April 1, 1945: L-Day

Easter Sunday came early in 1945, and many of the tens of thousands of Marines waiting nervously in troop transports a few thousand yards off the beaches of the Ryukyu Islands must have feared that this day's celebration of the Resurrection would be their last.  Others would note with irony that it was April Fool's Day, perhaps smiling at the memory of some high school prank perpetrated on an unsuspecting buddy.  For all of them, however, the only real focus of the day would be one inescapable, overarching reality -- their lives could end before the sun dipped below the far western fringes of the Pacific Ocean.

April 1, 1945 was L-Day, and shortly before dawn, the first wave of United State Marines would slip over the sides of their troop transports, climbing down rope netting into the rocking landing craft below known as Higgins Boats.  The codename for the operation was Iceberg.  The invasion of Okinawa had begun.

My Dad is 86, and I consider myself blessed that he is still with us and enjoying life.  I'm 59, so very few of my friends and relatives can say the same.  But I remember them all, all the Dads of all the friends of my youth -- so many different personalities and styles, all of them patriotic Americans, most only a generation removed from the old country.

To a man, they believed in the greatness of America.  They taught us to work hard, taught us that there is no free lunch, taught us to have compassion for and be generous to those less fortunate, taught us to struggle for a better life, and told us that, having achieved it, no man could take it from us.

Would that the men who now run this country had been taught the same way.

My father enlisted in the Marine Corp on the day he turned 18 in 1943, and after a year of stateside training, he was shipped overseas.  On Guam and Iwo Jima, he trained for amphibious landings.  By that time, the United States Navy and Marine Corp had island-hopped almost all the way across the Pacific -- almost.  There was but a single island to capture before the invasion of the Japanese home islands, and that was Okinawa.

PFC Frank Santarpia, Company I, 3rd Battalion, 29th Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division, twenty years old, went ashore with the first wave in the gray dawn of that April morning.

There's no time, space, or reason to recount here the gruesome details of the ensuing battle, but let it be noted that Okinawa, which was in such proximity to Japan as to be within the prefecture of the city of Tokyo, was the most heavily defended island of the entire war.

By the time it was secure, 12,513 brave American men were dead.  Mull that number over in your mind for a moment.  Twelve thousand, five hundred and thirteen -- in an action whose combat phase took less than six weeks.

The wounded numbered 38,916, and my father was one of them; he was shot on April 16, during the Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill.  He received a Purple Heart, spent three weeks in a makeshift island hospital, and was sent back to his platoon before the operation was completed.  His regiment, the 29th, had been thrown into a meat grinder; their casualty rate was over 90%.

Despite his remarkable courage, my father's compelling story was far from unique -- if you ask him, he will tell you that he was simply doing his job alongside tens of thousands of other Marines and soldiers.  In the same mold as any other American fighting for freedom, past and present, his actions represented the norm, not the exception -- and to this day, every detail about that battle has to be coaxed from him.  He never talks about it voluntarily, and he never thought he did anything special.  He was just a scared kid from Brooklyn.

After they secured the island, after they completed their combat tour in hell, the soldiers were given a few weeks of rest in China.  Okinawa itself was undergoing preparations to be a staging area for the invasion of the Japanese home islands; the combat estimates for that engagement were pegged at 200,000.  Thankfully, Truman had the will to put an end to it all.

We live now in an America that teaches its children little about the greatness of our country.  We live in an America that teaches its youth to be ashamed of our past rather than proud of our unique accomplishments.  We live in an America that ignores or belittles those who are noble and heroic -- yet glorifies those who don't deserve to shine the combat boots of the least of the men who fought in that battle.
The time has come.  In America, it is time to start remembering.

It is time for you to do a service for your country.  Maybe you could tell your children the story that their schoolbooks never will.  Maybe you could tell them about war and tyranny and the great country that sacrificed blood and treasure in the fight to defeat it.  Maybe you could tell them about the men who fought and died for our flag and our freedom on a God-forsaken piece of volcanic rock that was ten thousand miles closer to Tokyo than it was to Ebbets Field.

Tell them.  Because if you don't, nobody will.

Frank Santarpia is the founder and co-organizer of the Staten Island Tea Party.
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