresent
    Sep 9 2015

    Thank you for sharing this story about your uncle. This information is always valuable, because many personal stories are being lost from the war. I write about different places to go to encounter the World War Two history, and soon I will be adding a section on personal stories: http://www.discoverww2now.wordpress.com

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  2. Sep 10 2015

    Thank you for sharing the story of your inspiration and for all you’ve done. We remember!

    Like

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  3. birddog00
    May 30 2016

    Thank you for sharing this story, especially about my grandpa James M. Barrett, he was a great man.

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  4. Scott Sumner
    May 30 2016

    My uncle inspired me during my younger years to be a Marine. I was totally in awe of him, whether he knew it or not. This was just my way of letting others know.

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  5. Ronald EDWARD Dahly
    Oct 23 2016

    Lt. Edward Ruess was my mother’s first husband. He was awarded the Navy Cross was his action as Platoon Leader, 2/22 Marines, Sugar Loaf Hill.

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    • Scott Sumner
      Dec 13 2016

      Ronald. It so good to hear from you. You’re Mothers first husband was a fantastic example of fearless leadership. I’m sure he was an inspiration to his men. I wish I would have known these details when my uncle was alive. I have found combat veterans will open up more when you know some of the details of their service.

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