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