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. Being a WWII buff in younger days, I requested that we include sites of some of the fighting during the Battle of Okinawa, April 1, 1945 – June 21, 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 WWII Battle Site – Okinawa, Japan
Japanese World War II Underground Naval Headquarters Tour
Flight Review – Japan Airlines 777-300 Economy Class, Naha to Tokyo, Japan (HND)Hotel 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)
The movie was made in 2016. It documents Doss’ upbringing in Lynchburg, VA as a devout Seventh-day Adventist and his Army service in WWII. Despite being strictly non violent 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.
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 and relieves another unit that had been trying unsuccessfully to dislodge Japanese forces on the Maeda Escarpment. Hacksaw Ridge commanded the terrain around Naha, and the Japanese positions posed a serious threat to American troops tasked with clearing the southern part of Okinawa where the bulk of the Japanese defenses were concentrated.
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 on ropes to U.S. troops below.
The following day the attack resumes after Doss completes his sabbath prayers. Again the fighting is fierce and bloody. Doss is wounded in close-quarters fighting. 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 movie was riveting but also left me with several questions. How could Doss move around in what must have been a fairly small area and lower wounded on ropes without being spotted and killed? How did Doss have the strength to use ropes 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.
This Wiki chart depicts principal U.S. lines of advance during the Battle of Okinawa.
It turns out that the Medal of Honor wasn’t Doss’ first decoration for valor. In1944, while serving on Guam and 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 were nowhere to be found. There are no signs on the street marking the site and its historical significance.
Before visiting I didn’t know that Maeda Escarpment is also the location of Urasoe Castle, which served as the capital of the medieval Okinawan principality of Chuzan prior to the unification of the island into the Ryuku Kingdom. Shuri Castle replaced Urasoe Castle as the seat of government.
There is no charge to visit this site. 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. Visitors can also use 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. But at its widest point, Hacksaw Ridge is no more than 150 yards wide.
How could anyone have been able to move around and lower injured soldiers down a cliff without being spotted?
The only mention of Doss was on one small sign explaining his heroics.
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 western end and attacked lengthwise to the east. The movie gave the impression that the attack was a frontal attack across the width of the ridge.
The only other sign I saw about the fighting in WWII related to the Japanese defenders.
Little evidence of the Japanese defensive positions remains.
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.
The visit to 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. The Japanese were apparently dug in around the castle ruins on the eastern end and the Americans ascended the escarpment on the western end. The battlefield was several hundred yards deep giving Doss the ability to 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 others did not go up to assist Doss’ efforts, or perhaps they did and that part of the story has been lost to history.
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 formally and involuntarily was incorporated into Japan as Okinawa prefecture.
The castle covers a large area. Access to much of the grounds is free. Access 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.
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.
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 May 29,1945. 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?