Blog 05/15/2021 - A Journey to Sugar Loaf Hill

I was newly stationed on Okinawa in 1981 when I headed south on Highway 58 from the Plaza BOQ in my recently purchased “Johnny’s Used Cars” Mazda to pick up my good buddy Dan who was at the Camp Kinser BOQ.

He was working until noon, so I had two hours to kill so I drove a little further south to Makiminato Housing Area (originally named Machinato Housing Area before the reversion to Japan corrected it) so I could try & see three hills that my Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy had focused on during the Typhon of Steel that was the Battle of Okinawa.

These three hills that were part of the Japanese defensive complex forming the western anchor of the Shuri Line guarded the open country that led straight up to the Japanese Main Line of Resistance (MLR) near Shuri Castle. I parked at Makiminato Elementary School and oriented my maps in the parking lot hoping I was on or near Charlie or Queen Hill where the 6th Marine Division (MarDiv) Marines first set eyes on the first of these three hills that was truly a modest little piece of high ground.

It was not a Mount Suribachi as the hill’s crest according to topographical maps only rose to a height of 230 feet. When compared to the surrounding ridges & territory, the crest of the hill actually only rose about 50 feet above the northern approaches to its slopes. The three hills were so small that they did not show up on the standard military map with its 10-meter contour interval.

The hill in question was codenamed Sugar Loaf by the Marines & the other two small low hills that were a part of the defense complex were codenamed Half Moon (sometimes referred to as Crescent) & Horseshoe. The unassuming little hills did not appear to be anything more than a bump in the road to the Marines of the 6th who observed the hills from their positions on the morning of May 12 and I had to agree looking across the open ground to them. It seemed rather a pleasant almost bucolic setting with the dependent houses built since the war plunked down within the surrounding city but was in fact one of WWII’s great killing zones.

On the 12th, the Marines had their first encounter with the Imperial Japanese Army units guarding Sugar Loaf almost inadvertently. Company G, 22nd Marines with 11 tanks was heading directly toward Sugar Loaf, which was known to be a strong point, the infantry & tanks met increasing rifle fire but pushed ahead. Four Marines reached Sugar Loaf’s crest & the company commander frantically radioed battalion for reinforcements but because of his many casualties, he was ordered to withdraw. As they withdrew, the IJA troops opened up with heavy fire quickly knocking out three tanks.

The 6th MarDiv now planned an attack in force on the Sugar Loaf area. The three hills were formed in such a way to offer exceptionally advantageous positions to the IJA to offer excellent fields of fire to the other hills if assaulted. Supporting Sugar Loaf on its right rear was the crescent shaped hill, known as Half Moon; on its left rear was the Horseshoe, a long-curved ridge harboring numerous mortar positions. These three hills supported one another and any attack on Sugar Loaf would bring fire from the other two.

The plan for 14 May called for the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Marines, commanded by LtCol H.C. Woodhouse, to launch an assault against Sugar Loaf. The Marines were able to seize the forward slopes of the protecting hills north of Sugar Loaf (Charlie & Queen Hills), but intense fire met them whenever they tried to move around or over these hills.

Of 50 men who made an attempt to advance across the open ground, only ten returned, and most of the morning was spent in evacuating casualties on amtracks. At dusk, the XO of 2nd Battalion (Bn) cobbled together a platoon for another attempt in his own words “The only way we can take the top of this hill is to make a Jap banzai charge ourselves." The small Marine force on Sugar Loaf was now so close to the reverse slope that the enemy could not effectively throw grenades down the hill, but the mortar shelling increased. The XO, crouching in his foxhole, was killed instantly when a fragment hit him in the neck. One of the platoon leaders on the hill was also killed, and another was wounded as he was bringing up reinforcements but they held on.

Mortar fire and infiltration steadily cut down the small force, until at dawn on 15 May the position on Sugar Loaf was held by only one officer and 19 exhausted Marines. Daylight made the situation even more precarious, for now the enemy entrenched on the Horseshoe and half Moon Hills could place accurate fire on the Americans. Orders arrived from 2nd Battalion stating that relief was on the way. The Marines had already given some ground due to the enemy massing fire on the crest and IJA infantrymen creeping up the hill from their reverse slope caves. The relief was exceptionally difficult because of the heavy fire. A platoon from Company D, 29th Marines, attempting to reach the crest, quickly discovered that an effective relief would require an attack against the Japanese who were trying to retake Sugar Loaf’s crest.

