Traces of War: Ryukyu Islands Surrender Site


Japanese Delegation on the USS Missouri

Japanese Delegation on the USS Missouri

The Japanese in WWII surrendered on September 2nd, 1945, or so most people think. The surrenders of some of Japanese forces scattered across the Pacific occurred later, as it day here on Okinawa. Five days after the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo harbor, the last remnants of their Okinawa garrison officially capitulated on September 7th, 1945.

Japanese Surrender on Okinawa

Japanese Surrender on Okinawa

With General Doolittle in attendance, General Joseph Stilwell and commanding representatives of the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy signed a surrender document in a ceremony held at what is now the Stearley Heights area of Kadena Air Force Base.

Japanese Representative Flag Officers Arriving on Okinawa

Japanese Representative Flag Officers Arriving on Okinawa

f3eec8bc2bf66e672bb5bf2a482254f3General Toshiro Nomi, flown in since all Japanese Flag officers in the Ryukyus – including Ryukyu Commanding General Mitsuru Ushijima and his Chief of Staff Isamu Chō – had been killed or committed suicide, signed on behalf of the Imperial Japanese General Headquarters and the Japanese Government.

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Signatures and Signatories

Signatures and Signatories

g344921g344919The ceremony was held at the then 10th Army Headquarters at what was known as Camp Kuwae. While victory on what was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater was declared much earlier on June 22nd by General Geiger, mopping up operations continued for many weeks. The capitulation was formal and befitting the end of hostilities on the Island, and remained marked by a flag pole and historical marker flanked by captured Japanese artillery pieces.

Surrender Site ~1946

Surrender Site ~1946

Surrender Site ~1960

Surrender Site ~1960

But through the years, some way and somehow, this site lost its place of importance, becoming overgrown and unkempt with each passing year.

Surrender Site ~1967

Surrender Site ~1967

Then, the area was repurposed as military housing to support the growing footprint of the American military presence on the island as the growing cold war turned hot in both Korea and Vietnam. Still, the site remained marked with a small granite stone in the center of a residential cul-de-sac, a marker less than befitting the site’s actual historical importance.

Surrender Site 2015

Surrender Site 2015

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, HQ Tenth Army Surrender of the RyukyusFinally, and only recently in 1997, the site was re-recognized for the pivotal point in history that it tangibly represents. A construction project was undertaken to transform the cul-de-sac into a “Peace Memorial Garden,” and more appropriate markers and plaques better tell the story of what transpired there.

Peace Memorial Park 2015

Peace Memorial Park 2015

Still, it’s odd that the location is flanked on three sides by nondescript cinderblock single family homes, where the garden doubles as a children’s playground for the immediate neighborhood.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender 2 September 1945 WM

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender placards WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, HQ Tenth Army Surrender of the RyukyusBut given the blood, sweat and tears shed over Okinawa by all sides civil and military, perhaps there is no more fitting use of this sacred ground than that which can produce laughter and happiness. I was only too happy to see a couple of children giggle and scream as they give chase through the monuments. For it is peace that the site represents, and the innocence of those children are exactly what help to consecrate the grounds to just such ends.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, war monument and peace garden WM

See more modern photographs of Okinawa Battlesites here on my Flickr photostream.

 

Cherry Bombs: The Darker Side of Sakura in Japan


Ah, Gods of the Flaming Arrow ~ Title of a poem written in memory of the Jinrai Special Attack Corps as published in Asahi Shimbun, June 5, 1945

I’ve written previously about the happy history, immense popularity and deep symbolism of cherry blossoms threaded through the fabric of Japanese culture. In modern times, sakura are cause for celebration, exactly because of their beautifully ephemeral nature (see Budding Beliefs for more).

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However, there’s a darker side to this story embedded in recent Japanese history. During World War II, the historically rich history and moving symbolism of the cherry blossom was used as a propaganda tool with aims of not just stoking nationalism and militarism among the populace, but helping to motivate the Japanese people (and others such as the Okinawans) to sacrifice their very lives for country and emperor.

