Earlier this year I saw the movie Hacksaw Ridge on an otherwise unmemorable flight.  The movie recounts the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector and WWII combat medic whose actions on Maeda Escarpment (Hacksaw Ridge) earned the Congressional Medal of Honor.

On a trip to Tokyo for Sakura season I made a detour to Okinawa for a weekend to visit my nephew who had been based there with the Marine Corps for almost three years.  On his day off he showed me around Naha and southern Okinawa.

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The author with my “little nephew,” 6’5″ SSgt Evan Polley, USMC at the viewing tower on top of the WWII Underground Japanese Navy Headquarters.

Being a WWII buff in younger days and with my interest piqued by the movie, I requested that we include sites of some of the fighting during the Battle of Okinawa, 1 April 1945 – 21 June 1945.  This was the bloodiest and the last major land battle in the Pacific Theater.  We were able to visit Shuri Castle, Hacksaw Ridge, and the Japanese Naval Underground Headquarters which by car are all within minutes of Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture.

Here are other posts about a truly spectacular trip to Japan:

United Airlines Polaris Lounge, Chicago, Il – Lounge Review
Flight Review – ANA First Class 777-300ER, Chicago, IL to Tokyo, Japan (HND)
Tokyo Hotel Review – The b Akasaka-Mitsuke Hotel
The Ritz Carlton Tokyo – Hotel Review
My First Sakura Season -Photo Review
Shinjuku Walking Tour
Mt. Fuji Tour Review
Japan Airlines Diamond Premier Lounge Tokyo, Japan (HND)
Flight Review – Japan Airlines 777-300 Economy Class, Tokyo, Japan (HND) to Naha (Okinawa), Japan (OKA)
Hacksaw Ridge And Shuri Castle WWII Battle Site – Okinawa, Japan
Japanese World War II Underground Naval Headquarters Tour
Flight Review – Japan Airlines 767-300 Economy Class, Naha to Tokyo, Japan (HND) Review – Royal Park Hotel, Tokyo Haneda (HND)
Lounge Review – ANA First Class Lounge Tokyo, Japan (HND)
Flight Review – ANA First Class 777-300 Tokyo, Japan (HND) to Chicago, IL (ORD)

Hacksaw Ridge – The Movie

The movie was released in 2016.  It documents Doss’ upbringing in Lynchburg, VA as a devout Seventh-day Adventist and his military service in WWII.  Despite being strictly non violent because of his religion and having a draft deferment because he worked in a shipyard, Doss volunteered for military duty shortly after the United States entered WWII.  In 1942, he became a medic assigned to 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 307th Regiment, 77th Infantry Division of the United States Army.

Doss’ refusal to kill or carry a weapon makes him an outcast among his fellow soldiers.  They abuse him physically and mentally.  This treatment persists until the 1st Battalion  lands on Okinawa in 1945 and relieves another unit that had been trying unsuccessfully to dislodge Japanese forces on Maeda Escarpment. 

Hacksaw Ridge commands the terrain around Naha.  Japanese positions there posed a serious threat to American troops tasked with clearing the southern part of Okinawa where the bulk of the Japanese defenses were concentrated.

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Maeda Escarpment (Hacksaw Ridge).  U.S. troops would have had this perspective as they approached from the north.

Doss’ company uses cargo nets, ropes and ladders to ascend the sheer face of the ridge.    Troops establish a foothold on top, but a ferocious Japanese counterattack drives them off the ridge the following day.  Doss and many wounded are left on the battlefield.  He is able to locate and treat many then lower them by rope to U.S. troops below.

The following day the attack resumes only after Doss completes his sabbath prayers.  Again the fighting is fierce and bloody.  Doss is wounded in close-quarters fighting when a Japanese soldier hurls a grenade at Doss and several companions.  He bicycle kicks the grenade in mid air but it explodes nearby sending shrapnel into his leg.  The wounds result in Doss being evacuated from the battle.  The men and officers praise Doss for his courage and perseverance.

The movie was riveting but also raised questions.  How could Doss move around in what must have been a fairly small area with little cover and lower wounded on ropes without being spotted and killed?  How did he have the strength to belay around 75 wounded down a sheer cliff that looked to be more than 50′ high?  Why didn’t anyone go up to help Doss?  I thought seeing Hacksaw Ridge in person might answer some of those questions.

The True Story of Desmond Doss

On October 12, 1945, President Harry Truman presented Corporal Doss with the Medal of Honor at a ceremony at the White House.  The citation dated November 1, 1945, describes Doss’ service on Okinawa:

G.O. No.: 97, November 1, 1945.

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, March 3, 1863, has awarded in the name of The Congress the MEDAL OF HONOR to

PRIVATE FIRST CLASS DESMOND T. DOSS
UNITED STATES ARMY

for service as set forth in the following

Citation: Private First Class Desmond T. Doss, United States Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Near Urasoe-Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April – 21 May 1945. He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high. As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Private First Class Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them one by one to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and two days later he treated four men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within eight yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making four separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small-arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Private First Class Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On 21 May, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited five hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Private First Class Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers’ return, he was again struck, this time suffering a compound fracture of one arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Private First Class Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

Harry S Truman Signature.svg

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This chart depicts principal U.S. lines of advance during the Battle of Okinawa.

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Shuri Castle, Naha and Maeda Escarpment are in the southern part of Okinawa.

