John C. Binkley
Review of Bill Sloan, The Ultimate Battle:
Okinawa 1945--The Last Epic Struggle of World War II. New
York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. Pp. x, 405. ISBN 978-0-7432-9246-7.
As "America's Greatest Generation" recedes into
memory, a rush of books attempts to record its combat stories. Among
these, Bill Sloan's The Ultimate Battle is not a traditional
military history that focuses on operational movement and command
decision-making; nor is it a "new" military history that relates war
to a variety of social, political, and economic factors. Instead,
this is war as told from the prospective of the foxhole, a
cumulative oral history of the individual soldiers or sailors who
participated in the Okinawa campaign.
Academic historians generally leave this type
of writing to amateur historians or members of the fourth estate
less concerned with why things happened than with painting a
vivid picture of what happened. The target audience here is
non-academics interested in a good story well-written, not in the
trappings of scholarly analysis. Sloan, a former Dallas Times
Herald reporter and the author of two other works on the Marines
in World War II,
has again captured the heroism, fear, and grime of war. He
interviewed some seventy veterans of the battle of Okinawa as well
as mining several dozen other transcribed or filmed oral histories.
The result is a series of very vivid vignettes covering the
three-month campaign that cost nearly 50,000 American casualties.
The title "The Ultimate Battle" reflects the
author's view that modern "pushbutton warfare and weapons of
incalculable destructive power have rendered many of the military
concepts and tactics employed at Okinawa … as obsolete on the
battlefield as spears, arrows and stone catapults" (7). While one
may quibble with this conclusion and argue that operations in Korea
had many of the same attributes as fighting at Okinawa, there
clearly was a primal quality about individual American and Japanese
solders fighting to the death among the caves and rocks of Okinawa.
The island's geography and topography precluded any strategic or
tactical alternative to a slow, steady slugging match in which
success was counted a pillbox or cave at a time. It was an
individual infantryman's war, with all of mid-twentieth-century
technology of air power and armor on the sidelines. This is not to
say that battles such as Iwo Jima were any less primal, only that
Okinawa was the last.
Within this context the reader is left with two
vivid impressions: first, the ability of human beings to endure
unimaginable suffering. Whether it was adrenalin, fear, anger,
loyalty, a combination of all, or something else, again and again
soldiers and marines functioned under conditions or with wounds that
amaze the reader. The second impression is of the unfortunate
situation of the civilian population of Okinawa. Told by the
Japanese that the Americans would rape, torture, and kill them,
civilians committed suicide in large numbers. Civilians who sought
to surrender and were captured by the Japanese Army were routinely
executed as traitors. Given that many civilian were trapped in a
virtual free-fire zone, the result was thousands of dead
noncombatants. This catastrophe is largely neglected in the official
histories of the battle.
As well-written and graphic as this book is,
there are some flaws that need to be addressed. It is not intended
for those interested in the strategic and tactical issues associated
with the battle. Although a portion of the first chapter clearly
lays out the strategic setting, the descriptions of small-unit
operations are frequently confusing. I often needed my copies of the
official U.S. Army and Marine Corps' histories of the battle
(see note 3) on the table next to me as I read to see an overview of
what was happening. Not only is the text sometimes confusing as to
what unit was engaged when and where in the battle, but the maps,
too, are not very helpful. This is the one great drawback of foxhole
history: it often, perhaps necessarily, takes the same myopic view
of the battlefield as that of the participants. On one level, this
conveys a sense of the confusion of the battlefield, but that same
confusion can be disconcerting to non-specialist readers trying to
understand the bigger picture. A further consequence of Sloan's
narrow battlefield focus is that important and controversial issues,
like 10th Army Commander, General Simon Bolivar Buckner's
strategy during the battle are discussed only in passing.
Similarly, the author seems to want to justify
the use of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki by stressing
the number of American casualties sustained at Iwo Jima and Okinawa,
and extrapolating to losses that would have been sustained in an
invasion of the Japanese home islands. While this is a perfectly
defensible position on a topic that historians are still debating,
Sloan does not take a firm stand. I suspect the reason for avoiding
this and other controversies of historical evaluation is two-fold:
first, the discussion of such larger issues would detract from his
concentration on the individual soldier. Second, aside from
interviews of survivors of the battle, the book is sparsely
researched, citing only a handful of secondary sources, some of them
outdated. The general bibliography does not even include the final
volume of the History of the U.S. Marine Corp Operations in World
War II, which covers Okinawa.