The platoon leader, 1stLt “Irish George” Murphy (on left in picture) he was the Captain of Frank Leahy’s 1942 #6 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish team that went 7-2-2 playing before 94,519 in the LA Memorial Coliseum while beating #8 USC 13-0, ordered an assault with fixed bayonets. The Marines reached the top and immediately became involved in a grenade battle with the enemy. Their supply of 350 grenades was soon exhausted. Lieutenant Murphy asked his Company Commander, Capt H.L. Mabie, for permission to withdraw, but Mabie ordered him to hold the hill at all costs. By now the whole forward slope of Sugar Loaf was alive with gray eddies of smoke from mortar blasts, and on his own initiative Murphy ordered a withdrawal. Covering the men as they pulled back down the slope, Murphy was killed by a mortar fragment while helping one of his wounded Marines. His pre-invasion tentmate 1stLt “Bus” Bergmen (on right in picture) heard that "Irish George staggered to his feet, aimed over the hill and emptied his pistol in the direction of the enemy. Then he fell dead." On Sugar Loaf, 49 of the 60 men in Murphy's platoon were KIA or WIA.

Capt Mabie advanced his company to protect the survivors as they withdrew. He at the same time notified LtCol Woodhouse: "Request permission to withdraw. “Irish George” Murphy has been hit. Has 11 men left in platoon of original 60." Two minutes later Woodhouse replied: "You must hold." In five-minutes the answer came from Mabie: "Platoon has withdrawn. Position was untenable. Could not evacuate wounded. Believe Japs now hold ridge." By now the Japanese were shelling the area around Sugar Loaf and were attacking 2nd Bn’s left sector in at least battalion strength. By midmorning on the 15th, the IJA effort had spread over a 900-yard front. As a result of the bitter fighting for Sugar Loaf and in front of Half Moon Hills the entire left sector of the 6th MarDiv was weakened. The 2nd Bn gave up the ground immediately north of Sugar Loaf, but the enemy did not press through with his advantage. By 1315, the Japanese attack had lost momentum. Later in the day the 2nd Bn, 22nd Marines, was withdrawn from the front having suffered 400 casualties during the preceding three days.

Realizing the Sugar Loaf Complex was not going to fall easily another attack, more heavily supported, was made on 16 May, but this was also a failure. At 0800, five companies on a 1,000-yard front advanced on the Sugar Loaf-Half Moon Hill area. The plan went badly from the beginning. The Close Air Support was half an hour late, delaying the attack plus several tanks lost their way to the line of departure. Two platoons reached the crest of Sugar Loaf after moving up the steep north slope under mortar, grenade, and automatic weapons fire. Immediately the difficulties of the previous days presented themselves again. The IJA positions on the reverse slope could not be dislodged by mortar or artillery fire; tanks were unable to get behind because of antitank fire from several directions; and infantrymen accompanying the tanks were just sitting ducks in the open ground under the withering interlocking fire.

The integration of the Japanese position was fully evident; Marines on Sugar Loaf could not advance over the crest to root out the caves because of fire from the two adjacent hills; Marines fighting for those hills were held up by fire from Sugar Loaf as any maneuver was impossible. After facing savage close-in fighting over control of the crest of Sugar Loaf, the Marines withdrew to their previous positions. I walked across the 300 yard by 300 yard no man’s land now covered with housing picking up a couple of kids wondering why I was cutting through their backyard. I showed them the picture of the dead M-4 Shermans & Amtracs of the 9th Amphibian Tractor Bn and pointed at what was Sugar Loaf with the water tower on it telling them the U.S. Marines had passed through here leaving out that we in the middle of the kill box from straight ahead and each side.

The 6th MarDiv Veterans later called 16 May their bitterest day of fighting during the Okinawa Campaign with no quarter given by either opponent in a struggle to the death. Two Marine Regiments had attacked with all their available strength and they had to face another failed assault. Intelligence officers reported that the IJA 62nd Infantry Div had reinforced the Sugar Loaf defenses in the previous 24 hours as casualties continued to be heavy for both sides. 

Above – Half Moon,1945 Below – Half Moon, Today

The plan for 17 May called for a flanking attack on Sugar Loaf from the east. The 1st and 3rd Bns, 29th Marines, were to assault Half Moon Hill, then to hold there and support the 2nd Bn, 29th Marines, in an attempt to seize Sugar Loaf. A heavy bombardment by Battleship 16-inch naval guns, howitzers, and carrier planes carrying 1,000-pound bombs preceded the attack. At 0830, 1st and 3rd Battalions attacked the western end of Half Moon Hill. Tank-infantry teams supported by artillery destroyed many fortified positions. As this advance destroyed the interlocking fire caves it uncovered the east side of Sugar Loaf, allowing a flanking attack by Company E of the 2nd Bn around the left of that key terrain feature.

