Phil Nelson: Remember L-Day along with D-Day

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This Thursday, June 6 will mark the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, known as D-Day; a landmark in history that will garner a great deal of attention, and deservedly so. I continue to struggle, however, with the near universal avoidance of any recognition for the largest invasion of World War II, Okinawa.

If you stopped 100 people on the street and asked when D-Day was, probably 25 or more would know June 6, 1944 ; nearly everyone would know what you were talking about, and probably 99 of them would think of it as the largest invasion of the war. Similarly, if you asked those same 100 when L-Day, (the invasion of Okinawa) was, you'd be lucky to get one correct answer: April 1, 1945 — no fooling, and in 1945 also Easter Sunday. Most would know very little about the invasion or its significance in the war, or that April 1, 1945 was also known as L-Day.

My Father is a WWII vet who participated in five invasions in the Pacific. Still doing well today at age 98, when talking about his WWII experiences, I realize that few know much about the war in the Pacific other than Pearl Harbor, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I fail to understand the contrast between the level of awareness the general public has of the European Theater of war compared to the level of awareness about the Pacific Theater of the war. My Dad participated in the invasions of Kwajalein, Guam, Peleliu, Leyte and Okinawa.

In 1944, Okinawa was a significant possession of the Japanese empire dating back to 1879. It was a stepping stone to the main homeland islands. Okinawa was invaded to establish a base of operations, which would enable more intense bombing of the Japanese mainland, and eventually be a base of operations for Operation Downfall — the planned two-thrust invasion of Japan that fortunately never happened. Operation Olympic would have attacked the southern islands, and Operation Coronet would have attacked Honshu to the North. Together they comprised Operation Downfall.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (August 6 and 9, respectively), were only a few weeks after Okinawa was finally secured on June 22, 1945. Japan reluctantly agreed to surrender on August 15, 1945, thanks to the two atomic bombs AND Russia declaring war on Japan on August 8. Russia promptly invaded Manchuria China on August 9, attacking Japanese occupational troops there and creating a second front for Japan to defend. Thank God we had the atomic bombs and used them. The tragic death toll caused by those bombs is an elusive number, but averaging a range of guesses indicates about 130,000 people were killed in total by the bombs (including estimated delayed radiation deaths). Some estimates are much higher, and research has indicated a few sources confused the word "casualty" with death, resulting in unintentionally generating misleading numbers. Not every casualty is a death. There were many more casualties (injured) than 130,000.

The invasion of Okinawa produced 12,000 American deaths plus 110,000 Japanese and Okinawan defenders dead, and an estimated 145,000 Okinawan civilians killed for an estimated total of 267,000 killed on Okinawa, compared to 130,000 killed by the combined nuclear bombs. Had we undertaken Operation Downfall, projected deaths were well beyond a million. Despite shooting down an estimated 3,500 kamikaze planes, more than 4,000 sailors died from kamikaze attacks at Okinawa and more than 230 ships were damaged or sunk by kamikaze planes. In addition, suicide boats called Shinyos damaged more ships — a mere foreshadowing of what an attack on mainland Japan would have generated. By comparison, 16,000 Allied troops died at Normandy and 37,000 defenders were killed, for 53,000 total deaths at Normandy. Normandy is exceptional in the number of wounded (casualties) vs. dead. Normandy produced far more casualties than Okinawa, but Okinawa produced nearly four times as many deaths as Normandy (using June 6 through Aug. 30 for Normandy figures ). Actual deaths in most battles are imprecise at best. Regardless of what numbers over what period of time is examined, it is safe to say both D-Day and L-Day were gigantic and there was a terrible death toll at each.

I was glad my dad and I were able to visit the National WWII Museum (formerly the National D-Day Museum) in New Orleans. It is a must see for anyone interested in WWII history. We also visited the Museum of the Pacific and Admiral Nimitz Museum, both in Fredericksburg, Texas, the birthplace of Admiral Nimitz, and again, must-see museums. Among the remarkable displays at the former National D-Day Museum is one that shows a table with the following facts:

Comparisons of Normandy, Okinawa and Olympic (one part of Operation Downfall)

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- Normandy Troops: 150,000 ships, 284 supplies, 570,000 tons

- Okinawa Troops: 183,000 ships, 327 supplies, 750,000 tons

- Olympic Troops: 335,000 ships, 967 supplies, 1,350,000 tons

Once again, there are conflicting reports concerning the data above, but I accept the former National D-Day Museum as a credible source. Olympic never happened, but Okinawa did.

My Dad had already received plans for his role in Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu, when the war ended. He said he felt very lucky to survive five invasions, but did not think he would survive the sixth, after witnessing the savage defense of Okinawa. Fortunate for me, he came home from the war.

It is shameful that so little attention is given to remembering the battle for Okinawa. When June 6 rolls around there will be many specials on TV which will air many times. Most newspapers and many magazines will also give mention and honor to D-Day and those who fought there. I applaud all of that, but come April 1, you will probably be lucky to find one mention giving honor to the largest invasion of WWII, which directly affected the decision to use the nuclear bombs, hastening the end of WWII, and thus avoiding what would have been the deadliest invasion in history. We've been deplorably negligent so far by forgetting Okinawa and L-Day on April 1.

Hopefully through this letter a new found respect and understanding of the scope and significance of the battle for Okinawa will emerge. Perhaps someday L-Day, the largest invasion of WWII, will share equal recognition with D-Day, the largest European Theater invasion. Each had their own profound impact on how the war ended. Every battle, and every death in World War II has its own significance, but at the very least, we should remember and honor all those who were a part of L-Day and D-Day.

Phil Nelson writes from Vestal, New York. His father, also Philip Nelson, is a 98-year-old resident at the Vernon Advent Christian home in Vernon. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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