Japanese Military with Sakura

Japanese Military with Sakura

In the long lead-up to the Japanese war of imperial conquest and expansionism, sakura were used as hype to inspire “Japanese spirit” by exulting citizens to be “ready like the myriad cherry blossoms to scatter.” In other words, be ready to die. In the 1930s, poetry based around the symbolism of the sakura urged Japanese soldiers to endure sufferings as they themselves committed the most terrible atrocities in China (see the movie Flowers of War to see and feel just how bad the then Imperial Japanese could be, and read about other atrocities committed by Japan in Asian in The Railway Man and Nuking Japan), comparing their dead comrades to beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms. During the war, Imperial Japan often planted cherry trees as a means of visually and symbolically claiming occupied territory as Japanese.

Japanese school girls waving sakura at a departing Kamikaze

Japanese school girls waving sakura at a departing Kamikaze

Such mysticism seems to have taken root in that war-mongering version of Nippon. In the fall of 1944, Japanese senior military leaders pleaded that, during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, the Navy be permitted to “bloom as flowers of death.” The last message of the surrounded Japanese forces on Peleliu before they were annihilated was “Sakura, Sakura.”

Note the Cherry Blossom Nose Art

Note the Cherry Blossom Nose Art

Pic44Japanese Kamikaze pilots would paint sakura on the sides of their planes before embarking on suicide missions, and even took branches of such trees with them on their fools’ errand. In Japan’s resulting desperation after facing their impending wholesale defeat in 1945, falling cherry blossom petals came to represent the sacrifice of the country’s youth, woman and old men in suicide attacks…all in honor of their god-like emperor. The government even encouraged the Japanese people to believe that the souls of downed warriors were reincarnated in the blossoms found throughout Japan.

The "Baka Bomb"

The “Baka Bomb”

Ohka's Basic Cockpit

Ohka’s Basic Cockpit

Taken this idea to its ultimate extreme, the Japanese embarked on designing and producing large numbers of disastrous suicide missiles. The Yokosuka-made MXY-7 Ohka (桜花 Ōka, “cherry blossom”) was a purpose-built, rocket powered human-guided anti-shipping kamikaze attack plane employed by Japan towards the end of World War II. American sailors and GIs were quick to give it the exceedingly fitting nickname “Baka” (or “Baka-bomb), Japanese for “fool” or “idiot.”

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I’ve always been confused about the naming of the Ohka suicide plane. They are referred to as “cherry blossom,” but in Japanese that word is sakura. In terms of written languages, kanji, the intricate characters that seem impossible to draw let alone learn to read, are shared between Japan and China. Thus, Japanese kanji characters have more than one reading – one in Japanese and one in Chinese. Sakura is the Japanese reading of the kanji 桜, but in Chinese it is pronounced as “ou” or “oh.” Likewise, the Japanese reading of 花, “hana,” is pronounced in Chinese as “ka.” This character means flower, bloom or blossom or both languages. Thus, “cherry blossom” in Chinese is written as 桜花 and holds the same meaning in Japanese. The pronunciation just happens to be different. Turns out the Ohka is named correctly…if you’re Chinese. I have yet to find a credible explanation of why the Chinese name, when it seems that the Japanese despised the Chinese of the time….

An Ohka Carried under a Betty Bomber

An Ohka Carried under a Betty Bomber

kamikaze_betty_ohkaThe Ohka was necessarily carried underneath a mothership, usually a twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M2e “Betty” bomber, since it had to be carried within range of American shipping. However, a catapult-launched version was being prepared to be located in caves and shelters all along potential invasion beaches of Kyushu and Honshu, while a submarine-launched version was also in-work to provide a suicidal layered defense of the homeland (proper).

Massive 2,500+ Pound Warhead

Massive 2,500+ Pound Warhead

The only operational Ohka was the Model 11. Essentially a 2,646 pound bomb with wooden wings and a tail, the craft was powered by three Type 4 Model 1 Mark 20 solid-fuel rocket motors which allowed the missile to attain very high speed but with very limited range. The slow, heavily laden mothership needed to carry the missile within 23-25 miles of potential targets made the coupled pair extremely vulnerable to defending allied fighters. On release, the pilot would first glide towards the target, and when close enough, would fire the Ohka ’s three solid-fuel rockets, one at a time or in unison. The “pilot” would fly the missile using conventional aircraft controls all the way to impact against the ship intended for destruction.

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The manned-missile’s terminal approach to its target was almost unstoppable due to its excessively high speed, in excess of 400 mph in level flight and up to an unseen and almost unbelievable-for-the-time 620 mph in its terminal dive. This diving velocity was almost 200 mph faster than the fastest conventional fighters which saw action in the Pacific (the German Me-262 jet fighter had similar performance but was only seen defending Germany in 1945). From combat records, Ohkas struck less than ten American warships (although never a capital ship), sinking one American destroyer and damaging beyond repair three other ships.

