Seeing Red: Khmer Rouge and The Killing Fields

 Well you’ll work harder | With a gun in your back | For a bowl of rice a day

Slave for soldiers | Till you starve | Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one | Now you can go where they get things done

What you need, my son…

Is a holiday in Cambodia | Where people dress in black

A holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot!

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll do what you’re told

A holiday in Cambodia | Where the slums got so much soul

~ Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial stupa WM

Buddhist Memorial Stupa

The tall Buddhist memorial stood in relative silence, highlighted against the bright blue skies, appearing to lean in against the fast-moving puffy white clouds. The heat of the morning was coming on strong, keeping most people in close proximity to whatever shade could be had. But it is the chilling sight of the over 8,000 human skulls stacked tier after tier within the memorial stupa that stuns most into the deep, contemplative silence that permeates this place.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), skulls in the stupa WM

Over 8,000 Skulls are Interred within the Stupa

The skulls came from the shallow, sunken mass graves all found within 100 yards of this their final resting place. And all are eerily marked with colored dots to show age, sex, and the weapon which brought their previous owner’s demise.

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim skulls at rest in the pagoda WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), map to the Choeung Ek filling fields WMThe Killing Fields (Khmer: វាលពិឃាត) are a number of sites spread all over Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were systemically murdered and secretly buried by the Khmer Rouge regime during its savage rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. The scale, scope and premeditated nature of these crimes is on a scale that only be rightfully recognized as state-sponsored auto-genocide. Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “killing fields” after his escape from the regime; the movie of the same name is set against his captivity and suffering under the brutal régime.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave at the Killing Fields (Nath painting

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), women and children mass grave by the killing tree WM

One of the many mass graves.

It is hard to wrap your head around these kinds of numbers. We experience tragedy in America measured normally in single digits (the recent church shootings in the south), or perhaps hundreds (say a plane crash), or in very rare instances, thousands (terrorist attacks of 9-11). However, what would happen in our country and how we would respond and attempt recovery if tragedy visited on a scale that was say 100 or even 1,000 times higher in order of magnitude?

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim bones WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), show your respect WMAnalysis of 20,000 mass grave sites across Cambodia indicate there are at least 1.3 million victims of summary execution. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from an absolute minimum of 1.7 million dead, but all indications point to a number of somewhere between 2 and 3 million. Even the Khmer Rouge themselves acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to Vietnam’s subsequent invasion in 1979. Most accounts settle on a likely death toll which approaches 2.2 million. Given that in 1975 the population of Cambodia was somewhere south of 8 million, somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 people alive in the late 1970s was methodically erased by the government. There is not a family in Cambodia that wasn’t personally touch by devastation.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), human remains (teeth) WM

Victims’ teeth we found scattered about.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), do not walk on the mass grave WMOutside, on the grounds of this memorial park, I was equally as stunned to find human teeth and other bone fragments scattered about as if just tossed there just yesterday. Our guide explained to us that there are still so many people buried here in shallow graves that their bones and clothes continue to be resurrected as the ground erodes away with heavy rains and tourists’ many feet. And those exhumations by the Vietnamese in the 1980s only collected skulls and large bones in order to try and assess the magnitude of the murder which occurred there. There are boxes spread across the park so that found bones can be placed for later collection; at other sites, posted signs plead for people not to walk on bones and the mass grave sites.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), don't step on bone WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), jaws and teeth WMThe best known of Cambodia’s many Killing Fields is located at once was the village of Choeung Ek. Today, the site has been almost subsumed by the creeping urban sprawl of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Here visitors find a memorial park and Buddhist stupa (burial tower), built around the mass graves of over 14,000 victims, most of whom were executed after being tortured at the infamous S-21 Prison about 10 miles away in Phnom Penh. Many dozens of exhumed mass graves remain visible.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), rags of victims' clothes WM

Bone fragments are everywhere.

Bone fragments are everywhere.

