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Stay Off the Skyline: The Sixth Marine Division on Okinawa, An Oral History [paperback]

The Beginning of the End

The Battle of Okinawa was fought on a small Japanese island in the spring of 1945. It was the biggest battle in the Pacific and the last battle of the Second World War. Over 200,000 people perished in the eighty-two-day campaign. Many veterans attribute President Harry Truman’s decision to use an atomic bomb against Hiroshima, at least in part, to the outcome of this bloody battle, yet America’s collective memory does not include it in its remembrances of pivotal battles of World War II. Few people, except those directly affected, remember it at all. One group of men who do remember is the Sixth Marine Division, which was formed to fight the Japanese on Okinawa and then mainland Japan. The Sixth would not be a novice unit, but one made up of some of the toughest units in the Marine Corps, augmented with fresh eager troops from the United States. Their memories of the Battle of Okinawa are the focus of this work.

An outsider can sit at a gathering of the Sixth Marine Division Association and hear wonderful sea stories. The men will laugh often but cry only after they are comfortable in your presence. One veteran tells the story of exploring a cave on Okinawa. He turns at all the bends in his mind; he points out all the rooms and recalls what they contained; he unconsciously grips an imaginary rifle as he snakes his way through; he smells the death in the place. Today it is just as he describes it although he has not been there in over fifty years. Most interesting of all is that one can then move to the next table and hear another member of the same unit repeat the same incident with uncanny similarity. Is this an example of collective memory? Perhaps, but could it not be that those memories, created almost sixty years ago, were imprinted on their brains because they were so intense? As the scientific community begins to understand the workings of the mind, it is adding its professional support to the idea that memories are far more valid to historians than previously imagined.

Capturing the memories of this unique unit, whose collective history as a fighting unit is shorter than its history as a veterans’ association, is historically significant. Once these men are gone, their war memories will also be gone. Few people will have the privilege of personally hearing the tale they have to tell. Thus to capture their voice, to catch that moment in history in which they participated, and to record it is imperative. It is, perhaps, the last chance to hear their version of what happened and so to see the war from their perspective. By exploring this last great battle of the Second World War, we can learn much about what war does to young men, about how people of that generation felt, about how they thought, and about how they interacted with one another. We can explore the realities of combat, and we can gain insight into the way men remember war; after all, history is the greatest tale and theirs is a great story.

Each of the forty men interviewed and each of the manuscripts, letters, or memoirs has a unique perspective that paints a picture of the men who fought and lived through the Battle of Okinawa. There are some voices that will remain missing—those who never came home or who came home too damaged to contribute to these recollections of war. The men who did survive feel an obligation to those men who never came home. In fact, it is often their most important reason for getting the story right. They fear their story being misrepresented more than they ever feared the Japanese. For many, the need to tell their story has come late in life, in part because they began to hear inaccurate accounts of the war as they remembered it. The veterans argue that analyses of the battle are seldom created by the men who fought the war. Instead, the authors of these critiques are people either who were not on the front lines or who have all the advantage of hindsight. For others, the controversy over the exhibit of the Enola Gay, so close to their own fiftieth anniversary, was a catalyst to their desire to get the story straight. Collectively these veterans of the Battle of Okinawa realized their story must be told.

Any fighting man of the Second World War understands the phrase “stay off the skyline,” and its myriad of meanings. He will understand it once meant doing a job—but not volunteering—while still persevering to live and fight another day. When uttered on departure, it meant take care and be cautious. The men still use this phrase with each other today. Perhaps this is done as a reminder of life’s capriciousness or perhaps as a validation that they were there, walked that skyline, and survived. This is not just the story of the Sixth Marine Division but also a story of the marines’ war in the Pacific in general—what it felt like, smelled like, and sounded like. It is probably as close as the reader will ever get to the best and worst life experiences these men lived. These are part of the memories of a generation that understood the importance of getting a job done; a generation that volunteered or was drafted; a generation that left loved ones behind and went off on an adventure, as men have from the beginning of time; a generation that shaped much of the twentieth century for good and for ill. This is the story of eighty-two days on an island in the Pacific Ocean that would forever shape these men and their memories.