It turns out that the Medal of Honor wasn’t Doss’ first decoration for valor.  In 1944, while serving on Guam and in the Philippines, Doss earned two Bronze Star Medals for exceptional courage in aiding wounded soldiers under fire.  The actions for which Doss received those medals no doubt elevated his status with his fellow soldiers.  Contrary to the movie, by the time his unit arrived on Okinawa, Doss was probably held in very high esteem.

Exploring Hacksaw Ridge

With the help of GPS, Evan located Hacksaw Ridge in a residential Naha suburb.  It was only about a 15-minute drive from the center of the city.  Our route brought us to the ridge from the north, the same general direction as the U. S. troops in 1945.  Maeda Escarpment now looks like any other small hill.  Towering shear cliffs depicted in the movie are now covered by thick vegetation.  There are no signs on the street marking the site and its historical significance.

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Maeda Escarpment in 2019

Before visiting I didn’t know that Maeda Escarpment is also the location of Urasoe Castle.  It served as the capital of the medieval Okinawan principality of Chuzan prior to the unification of the islands into the Ryuku Kingdom.  Shuri Castle replaced Urasoe Castle as the seat of government.

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Urasoe Castle ruins on Maeda Escarpment. The castle had been destroyed and abandoned centuries ago.  Part of the north side of the ridge is also covered with many ancient tombs some of which are visible in the second photo just below the top of the ridge on the left.

We parked in one of the few on-street parking spots and looked for a way up.  We reached the top by following a small road near the castle ruins.  There is no charge to visit this site.  Visitors can also access the top via narrow trails on the northern slope.  Getting on top only increased my curiosity.  The ridge is several hundred yards long and runs roughly east and west.  It is fairly flat on top.  At its widest point, Hacksaw Ridge is no more than 150 or so yards wide.

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Vegetation has been removed so it is easy to walk around on top of Hacksaw Ridge.  During the Battle of Okinawa, days of artillery, naval and aerial bombardment would have removed all vegetation.

How could anyone have been able to move around and lower injured soldiers down a cliff without being spotted?

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Looking east to west along the length of the ridge.  Only a handful of visitors were present.

The only mention of Doss was on one small sign explaining his heroics.

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The sign marks the alleged point where Doss lowered the wounded.

Seeing this sign cleared up one of my questions.  The Americans scaled the cliff at the eastern end, pivoted and attacked to the west along the length of the ridge.  The movie gave the impression that the attack was a frontal assault across the width of the ridge.

The only other sign I saw about the fighting in WWII related to the Japanese defenders.20190712_225235

Little evidence of the Japanese defensive positions remains.

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Perhaps ruins from the castle complex or the entrance to a cave.

Even with vegetation in full bloom, Maeda Escarpment has excellent views of the surrounding terrain.  Control of this location would have been a prime objective for both armies.

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Northwest view from Hacksaw Ridge – Naha and the East China Sea.

Visiting Hacksaw Ridge answered some of my questions.  Doss was able to save many of his comrades because the battle progressed along the length of the ridge.  Hacksaw Ridge looks to be around one-half mile long or slightly longer.  The Japanese were apparently dug in around the castle ruins on the western end and the Americans ascended the escarpment on the eastern end.  The battlefield was several hundred yards deep giving Doss the ability to maintain some distance from Japanese troops and find cover for his movements.

The cliff where Doss lowered the wounded is 30′ to 40′ high.  Lowering men by hand on a rope would have been a tough task but not as difficult as it appeared in the movie.  I still do not know why one or two others did not go up to assist Doss at least with lowering the wounded he recovered.  Or perhaps they did and that part of the story has been lost to history.

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Doss on top of Maeda Escarpment (Hacksaw ridge) on 4 May 1945. Wiki photo

Shuri Castle 

Before getting to Hacksaw Ridge, our first stop was Shuri Castle.  Shuri Castle was constructed in the 15th century to serve as the seat of government of the newly formed  Ryuku Kingdom, which included unified Okinawa and the other islands in the Ryuku chain.  The Ryuku Kingdom lasted until 1879 when it was involuntarily incorporated into Japan as Okinawa prefecture.

Shuri Castle covers a large area.  Access to much of the grounds is free.  Admission to the main palaces costs about $7.50/adult.  Parking in underground lots is $3.  Parking in nearby private lots is slightly more expensive.

I won’t pretend to be an expert on the relationship between Okinawa and Japan; however, to this day, neither the Okinawans or the Japanese seem to consider Okinawans to be legitimately Japanese.  During the fighting Japanese troops executed many locals and forced many others, including young boys and women, to join units to participate in the fighting.

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With Evan in front of one of the palaces at Shuri Castle.

Shuri Castle was one of the focal points of the Shuri Line, the heavily defended Japanese defensive wall that stretched across the southern part of the island.  The castle was almost totally destroyed in the fighting.  After the war, the site was used as a university campus.  Reconstruction of the walls and citadels began in 1992.

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Naha view from the castle walls.

Earlier during the war, the Japanese Army established its headquarters in a labyrinth built under the castle.  During the Battle of Okinawa, an American battleship shelled the castle for three days straight.  The shelling forced the Japanese to retreat and relocate the headquarters.  U.S. Marines captured Shuri Castle on 29 May 1945.  I did not see information on the fighting displayed at the castle.  Nevertheless, visiting the castle provided great views and much interesting information on the history and culture of the Ryuku Kingdom.

Have you been to Okinawa or visited any other sites of combat in the Pacific Theater of WWII?

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