The place is at once fascinatingly horrifying, and rightfully so. But to think that it is just one of the thousands of other such sites around the country where the Khmer Rouge practiced auto-genocide during the late 1970s is hard to comprehend.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave 450 victims WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victims' stares WMThe Khmer Rouge eventually executed almost everyone suspected of even remote connections with the former or foreign governments, as well as almost every professional and anyone with any type of education…and even those with poor eyesight in a vain effort to genetically improve their mix. Ethnicities which were undesirable, like the Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham, along with the religious such as Cambodian Christians and the local Buddhist monkhood were equally targeted and suffered almost wholesale destruction. What makes this genocide so abhorrent is that, unlike the Nazis who visited death upon others, the Cambodians did it to themselves.

Victim's clothes still litter the grounds.

Victim’s clothes still litter the grounds.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killed by hand at the Killing FieldsR.J. Rummel, an acclaimed analyst of worldwide political killings, highlights the Khmer Rouge’s clear genocidal intent. He states that of the estimated 40,000-60,000 monks in 1975, only between 800 and 1,000 survived to carry on their religion. We know for a fact that of 2,680 monks documented living in eight specific monasteries in 1975, a mere 70 remained living as of 1979. The Khmer Rouge destroyed 95 percent of the country’s Buddhist temples, turning them instead into warehouses or using them for other mundane and degrading uses. But it’s much worse, argues Rummel. Within the very short span of a year or so, a small clique of Khmer Rouge criminals managed to effectively wipe out the center of Cambodian culture, along with its spiritual incarnation and its social and governmental institutions.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), the killing fields' killing tree WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), evidence of killing tools WMThe executed were buried in mass graves throughout the country, at night and with loudspeaker music playing in order to help escape detection and hide the crimes. Since ammunition was so prized, executions were most often carried out using farm tools, like spades, axes, iron rods, wagon axles, knives, or at times from simple sharpened bamboo. And in the case of the “killing tree,” small children and infants were swung so their heads were battered by the tree’s hard trunk, then thrown away like garbage into a pit alongside their dead parents. The régime took the approach that if one member of a family was sentenced to death, the whole familial line had to be destroyed to avoid any chance of future revenge; “…to cut the grass you have to remove all the roots.” Another guiding principle of that time was, “better to kill an innocent by mistake than let one enemy go…. To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss….”

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killing tools WM

Items used in detainment and execution.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial friendship bracelets WM

Friendship bracelets.

Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was called under the Khmer Rouge) in 1979, ending this dark reign of terror. Late that year, when United Nations and Red Cross officials were able to physically take stock of the dire situation, a further 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to the widespread destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot. International aid saved a large portion of these Cambodians.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), inhuman humans

Small museum on the premises.

Small museum on the premises.

But for me there was a deeper realization during my visit. It’s not just sadness that I felt for the victims still buried or on display at The Killing Fields, but for Cambodia as a whole. The sadness became wider and deeper than I had expected, after realizing that everyone in Cambodia, then and now, was and in many ways, remain a victim. I believe that most everyone were left with nightmares. Even those child soldiers of the régime that were forced to join the revolution, who were then methodically brainwashed and turned to even kill their own parents. Almost every tourist that goes to Cambodia goes to see Angkor Wat; over 30% now go to visit The Killing Fields as well. In an odd congruity, both sites offer a profound sense of spirituality.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave missing heads WM

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

We ended up seeing The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and its associated prison S-21 on the same day. Our guide, who was only a small child during the time of The Killing Fields but who suffered personal loss in her own family, called it our “sad-sad” day of visiting Cambodia. And she’s absolutely right: The Killing Fields is not a happy place. Nor is there a happy history or stimulating story to learn about. But like with the other truly horrific events of humanity, we don’t get to pick and choose what should and should not be shared, exactly because it is a shared history. In Cambodian, like most other countries which have suffered a dark, sad past, the view is that light must be allowed to shine in on the darkness, destroying shadows where such evil can continue to lurk.

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

And in the heat of our Cambodian holiday, the light shines brightly indeed.