While the attack on Half Moon Hill was still going on, elements of the 2nd Bn moved toward Sugar Loaf. The first effort moving wide to employ the railroad cut proved unsuccessful because of fire received from the left. An attempt at a close flanking movement failed because of Sugar Loaf’s precipitous slopes. Finally, using the hill’s northeast slopes, two platoons of Company E gained the top. On reaching the crest the attacking force was struck by a heavy enemy counter-attack driving them back off the hilltop. A platoon of Company F also tried to advance along the ridge toward the west, but the platoon leader was KIA and the platoon withdrew under heavy mortar fire. Three more times Company E fought to the crest but twice they were thrown back after hand-to-hand fighting. The third time was the charm as the Marines beat back the Japanese infantry, but in doing so they exhausted their ammunition. The company was forced to withdraw, relinquishing the position for which 160 of their fellow Marines had been KIA or WIA for during the day.

Throughout the four seemingly fruitless days of battle for the Sugar Loaf Complex the dangerous work of destroying and closing IJA caves had been proceeding everywhere in the battle area. Progress in this work steadily reduced the amount of interlocking fire which the Japanese could place on Sugar Loaf. On 18 May a skillful, coordinated attack by Company D, 1st Bn, 29th Marines, took advantage of the progress of the past days and succeeded in finally reducing Sugar Loaf.

Capt Mabie, CO, Company D, maneuvered his company onto the edge of the low ground north of Sugar Loaf on the morning of the 18th. Artillery and mortars placed a heavy preparation on the objectives. Three tanks quickly moved around the eastern slope of Sugar Loaf and fired into the reverse slope as the Japanese swarmed out of their caves to repel the attack. The tanks retired, shooting down two IJA suicide satchel teams that dashed out of caves. Capt Mabie called in a timely barrage from the rocket carrying trucks that drove up a saddle back at Charlie Ridge, loosed their missile racks, and then raced away to escape counter-battery artillery fire. Marine arty field pieces opened up again as the troops moved forward.

Above – Sugar Loaf, 1945. Below – Sugar Loaf Post War

Two platoons moved to destroy positions on the previous impregnable reverse slope. The position was secure by 0946 with the rest of Company D soon followed to the crest. By noon the WIA had been evacuated and the company was dug in. Meanwhile, Company F seized part of the Horseshoe, thereby decreasing the supporting fires from that point and enabling positions to be consolidated on the north slopes of Half Moon Hill. Knowing the IJA would make a counter-attack that night the three companies 60mm mortars set up from behind Sugar Loaf shot up flares every two minutes to illuminate the area. At 2300, the Marines heard yelling from southwest of Sugar Loaf as enemy mortar fire increased. The Japanese Banzai assault arrived at 0230 hitting full force on the Marines on Horseshoe Hill.

Above – Horseshoe 1953. Below – Horseshoe today.

Enemy troops along the road cut west of Sugar Loaf set up a machine gun that could enfilade the Marine lines. Marine machine gunners knocked out this gun, but the Japanese manned others. Two Marine platoons pulled back to the forward (north) slope of Sugar Loaf, and employed their own reverse-slope tactics, killing 33 Japanese troops as small groups attempted to reoccupy the hill. By dawn the counterattack had stopped. I walked up the slope to the water tank on top of Sugar Loaf trying to imagine how this low hill had taken so long and at such a cost to conquer. The outskirts of the capital city of Naha had built over both Horseshoe and Half Moon but you could still see the rising ground to the rear.

On the following day, 19 May, the 4th Marines moved up to relieve the exhausted 29th Marines. During the 10-day period up to and including the capture of Sugar Loaf the 6th MarDiv had lost 2,662 KIA or WIA; there were also a staggering 1,289 cases of combat fatigue. In the 22nd and 29th Marines three battalion commanders and eleven company commanders had been killed or wounded. On 20 May, the 4th Marines gained more ground on Horseshoe hill but were still unable to reach the crest of Half Moon. 

The IJA made one last ditch effort to hold their Shuri Defense Line anchor by committing a battalion-sized attack that was repulsed by the combined fire of six artillery battalions and their organic infantry weapons. Although forced to commit part of its regimental reserve, the 4th Marines broke up the attack and inflicted 200 more casualties on the Japanese.
The 21st of May was the death knell for the Sugar Loaf Complex as another 250 yards of the Horseshoe were closed off but Half Moon remained unvanquished supported by IJA artillery fire directed from Shuri Heights but now isolated without the supporting fire from the other two hills it would fall as the 6th MarDiv would push onto taking Naha.

Today the battlefield is lost in a tangle of urban sprawl when Makiminato Housing Area was raised and turned back to the Okinawa Prefecture. Today an even more massive water tank sits on top of Sugar Loaf Hill with a cement wall encasing it that the IJA would have loved to have in 1945.

Above – Sugar Loaf Today. Below  – Plague next to water tank.

6th MarDiv Veteran Ed Urzedowski went back for the 60th Anniversary in 2005 and hardly recognized the ground but at least made it to the 6th MarDiv Monument on Camp Kinser where he commemorated all those Marines that didn’t survive the Typhon of Steel. He also remembered the rain and mud that arrived after the third week of May bringing everything to a bog sinking halt. MHT thanks the great website for the reference material and photos.