A Betty Carrying an Ohka goes Down in Flames

A Betty Carrying an Ohka goes Down in Flames

During the Battle of Okinawa these perverse weapons – the Ohka specifically – achieved little success, given the sacrifice suffered: out of 185 total planes used in Ohka attacks, 118 were destroyed, taking the lives of 438 persons, including 56 suicide pilots and 372 mother-plane crew members.

Kadena AFB WWII Shelter

Kadena AFB WWII Shelter

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, historical marker on KAB WM-1But their presence is still darkens the mood of a few wooded areas of modern Kadena Air Force Base.  There, along one a main thoroughfare which cuts through the expansive base one can still find shelters from WWII which, when discovered by the invading American army on April 1st, 1945, contained various Ohka aircraft in various states of assembly, some even ready to employ.  As a nearby placard states, these shelters – and suicide rockets – came as a complete surprise to the Allies.  The Ohka attacks started against the fleet the very next week.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, wooded aircraft shelter 2 WM-1

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, filled aircraft shelter on KAB 2 WM-1Kamikazes in general caused a significant amount of death and destruction, and while they created terror in the hearts and minds of sailors throughout the Pacific, they also highlighted the need to avoid an invasion of Japan proper at all costs. During World War II, about 3,860 kamikaze pilots were killed and although only about ~15% of kamikaze attacks managed to hit a ship. However, these strikes when successful were devastating: sinking at least 34 combat ships – including three small aircraft carriers, they damaged another 368 others and killed over 4,900 sailors and wounded another 4,800 in the process. Roughly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank, and from casualties, it was safer to be a Marine ashore fighting the Japanese on land than a sailor at sea during the Battle of Okinawa. You can read about my scuba dives visiting the Wreck of the USS Emmons, an American Destroyer/Fast Minesweeper sunk by Kamikazes off the coast of Okinawa in early April of 1945.

Bunker at Atsugi

Bunker at Atsugi

Av_J_4507_Baka_p211_WOn the surface, it’s hard to feel any compassion for these pilots who would so knowingly die in the pursuit of nothing more than mass-murder. But then again, we give medals to our troops – often posthumously – that sacrifice to the same end. In the final analysis, many of these boys went to their deaths scared, alone and with no other choice, no matter the happy and brave faces they hid behind. As Hayashi Ichizo, a Kamikaze pilot puts it, “It is easy to talk about death in the abstract, as the ancient philosophers discussed. But it is real death I fear, and I don’t know if I can overcome the fear. Even for a short life, there are many memories. For someone who had a good life, it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel. To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor….”

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But for each Japanese Kamikaze who died, we must account and remember the over 13 allied servicemen who also met their demise. To the victor go the spoils of course, but losses on all sides should and need to be honored.  The Ohka pilots, members of the Jinrai Butai (“Thunder Gods Corps”), are remembered in Japan at various locations, including Ohka Park in Kashima City, the Ohka Monument in Kanoya City, the Kamakura Ohka Monument at Kenchō-ji Kamakura, and the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Crews Briefing a "Thunder Gods" Attack

Crews Briefing a “Thunder Gods” Attack

“I remember vividly the change in the war situation, and there are painful memories of saying farewell with tears day after day to rosy-cheeked men departing never to return. Filled with the emotion of all Japanese people, I write these words praying for the repose of the souls of these young soldiers.” ~ Sohachi Okamura, naval press correspondent at Kanoya airbase in 1945, as quoted on a modern Kanoya City memorial

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“Above the East China Sea,” a Book Review


“Children, I’m singing you the story of Miyako

The beautiful, the blue, the deepening indigo,

And the red soil made from crushed bodies

That lay down their genealogy of bones.

The Spirits are whispering to you: all of this is what is.”

~from The Ocean of the Dead, by Yonaha Mikio

Princess Lilly Girls

Princess Lilly Girls

Above the East China Sea is one of the few books – in English – that takes place on Okinawa and doesn’t directly involve the “Typhoon of Steel” which struck that island paradise in 1945. Yes, war flows throughout the book, and at first glance it could be branded as yet another attempt at telling the dramatically sad tale of the Princess Lilly Corps and other such sufferings of the Okinawan people. Alternatively, the work could also over-simplistically be viewed as a “coming of age story” as its central characters are both teenaged girls.

