By James Elphick
When the 6th Marine Division stormed ashore at Okinawa on April 1, 1945 they knew they were in for a fight. Okinawa is a Japanese prefecture, therefore home turf, and would be ruthlessly defended.
But, their first month on the island was almost uneventful as the Marines swept across the northern part of the island.
All of that changed when they shifted to join the attack in the south.
The Japanese commander’s plan was to concentrate his forces in the hills of southern Okinawa and wage a war of attrition on the Americans that he hoped they could not withstand.
All along the front, American units took a beating from the Japanese. Slowly but surely though, they crept forward. This monumental effort broke the first defensive line, the Machinato line. This led the Americans to the next, and even more formidable defense, the Shuri line.
The Shuri line was the Japanese Main Line of Resistance. It ran from coast to coast across Okinawa roughly in line with Shuri castle.
Though barely 75 feet high and some 300 yards in length Sugar Loaf Hill was teeming with an entire Japanese regiment. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
All along the line, the Japanese defenders were chewing up entire American divisions. However, the worst of it would come for the 6th Marine Division at an unassuming little hill they called “Sugar Loaf.”
Though barely 75 feet high and some 300 yards in length the small hill was teeming with an entire Japanese regiment. The Japanese were dug into intricate tunnels with machine gun and mortar nests covering every approach with interlocking fire.
Artillery from Shuri heights behind Sugar Loaf added more devastation.
On May 12 Company G, 22nd Marines advanced on the hill. Confidence was high as they crossed the first 900 yards to Sugar Loaf’s slopes. Then all hell broke loose. The first two platoons were suddenly ripped apart and pinned down by heavy Japanese machine gun and artillery fire.
Capt. Owen Stebbins, and his XO, Lt. Dale Bair rushed forward leading the remaining platoon. Before they could even make the slopes, Stebbins and 28 other Marines were cut down.
Bair assumed command but was wounded instantly himself. Despite his wounds, he rallied his men and surged to the crest of Sugar Loaf. Blasting at the Japanese with only one good arm Bair inspired his men before Japanese fire repeatedly struck him. Continuing to fight through the pain Bair did everything in his power to suppress the Japanese. He was later awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.
As the Japanese fire intensified, the few remaining Marines evacuated the summit. However, the fight was not over. G Company would assault Sugar Loaf and take the summit three more times that day before being forced to withdraw for the night.
Company G was down to 75 able-bodied men after only the first day. The next day other elements of the 22nd Marines captured the summit of Sugar Loaf only to be driven off.
On May 14, elements of the 29th Marines joined in on the attack and the combined effort managed to get two companies to the top of the hill. Withering fire from the Japanese forced them back down.
An attack in the afternoon by the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Marines stalled and left Maj. Henry Courtney, the battalion XO, stranded on the slopes along with 44 other Marines. From his precarious position, Courtney surmised that their only hope was to assault.
Courtney was awarded the Medal of Honor for his leadership in the assault on Sugar Loaf Hill. (Photo from USMCU.edu)
Leading the way through ferocious Japanese fire Courtney led his men through fierce combat. After gaining a better position, Courtney sent for reinforcements and ammunition. He then pushed forward to the crest of the hill, demolishing Japanese positions with grenades as he went. Observing a large force assembling for a counterattack Courtney pushed on and routed the enemy from the top of Sugar Loaf.
Courtney order his men to dig in and hold for the night. Unfortunately, accurate Japanese mortar fire mortally wounded him and determined Japanese resistance reduced his small force to only 15 men. Unable to hold they once again yielded the summit.
Courtney was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
May 15 was no better for the Marines. Company D, 29th Marines battled to the top before fighting a bitter engagement with the Japanese. A single platoon exhausted some 350 grenades and were down to eleven men before they retreated.
Elsewhere the 22nd Marines fought off a Japanese counterattack with vicious hand-to-hand combat.
On the 16th, the Marines renewed their assault. The 22nd Marines once again went up Sugar Loaf while the 29th Marines attacked Half Moon hill, a small landmass interconnected with Sugar Loaf’s defenses, from which they could provide supporting fire.
Sugar Loaf changed hands four separate times before the Marines withdrew. The final attempt seemed to be holding when they ran out of ammunition and had no choice but to forfeit the hill once more.
The first good news of the battle came on May 17 when a battalion from the 29th Marines finally secured most of Half Moon hill.
The next day, the Marines launched diversionary attacks all along the line and then snuck a unit of tanks and infantry between Sugar Loaf and Half Moon. These Marines then attacked Sugar Loaf from the rear and finally drove out the remaining Japanese defenders. This was the twelfth times the Marines had made the summit and they were loath to relinquish it.
The beleaguered and angry Marines mowed down the retreating Japanese.
The fight for Sugar Loaf Hill had cost the Marines over 2,600 causalities with nearly 1,300 more evacuated for exhaustion or illness. But, the Marines hard-won victory finally cracked the Shuri line and spelled the end for the Japanese defenders on Okinawa.
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