Fortress of Peace: A Buddhist Arsenal on Okinawa

This is a Buddhist  Temple.  And a former American nuclear missile site....

This is a Buddhist Temple. And a former American nuclear missile site….

Driving up to the Buddhist Temple entrance, I stopped at the gate where a well-dressed older Okinawan man motioned me to stop. I rolled my passenger window down and greeted him good day.

“Konichiwa!” I said with a big smile.

“Konichiwa,” came the man’s reply, a bit less emphatic.

“Visit?” I asked as I motioned towards the hardened silos ahead in view. He didn’t understand. “Tour?” “Photos?” I finally try as I point to the cameras on my passenger seat and then to the imposing structure just ahead….

Finally, out of desperation, I mimic the launching of a rocket, trace a ballistic arc through the sky, and then mime an explosion, but with appropriate sound effects. Ah, now he gets it…and after signing in with my name and vehicle license plate, I’m directed where to park.

Mace-B Missile being Loaded in Silo

Mace-B Missile being Loaded in Silo

Entrance to the Silo Museum

Entrance to the Silo Museum

Silo's Transformed Interior

Silo’s Transformed Interior

You see, Okinawa is home to the Okinawa Training Center of the Buddhist sect of Soka Gakkai International, a place also known as their “Peace Fortress.” In the early 1970s, SGI’s President Daisaku Ikeda saw the abandoned, dismantled nuclear missile site and was immediately struck by a vision: what better way to utilize such a facility than to dedicate it to peace. In 1984, he achieved this vision when the site was ultimately transformed and officially opened as a base for world peace. The missile silos now provide meeting spaces and offers two free museums, one contained in a restored silo which tells the story of nuclear weapons on Okinawa, and the other which features the story of the sect’s peace movement.

Silo Transformed into a Museum

Silo Transformed into a Museum

Back in the fall of 1962, the US and the USSR teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation after American spy planes discovered Russian-based nuclear missiles deployed on communist Cuba, a short 90 miles from the Florida keys. These atomic weapons placed large swaths of continental America within range of little-notice nuclear attack, something the President and US Government at the time simply would not stand for. The standoff sparked a two-week showdown between the world’s nuclear-armed superpowers that has been claimed as “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

The Onna Site nearing Completion.

The Onna Site nearing Completion.

However, a short six months prior, a potential parallel drama was being played out on the other side of the world. On the tiny island of Okinawa, the US had deployed short-range nuclear missiles, nearly identical to those the Russians placed in the Caribbean, but ones which (unnecessarily) targeted China.

Nuclear Missile Strike Range from Okinawa, 1962

Nuclear Missile Strike Range from Okinawa, 1962

The presence of these missiles on Okinawa, and more widely in Japan, still has not been fully or officially disclosed. But people have started talking: specifically, the people who were responsible for the maintenance and launching of these terrifyingly devastating weapons.

The Base for World Peace as it stands Today

The Base for World Peace as it stands Today

498th TMG PatchIn the early 1960s, men of the 498th Tactical Missile Group (TMG) were the stewards of America’s latest weapon in the nuclear toolkit — the TM-76 “Mace.” The 40 foot long Mace missile, weighing over 8 tons and costing $500k each, packed a 1.1-megaton nuclear warhead that, at many times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, could annihilate anything within a three-mile radius of ground zero. Or, it could create a crater 20 stories deep when employed against hardened, buried targets.

Mace Test Firing

Mace Test Firing

Some of those men, having trained intensively for months in the states destined for combat postings overseas assumed they would find themselves in Europe. Instead, much to their surprise, they found themselves on the long island-hopping flight to the far reaches of the Pacific, destination Okinawa.

Why and how? Well, the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, the one which ended the U.S.-led Allied Occupation of mainland Japan, granted America continued control and administration of Okinawa – which lasted until 1972. After the communist transformation of China in 1949, followed by the hot and almost nuclear war in Korea in the first half of the 1950s, America rapidly transformed this peaceful sliver of land into the linchpin of its Cold War plans for Asia.