But it is so much more…than either. Intertwining dual storylines of two troubled teenaged girls, one modern American and the other an Okinawan teenager of 1945, the book cleverly makes a spiritual connection between these lives which, at first, seem rather incongruous, both in focus and in time.

A Princess Lilly

A Princess Lilly

The real star of this book, however, is the Okinawan culture, and how it bonds lives across seventy years and offers healing to those which have suffered profound loss through its enduring strength of ancient tradition combined with the redeeming power of family love.

Describing the main characters or the horrors of war that serve as the backdrop for half the story is really not necessary here. Read the book! Needless to say, I have visited and blogged, first-hand, about exactly the things the author, Sarah Bird, does so well in describing through her written words. See my blogs about the Typhoon of Steel, Haebaru Tunnel Hospital and the Princess Lilly Corps for photo essays that may help illuminate some of the harsher aspects of Above the East China Sea which may be hard for a reader to wrap their minds around.

Today's Peace Prayer Park, with the "suicide cliffs" in the background

Today’s Peace Prayer Park, with the “suicide cliffs” in the background

Having spent now three tours with the US Military on Okinawa, and well into my 7th year living on this island that my kids and I call our “second home,” I feel that I’m pretty well-versed on Okinawan culture because I chose to be by taking a very active role in trying to experience and understand it. The vast number of Americans that pass through Okinawa though, have not. It’s all too easy for ego-centric Americans to assume it’s just another part of Japan, and that somehow we have the right to do what we will since America did, after all, win a war “they” started.

But Sarah offers some great insights to Okinawa and its wonderful cultural heritage. Okinawans are not Japanese, no more than Hawaiians are descended from North America; they offered no violence and took part in no aggression outside of their historical kingdom’s boundaries until invaded and subdued by the Japanese. And they remain caught in the middle between American and Japan, just like they were back in WWII.

Princess Lilly classmates and teachers before the war

Princess Lilly classmates and teachers before the war

Sure, the characters may be a bit overdone and over-the-top in personality and deed. Yes, there are some incongruities with time and place. Some elements of the culture are somewhat artificially combined. And certainly there is little comment on the ultra-slow moving traffic! But all these minor transgressions are rather easily forgotten. Besides, one really has to know the geography of the island and the scheduling of festivals to truly appreciate these small nuances.

bird1Above the East China Sea is a remarkable tale of not just how war, loss and suffering shapes lives, but its central themes of family, friendship, and love all transcend time. When placed within the rich tapestry of the Okinawa culture and heritage, Sarah does a rather clever melding of stories from East and West concurrently and rather obliquely from both spiritual and human planes. And even though I have a solid working knowledge of the cultural aspects of the book’s storyline from my knowledge and experience with the Okinawans, Sarah’s chronicle remained suspenseful until the very end of the novel. My only issue? Perhaps the story came together, finally, just a little too cleanly and too easily…. But most importantly, Sarah shows great deference to what I believe she feels as an obligation to be respectful to Okinawans. She is hugely successful in portraying their beliefs, their history, and their culture as accurately as possibly. And therein lies the genius of this book!


Sarah is the author of eight novels. The ninth, Above the East China Sea, was published in 2014. Sarah has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers series; a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; New York Public Library’s 25 Books to Remember list; Elle Magazine Reader’s Prize; People Magazine’s Page Turners; Library Journal’s Best Novels; and a National Magazine Silver Award for her columns in Texas Monthly. In 2012 Sarah was voted Best Austin Author for the fourth time by the readers of the Austin Chronicle; was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and received the Illumine Award for Excellence in Fiction from the Austin Library Foundation. In 2013 she was selected to be The University of Texas’ Libraries Distinguished Author speaker, and was featured on NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour.

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She has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, Hemdale Studio, and several independent producers. Sarah’s screen adaptation of her sixth novel, The Flamenco Academy, is currently in development as well as two original screenplays. She has contributed articles to The New York Times, Salon, O Magazine, and is a columnist for Texas Monthly. Sarah, who moved all over the world growing up with her air force family, lives in Austin, Texas.

