The Ultimate Battle is the full story of the last great clash of World War II as it has never before been told. With the same "grunt's-eye-view" narrative style that distinguished his Brotherhood of Heroes (on the Battle of Peleliu), Bill Sloan presents a gripping and uniquely personal saga of heroism and sacrifice in which at least 115,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen from both sides were killed, as were nearly 150,000 civilians caught in the crossfire or encouraged to commit suicide by Japanese troops.
It is a story set against a panorama of more than 1,500 American ships, nearly two thousand Japanese kamikazes sworn to sink those ships, and two huge armies locked in a no-quarter struggle to the death -- the 541,000 GIs and Marines of the U.S. Tenth Army, and Japan's 110,000-man 32nd Army. Woven into the broader narrative, in Band of Brothers style, are the personal stories of men who endured this epic battle and were interviewed by the author. In many cases, their experiences are told here in print for the first time.
A few days after Japanese defenders surprised American assault troops by allowing them to land virtually unopposed on April 1, 1945, scouts of the 96th Division stumbled onto the outerworks of formidable Japanese defenses near Kakazu Ridge, where fierce fighting erupted. It would continue without respite for nearly three months as American forces used every weapon and strategy at their disposal to break through three cunningly designed Japanese lines of defense, each anchored by commanding high ground, intricate underground installations, and massed artillery. When one line was about to be breached, the Japanese would slip away to the next one, forcing the Americans to repeat the same exhausting and deadly "corkscrew and blowtorch" assaults all over again.
Much of the action in The Ultimate Battle unfolds among men pinned down under relentless fire on disputed hillsides, in the ruins of shell-blasted villages, and inside stricken tanks and armored cars. Sloan also takes readers aboard flaming ships and into the cockpits of night-fighter aircraft to capture the horror and heroism of men and vessels besieged by kamikazes.
When the battle was over, most of the GIs, Marines, and sailors who survived it were too worn out to celebrate. More than 49,000 of their comrades had been killed or wounded, and they knew that the even more brutal invasion of Japan's home islands loomed just ahead. But as Sloan makes clear, the slaughter at Okinawa helped to convince President Truman to use the atomic bomb against Japanese cities in the hope of shortening the war and averting a far more horrific loss of life.
The Ultimate Battle is a searing and unforgettable recreation of the Okinawa campaign as it was experienced by men who were there. It is filled with fresh insights that only those men can provide.
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Simon & Schuster
October 22, 2007
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Excerpt from The Ultimate Battle by Bill Sloan
June 10, 1945
Tank commander Jack H. Armstrong was bleeding from both ears, addled by a concussion, and deafened by the shell that had just ripped a jagged eight-inch hole through the center of his Sherman tank, missing Armstrong by a foot or two at best.
The M4A1 Sherman was one of three tanks that had moved out ahead of infantry units of the First Marine Division this morning to scout enemy-infested Kunishi Ridge, the last remaining Japanese stronghold near the southern tip of Okinawa. When they'd come under intense artillery fire, the other two tanks managed to beat a hasty retreat, but Armstrong and his crew, grinding along in the lead, weren't so fortunate.
In the soundless void whirling around him, acting Sergeant Armstrong wondered if he was seriously wounded,maybe dying. Death was a constant companion these days for men of the First Marine Tank Battalion, and the expectation of being killed or maimed at any moment was as much a part of life as breathing. But now death felt especially close and intimate, and, as Armstrong squinted through the tank's smoldering innards at the young second lieutenant sprawled a few feet from him, he understood why.
The lieutenant, who'd come along on their mission strictly as an observer, was still writhing in agony, but it was obvious that he'd be dead soon. His belly was split wide open, and his intestines spilled out into his lap. His left forearm hung by a thin strand of mangled flesh. This was the lieutenant's first combat mission. It would also be his last.
The lieutenant's mouth moved, and Armstrong read the plea on his bloody lips without hearing them:
"Oh God,Mama, help me."
Armstrong turned to see Corporal Stephen Smith, the tank's driver, crawling toward him. As tank commander, it was Armstrong's responsibility to take charge of the situation.
He nodded toward the lieutenant. "I hate to move him, but let's try to get him outside," he told Smith, feeling the words vibrate in his throat. "If we take another hit, we're all dead."
Armstrong watched as the lieutenant pulled out his Ka-Bar knife and severed the thread of tissue that bound his ruined left arm to his body. When the arm fell away, its former owner dropped the knife and looked at Armstrong. "That might make it a little easier," he whispered.
With Armstrong attempting to hold the lieutenant's exposed organs in place, he and Smith half carried and half dragged him down through the escape hatch in the floor of the tank. Behind them, Private David Spoerke, the designated loader for the 75-millimeter cannon, moved to aid the Sherman's bow gunner and assistant driver, PFC Ben Okum, who was moaning and bleeding from wounds in his arm and leg.
It took what seemed like an hour for the five of them to make it to a nearby shell crater that was barely far enough away to keep them from being blown up with the disabled tank if it should explode. By the time they laid the lieutenant in the deepest part of the hole, his eyes were glazed and his face was grayish.
"Give me some morphine, and get out of here," he whispered. "They may open up on us again any second."
Armstrong's hearing was beginning to come back, and the lieutenant's words were faintly audible. "We can't leave you here like this," Armstrong said. "We'll try to get you a medic."
"Just go, Jack," the lieutenant said."Don't waste your time."
Smith broke open one of the needle-equipped morphine packets that each Marine routinely carried and injected the dying man in the neck. Armstrong put some extra packets beside the lieutenant's right hand, and Spoerke tried to tie a belt around the stump of his left arm to slow the bleeding.
"Get moving," the lieutenant said. "That's an order."
The lieutenant was a new replacement who'd just joined the battalion as a platoon leader, and he'd been around only for a day or two. Armstrong couldn't even remember his name, but he seemed like a decent enough guy. He was a friendly, easygoing sort who got along well with the tank crews. He was also a helluva lot tougher than he looked.
Any man who can cut off his own arm with a Ka-Bar has to be one gritty SOB, Armstrong thought, even if he's too deep in shock to know what he's doing.
"Aye, sir,"Armstrong said. "We'll send help back as soon as we can."
In his dazed condition, Armstrong almost forgot that he was under strict orders to destroy the gyrostabilizer unit on the tank's 75-millimeter gun to keep it from falling into enemy hands, so he had to stagger over to the Sherman, drop a grenade into the unit, and scramble back to safety.
Back at the crater, he took a last look at the lieutenant, who was silent and ashen but still appeared to be breathing. Then he bit his lip and turned to help Smith with the wounded gunner. As they stumbled back along the draw they'd come down a few minutes earlier, a burst of fire from Japanese rifles and automatic weapons kicked up dust inches from their heels. Armstrong took one brief glance over his shoulder at a hillside literally crawling with Japanese, each of them firing at the fleeing tankers. Then he ran for all he was worth, pulling Okum along by his good arm and thinking: Those guys must be the worst shots in the Japanese army! How can all of them possibly be missing us?