“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing….” ~ War, by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong
One can’t help but imagine how devastated the landscape of Okinawa looked during the “Typhoon of Steel” suffered there in 1945. Having read, twice, both With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge and The Battle of Okinawa by Colonel Yahara (both authors actually present at the Battle of Okinawa), it is indeed a morbid privilege to be able to track the traces of war which still exist on Okinawa today.
The Battle of Okinawa makes for fertile fields harvested by the Grim Reaper. WWII deaths here total upwards of 225,000, the majority Okinawan civilians. Fully 1/3 of the Okinawan population perished in the spring and summer of 1945 when over 2.7 million artillery shells of all types and calibers were fired against the entrenched Japanese, working out to an average of 4.7 shells for every man, woman, child alive on Okinawa at the start of the battle.
A heartbreaking trace of the war here includes the well-preserved and restored Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. The Japanese Navy Corps of Engineers, Yamane Division, dug this tunnel complex by hand using pickaxes and hoes in 1944 to serve as the Japanese Navy Imperial Headquarters on Okinawa. The semi-circular tunnels and rooms, designed to sustain upwards of 4,000 people, were hardened into bunkers by post and concrete, designed and built to endure the American bombardment and the expected long drawn-out fight.
Now located in a suburb of Naha, it was here deep in this hillside that Admiral Minoru Ota and over 4,000 of his men were killed in combat with the US 6th Marine Division. Many Japanese sailors, estimated at about 175 men including Ota himself, committed suicide in the tunnels, showing the ultimate dedication to their belief that death is preferred over the dishonor of capture. Some used hand grenades; shrapnel marks are still dramatically visible in the plaster of one of the complex’s many rooms. Ota shot himself with his service pistol.
Minoru Ōta (大田 実 Ōta Minoru, 7 April 1891 – 13 June 1945) was the final commander of the Japanese naval forces defending the Oroku Peninsula of Okinawa during WWII. Here Ōta commanded a force of 10,000 men, half of which were Okinawan civilian laborers conscripted into service, with the remainder sailors with almost no experience fighting on land. Having been ordered to withdraw his men from the Oroku Peninsula to support the broader Japanese army retreating further south, Ōta began preparations for the move by ordering most of the heavy equipment, stocks of ammunition and heavy weapons destroyed since they could not be carried. While in mid-march to the south, Ōta was ordered back…and thus the island’s naval combat elements returned with no heavy weapons and only half the force armed with even rifles. The Americans subsequently isolated the peninsula by a seaborne landing behind the Navy’s positions, sealing the sailors’ shared fate. Fighting a lost cause and having most of their equipment destroyed and out of food, water and supplies, many of the Japanese attacked the US Marines using makeshift weapons in a desperate last charge on June 13, 1945, and were decimated. The remains of approximately 2,400 Japanese and Okinawans were found in and around the tunnels located here.
After the war, the complex remained untouched for many years. Restored in the 1970s, the complex has been reopened to the public. But only around 300 meters of the original 450 meter-long tunnels are open. However, in these passages and rooms chiseled into the hillside’s rock, visitors can view the headquarters’ Operations Room, Staff Office, Code (Signals) Room, Medical, Petty Officer’s Quarters, and the Commanding Officer’s Room. In order to make the facility safe for the public, additional cement and some other reinforcements were added, but very little else was altered so as to maintain authenticity and give visitors the gut feel for what the Japanese endured here. A few plaques and drawings are found along the passages which help to illuminate the use of various areas of the bunker.
At the entrance to the underground tunnels is a small museum dedicated to the events of the Battle of Okinawa, which contains a few interesting artifacts recovered from the complex. Most interestingly, prominently displayed is a translation of Admiral Ota’s final message to his superiors in Tokyo, which highlights the horrors of the mêlée, along with the suffering of the proud and loyal Okinawan people. Equally as moving is Ota’s Death Poem, still visible on the wall of his room, which translates “How could we rejoice over our birth but to die an honorable death under the Emperor’s flag?” Note that this poem’s tone and underlying message is much different from an earlier death poem telegraphed to his superiors: “Even if my body perishes in Okinawa, the noble Japanese spirit within my soul shall defend Japan forever.”
The memorial on the hilltop consists of a tall central monument with Japanese inscriptions, three shorter monuments with dedications, and a ship mast (or flagstaff) and anchor in honor of the sacrifice of the Japanese Navy in WWII. All of the inscriptions and dedications on the monuments are in Japanese except for one. In English, it states, “This monument is dedicated to the memory of Vice Admiral Minoru Ota, Commanding Officer of the Japanese Navy and his 4,000 men who committed suicide in this underground headquarters on June 13, 1945 after having shared in a hard-fought battle during World War II. A poem carved in a wall of this trench by Admiral Ota as his farewell word is still legible. Commanding Officer‘s room, center of operations, and the staff room remain in this underground headquarters which are reminiscent of the bygone days.” Small tokens left by visitors are scattered at the monuments’ base and throughout the tunnels: flowers, money left with a Buddha, and paper cranes representing grief and prayers for peace.
Like most memorials on Okinawa, the focus here is on peace highlighted through the tragedy, calamity, and pointlessness of war. The only named person is Ota; the “rest” are simply a (large) number. The monuments, reaching skyward, are set majestically on a hilltop overlooking the sea, surrounded by lush greenery and beautiful flowers, quite tranquil and apart from the urban sprawl found at the base of the hill.
At 1600 on June 12, 1945, after being encircled by the U.S. 6th Marine Division, Ōta sent a farewell telegram to the Imperial Japanese Army’s 32nd Army Headquarters. In it he amply highlights the fallacy of the battle, the mistreatment of the Okinawan people, and his deep concern over their future as a people and culture. That telegram reads:
Please convey the following telegram to the Vice-Admiral.
While the Governor should be the person to relay this report on the present condition of the Okinawa prefectural inhabitants, he has no available means of communication and the 32nd Division Headquarters appears to be thoroughly occupied with their own correspondences. However, due to the critical situations we are in, I feel compelled to make this urgent report though it is without the Governor’s consent.
Since the enemy attack began, our Army and Navy has been fighting defensive battles and have not been able to tend to the people of the Prefecture. Consequently, due to our negligence, these innocent people have lost their homes and property to enemy assault. Every man has been conscripted to partake in the defense, while women, children and elders are forced into hiding in the small underground shelters which are not tactically important or are exposed to shelling, air raids or the harsh elements of nature. Moreover, girls have devoted themselves to nursing and cooking for the soldiers and have gone as far as to volunteer in carrying ammunition, or join in attacking the enemy.
This leaves the village people vulnerable to enemy attacks where they will surely be killed. In desperation, some parents have asked the military to protect their daughters against rape by the enemy, prepared that they may never see them again.
Nurses, with wounded soldiers, wander aimlessly because the medical team had moved and left them behind. The military has changed its operation, ordering people to move to far residential areas, however, those without means of transportation trudge along on foot in the dark and rain, all the while looking for food to stay alive.
Ever since our Army and Navy occupied Okinawa, the inhabitants of the Prefecture have been forced into military service and hard labor, while sacrificing everything they own as well as the lives of their loved ones. They have served with loyalty. Now we are nearing the end of the battle, but they will go unrecognized, unrewarded. Seeing this, I feel deeply depressed and lament a loss of words for them. Every tree, every plant life is gone.
Even the weeds are burnt. By the end of June, there will be no more food. This is how the Okinawan people have fought the war. And for this reason, I ask that you give the Okinawan people special consideration, this day forward.
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