After two days of sightseeing with a friend, my wife and I met with an experienced amateur battlefield historian named Jack Letscher, in the lobby of a Hilton resort that overlooks the East China Sea. Together we headed south across the island. Already hot and sweaty, my wife and I followed Letscher across a parking lot and down a narrow sidewalk to an elevated crosswalk that arched over a busy four-lane highway. The sun broiled the already red and tender skin on my neck and arms, where my T-shirt gave no protection. Letscher was taking us to the base of Kakazu Ridge. I felt as if I was finally approaching a mountain I had only dreamed of ascending.
When we reached the apex of the crosswalk, Letscher pulled out a ragged copy of an official military history and flipped through it until he found a map marked with a red sticky note. “Right here,” he said pointing to a topographic view of the land we were now standing over. “This road we’re overlooking is the same one your grandfather’s company traveled to get to Kakazu. Right under our feet. This is where they were.” I felt a weight in my stomach. My grandfather likely wouldn’t have recognized Kakazu Ridge today. What was once a verdant, rolling landscape was now a bustling, crowded city. “Up there on the hill — see that blue tower with the roof?” Letscher asked. “That’s the top of the ridge. That’s where the heaviest fighting took place.”
When the tanks arrived on the eastern edge of the village, they found the remnants of wooden huts surrounded by once-sturdy stone walls and hedges that had been reduced to rubble by an American bombardment. Sighting through their periscopes, the gunners inside the tanks shot their .30-caliber machine guns at anything that moved; Japanese soldiers fell like tenpins as they emerged from their emplacements. The tanks armed with flamethrowers shot long, sticky streams of rage into cave openings and whatever buildings remained. Slowed down by steep, broken terrain and caught without infantry support, the tanks were vulnerable to various forms of attack that the Japanese exploited to near perfection. In addition to antitank guns and mines, one of the most effective methods for destroying tanks was to immobilize them with a small explosive and then run up and hit them with magnetic demolition charges or Molotov cocktails. If the crew decided to stay buttoned up in a disabled tank, attackers would pry open the hatch and throw in grenades. According to Gene Eric Salecker’s authoritative history of tank warfare in the Pacific, “Rolling Thunder Against the Rising Sun,” the loss of 22 tanks in the assault on Kakazu Ridge on April 19 “was the greatest loss of American armor” in a single engagement “during the entire Pacific war.”
Two days before Christmas, seven months after I returned from Okinawa, I wrote a long essay recording everything I had seen and learned while I was there. As my father read it, I could see his shoulders relax and a great sense of relief bubble to the surface. Less than a week later, I received a small manila package of documents I had requested back in June from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, where all the remaining military personnel records from the Second World War are stored. In 1973, a fire erupted that destroyed about 80 percent of all Army personnel records from before 1960, including my grandfather’s discharge paperwork. Fortunately for me, more than 100,000 reels of Army and Air Force morning reports — which contained information about the individual soldiers in a given company, including their assignments and injuries — survived the blaze.