On April 1, 1945, the Japanese military played the ultimate April Fool's joke on the U.S. forces landing on Okinawa: They left.
Seaman 1st Class Ken Carmean was in the fourth wave of landing craft. He had been apprehensive about the Okinawa invasion, expecting a huge Japanese barrage. Instead of the military welcome, however, Carmean and his companions encountered silence."It was like a Hollywood movie with the sea and the beach," Carmean, said. "Nobody even tried to shoot at us as we unloaded. We expected to be under heavy fire, but there was absolutely nothing."
The 200,000-man Japanese army had moved to the south of the 60-mile long island, so American troops were able to safely land on the beach. The tranquillity did not last - five days after the first landing, kamikaze planes started diving at U.S. ships, and fighting between the two armies began. The battle for Okinawa cost many lives, and even more were injured.
Many of the injured U.S. troops were taken from the island to hospital ships anchored nearby.
Carmean, who served aboard the USS Epping Forest LSD #4, was part of the rescue effort. He remembers how he felt as he transported the wounded from the beach to hospital ships.
"When you're young, you're tough," Carmean said. "But I can remember thinking that many of these men would never have a chance to come home, to get married and bounce their babies on their knees. I remember one young Marine in particular: He had a patch covering his chest, and it was soaked with blood. Every time his heart beat, more blood trickled out. He never made it."
Although Carmean's 30-foot-long craft was never the target of kamikaze planes, the ships were not so lucky.
"Kamikazes wouldn't risk their lives on a little thing like a landing craft, so we were in no danger, but it was still something to look up and see them heading for a ship at around 500 mph," said Carmean, who lives in Cottonwood Heights.
One kamikaze pilot, who was shot down, made a crash landing near the fleet and was picked up by a landing craft.
"Two days later, our boat picked up 11 people - 10 Japanese soldiers and the kamikaze pilot - from the beach and transported them to the prison ship," Carmean said.
"I didn't feel mad at him (the kamikaze pilot), but I was a little dazed. I'd seen lots of kamikazes diving at ships, but how many people do you know who have spoken to a kamikaze? He could have hit a ship and killed more than 100 men, but here he was talking to me instead."
A kamikaze pilot's objective was to smash his plane and its deadly cargo - usually a single 550-pound bomb - into an American ship, destroying it. Many of the recruits were university students, willing to give up their lives not because they hated Americans or even because they thought they could win the war; they fought out of a sense of duty to their country. In Japan, it was considered an honor to go on these suicide missions, so the kamikaze pilots enjoyed special privileges.
"The other soldiers we were transporting to the prison ship that day looked beat," Carmean said. "They were dirty and hanging their heads, but the kamikaze pilot was very relaxed. He looked healthy and well-fed. The rest of them looked half-starved."
When Carmean asked the Japanese pilot what he wanted to do after the war, he replied in flawless English that he wanted to attend an American university.
"I asked him who was winning the war. He didn't say anything, just pointed at me," Carmean said. The Japanese pilot was right. In August 1945, the Japanese government surrendered unconditionally.
Nearly 30 years later, Carmean can't quite forget his experiences in the Pacific; everyday things bring back the memories.
"The city buses have the same engine as our landing craft," he said. "When I ride in one, I'm back there . . . Picking up the wounded on the beach and taking them out to the hospital ships, one can learn the real meaning of insanity."
Fifty years ago, the United States became embroiled in another world war. In a yearlong series of weekly articles, the Deseret News is looking back on the major events of World War II with insight from Utahns who participated in them. If you have "war stories" you'd like to share, call Chuck Gates, Deseret News assignments editor, 237-2100.