‘I Think of Them Every Day’
Recalling the decisive fight to the finish on Okinawa, 75 years later
James Riffe always goes back to this one story from the six hellish weeks of his life when he led a U.S. Army combat platoon on the Japanese island of Okinawa — the last battle of World War II.
In the quiet kitchen of his Gainesville, Va., home, away from the blare of television, the Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative member, who will be 99 in July, says he has even imagined a headline for the story.
“I’d call it, ‘Why Not Me?’”
Each day, for 75 years, Riffe says he not only thinks about it, but relives a moment from the final and the bloodiest battle of the Pacific campaign.
MILITARY TRAINING MAKES A GOOD LEADER
Born in Panther, a tiny West Virginia settlement near the Virginia and Kentucky border, Riffe realized early on that education would get him to the better life he dreamed about. He learned that lesson after one year in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era government work program built on a quasi-military model, and two summers at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., in the Citizens Military Training Program.
Riffe graduated from high school in 1941. With straight A’s, the class valedictorian and football team captain earned a scholarship to Davidson College in North Carolina. At Davidson, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps because, he says, he liked to drill.
In February 1942, Riffe registered for the draft. The U.S. Army called him to active duty in August 1942 with the Army Reserve, 80th Blue Ridge Infantry Division at Camp Forrest, Tenn. The Army promoted him quickly, from staff sergeant to second lieutenant out of Infantry Officers Candidate Training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1943, and first lieutenant at Camp Roberts, California.
THE AFFABLE LIEUTENANT WITH AN APPALACHIAN DRAWL
In November 1944, Riffe left California on a long ocean voyage to Espirtu Santo, an island in the South Pacific. He took command of the First Platoon: I Company, of the 106th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division. The 23-year-old first lieutenant had just three months to train 28 young men, mostly teenagers, for the “Operation Iceberg” assault on Okinawa.
Most of the soldiers in his platoon came from a New York National Guard unit. They liked their affable lieutenant with the soft Appalachian drawl, especially after they learned he had come up from the rank they were, enlisted privates.
“I got to know them all well,” Riffe says. “As an officer, I had to censor their letters before they sent them home to make sure there wasn’t any information in them that could hurt us if it got in the wrong hands. They shared their private thoughts. One soldier was writing to two girls, promising to marry each one. He was killed during the battle on Okinawa.”
Riffe used all his training skills to fashion a confident and competent team of soldiers who relied on each other.
On April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday, the U.S. Tenth Army began its amphibious assault on Okinawa, 375 miles from mainland Japan. The U.S. Navy and British Commonwealth ships in the British Pacific Fleet supported the Tenth Army’s four Army and two Marine Corps divisions. The Allies’ mission was to take fortified, heavily defended Japanese positions on Okinawa and ultimately establish a base for an invasion of Japan’s home islands, scheduled for Nov. 1.
Fierce fighting ensued. Almost every day, Riffe said to his men what infantry lieutenants say in combat, “Follow me!” as the 27th Division fought Japanese soldiers positioned on high ground and in mountain caves.
The caves protected them from artillery barrage and aerial attack. The Japanese usually emerged from the caves around 2 a.m. and fired at American defensive positions, but Riffe encountered them one fateful day when he and his platoon came under small arms fire.
“During the attack I moved forward with two scouts and an automatic rifleman — with the remainder of the platoon held back 50 or 75 feet with the platoon sergeant,” Riffe explains.
“My lead scout, who was about 10 feet in front of me, was killed instantly. I heard my automatic rifleman cry out. I turned around and saw him lying on the ground, about 15 feet away, holding his left leg. I crawled to him and saw where a bullet had pierced his thigh, apparently severing the bone. I called to Shultz, my other scout, and told him to go back to the unit and have the platoon sergeant call for the first-aid stretcher team.”
A medic rushed to the rifleman’s side.
“Here he was, dropping to his knees right beside me, shoulder to shoulder,”Riffe says about the medic. “When he was pulling out a bandage from his firstaid kit, the enemy opened fire. The medic was hit. He slumped forward — dead. I could hear bullets swishing on both sides of my head, not more than two or three inches from life ending. Why not me?
“Suddenly there was a lull in enemy action, so I told the wounded rifleman that I was going back to the platoon and have the area shrouded in smoke, at which time Shultz and I would return and carry him back to where a first-aid stretcher team would take him to the battalion aid station. Fortunately, before the smoke lifted, we had carried him out of harm’s way.”
The Army awarded Riffe a Bronze Star for his actions during the battle, but from that day forward, he wondered, “Why not me?”
The Okinawa campaign ended on June 27, 1945. The Americans suffered more than 75,000 casualties. The U.S. military estimates that more than 110,000 Japanese soldiers were killed during the 88-day battle, including conscripted Okinawan civilians.
In August, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. On Aug. 15, Emperor Hirohito announced on the radio that Japan would surrender. The Allies gathered for the official surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur declared, “It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past.”
Three weeks after the war ended, Riffe’s unit was ordered to the conquered mainland to collect guns and swords. They also had to collect wooden spears that Japanese authorities distributed to civilian adults and children with orders to fight the Allies “to the death.”
Riffe says that tour of duty convinced him the atomic bombings prevented the loss of many more Japanese and American lives if the Allies had found it necessary to invade the mainland to end the war.
The Army gave Riffe a commission in the regular Army after the war. He remained on active duty for 30 years.
Before retiring as a colonel in 1972, Riffe earned two master’s degrees, and graduated from the Army War College and the Army Command Staff General College. He served in the famed 82nd Airborne with a certified 100 parachute jumps while rising to chief of staff of the division. He served in operations and planning in Berlin, Germany, during the height of the Cold War. In recognition of his duty in Berlin, he earned the Legion of Merit award.
Riffe retired in 1986, intent on traveling the world with his wife, Beatrice, who is now his wife of 66 years. Together, they have visited many nations. Except for Okinawa.
Nevertheless, Riffe still goes to Okinawa in his memory. And though he is hard of hearing now, he can still hear the sounds of battle — the mighty blast of artillery, mortar and mines, the zing of bullets, and the staccato of machine gunfire. The screams. And always the question, “Why not me?”
“During the six weeks I served with my platoon, seven brave, courageous young Americans gave their lives for their country — our country — and 14 were seriously injured,” says Riffe, who received a Purple Heart for his wounds. “When I was ordered to another duty, I never saw the others again. But they were, and always shall be, a very important part of my life. And I think of them every day.”
George Stuteville is a longtime electric cooperative communicator and former Washington bureau chief for the Indianapolis Star.