Marine Maj. Henry Courtney Jr. was already a battle-hardened officer by the time he reached Okinawa’s shores during World War II. He had a reputation of being serious and uncompromising, stressing discipline and training to prepare the 2nd Battalion, 22nd Marine Regiment for combat.
The Battle of Okinawa began April 1, 1945, and lasted 82 days. More than 14,000 Americans, about 110,000 Japanese troops and at least 140,000 Okinawan civilians were killed during or after the fighting, though the total number of civilian deaths may never be known.
Courtney was wounded in the right leg by shrapnel on May 9, 1945, according to a history written by a Duluth veterans’ group. Medics were unable to remove the shrapnel, so they bandaged up his leg and he returned to his men.
By May 12, Marines from Courtney’s regiment were dug in around Sugar Loaf Hill, which was the middle of three hills featuring interlocking fields of fire that guarded the only natural corridor of approach to the heart of Japanese’s defenses at Shuri, according to U.S. military histories of the battle. The Marines repeatedly assaulted the 50-foot fortified dirt mound, but were repelled again and again, suffering hundreds of casualties.
On May 14, the 22nd had achieved partial control of the both hills on Sugar Loaf’s flanks, Half Moon and Horseshoe, but were prevented from taking total control due to mortar and small arms fire from the eastern slope of Sugar Loaf.
Several platoons were decimated on May 14 trying to take Sugar Loaf, Marine Gen. Lemuel Shepherd Jr. wrote in his letter nominating Courtney for the Medal of Honor.
Courtney was ordered to hold for the night.
“Major Courtney reached the decision that … immediate aggressive action would seriously disrupt enemy efforts to launch an organized night counter attack which experience had taught him to anticipate and would secure positions from which his battalion’s attack could be more advantageously launched the following morning,” Shepherd wrote.
Courtney requested permission to attack, which was granted.
The executive officer of 2nd Battalion, 22nd Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division, led the charge of about 50 volunteers, first telling his Marines, “I’m going up Sugar Loaf Hill. Who’s going with me?”
Every man in his charge rose and followed.
Courtney ran ahead of the 25 Marines, throwing grenades into the caves, Shepherd wrote. They skirted the hill to the right and reached the reverse slope. Courtney then sent runners for ammunition and more men. They were soon joined by 26 recently arrived replacements.
Courtney led his men up the slope of the hill, again throwing grenades into caves, Shepherd wrote. When they reached the summit, they encountered a Japanese force that was already forming approximately 100 yards down the forward slope to counterattack the Marines.
Courtney and his Marines ripped through the enemy with grenades and small arms and forced any survivors back into the caves, thus eliminating the possibility of the Marine lines being overrun.
Courtney then ordered his men to dig in, Shepherd wrote. Under increasing enemy grenade, rifle, mortar and artillery fire, he “moved from man to man, assisting the wounded, lending encouragement, and directing men to more advantageous defensive positions.”
“While thus fearlessly exposing himself he was struck by a fragment from an enemy mortar shell and instantly killed,” Shepherd wrote.
Only about half of Courtney’s men survived and were subsequently pushed off the hill, which wouldn’t be taken for good until May 18, U.S. military histories said.
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