Al Costa has been out of the armed forces for decades, but he can still vividly see the black smoke from fires and hear the concussive explosions from the Battle of Okinawa like they happened yesterday.
"These memories will always be with me," said Costa, who was a radio man on the USS Miami during the battle.
Now in his mid-80s, Costa is one of many surviving World War II veterans who dodged suicide attacks and witness the horrors of combat.
"They came in swarms from all directions," said Costa, who resides in Lodi. "The barrels of our ship's guns got so hot we had to use firehoses to cool them down."
Sixty-five years ago today, tens of thousands of troops — including a handful who now call San Joaquin County home — stormed the beaches of Okinawa, Japan for the start of what would be the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Many of them were fresh out of high school and not even old enough to vote.
They charged beaches, patrolled shores and watched over the skies. The fought bravely in the bloody campaign that was the last major battle of World War II. More people died during the fight for Okinawa than in the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki that followed shortly after. More than 38,000 Americans were wounded and 12,000 were killed or went missing.
Japan suffered heavy losses as well. More than 107,000 Japanese were killed and an estimated 100,000 Okinawan civilians died.
Operation Iceberg, the codename for the operation, was made up of 60,000 troops and more than 1,300 ships. They were subjected to Kamikaze attacks as the battle raged for months. Allies were approaching Japan through the tactic called "Island Hopping," and they planned to use Okinawa as a base for a possible invasion of the Japanese mainland. However, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the end of the war and negated the need for a full-scale invasion. But for the duration of the battle, these men lived the nightmare.
At night the planes circled the skies and attacked their targets, said Paul Epperson, a Stockton resident who was an assistant engineering officer for the Navy.
Epperson lives just a few doors down from Jack Little, who also served in the Navy and fought in the battle of Okinawa. The two have developed a friendship since finding out about their similar backgrounds several years ago.
Little, who also served in the European Theater and fought in the D-Day invasion in Normandy, said the kamikazes came from all directions.
"There were droves of them," he said. "You'd hear them coming from out of the clouds like a buzz saw."
While both the European and Pacific theaters of the war were haunting experiences, Epperson said, those fighting in the European theater weren't exposed to the same types of fighting tactics as those fighting in the Pacific.
"The guys in Europe weren't seeing the same mentality," he said. "They didn't have the suicide attacks."
What complicated the efforts of the soldiers was an unusually strong typhoon that struck the island in May. It turned the landscape to mush and caused vehicles to sink into the mud and get stuck. The military also had to track the storm so it could plan its next attacks.
"One of our duties was flying into the eye of the typhoon with an aerologist," said Bob Handel, a former Navy pilot.
Handel and the other soldiers continued to battle the ruthless enemy and foul weather until the Japanese could take no more. Shortly after the fighting on Okinawa concluded, Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on Japan and World War II was over.
For many veterans of the battle, returning home after the war and getting back into civilian life proved difficult. If they hadn't sustained injuries that required months of physical therapy, they were mentally scarred from the carnage they witnessed. Others had to contend with nightmares or flashbacks.
When there was an explosion at a plant near his home after the war, Little said, he jumped out of his bed and was waiting for the call to General Quarters. General Quarters is an announcement made on a Naval warship telling the crew to prepare for battle.
"My dad grabbed me and stopped me," he said.
For Charles Marten, a former Marine who was shot in the leg by a sniper, it took him more than a year to regain full function of his left leg. However, he has a profound outlook on his injury.
"I could have been shot in the head or the heart," he said.
Finding other veterans
Fortunately, those soldiers who fought in the Battle of Okinawa have a place they can go to meet with fellow soldiers: Phillips Farm Cafe. Every month, the group of up to 20 veterans gathers at the cafe for a breakfast where they share stories, talk about their families or have guest speakers.
"They come from all branches," said Handel, who serves as the group's unofficial secretary.
The group doesn't have anything planned for today's anniversary, but will meet in April for its usual monthly meeting.
He said the group gets along well and there isn't a lot of good-natured harassment between the soldiers who served in different branches of the military.
"It's not like it was when we were in the service," he said.
However, he said there is one unspoken agreement between all the veterans who gather at Phillips Farm Cafe for breakfast every month.
"We never talk politics or religion out there," he said.
About the Battle of Okinawa— It was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific Theater and lasted 82 days.
— It was the last major battle of World War II.
— The invasion began on April 1, 1945, with 60,000 troops landing on the island.
— The Japanese did not defend the beaches as part of their strategy to avoid casualties. Instead, they dug into tunnels on higher ground.
— The Japanese military used kamikazes, or suicide bombers, to attack the United States armed forces.
— The United States lost 36 ships; 368 were damaged.
Sources: www.globalsecurity.org, www.militaryhistoryonline.com
Quotes from veterans about the Battle of Okinawa"We didn't have any protection from the sun; no sunglasses or sunscreen. We didn't know any better. We were out there all day with the sun reflecting off the water."
— Paul Epperson, U.S. Navy
"We were just snot-nosed kids … We grew up fast."
— Jack Little, U.S. Navy
"We all got pretty bad 'trench foot' because you could never
change your socks or get your feet dry. The little things like
getting 10 minutes to air out your feet would keep you
— Glenn Biddy, U.S. Army
"One day there was a flight of seven (kamikazes) that came
along. The leader dove down on a ship and missed it by 200 yards
and the other six followed right in his splash. They got nothing;
which was good."
— Bob Handel, U.S. Navy
"I just can't believe it's been 65 years (since) we were in the
battle for Okinawa. It seems like it just happened
— Al Costa, U.S. Navy
"I got shot in the left knee by a sniper and they pulled the
bullet out of my thigh. The doctors cut the wrong side of my leg at
first and when they stitched me up my scar looked like a
— Charles Marten, U.S. Marine Corps
"I was thinking of someone from my platoon to call to talk about
it, but I think they are all gone. I think I'm the only one
— Frank Pearson, U.S. Marine Corps