Traces of War: Life and Death in the Ahasha & Sennin Caves on Ie Island


 405512“Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped. Governments don’t live together, people live together. With governments you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight. Well I’ve come here to give you either one, or get either one from you. I came here like this so you’ll know my word of death is true. And that my word of life is then true….” ~Josey Wales’ two tales of death and life, The Outlaw Josey Wales

“The only reason my mother didn’t kill me was that she never went to school,” smiled our Okinawan tour guide during a tour of Ahashagama on Ie Jima. “She was never brain-washed by the faculty and the government….” (See Loyal Soul Monument for more on the militarization of Okinawa in the years preceding WWII)  When war came to Okinawa, Setsuko was less than a year old and was hiding with her family on the main island of Okinawa. She had a remarkably chipper attitude about the whole thing; I guess there’s really no other way to really be once you realize that words of life and death can be spoken in such casual ways as they were on Okinawa back in 1945.

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Okinawans continue to tell their wartime accounts least younger generations forget the appalling consequences of war. Like the oral traditions of just a few generations ago, such are the ways the Okinawans preserve the honor and memories of those who tragically lost their lives in such horrifically meaningless ways. With more and more of remaining firsthand witnesses to the carnage passing away, such frightful tales are necessarily being expressed more and more through memorial sites left for future contemplation. At the end of the day, to the Okinawans, the moral of all these chronicles and memorials is the same: the inescapable shocking costs of war.

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, coastal entranceTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, memorial stone 2Jody and I recently visited a nearby island to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. Little did I realize the traces of war that remain so blatantly palpable on that tiny piece of earth. Ie Jima, a small island off central Okinawa’s west coast reachable only by boat, memorializes a tale of two caves utilized by the locals as shelter during the Battle of Okinawa. One cave’s narrative involves words of life. At Niya-Thiya Gama (gama means cave), over 1,000 people, while seeking sanctuary inside, survived the invasion and fight on Ie Island throughout the second half of April, 1945. The locals still refer to this cave as Sen-nin Gama, which translates loosely to “The Cave of 1000 People.”

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, Jody at a cave exit to the ocean

Fertility Stone

Fertility Stone

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, site marker plaqueBecause of this miracle of life during Okinawa’s Typhoon of Steel where roughly 1/3rd of all Okinawans died in a few short weeks, inside this cave is located a sacred stone, a fertility stone, sometimes called Kodakara-ishi (子宝石, “Child Stone”). Many come here to harness the “special power” that permeates such “Power Spots,” the phrase the very superstitious Okinawans use to describe such important locales. The stone here is believed to be imbued with a living god, and not only does it help those wishing to conceive new life, but it can foretell gender before birth. According to legend, if a woman who picks up the stone feels that it is heavy, her offspring will be a boy. If the stone feels light, the baby will be a girl.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Niya-thiya Sennin Cave, sacred power fertility stone and power spot

According to the Japanese sign on the outside of the Niya-Thiya Cave, around March of the Lunar Calendar each year a prayer ritual lead by a female priestess is held inside the cave, although I have not been able to confirm this.

Ahasha Gama

Ahasha Gama

wallTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, Jody negotiates an entrance to the cave 2The tale, however, takes a dark, somber turn at Ahashagama (Ahasha Cave) where there are only words of death. Seemingly forgotten after the war, the cave was sealed during the war and left unmolested for over two decades. Many probably wanted to forget what happened there. But finally, and rightfully, the cave was opened and excavated in 1971, twenty-six years after the end of World War II. In short order, the horrific rumors that locals knew to be true was confirmed by forensic analysis: the remains of about 150 people – civilian villagers including men, women and children – were still there, serving silent yet inescapable witness to the mass murder-suicide which occurred there. The Imperial Japanese Army had given the civilians grenades and ordered everyone to kill themselves in order to evade capture. Even so, a few people realized such folly and survived their cavemates’ dreadful demise. Unfortunately, words of death like these are not uncommon on Okinawa where mass suicides and murders were perpetrated over surrender and capture, sometimes by choice, mostly through coercion, and even by force.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, modern cave site 2

AJ201304250011MTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, plaque at the entranceOkinawa’s anguish over these widespread civilian suicides is sharpened by the horrible realization that soldiers from Japan’s main islands always encouraged suicide over capture. Worse, they often used intimidation and bullying to pressure many into taking such drastic actions, and at times murdered civilians who refused. In a diorama at Peace Prayer Park, the Okinawa memorial to WWII, a spotlight glints off a bayonet held by a fierce-looking Japanese soldier who stands over an Okinawan family huddled in a cave, the mother trying to smother her baby’s cries. “At the hands of Japanese soldiers, civilians were massacred, forced to kill themselves and each other,” reads the caption. Nearby, a life-size photo shows the grisly aftermath of a family killed by a hand grenade.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ahasha Cave, entrance to the cave

On Geruma Island, part of the Kerama Islands just a few miles off Okinawa’s southwestern coast, Takejiro Nakamura attests first-hand to atrocities. In 1945, he was just a boy, a 15-year-old student when the American invasion started.

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

“For a long time, the Japanese Imperial Army announced that, on other islands, the women had been raped and killed, and the men were tied at the wrists and tanks were driven over them,” he states flatly. He claims that, as Japanese defenses crumbled on his home island in late March 1945, 56 of the 130 residents there committed suicide. Fleeing with family and neighbors, he ended up in one small cave where ten of his fellow citizens had already killed themselves. They decided to do the same.

1,000 Person Cave

1,000 Person Cave

“I heard my sister calling out, ‘Kill me now, hurry’, ” Mr. Nakamura said, recalling how his 20-year-old sister panicked at the approach of American soldiers. His mother took a rope and strangled her. Seeing this, he attempted the same. “I tried to also strangle myself with a rope,” he recalled, lifting his now weather-beaten hands to his neck. “But I kept breathing. It is really tough to kill yourself.” Minutes later, before his mother had time to kill him as well, the Americans took them captive.

Cave Alter

Cave Alter

His mother lived well into her 80’s. “We talked often about the war,” Mr. Nakamura said. “But to the end, she never once talked about killing her daughter….” The iron in such words of death would shatter her already broken heart, nor could it offer any lasting catharsis for her damaged soul. Instead, she, like all those who have suffered war, should always struggle to find words of life.

Words of Life Finally Work

Words of Life Finally Work

“I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another,” Josey says through gritted teeth, squinting but looking the Indian Chief squarely in the eyes.

Ten Bears, in full war paint with his scouts and warriors surrounding Josey, contemplates such words. “It’s sad that governments are chiefed by the double tongues. There is iron in your words of death for all Comanche to see, and so there is iron in your words of life. No signed paper can hold the iron. It must come from men. The words of Ten Bears carries the same iron of life and death. It is good that warriors such as we meet in the struggle of life… or death.”

“It shall be life.”

Traces of War: Former Japanese Naval Underground HQ on Okinawa


“War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing….”  ~ War, by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, map of the underground headquarters

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the suffering of the OkinawansOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, timeline of war displayOne 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.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, map display of US armed forces landing operations on Okinawa during WWII

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, Flag Officer's room chiseled into the rockOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the suffering of the Okinawans 2The 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.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, military operations in and around Oroku, Okinawa, June 1945

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, larger room in the complexOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, signal communications room undergroundA 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.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, lonely wet passageways underground

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, wall riddled with a hand-gernade when committed suicideOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, narrow chiseled stairwayNow 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.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, wall damaged by gernade explosions used in suicides of Japanese Naval Underground staff

Minoru_OtatomishironavyHQ08Minoru 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.

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Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, wall riddled with a hand-gernade when committed suicideOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, alter left from WWII days of 1945After 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.

The HQ's Medical Facility

The HQ’s Medical Facility

Homemade Bayonet

Homemade Bayonet

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, Japanese Naval Officer's WWII uniform recovered from the tunnelsAt 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.”

Ota's Death Poem is at the far end of the room.

Ota’s Death Poem is at the far end of the room.

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, anchor memorial monument flag staffOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, recovered WWII artifacts from the tunnelsThe 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.

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground,  anchor memorial monument

 

Life finds a way....

Life finds a way….

Long shadow of the past....

Long shadow of the past….

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.

Ota Commanding the Pitched and Hopeless Battle

Ota Commanding the Pitched and Hopeless Battle

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.

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the agony of the Okinawan People

 

Price: 440 yen for adults and 220 yen for elementary and junior high students entrance fee.  Younger children are free.  Yen only is accepted.

Hours: Year-round, 0830 – 1730 (Jul – Sept), 0830 – 1700 (Oct – Jun)

Address: 236 Tomigusuku, Tomigusuku, Okinawa Japan

Phone: 098/850-4055

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