I am not criticizing Sloan for failing to exhaustively research the
atomic bomb decision or any other controversial issue. A writer is
entitled to pick and chose his focus. But in raising contentious
historical issues, one must at least briefly lay out the arguments
and counterarguments presented in the literature. Historical
evaluation requires great familiarity with a wide range of current
secondary sources. But that is not the purpose of this book.
A collateral problem is the lack of footnotes.
While there is a list of the sources consulted for each chapter at
the end of the book, aside from the oral interviews there are
references only to a few general secondary sources. Indeed,
quotations often lack specific citations. For example, we read that
historian Robert L. Sherrod "calculated that the U.S. Tenth Army
gained an average of 133 yards per day during the period from April
7 through May 31" (255), but find only Sherrod's History of
Marine Aviation in World War II included in the general list of
sources consulted. Later on the same page there is a quotation attributed only to "one
historian." Again, I suspect that Sloan's target audience will not
be bothered by such omissions.
The final flaw is an almost ethnocentric
telling of the story from the American point of view. Although Sloan
does acknowledge the terrible plight of the civilian population,
given that, unlike most Pacific battles, a large number (some
10,000) Japanese survivors at Okinawa became POWs, and
given that works reflecting the Japanese perspective, such as
Letters from Iwo Jima,
have received such wide praise, one would have expected Sloan to
give the Japanese viewpoint more attention. While the absence of
English translations could be a partial explanation, there are in
fact relevant works in English such as Thomas Huber's concise yet
detailed study of the Japanese Army's approach to the battle.
In conclusion, my recommendation as to whether
one should read this book depends entirely on what one wants to take
from it. If you are looking for a well-written story of courage and
sacrifice, or you are one of those readers who have a deep
fascination with anything associated with the Pacific campaign, this
is a book worth exploring. If you are looking for new historical
insights into the Battle for Okinawa, or just a clear overview of
the conflict, then I do not recommend it. Finally, instructors
should be aware of the difficulties the book will pose for their
University of Maryland
 For a general discussion of the status of
military history, see "American Military History: A Round
Table," Journal of American History, 93 (2007) 1116-62.
 Given Up for Dead: America's Heroic Stand at
Wake Island (NY: Bantam, 2003), and Brotherhood of Heroes: The
Marines at Peleliu 1944--The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War
(NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005).
 Neither the official histories of the battle
by the U.S Army and the U.S. Marine Corps nor the Marine Corps'
monograph on Okinawa focuses very heavily on how the battle
affected the civilian population. See Roy E. Appleman, et al.,
Okinawa: The Last Battle (1948; rpt. Washington, DC: Ctr of
Mil Hist, U.S. Army, 2005); Charles S. Nichols, Jr. &
Henry I. Shaw, Jr., Okinawa: Victory in the Pacific (1955; rpt.
Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1965); Frank M. Bemis & Henry I. Shaw, Jr.,
History of the U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II,
vol. 5: Victory and Occupation (Washington, DC: Hist Branch, G-3 Div,
HQ, U.S. Marine Corps, 1968).
 Sloan primarily relies on Samuel Eliot
Morison, History of the United States Naval Operations in World
War II, vol. 14: Victory in the Pacific (1960; rpt. Urbana: U
Illinois Pr, 2002); George Feifer, Tennozan: The Battle of
Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb (NY: Tickner & Fields, 1992); and
Thomas B. Allan & Norman Polmar, Code-Name Downfall: The Secret
Plan to Invade Japan and Why Truman Dropped the Bomb (NY: Simon
& Schuster, 1995). While I understand that, at some point, a
writer has to stop researching, Sloan should have mentioned
under his sources the following works, all published at least
two years before The Ultimate Battle: Tsuyoshi Hasegawa,
the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard U Pr, 2005); J. Samuel Walker, "Recent
Literature on Truman's Atomic Bomb Decision: A Search for Middle
Ground," Diplomatic History, 29.2 (2005) 311-34; J. Samuel
Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of the
Atomic Bombs against Japan (Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P,
1997; rev. 2004).
 Washington, DC: Combat Forces Pr, 1952;
quotation from p. 395.
 2006, dir. Clint Eastwood. See also Kumiko
Kakehashi, So Sad to Fall in Battle: An Account of War Based on
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi's Letters from Iwo Jima (NY:
 Thomas M. Huber, Japan's Battle of Okinawa,
April-June 1945 (1990; rpt. Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2004).