Although Henry Pendergrass is almost seven decades removed from fighting in World War II, memories of the Battle of Okinawa continue to haunt him.
“To be in the service — time stood still,” Pendergrass, 89, of Tyler, said. “I couldn’t tell you how long I was here and there.”
He spent weeks in combat and witnessed the deaths of buddies and plenty of misery on the island of Okinawa.
Pendergrass’ time in the U.S. Army started in 1943.
“I went down to Dallas, Texas, to enlist in the Air Force, and I was too short and didn’t weigh enough, so they wouldn’t take me,” Pendergrass said. “So, I waited for the invitation (draft), and in 1943, I got the invitation.”
Pendergrass trained at Camp Roberts, Calif., before shipping off to the Pacific Theater in 1944. He landed on the New Hebrides Islands, where he was in Company C of the 165th Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division, based out of New York.
“I was stationed in a coconut grove,” he said. “No matter where you looked, there were coconuts. One of the special orders they had was that you had to wear a helmet at all times or you might get hit on the head with a coconut.”
Pendergrass would become part of a unique landing group that would invade Okinawa. Four divisions of the Army and two of the Marines were to land side by side on the Japanese beaches.
“It was the first time that separate branches of services worked together,” he said. “The Army went south, and we went north because they thought all the fighting was going to be to the north, but it was south. The Army was getting chopped so bad …” he said.
On March 25, 1945, the 165th Regiment sailed from Espiritu Santo, arriving in Okinawa on April 9, 1945.
This battle would become the largest amphibious assault in the entire Pacific Theater of World War II.
“When we went into Okinawa, we had 160 men,” Pendergrass said. “We went in to combat; we lost 100 men in just a very short time. We were off for a few days and picked up 30 replacements. We went up to the front lines and gave them 90 men, and we had 60 men again. We lost 130 men.”
Soldiers in Pendergrass’ regiment were responsible for an area known as Item Pocket, which was controlled by the Japanese protecting Okinawa’s principle airfield at Machinato.
All the divisions in that battle were getting shot up, Pendergrass said.
Item Pocket was eventually overrun by Pendergrass’ outfit, and American forces then captured Japan’s main airfield there.
The battle lasted until mid-June 1945, 82 days.
During his weeks of fighting, Pendergrass said the Japanese displayed their dedication to battle. One way was the blowing of a bugle as Japanese soldiers began to charge a position.
“It happened one time when I was on the front lines — sometime between 12 a.m. and 3 a.m. They were known to crawl right in and cut your throat when you were asleep. ... That happened quite a few times, but when we heard that trumpet blow, we knew there was going to be a charge.”
The Japanese forces were fierce in their fighting, using kamikaze attacks on the American ships supporting the troops on shore.
More than 1,500 planes attempted suicide attacks on U.S. vessels, with only seven major kamikaze attacks successful, according to battle information.
The intensity of fighting wore on Pendergrass.
“If someone tells you while they’re in combat that they aren’t scared, then they’re lying, because you’re scared all the time. That’s just human nature. There’s no sense in lying about it: You’re scared.”
Pendergrass said he saw a lot of Japanese soldiers killed while fighting one of the war’s final battles.
Pendergrass said war hardens a person to where the sight of enemy dead “didn’t bother me at all.” But he said, “you spot one American that was dead and you couldn’t eat. … When you lost one of your buddies, it affected you.”
But, he said, “You can sit and eat a meal right next to a dead Japanese (soldier). You were trained to kill, that’s what you do.”
The battle, which was nicknamed the “typhoon of steel,” resulted in the greatest loss of life within the Pacific Theater.
According to Okinawan government sources, Japan lost 77,166 soldiers, either killed in combat or committed suicide. The Allies suffered 14,009 deaths, with an estimated total of more than 65,000 casualties.
Anywhere between 42,000 to 150,000 civilians were either killed or committed suicide, according to battle summaries.
“You learned to kill; you were trained to kill. I had a doctor ask me one time if I killed anyone, and I told him it’s between me and God if I did. It’s nobody’s business whether I killed anyone or (not).”
Although the war ended fewer than two months after the end of this battle with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the effects of combat have taken their toll on Pendergrass.
“Why Lord did you take all these men, but you didn’t me,” Pendergrass asked. “The Lord never answered that question; he never did. It took me 30 to 40 years to figure out why God took these men beside me, but he spared me.”
“It brings back memories.”