Book Reviews -- Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II-An Oral History by Gerald Astor

Article excerpt

GERALD ASTOR. Operation Iceberg: The Invasion and Conquest of Okinawa in World War II -- An Oral History. New York, N.Y.: Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1995. 496 pages. $24.95.

The Battle of Okinawa, which began on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, and lasted for three months, was a descent into hell. At no place, at no time, was combat worse than on Okinawa -- not at Gettysburg, not in the trenches in World War I, not on the Eastern Front in World War II, not on Iwo Jima. Losses were dreadful: 12,520 U.S. dead, 36,631 wounded; 110,071 Japanese soldiers killed, 7,401 captured (almost all badly wounded); and 140,000 Okinawan civilians dead.

The raw figures only hint at how savage and bestial the fighting was, on each side. Combat is the most extreme experience a human being can go through -- those of us who have never been in combat can only try to imagine it -- and on Okinawa the combat was continuous and shocking in its assault on human sensibilities.

The closest we can come to the combat experience is to read about it in eyewitness accounts from the men who were there, on the ground or on shipboard or in the air -- there as privates or seamen or pilots, not as generals or admirals. In Operation Iceberg, Gerald Astor takes us there. He has done hundreds of interviews with U.S. soldiers and sailors, plus some with Japanese combatants, and has woven them together in a narrative that will immediately take its place as one of the classics in the literature of combat.

Astor, a World War II veteran himself, is the author of three previous books on the conflict based on oral histories. He is a master of the genre. He gets the veterans to talk to him in a straightforward, honest manner, no matter how brutal the story or experience. In this book, he moves from the destroyers undergoing kamikaze attacks, to American pilots trying to shoot down the Japanese planes, to the Army and Marine troops ashore, with an ease and skill that are enviable. This is oral history at its best -- direct, illuminating, capturing sights and sounds and feelings and actions that never make it into official reports or more formal military histories.

Sergeant Joe Budge told Astor:

Heavy artillery or mortar fire can be seen in any war movie, but it is usually toned down because nobody would believe the size of the explosion one is expected to live through. …