Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill Okinawa
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, until 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.
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.
Two 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 coast 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.
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.
My 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 Division’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: