Paradise Lost: Okinawa 2004-2005


PARADISE_LOST5“The only paradise is paradise lost.”  ~ Marcel Proust

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”  ~~ John Milton, Paradise Lost

My wife (at the time) was getting glammed up for another practice with the Okinawan rock-band (Pavlov’s Dogs) she had befriended while I was deployed and who with she was going to sing a gig in the coming weeks.  Her being naturally theatrically inclined and blessed with an alluring presence much more than a singing voice, I actively supported this opportunity for her.

Taken the night she spent "with the band."

Taken the night she spent “with the band.”

“Just don’t sleep with the band,” I half-jokingly commented as I righted her head scarf, readying her to head out into the chilly night air.

But she did….  And so much worse.

My ex's haunt while I was away.

My ex’s haunt while I was away.

I’ve written extensively about my first time living on Okinawa (1999-2001) in Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys, and this reflection serves as the 2nd installment of what will become a three-part series covering my drastically different flirtations with the Far East.  While my first can best be characterized as a fun-filled and zany-at-times misfit adventure, my second foray in Japan bypasses all the shades of gray and takes a much darker turn to black.

My Mother ended up passing away in 2001 while I was half-a-world-away on some stinkin’ gray-hulled ship off the coast of Australia.  Her death was expected, and thankfully I had been previously sent home when she was diagnosed with inoperable and rather advanced, terminal lung cancer.  Oddly enough, that was my second time home on Emergency Leave within a year from Okinawa, since months prior my brother was diagnosed with advanced stage 3 kidney cancer.  It was a tough time on my family, but particularly for my ex.

My spouse, “DJ”’ as she was called, seemed to react increasingly poorly to these crises, particularly to my mother’s death, but these were probably only precipitating events.  She entered a very dark time in our collective lives.  After a year or two of intense therapy and treatment once we moved back to the states in 2001, she was diagnosed as suffering from intense Bipolar Disorder.  In hindsight, it made perfect sense:  her highs were what set her apart and made her so intriguingly creative, energetic and attractive, but the days and sometimes weeks of zombie-like lack of participation in life (sans the brains-eating perhaps) was the price everyone had to pay.  There was treatment (primarily meds), and slowly, she started to come back to more “normal” life (if there is such a thing) starting in 2003.

Sunabe Seawall, a special place for my whole family.

Sunabe Seawall, a special place for my whole family.

My ex and kids had become enthralled with Okinawa during our short time spent living there from 1999-2001, so much so that we jointly and mutually agreed as a family to ask for reassignment back to Japan at the end of my duty in Miami, Florida, in 2004.  This was an easy assignment to get; remember, the job I asked for was as the de facto Misfit Toy-in-Charge in the land of many.  My Detailer, the officer who assigns jobs out to the fleet was more than eager to “pencil me in” to that specific billet exceedingly early, since filling the job was historically like pulling teeth…from a pissed off rabid cat…with sharpened claws.

Of course I did have some ulterior motives in seeking and taking these orders.  Recall at the time that we were intensely engaged in active combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  Now this isn’t meant to be a discussion focused on politics or even war; suffice it to say that I, back then and now, simply couldn’t support any of our actions in the Middle East, and wanted no part of what has turned out to be insanely bad ideas and perhaps America’s worst decisions of the new century.  The military forces I would be assigned to in Okinawa have historically been “fenced” or set aside from potential out-of-area global commitments so that they would always be ready and available to respond to certain likely, more local contingencies.  Namely, issues concerning North & South Korea, but more so, supporting Taiwan if China made any aggressive moves.  Oh yeah, and there’s the defense of Japan against, uhm, maybe the pissed-off whales that they continue to kill every year under the lame guise of “scientific research.”  So, in taking these orders I would return to a treasured 2nd home, and I would not be going to the dessert…either one (take your pick)…again.

Of course when you actively try to dodge an unwanted fate, sometimes you unknowingly dodge right into fate’s crosshairs.  So, we show up on Okinawa for the 2nd time in August 2004 and find out that the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which I was tasked to support with Tactical Air Control, was on a no-notice open-ended deployment order for Iraq.

Fate is a bitch. But what I was to learn is that this deployment would be the least of my worries.

Afloat on the USS Essex 2004-2005

Afloat on the USS Essex 2004-2005

The three-ship Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) and 3,500 of my fellow sailors and marines were due to leave within two weeks.  Luckily for me, a series of serious typhoons in the area – a common occurrence in “typhoon alley” in every fall – delayed our departure (see Typhoons: A Divinely Okinawan Experience), enough so that I could buy and register the family two vehicles, secure an adequate domicile out in town, and get my pay settled and the kids enrolled in school.  I was PISSED at my command, particularly my commanding officer, who elected to tell me NOTHING of this situation prior to my family’s overseas move.

My initial 2-man stateroom on USS Essex.  I moved to a larger room later in the deployment.

My initial 2-man stateroom on USS Essex. I moved to a larger room later in the deployment.

“But it was classified, and we had no way of contacting you through secure means,” my Skipper protested in his defense.  “C’mon Skipper, how ‘bout ‘Hey Elvis, might want to leave your family and cats in the states for now….’  It’s not f–king rocket-surgery,” I complained, strongly voicing my disapproval of his lack of concern over my family.  I most certainly would have left my family in-place in Miami while I deployed for what turned out to be nearly 8 months; it seems I already sensed that nothing good would come of leaving my ex alone and mentally vulnerable.  Let’s just say the charged and colorful conversation with that particularly bad CO was the most insubordinate and disrespectful I’ve ever been while serving on Active Duty.  He deserved it.  He knew it, and as a result, said – and did little in return.

My Tactical Air Control detachment aboard USS Essex

My Tactical Air Control detachment aboard USS Essex

Off I go to war…again.  Ah, the Middle East.  I had already spent a year of my life deployed to the region in 1991 and 1993.  Now I was going back, this time assigned to the relatively safety of a ship instead of flying into harm’s way.  I admit I found myself in an increasingly depressed place.  I had not expected to be shipped away from my family for such a long period of time and to a combat zone that I would find almost ridiculous…if it weren’t for Americans spilling their blood and spending our treasure.  I held absolutely no support for the undeclared “war” that our privileged politicians elected to fight in Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9-11, and certainly had even less to do with weapons of mass destruction.  But under these fanatical tenets that lamely justified our deadly actions, whole masses of people were to be slaughtered.

While I was at war, my wife was hooking up on Gat 2 Street.

While I was at war, my wife was hooking up on Gat 2 Street.

176441272_a67bf93025_bFinding myself angry most of the time, I spent a lot of time in the ship’s gym.  Unfortunately, I seriously injured myself there early in our transit to the Persian Gulf.  Tearing a rhomboid muscle in my upper back, I no longer could work out or even be active, which was one of the few things allowing me to hang onto to my already stressed and strained sanity.  Worse, at the time there were only two qualified watch officers in the ship’s Tactical Air Control Center (TACC), and I was one of them.  As a result, I ended up standing “port and starboard” watch, working for 12 hours a day, every day, week after week.  More damaging, my work center more resembled an Okinawan cave than an office:  a constantly dark and dank radar room, kept at a morgue-like 60-65 degrees….  You know it’s bad that when you do go outside in the sunlight, your eyes actually HURT from being under fluorescent light for so long.

Me and "Sarge" on the Essex; he above anyone else helped me hang on to my sanity.

Me and “Sarge” on the Essex; he above anyone else helped me hang on to my sanity.

I’m not afraid of working, but pulling this type of shift-work for six or seven weeks at a time puts a heavy strain on anyone.  I found myself staring into the abyss; I was troubled, mentally and physically.  I started pulling back and becoming less and less interactive with my friends and shipmates afloat with me.

Sending the Marines ashore to fight the Battle for Fallujah, 2004

Sending the Marines ashore to fight the Battle for Fallujah, 2004

Christmas 2004; she had already started cheating.

Christmas 2004; she had already started cheating.

And while my wife certainly was fighting her own battles back home, our lives were slowly becoming unraveled.  It would seem obvious that we would be openly communicating at this difficult juncture in our lives.  However, given our individual trials and tribulations, instead of positive, reinforcing and mutually support, neither of us could find the means to back the other.

Clear evidence of Bipolar Disorder.

Clear evidence of Bipolar Disorder.

She also claimed to be a victim

She also claimed to be a victim

Yes, or course I am in-part culpable for some, maybe many of the problems that existed between my ex and I; I am clearly no saint and have skeletons in my closet just like everyone else.  BUT, I certainly did not turn to promiscuity as a solution.  Long before my ex even hinted at her growing displeasure with our marriage, she was already looking for solace in places one shouldn’t – someone else’s bed.  Worse, her close friends and family knew, and not one of them actively stepped in to give her some hard advice and tough love.  By the time I returned from this deployment, the marriage was lost.  I just didn’t know it yet.

Another frequented bar for my ex

Another frequented bar for my ex

My proof was about this good.

My proof was about this good.

Returning back home early in the spring of 2005 due to on-going problems with my neck (bulging disc) stemming from the poorly healed muscle tears in my upper back, DJ acted excited and happy.  Maybe she was.  However, she had already established her secret, slutty double-life.  And like anyone living a lie, it’s not long until the truth comes out.  She was caught, sticky-handed as it were, just before Easter in 2004.  “Black Friday” is what it became to be known.

One lady in my life stayed with me!  my loyal Okinawan cat "Tora"

One lady in my life stayed with me! my loyal Okinawan cat “Tora”

Dressed for the buffet of boys

Dressed for the buffet of boys

She moved out, and took up independent residence a few blocks away from my apartment in Chatan-cho, Okinawa.  The kids initially alternated a week there and then a week with me, but ultimately it was decided (against my wishes) that my son would stay with me and my daughter with her mother.  We even split our two cats.  Splitting the family was bad enough, but my ex’s repeated seconds at her all-you-could-eat “buffet of boys” constantly and readily available on Okinawa was where we both, I believe, bottomed-out.

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Maybe she was just bad to begin with.

Maybe she was just bad to begin with.

She claimed to be “in love” with a punk she met in a bar.  Her relationship with this newly proclaimed “soul mate” – the 2nd soul mate on the island counting the lead singer of the band mentioned in this blog’s opening – is a tale as old as time.  Screwing anyone in a minivan forty minutes after meeting in a bar is not love, it’s just skankiness.  I was pissed, partly because my ex was being played so badly, and everyone knew it, it appeared, except her.  When I tracked this hooligan down, it turned out he had a wife and kids back in Hawaii (and the band’s singer was married with kids as well) where he was stationed as a Marine.  Oh, but it gets better:  a Thai bar-girl, a nicety for prostitute, showed up on Okinawa a week or three after his affair with my ex was found out, claiming that her infant was his.  He did not deny it to the Marine Corps or to my ex (who believed that he was just helping the prostitute out of the kindness of his heart), and actually declared the child his dependent.  Karma is a bitch; while the USMC wouldn’t do much about his affair with my wife, there was no way to dodge a charge of adultery when there is ultimate physical proof:  a baby.  He was, at best, looking at forced separation from the service, and potentially even a Courts Martial.  He certainly doesn’t deserve to be called “Marine.”

Unfortunately the shirt no longer applied.

Unfortunately the shirt no longer applied.

For a few months I made this untenable situation work.  But not well.  Initially I tried to repair and patch the marriage.  I was entirely unhappy and rather depressed; I stopped eating, attempted run my anger away into miles of pavement, and generally ignored work and the more enjoyable aspects of life.  I felt lost on the island that I considered a second home; my passion for the Okinawan culture and scuba diving that had so much subsumed my attentions of the past seemed to have been lost.

Sunabe Seawall from my daughter's bedroom window, 2004

Sunabe Seawall from my daughter’s bedroom window, 2004

Because of my ex’s corrupt conduct, and as she was not only putting me in a difficult situation, but a whole slew of enlisted men in similar circumstance, I approached my Chain of Command asking that my dependents be returned early to the states.  In conversation with my Chief of Staff at the time, I distinctly remember telling him, “Nothing good will come of this; this island is too small for both of us [my ex and I] to share….”

Another way of portraying "nothing good will come of this"

Another way of portraying “nothing good will come of this”

To make a very long story short, I ended up involved in an altercation with one of my ex’s lovers, a 21 or 22 year-old Army Specialist.  He ended up at the ER, and I ended up being investigated by the Army’s version of NCIS.  Believe me, it’s NOTHING like the TV show.  It was a messy situation:  a very junior army enlisted man committing adultery with an officer’s wife, culminating in a fish-fight with a Navy officer in the foreign and sensitive streets of Okinawa.

The punk is still alive.

The punk is still alive.

Interestingly and justifiably so, no charges were pressed and the Army issued an Order that this particular soldier stay away from my family (the Marines did the same with the “other” guy).  I was given a “Non-Punitive Letter of Reprimand,” which was just fine with me.  At least I won the fight…and would safely retire upon reaching twenty years of service.  Oddly enough though, instead of my ex being kicked off the island, I was the one who was unjustly punished and sent home nine months early.

Leaving Okinawa was bittersweet.  One of us – my ex or I – needed to go.  But I was the one who had job as an Active Duty service member, but most importantly I didn’t cheat and ultimately cause this cascade of woe.  It was clear that my ex and kids would be much better served back in the states in more familiar territory and with a much larger support network.  And I would have financially fared much better as I ended up paying for her separate and sinister life since she remained largely unemployed on Okinawa.  The military lawyers, however, thought differently, and so did my Commanding Officer.

My ride home, late 2005.

My ride home, late 2005.

In the end, my own personal saving grace materialized quite unexpectedly.  When the Admiral I worked for, Admiral Victor G. Guillory, found out about my altercation, of course he wanted to see me ASAP.  And of course I was scared to death to see the man under such embarrassing and regretful context.  He and I had worked well and closely in the past months; in fact, I became his “briefing boy” for 7th Fleet since I could brief and stand my ground with senior officers.  When I walked into his office, he unexpectedly greeted me with a warm handshake and a smile.  I was shocked and taken aback.

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“Elvis [my callsign during my time in the Navy], we – I owe you an apology,” he started the conversation.  I was stunned into silence, expected rather to have my ass handed to me for such regretful behavior.

“I had no idea what was going on with you, and let me be clear:  The Navy has failed you,” he continued.  I had been trying for months to get help and placate the situation.  First, through the command’s Senior Medical Officer since my ex shouldn’t have ever screened for living overseas with BPD, and then through official Legal channels to force my ex back home.  My ex had her diagnosis changed to a condition that was approved for overseas, and the lawyers –being the spineless reptiles they are – ridiculously ruled that compelling my ex to leave would potentially violate her rights, a risk they were not willing to initiate.  I then attempted to get help through the Chaplain, who did nothing but offer me counsel, and both first and finally through the Admiral’s Chief of Staff, who simply failed to raise any of these issues beyond his office.  From what I understand, is was the COS who actually got his ass handed to him, the Admiral carefully explaining that he deserved to know of any serious issue affecting any of his officers.

Leaving Paradise, for the 2nd Time

Leaving Paradise, for the 2nd Time

The Admiral said he would genuinely miss me, but that Big Navy was adamant about getting me off the island due to the sensitive political situation that seems to be permanently present in Japan.  I understood.  While I wasn’t able at the time to voice my deep and sincere appreciation for the compassion and empathy that the Admiral showed, it has never left me and since has informed my own sense and style of leadership.

While my Okinawan paradise may have been lost, I slowly started to find myself again.  Between my unexpectedly honorable treatment by the Admiral at my departure, and a truly gifted PhD psychologist (thanks Dr. Ing!) who opened my eyes and mind to a stark and unwanted reality, I was able to start climbing out of the abyss.

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The mind can indeed and usually does create a prison stronger than any steel or concrete, and often fabricates a hell far worse than anything prescribed in scripture.  Having pried my mind open to the light of a brighter future, I sadly said “sayonara” to Okinawa.  However, it was with optimism for an unknown future, one that lay in the brilliant sunrise of a new day as I prepared to travel home back East.

Traces of War: Okinawan Hillsides & Hornets


“There’s no such thing as a crowded battlefield. Battlefields are lonely places.”  ~ Unknown

caves

“RUN!!!” was all I heard as the strung-out single-file gang ahead of me went zipping by one by one, running as quickly as they could down the jungle-covered hillside we were in the midst of climbing.

First to past me in a blur was Lieutenant Colonel Slater, USMC, the lead and guide for this trip out to the actual Okinawa battlefields of WWII that still exist in remote corners and in hard-to-reach places.  Colonel Slater was an old-school Marine, the Corp’s advisor to the Admiral at Task Force 76 on Okinawa, the Navy command which was responsible for forward amphibious operations in the Pacific Theater.  He retained an encyclopedic knowledge of WWII in the pacific, and was a no-nonsense leader of men, rough around the edges and tough on stupid.  And, until this point, I assumed rather fearless.

Making our way through the hillside jungle.

Making our way through the hillside jungle.

“What the hell is going on,” I think silently to myself.  While frozen and overwhelmed in the unexpected moment, my concern quickly grew with each erratically passing body.

In quick trail were the other members of our platoon of battlefield aficionados.  Being the youngest present (33) and tied as the lowest ranking (O-4 Lieutenant Commander), I was given the honor if not glory of hauling up the team’s metal detector.  Yes, such machinery doesn’t weigh that much, and no, I’m not that much of a lazy squid that I would complain about humping a back on this quasi-forced march.  The problem with the detector was one of size, or more accurately, dimension:  maneuvering a nearly 6-foot poorly-balanced weighted pole through the densely thatched jungles of Okinawa is much harder than one would first think.

Okay, it only takes two other people running by at full speed yelling “RUN!” to finally give most anyone the proper motivation to, well, run fast as hell as well.  Briefly a scene from Monty Python flashed through my mind.  I had been warned about the poisonous Habu snakes that according to both myth and legend sunned themselves in the trees during the day were they could mock us in silent contempt as we passed within striking distance and never know it.  But could there, in fact, be killer bunnies haunting the caves on Okinawa??

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Down goes the metal detector.  I’m certainly not going to be running anywhere fast with that thing in tow.  And yes, I too start running.  Sort of.  It’s exceedingly hard to move quickly in the jungle without some type of prepared trail or path…which we were purposely not following.  And yes, just like in the movies, of course you look back over your shoulder.  There was no chance of me ducking and weaving off the killer rabbit attacks if I couldn’t see them first.

There's really no running through these vines.

There’s really no running through these vines.

Getting back out of the bush into a clearing adjacent to a sugarcane field near a secondary road, we regrouped and made sure everyone was there…and that we weren’t followed.  “What are we looking for?” my mind screamed silently.  Luckily for us manly, highly-trained and combat-experienced vets, no one was screaming like a little sissy girl.  At least not yet.  I became astounded at the lack of inquiries as to our sudden and near-panicked departure from halfway up the hillside.

“What gives with all the running away,” I query as images of “mere” flesh wounds and rabid killer rabbits danced in my at-this-point over-active imagination.

Our group of Battle Field Explorers and Hornet Haters

Our group of Battle Field Explorers and Hornet Haters

Asian Hornet Nest

Asian Hornet Nest

“Hornets…,” came the exasperated and breathless reply from Colonel Slater.  Getting the whole story in the ensuing minutes, it seemed that Slater and another from our group were happily minding their own business when they stepped onto…then crashed into…a rotten tree…which was home to…a huge nest of hornets!  And what does anybody – or anything – do in response to home invasion:  they get PISSED.  And the insect world’s analogy to guns are, in Japan, quarter-inch venomous stingers on autonomous airborne delivery vehicles that will give chase for up to 3 miles, flying upwards of 25 mph.

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The Japanese giant hornet is a subspecies of the world’s largest hornet (Asian giant hornet) growing to about 2 inches in length and with a wingspan of 2.5 inches.  With large yellow heads and dark brown and yellow-banded bodies (which, by the way, is very close to the way we mark our live bombs), it is endemic to the Japanese Ryukyu islands where it prefers to nest in trees in more rural areas.  In Japan it is known as the ōsuzumebachi, literally the “giant sparrow bee.”

A long, slow and overly dramatic video of these massive and scary hornets!

japanese-giant-hornet-300x281The hornet is large and very aggressive, especially if provoked.  Venom is injected through ¼ inch stingers, and each hornet can sting multiple times in quick succession.  Although not the most lethal in the hornet family, this particular sting is considered extremely potent due to large and repeated dosing.  Being stung is extremely painful and requires professional medical care if stung more than 10 times, while emergency hospital treatment should be rendered for those stung 30 times or more.  Amazingly enough, 30-40 people die in Japan every year from such stings, which makes the Japanese giant hornet the second most lethal animal in Japan.  After humans!  As an interesting aside, in Japan bears kill up to five people and venomous snakes kill between 5 and 10 people each year.

So, in our case, running away was a very deft move indeed.  The Americans and Japanese battling on Okinawa in the spring of 1945, however, couldn’t just run away.  And what they faced were no mere flesh wounds and/or killer rabbits.  All this is nowhere more evident than when you personally visit Okinawa’s actual battle sites today.

My kids checking out a pillbox on Kadena AFB

My kids checking out a pillbox on Kadena AFB

257926375_faeba3609a_o257927397_22067fa47a_oEven though numerous battleships, cruisers, and destroyers joined bombarded Japanese positions in conjunction with substantial land artillery and rockets, and although upwards of 650 Navy and Marine Corps planes attacked with napalm, rockets, bombs, and machine guns, little damage was sustained by the Japanese.  They had cleverly sited their defensive positions and lines on reverse slopes of hills and ridges, where the defenders were instructed to wait out the barrage and aerial attack in almost complete safety.  Only when the land battle ensued would the Japanese emerge from their caves to rain mortar rounds, machine gun fire and grenades upon the Americans advancing up the forward slope.

Bunker at Kakazu Ridge

Bunker at Kakazu Ridge

Battle for Kakazu

Battle for Kakazu

257925926_bbeb497e0b_oA major defensive line of the Japanese in the Battle for Okinawa was Kakazu Ridge, two hills with a connecting saddle that formed part of Shuri Castle’s (the Japanese center of mass) outer defenses.  The Japanese had prepared their positions well and fought tenaciously from fortified caves.  Although the American advance here was inexorable, it none-the-less resulted in high casualties for both sides, and most tragically for the Okinawans who were often sent out at gunpoint for water and supplies.  Three Japanese counterattacks, characterized by fierce close-quarters combat, were repulsed here between 12-14 April.  Today it is an urbanized site with memorials and a viewpoint located at the top of the ridge.

UXO litters the area

UXO litters the area

Battle for Conical Hill

Battle for Conical Hill

ch13p15Further to the East on Okinawa, another American general offensive was launched on 11 May 1945.  It took ten days of fierce fighting to finally capture Conical Hill, a mound rising 476ft (145m) above the Yonabaru coastal plain which served as the eastern anchor of the main Japanese defenses.  This site is still very rural, and is where our inadvertent ambush with the local fauna occurred.  There are still trench lines on this hillside, and where part of the hill had eroded away badly, a large bomb was clearly evident still stuck in the hillside.  Here also we found old coke bottles and pieces of combat boots, along with a plethora of unexploded ordnance, made up of mortar rounds (Japanese), and grenades from both sides.

A well hidden fortification

A well hidden fortification

Battle for Sugar Loaf

Battle for Sugar Loaf

3225980178_9b6b355d2a_zAt the same time battle was raging for Conical Hill, a similar fight was ongoing over Sugar Loaf Hill, the western anchor along the China Sea coast of Okinawa.  The capture of both Conical and Sugar Loaf led quickly to the fall and abandonment of the concentrated defenses of Shuri as the Japanese retreated south and west where they would make their final, futile and wasted stand at Mabuni Hill, now the site of Okinawa’s Peace Prayer Park.  Sugar Loaf, like Kakazu, is today almost entirely urbanized.  Shuri has preserved one small pillbox, and battle damage to some structures there is still clearly evident.

Fortified Position

Fortified Position

253827616_a12ce450e1_o257926653_80ce3540ec_oI haven’t been back to these sites since 1999 or 2000, although I think about it often.  However, the intense and conflicted feelings that grew out of walking those grounds 15 years ago simply hasn’t faded with time.  And most certainly, though even we eight or ten men crowded in small clearings on ridge tops, the battlefields remained for me, very lonely places indeed.

Me and Paul Souter on top of Sugar Loaf

Me and Paul Souter on top of Sugar Loaf

Okinawa Eats: Kupu Kupu Pancake Factory


I'm not sure what dwarves have to do with pancakes....

I’m not sure what dwarves have to do with pancakes….

Ambiance:  Local establishment on the southern end of Sunabe Seawall, set with a very casual atmosphere and terrific 2nd story eat-in balcony overlooking Chatan’s marina with American Village as a distant backdrop.  As is always the case along Sunabe, there is very limited parking.

Service:  The service here can be oddly slow, at least for Japanese standards.  It seems they get quite overwhelmed with just more than a few of their tables filled; be forewarned!  But while you wait you can enjoy the fabulous views, especially if the weather is nice and you are seated outdoors.

Food Quality:  Average, except for Jody’s exceptional dessert main course dish over the Christmas holidays in 2013!  It’s no longer offered.

Features:  Basic bench-type outdoor seating along their balcony and tables inside large picture-glass viewing windows.  The inside is decorated in an American-vintage style, which I find overwhelmingly appealing.  The place is kid-friendly (for sure), and an English menu is available.  Dollars and Yen are both okay.

Cuisine:  Breakfast pancakes and, it seems, more and more standard (and pedestrian) Japanese lunch-fare.

Price/Value:  Average to below average.  The Facebook review average of 4.4 is based on dated reviews; many of the more recent reviews offer some rather harsh criticism since changing ownership.

Okinawa Eats April 2014, Kupu Kupu, counter decorations

What appears to be a small family operation located at the southern extreme of the Sunabe Seawall supposedly specializes in pancakes.  And although that seemed to be the case in 2013, they have rather dramatically changed their menu with a change of management, much to the chagrin of many of their customers.  So, please be weary of older (and better) reviews of this eatery.

Jody was IN LOVE with this no-longer-offered dish....

Jody was IN LOVE with this no-longer-offered dish….

Unfortunately, since changing management, the food at Kupu Kupu has gone downhill.  Quite honestly, after taking a friend back earlier in the year and being underwhelmed (again), there’s no good reason for us to return except maybe for having some coffee on their balcony.

Okinawa Eats April 2014, Kupu Kupu, Elvis has not left this building

But, I have to caveat all of this by saying this:  I’m not really a big fan of breakfast.  Actually, I’m harbor a complete lack of fondness for most any typical morning meals offered before the more respectable lunch time of 1030-1100.  Yes, yes, I know the whole “most important meal of the day” schtick, but I’m simply not a morning person.  Just ask my wife….  I’m not hungry in the morning, and extra sleep conserves calories anyway.

Okinawa Eats April 2014, Kupu Kupu, picture windows

Okinawa Eats 2031, Kupu Kupu, The Battleship pancake stack for twoOkinawa Eats 2031, Kupu Kupu, Love Boat pancake stackBut for many, breakfast offers maybe a favorite dish or two, and if you fall within this camp, Kupu Kupu does offer pancakes and French toast that can be hard to find on the Okinawan economy, and better yet, they serve them up all day long.  However, if you go here expecting prototypical “Western” pancakes, you may find yourself disappointed with the Japanese spin on an American breakfast staple.  It seems, given the new management, that many more Japanese and Okinawan-inspired dishes are being offered, most of which have nothing to do with being a factory…which makes pancakes.  In other words, they really shouldn’t expect a whole lot of Americans to go there for their garlic steak….  They did, however, offer at one time two signature dishes for the hardcore breakfast-ophiles:  The Love Boat and The Battleship!

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Okinawa Eats April 2014, Kupu Kupu, 1950s decorOkinawa Eats April 2014, Kupu Kupu, open under new managementMy wife and I happened upon this eatery quite by accident.  Even when we saw the sign on the street, it still took us a bit to figure out exactly how to get to and in Kupu Kupu.  It is located upstairs, and the stairs themselves are in an alleyway between two buildings.  The actual entrance to the restaurant is oddly located on the backside of the building, and from the street it’s hard to tell there’s a restaurant there at all.

Okinawa Eats April 2014, Kupu Kupu, american-style retro tabletop games

Okinawa Eats 2031, Kupu Kupu, relatively hidden entranceOkinawa Eats April 2014, Kupu Kupu, scarlet letter Grade AKupu Kupu’s interior is a mix of American retro 50s swing, with a healthy dose of nautical adornments and vintage American military-related items from our long occupation here.  The feel is casual and comfortable, with bright and happy colors splashed throughout.  The staff, although slow, was beyond reproach, and English is spoken easily here.  However, although initially very impressed with Kupu Kupu during the fall of 2013, our visits in 2014 have been far below our expectations.  I simply can’t recommend this establishment…and least not right now.

Okinawa Eats 2031, Kupu Kupu, inside interesting decor

Phone: 080-3229-7352

Address:  15-58 Mnato Chatan Yomitan-son Nakagami-gun

Hours: Daily 9:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m., Closed on Tuesdays

Payment: Yen and U.S. dollars are accepted.

Website: Kupu Kupu Facebook Page

Directions:  find the Pancake Factory near Sushi Zen and right around the corner from Sea Garden, on the seawall where it turns east towards Chatan-cho’s marina.  There is good signage on the sidewalk, and there is parking lot around the block which is even more challenging to find.  Kupu Kupu is located on the second floor.

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Okinawa’s Valley of Gangala: A Walk to Remember


“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  ~William Shakespeare

Welcoming Shisa Dogs at Okinawa World

Welcoming Shisa Dogs at Okinawa World

“I think you understand what I say,” started our favorite part of our tour blanketed in the dank darkness of a tunnel as our guide spoke to us in very broken English.  While she spoke for the following few minutes in overly-dramatized Japanese whispers, it soon became apparent that she was telling a ghost story.

And in a voice quite mousy, she started slowly in a whisper, “(gan…………gala).”  Then, with a fastening crescendo, she forcefully muttered, “Gan……Gala.”  And finally, in a full booming declarative spectacle (taking advantage of the tunnel’s acoustics, mind you), she exclaimed, “GAN…GALA!!!”  And like kids anywhere in the world, they both listen to scary stories and don’t…at the same time.

The classic and worldwide reaction to a scary story!

The classic and worldwide reaction to a scary story!

The Valley of Gangala is an ancient and ornate forest that is probably better served as the backdrop for perhaps yet another movie in the Harry Potter series – Harry Potter and the Soki Soba Sorcerer, for instance.  But we only discovered it when we visited the area for our spelunking adventures into Gyokusendo cave.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, dramatic cave entrance

It is literally across the street from its more famous and popular parent attraction, Okinawa World, but it’s every bit as enjoyable…and dispenses with the cave-themed amusement park and commercial shopping arcade that the former offers.  Being more hidden and garnering much less attention, the Valley of Gangala is much more natural in experience and personably rustic.  A pleasant surprise, it also seems to be the center of the ancient history of mankind on Okinawa.

Okinawa's famed "Banana" Spiders

Okinawa’s famed “Banana” Spiders

Be forewarned:  there are a lot of spiders!

The disappointing Cave Café in the background.

The disappointing Cave Café in the background.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, Kevin cave explorer with oil lanternYou reach the starting point by descending into a cave that’s been transformed into a café.  Although you can still find menus online which offer lunch-type fare, only coffees, teas, juices and snacks/desserts are offered now.  It is an amazing setting, and it’s unfortunate that more can’t be done with such a fabulous ambiance.  This sore point isn’t to detract from tea-time under the stalactites, though, before or after your tour.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, cave approach along a stream

300 year-old burial vault

300 year-old burial vault

While the only way to explore the Valley is through a Japanese guide, the Japanese know how to do tours RIGHT.  The seating area where our visit started conveniently had bug repellent available for every two people, and insulted metal bottles of cold jasmine tea were handed out for us to sip as we sauntered through the flora and fauna of the excursion.  Although it was the middle of summer and the middle of a hot summer day when we toured, I don’t really think the bug lotion was actually needed.  The cold and refreshing tea, however, was!

The oil lanterns are such a lovely touch!

The oil lanterns are such a lovely touch!

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, early humans on OkinawaThe tour was entirely in Japanese, but our Japanese host offered us iPod-like receivers and ear buds that provided us with some English explanations along the way.  It was an unexpected and further nice touch.  It turns out that the Valley has been inhabited for over 10,000 years, and may have served as home for what is considered the forerunners of all the Japanese peoples (migrating from the south to the north through the Ryukyu chain), although there are competing theories and the vote is still out.

Early man lived here

Early man lived here

Get your mind out of the gutter.

Get your mind out of the gutter.

It appears size DOES matter.

It appears size DOES matter.

There are two sacred areas in the Valley, both in caves, one large and one small.  Both center on anatomical-like configurations of rock, male and female (use your imagination).  Women would attend to the female parts to pray for family and good childbirth, while males would enter the large dark cave to pray for things more male-centered.  It’s amazing how many ladies in the group seemed like they needed to go up and touch the rather phallic symbol!  The Japanese are not as conservative as they appear.

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, cave explorer Jody 2

Okinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, gigantic banyan treeOkinawa 2014, Valley of Gangala, Kevin and Jody portrait with the valley's banyan

One of the other highlights of the tour is the huge banyan tree “Ufushu Gajumaru” which grows up and inside a huge natural arch of rock, just down the path from a family burial vault over 300 years old.  But for those of you still wandering about the ghostly story that so enthralled our young and somewhat frightened explorer, the Valley is named for the spooky sound that stones would make when thrown down into the deepest, most haunted caves.  Apparently, no matter the nature of kinship, no one – not even spirits – likes rocks thrown at them!

The Valley of Gangala

Zip:  901-0616

Address:  Japan Okinawa Nanjo City Tamagusuku Maegawa; parking and the valley is located directly opposite of Okinawa world.

Phone (for required reservations):  098-948-4192

Times:  9:00-18:00, but tours are conducted only 4 times a day @ 10:00, 12:00, 14:00 and 16:00; tour time is approximately 80 minutes

Website:  http://www.gangala.com/

To get to Okinawa World and the Valley of Gangala, drive south on the expressway to Haebana Miniami 1C, Take 507 South, turn left on 331 and another left on the 17.  Follow the signs to Okinawa World Cave Park. You’ll see Okinawa World on the right side and the Valley of Gangala on the left; park in the free Okinawa World parking lot.

Okinawa 2014, Okinawa World, Kevin and Jody at the park's entrance

Okinawan Traces of War: Telegraph from the Past


 “There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.”  ~ Dwight David Eisenhower

Carrier aircraft attack Ishigaki-jima in the Ryukyus

Carrier aircraft attack Ishigaki-jima in the Ryukyus

Kamikaze-Attacks-of-World-War-II-Okinawa-Ryukus-MapIt was probably a lazy day at the office in the fall of 1944 or spring of 1945.  Having finished a shift full of mundane duties and boring watches, perhaps a few decided to enjoy the sandy beach and pristine waters immediately adjacent to this wooded site.  Others were probably enjoying their time off, tending to personal business nearby.  Being stationed on a remote island far in the southern reaches of the Ryukyu Chain, and then being billeted to such a small, isolated communications station in a completely rural part of the island, the War in the Pacific seemed many thousands of miles away, if not of a different time.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), bullet scared WM

Then, without warning, death rained down from above.  And nothing was ever the same again.

Death came from above by means of the Navy's "Avengers"

Death came from above by means of the Navy’s “Avengers”

Sakishima%20IsIshigaki Island is the most inhabited and developed island of the Yaeyama Islands (Yaeyama-shoto) in the deep southwestern waters of Okinawa Prefecture (Ryukyu Islands) and the second of this grouping of sub-tropical isles.  The Yaeyama Islands are, at the same time, the mostly southerly and westerly parts of Japan, located approximately 430 kilometers/260 miles south of Okinawa.

Ishigaki's relationship to Okinawa, the Ryukyu Island Chain

Ishigaki’s relationship to Okinawa, the Ryukyu Island Chain

Japanese-WWII-key-capturedOn a small peninsula out to the west of Ishigaki-jima is a former Japanese Military Undersea Telegraph Station, built at the turn of last century (1897), which operated until attacked during World War II.  While not the easiest place to find, and certainly not a well-visited “touristy” destination, the unimproved road leading to the coastal site is well signed off the primary road in the area.  Be prepared though; the long and winding path leading down to the facility can be very rough on your vehicle!  We had a rental (wink).

Telegraph Lines converge at Ishigaki

Telegraph Lines converge at Ishigaki

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), now defunct and dead station on the beach WMDuring the time in which Taiwan (then Formosa) was administered by Japan, this small structure served as a critical node in the larger Japanese Imperial Army communications system between Taiwan and headquarters in Honshu.  Numerous relay stations were located all the way from the Japanese mainland to Taiwan, all connected by huge undersea cables.  From the Sino-Japanese War until World War II, this station, known as Denshinya, was used by the Japanese military.

Attacks on the Japanese airfield at Ishigaki-jima.

Attacks on the Japanese airfield at Ishigaki-jima.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), old wooden signage WMDuring WWII, it was attack by carrier-based aircraft, was abandoned, and has been in this damaged state ever since.  Severe damage can be seen, and although it appears the building escape a direct hit by bombs, it certainly was well-strafed with heavy machine gun and aircraft cannon fire.  Some locals claim that many ghosts haunt the area, but on the bright, warm sunny day of our visit, we unfortunately (fortunately for my wife) encountered none.  I cannot find any reports of casualties or of the actual attack in my research (read about the frequency and magnitude of attacks across Ishigaki-jim).  Ishigaki was frequently attacked in the lead-up to the Battle of Okinawa, particularly its airfield.  Read about an unfortunate American crew that was shot down perhaps at the same time this station was attacked in Beauty and Honor Entombed, and about their particular story Shipley Bay.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), bullet scars remain WM

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), now defunct and dead station WMThe facility was never repaired or reclaimed, and continues to deteriorate.  The day we visited there was some archeological study going on, where a Japanese man was taking meticulous measurements which annotated some amazing sketches of the facility he had done.  There is no English here, but there are what appears to be a couple of memorial plaques in Japanese.  As simple and small as the building may appear, it was once played a key role for the Japanese Imperial Government.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), war-torn decaying structure

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), ruined interior WMSurveying the scene today, one can only imagine the horror of the day when the facility was attacked.  Set in a rustic yet beautifully bucolic setting, I’m sure the death from above was both a shock and a surprise to the Japanese that were pulling duty here.  The remoteness of the site, along with the preserved state of battle-damage and ensuing decay, allows this particular location to certainly convey somber and silent commentary on the darker complexion of war.  There certainly was no glory here at this station, even though blood was surely shed.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), Jody modeling the Army's Station

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), station's beach & ocean warningsTo Visit: Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph) 556, Sakieda, Ishigaki City (Ishigaki-shi), Okinawa Prefecture.  There is no fee, nor hours; the site is not lighted, and no facilities are anywhere nearby.  Easy beach access is adjacent to the site, but parking is very limited.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), looking back through time to WWII WM

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), Jody on the beach-front property 2 WM

Okinawa’s Sobering Sick Wards: From Vengeance to Forgiveness


“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”  ~John F. Kennedy

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”  ~Leo Tolstoy

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”  ~Bertrand Russell

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”  ~Voltaire

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“They fought dirty. It is what it is…,” a friend responded to my Facebook posting of pictures of Okinawa’s cave hospital from WWII and comment on how sobering it was to experience first-hand.  And if you want to skip all the drama below and read about that hospital, scroll down the page to find the discussion and see photos of this amazing battle site.

“A must see, even if we all fight dirty!!” came my response, trying to focus more on the historic and sobering aspects of visiting this place rather than some misplaced sense of vengeance.  Oh, and a hint that war itself is dirty business.  I had just visited just one of the 30 mountainside tunnels that served as the Imperial Japanese Army’s field hospital during the Battle of Okinawa.  You can look at all the pictures, still and moving, you want but you still never get the guttural sensations of just how bad conditions can be in war.  They were dreadful here on Okinawa.

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

But I quickly added, “BTW, I would wish no one’s son to die in a cave in conditions like this…,” which, is the honest truth.  Being a combat vet and having spent twenty years in military service, I felt I had some status and experience to comment maybe more appropriately.

“I have not forgotten what my father saw in the Battle of Luzon or how they fought in other battles.  He is the reason you have the freedom to walk in that cave.  I have no sympathy for the Japs of WWII,” my friend responded.

Now, for those of you that know me, I am not one to back down from such an extremist position.  One of my foremost rules of living a better life after participating in combat and being personally responsible for killing other human beings and after seeing firsthand the pain and suffering caused by armed conflict of any flavor is this:  nothing good comes from an extreme position.  Think about it; friendships, marriages, children and politics all involve moderation and compromise.  Extremism is perhaps the major problem with our seemingly across-the-board dysfunction in the same.

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“I try to steer away from absolutes,” I continue the discussion. “Like in most conflicts, when the rich and privileged wage war, it’s the poor, uneducated and ignorant that lose and die.  Many on Okinawa were conscripts; many more were civilian OKINAWANS (they are not Japanese, merely subjugated by them) who died here, many more than soldiers.  Remember too that I am a combat vet having served 20 years in uniform.  And my family was right there with your Father; he didn’t do it alone.  The truth is usually somewhere in the middle of what are 3-sided stories.  The battle for Okinawa just isn’t about the good United States versus imperialist, violent ‘Japs’.  There is a much larger story to be told and heard.  But you have to want to hear it…..  I stand by my sympathy for all those unwillingly and unwittingly caught up in other people’s wars….”

“I am sympathetic to my father, your father and all WWII vets.  I appreciate your service.  Japan is on their own,” she flatly concluded….

Wrongly, if I can say so.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I certainly do not give Japan a free hall pass for their attitude or behavior for World War II or the years leading up to that conflict (it started in China long before we got involved, but interestingly we chose not to get involved until cornered).  Japanese war crimes are well-documented, and thousands were tried as war criminals after the war, with almost 1,000 convicted being executed.  Their crimes are so horrific and pervasive that they cannot be escaped.  I have blogged extensively about some of my conflicted but realistic thoughts on Imperial Japanese brutality of WWII it:  see Nuking Japan:  They Deserved It?, and Should the Rising Sun Finally Set?  As an aside, the movie Flowers of War does more to visually depict Japan’s wanton and perverse ruthlessness than most any other treatment I’ve seen; it will make your blood boil that any people could be so vicious.

Japan does continue a habit of "overlooking" their culpability to their own....

Japan does continue a habit of “overlooking” their culpability to their own….

Indoctrination:  Bowing to an Alter of a portrait of the Emperor of Japan.

Indoctrination: Bowing to an Alter of a portrait of the Emperor of Japan.

And therein lays the problem.  People are vicious.  When they are allowed to be.  Imperial, militaristic Japan of the turn of last century used extensive propaganda, religion fanaticism (the Emperor was considered a deity), and their far-reaching educational system to indoctrinate whole generations to a certain disturbed mindset and point of view.  We can see the same thing in the Middle East today, and the West has been just as guilty in the not-too-distant past.  All it takes is the right timing and wrong circumstance…and a world community that looks the other way.  No one rushed to save China in the 1930s.

General Curtis LeMay, the “father” of America’s strategic bombing campaigns of WWII, knew this all too well.  His personal realization of the vicious nature of war is reflected in perhaps his most famous quote:  “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time….  I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal….  Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing.  But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”  Of course there is no excuse for the intended fire-bombing of civilian targets, like Tokyo in Japan or Hamburg in Germany, where up to 100,000 civilians were exterminated by fire in a single night.  Except that it’s equally unfair for us to judge decisions of the past without the proper historical context.

Shameful

Shameful

Similarly, much of the American South still hasn’t forgiven (or forgotten) General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” where he brought what then was a new and halting concept in conflict:  the idea of “Total War.”  He states, in justifying his plans to burn his way through the South in order to destroy their means of waging war, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….”  Once again we see the idea of “they deserve it,” alongside the justification that the morality of actions in war are in some way relative.  In both cases of LeMay and Sherman, we would, today, never tolerate such actions, even in war-time.

What comes around goes around; karma operates on a cosmic scale.  History is full of “bad wars” and their inherent immorally shocking behaviors:  the Christian Crusades of 1,000 years ago, the American South in the Civil War fighting over the peculiar institution of slavery; the US Government’s violent diplomacy against the American Indians; Axis aggression in both WWI and WWII; purges in China, Russia, and Cambodia; Nazi Germany’s treatment of Russia and vice versa in WWII; the Korean “Police Action” and the Vietnam “War” (war was never declared); and more recently, the IRA, the PLO, and Hamas; rampant genocide in Africa, narco-terrorism in South and Central America, modern fanatical Islam-based terrorism, and finally the idea of obtrusive and unilateral régime change.  Without invoking the subjective emotion of the particular time and place, it’s rather hard to objectively defend these actions.  Some if not many (or most) involve horrific crimes against humanity…itself a rather modern invention…but an idea that has, in one form or another, existed through the ages.

Avenge_december_7Another element of WWII that often goes unconsidered, but which is clear in historical context, is this:  our greatest generation didn’t spill their blood for your freedom or mine; they instead literally saved the rest of the world.  Japan, when they orchestrated their sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor, had no fantasies of defeating and invading America.  The best they could hope for was a decisive blow that would push the Americans to sue for peace on terms beneficial to the Empire of Japan.  Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind Pearl Harbor who was educated in the United States, believed that Japan could not win a protracted war with the United States; he is quoted in Tora Tora Tora! (book and movie) as saying, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  The Japanese attack was muddled; politically, war was supposed to be formally declared prior to the morning of December 7th, but message coding and decoding delays lead to their aggression without warning, which did more to push American for vengeance that anything else.  It certainly was not about securing our freedom.

And although Hitler surely would have bombed America if he had the means available, the United States was in no danger of falling to Nazi fascism.  We in the States benefit immensely from being an island-nation, protected from warring factions of much of the rest of the world by massive oceans East and West, and a frozen wasteland to the north.  Germany couldn’t cross the English Channel let alone the Atlantic Ocean.  Once again, we rose to the occasion and freed Europe (but only part of it, hence, the rise of the Iron Curtain).  However, our Greatest Generation of warriors’ achievement is no less amazing, even in this characterization.

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How can we harbor such hatred and a constant sense of vengeance if we don’t more critically examine our own actions in the world?  Ask the Vietnamese I spoke with during my visit there in 2008 (see my blog Good Morning, Vietnam!) about America’s use of chemical weapons (Agent Orange) in spraying villages and rice paddies – and all those working and living there….  Ask the American Indians how they were treated by the “White Man,” and it’s easy to find the same degeneration and dehumanization that the Japanese projected onto the West….  Degrading labels like “Gooks” or “Skinnies” (for those in Somalia) are much more recent and make killing much easier.  And what about the mess we have left (and the hundreds of thousands of dead) after our régime changes and failed democratic experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Okinawa 2014, Japanese 32nd Army Field Hospital, religious monument WMI’ll tell you this:  the Okinawan/Japanese (they are different cultures) peace memorial to WWII here on Okinawa contains the names of over 230,000 Japanese and Okinawan lost during that conflict.  See my blog on the Typhoon of Steel for more about the magnitude of loss suffered by the Okinawans in 1945.  But the memorial also contains the names of all the allied soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors lost in the same battle.  To my knowledge, our war memorials do not include the names of the over 1.1 million Asian deaths related to the Vietnam War, or the 1.2 million deaths among the Chinese, North and South Koreans of the Korean Conflict.  The point is, the memorial on Okinawa is not about a specific war or the loss of a specific country; it is a “Peace Prayer Park” which focuses on the shared tragedy of war, but with hope for a more peaceful, conflict-free future….  It is much more than simply a place to mourn the dead.

Some of you may read this and thin-slice me as a bleeding heart liberal, and a few of you might even characterize me as an unpatriotic turncoat.  On the former, it is hard not to see the world with more compassion and empathy when you come face to face with the pain and suffering of a mother who has suffered the loss of her child, no matter the circumstance or country.  Grief, like anger, is universally shared.  On the latter point, remember, unchecked Nationalism is easily transcribed into Fascism, an infectious attitude promises much but offers no good outcome.  Trust me, you want your men and women in uniform to have an education and intellect that allows for critical thinking and moral analysis of their actions.  It is, in fact, one of the central elements of our military that make us so strong.

from-vengeance-to-forgiveness

The world will never become a better, and more peaceful place if we hold onto animosity and continue to harbor ill-will, especially if it is directed at a country, culture, or generation long-gone.  When we transfer these hurtful emotions onto the descendants of the original and responsible wrong-doers, all that results is a continuation of hostilities.  Look at the West Bank and Gaza today.  Look at the warring factions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the Balkans.  How can anything there be resolved if people first don’t let go of their hatred?

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For those that have made it this far, and who want to read about the WWII battle site that caused all this controversy, please read on below about one of the more sobering traces of war that I’ve ever visited.

 

Okinawa Army Hospital

The Okinawa Army Hospital Unit 18803 was organized within the 32nd Imperial Japanese Army forces in Kumamoto in 1944.  Although medical activities started in Naha in June of that year, allied aircraft carrier attacks of 10/10 (as they are known to history) destroyed the hospital facilities, which forced a move of the hospital to the Haebaru National Elementary School building.  Soon thereafter, under guidance of the 32nd Army’s Engineering Unit, approximately 30 cave tunnels were dug into Aza Kyan and Aza Kanegusuku.

Buried Meds:  many medicines were found deeply buried and intentionally hidden.

Buried Meds: many medicines were found deeply buried and intentionally hidden.

In late March 1945, allied naval bombardment forced the abandonment of all the regular facilities, and the entire operation was moved into the cave system.  The hospital was staffed by approximately 350 surgeons, nurses and hospitalmen, who were augmented by 222 female high school students from the First Prefectural Girl’s High School (Himeyuri Gakuto), who trained and served as nursing aids under the guidance of 18 of their teachers.  The director of the hospital was Hiroike Bunkichi.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Although initially organized into three departments of Infectious Diseases, Surgery, and Internal Medicine, after allied forces landed on the first of April, 1945, the hospital reorganized all the wards into the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Surgical Departments due to the sharp increase in battle-related injuries requiring emergency intervention.

Charred Support Beams:  Charring is thought to be from the use of US flamethrowers, a common weapon used to clear and destroy tunnels.

Charred Support Beams: Charring is thought to be from the use of US flamethrowers, a common weapon used to clear and destroy tunnels.

By the end of May, allied forces had pushed the Japanese far to the south of Okinawa, and the decision was made for all Japanese forces to retreat to the Mabuni area to make a last, protracted stand.  The order was sent to the hospital to disband and move all ambulatory patients by foot.  Those that could not travel were given potassium cyanide in their milk, and, as the museum’s brochure in English states, “…and compulsion of self-determination was carried out on this occasion.”  The Japanese killed all their seriously ill patients, and I’m not sure if this was out of compassion to end their suffering, or simply an act of murder so that they would not fall into US hands where they could provide military intelligence.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

A visit to this sit starts in the Haebaru Town Museum, just west and across a ridge from the tunnel’s entrance.  This museum houses a terrific reproduction of the hospital bunker complex, and is designed to give visitors a feel of the conditions at the time.  It features replicas of bunk beds (which you can try out), and an operating table as well as artifacts from the original tunnel.  Realistic replicas of an Imperial Portrait Shrine and a War Dead Memorial bring visitors to the time of Japanese militarization, begun decades prior to the Battle of Okinawa.

Medical supplies recovered in the tunnels.

Medical supplies recovered in the tunnels.

I visited the tunnel during what turned out to be a tropical storm, and I’m happy I did.  I think it provided a more realistic experience.  To get to the tunnel, you walk along the trace of the old footpath that leads to and from the kitchen area and well which supplied the entire tunnel complex.  It has been improved with a modern set of stairs, and thankfully so; moving up and over a substantial ridge would have been otherwise a challenge in the driving wind, rain, and slippery mud-soaked surfaces.

The school-girl nursing aids bringing in the tunnel's food supply for the day.

The school-girl nursing aids bringing in the tunnel’s food supply for the day.

Tunnel #20, the only one reinforced enough to be open to the public, is a man-made tunnel completely dug by hand, measuring roughly 70 meters in length (230 feet) and about 1.8 meters in height and width (a smidgen under 5’11”).  It was the main tunnel used by the 2nd Surgical Department, where the eastern half of the tunnel accommodated patients; the central “T” intersection with another tunnel was where most surgeries were performed; and where the western half quartered the staff which worked there.

Tunnel reproduction in the Haebaru Town Museum.

Tunnel reproduction in the Haebaru Town Museum.

My guide open the doors to the tunnel, and a river of water greeted us as it was freed to seek itself further down the hill.  The cave tunnel was much smaller than I expected and that reproduced in the museum, and I found myself having to at least nod my head downwards, otherwise my hard-hat would be riding along the tunnel’s ceiling.  Lighting was originally provided by candles spaced quite far apart, today the only light comes from the small flashlights provided with your admission fee, and the passage is at once imposingly dank and dark.  The tunnel was leaking everywhere, and water pooled in various depressions along the earthen floor.  While some areas have been reinforced with modern construction techniques and materials, much of the tunnel remains bare rock.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Most artifacts have been moved down into the town museum, but there are still some left in place, which are pointed out by the guide.  All the remains have been removed and reburied.  The one thing missing from the actual tunnel is the missing bunk beds which billeted patients.  These “beds” were bare wood planking, just over 35 inches in width.  Keep in mind our standard twin size bed is 39 inches…and even kids’ narrow beds are generally 36 inches wide!  Each patient got a canteen for water, a small dish for food (which consisted only of rice balls, the size of Ping-Pong balls by the end of the war), and a pot in which to relieve themselves.  No light, no padding, no sheets, and probably not a lot of hope.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

And after leaving the site, that was the overwhelming emotion with which I was left:  hopelessness.  While Japan did bring the war on themselves, and there is absolutely no doubt that many Japanese regulars were violent and vicious actors playing their parts in a morally bankrupt Imperial Japan, I stand by my claim that I wish no one’s son (or daughter) die in conditions or place like this.  Do me a favor:  if you visit, divorce yourself from whatever prejudice you may hold from your own conditioning, education, and exposure to World War II.  Remember, at our cores, there is not much that separates us in our shared human condition.  Death is death, and loss is loss, no matter.  War is tragedy, and immoral by most any definition.

Exploring Tunnel #20 by Flashlight

Exploring Tunnel #20 by Flashlight

For more pictures of the hospital tunnels and the adjoining Haebaru Town Museum, please see my Flickr set here:  Okinawa Battle Sites.

The town of Haebaru opened the 1st Surgery Tunnel #20 in 2007 as an important cultural asset that serves to educate the public about the misery and tragedy of war, and to protect this history for future generations to learn from.  The Hospital Tunnel is open from 0900-1700 by reservation only, and is closed on Wednesdays, and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3).  Admission is 200 Yen.  Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru-cho, Okinawa 901-1113.

The Haebaru Town Museum is open from 0900-1800, and is closed on Wednesdays and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3).  Admission is 300 Yen.  Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru Town, Okinawa; Email bunka-c@town.haebaru.okinawa.jp.

Memorial to those lost at the 32nd Army Field Hospital in Haebaru, Okinawa.

Memorial to those lost at the 32nd Army Field Hospital in Haebaru, Okinawa.