Mace Missiles being Transported through Gushikawa Village, Okinawa

Mace Missiles being Transported through Gushikawa Village, Okinawa

Starting in 1954, nuclear armed aircraft (see Nuking Japan for my very personal history involving nuclear bombs) and atomic artillery shells were deployed to and stockpiled on Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa. These were the first of what would amount to at least 1,200 atomic weapons that would remain until their final removal in 1972. But that was just the start. Starting in the early 1960s massive construction projects were in-work building semi-hardened silos designed to shelter and launch some of the earliest nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to be deployed.

The Silo's 2nd Level tells the MACE Story

The Silo’s 2nd Level tells the MACE Story


War Wounds Remain:  Art on  Display in the Silo

War Wounds Remain: Art on Display in the Silo

Okinawa Traces of War 2015, Mace B Missile Site, preserved silo and museum bottom level war art 3Back then, just 15 years after the Typhoon of Steel (see my blog of the same name for more on the Battle of Okinawa) that overtook Okinawa during WWII, the island still visibly bore the scars of war. Within view of the rusting hulks of war wrecks still lying just offshore, Bolo Point in the village of Yomitan became the first of Okinawa’s nuclear-missile sites to become operational in 1962. The site held eight Mace missiles aimed west over the East China Sea, ready to, as the TMG put it back then, “defend the island, protect the institution of democracy and halt the spread of communism.” The missiles were kept ready to fire at a moment’s notice.


Although some surely thought their posting to the sunny and sea-surrounded sub-tropical island was a dream, the events of October 1962 dashed such hopes. The missile force found out about the Russian deployment of missiles well before the American public, and from that moment on, life for the missilers became much more serious.

Russia had stationed nuclear weapons outside its borders for the first time, missiles capable of reaching Washington D.C. in fifteen minutes with a megaton warhead. President Kennedy took their deployment as a personal affront, branding Khrushchev “an immoral gangster.” The President demanded immediate removal by the Russians publicly, but secretly ordered his top military generals and admirals draw up plans to bomb the Cuban sites and even invade if the Russians refused.

A standoff between the world’s nuclear superpowers ensued. The Pentagon raised the nation’s Defense Condition (“DEFCON”) to TWO. The Okinawan missilers were told that DEFCON 2 meant a declaration of nuclear war was possible within 15 minutes; if DEFCON 1 was reached, missile launch could be expected within 5 minutes.

One Missile = One Chinese City Destroyed = 1 Million Dead

One Missile = One Chinese City Destroyed = 1 Million Dead

It looked as if launch orders might actually be received as events began to spiral out of control on the other side of the world. The Cubans shot down a U.S. spy plane flying over sovereign Cuban territory, and the American Navy dropped explosives on Russian submarines within a self-declared maritime exclusion zone surrounding Cuba, forcing them to surface. Okinawa braced itself for an escalation to DEFCON 1 at any moment. Sealed launch codes were delivered to launch sites, and personnel were locked in place. The world – both eastern and western hemispheres – was seconds away from midnight on the nuclear clock.

Luckily for everyone, those launch orders were never issued. On October 28, 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev finally struck a secret deal whereby the Soviets promised to withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba in return for promises by the United States not to invade the island and assurances we would pull atomic rockets out of NATO-aligned Turkey.

Art Displayed along the Silos' Lower Level

Art Displayed along the Silos’ Lower Level

But where would have the Maces of Okinawa struck if and when they were launched? The missilers didn’t know for sure, but a safe (and pragmatically the only) assumption was somewhere in China. The relatively short-range of the missiles based on Okinawa put almost the entire USSR tantalizingly just out of reach. At the time, US intelligence leaned toward a belief that China was largely aligned with the Soviet Union. However, the Sino-Soviet split of the time is now well-documented, and highlights one of the worst intelligence failures of the Cold War. Given the existing and serious tensions between Russia and China, it is highly likely that Chairman Mao would have sat out any such Soviet-American Armageddon. On the other hand, had the Okinawan Maces annihilated Shanghai and Beijing – both cities easily within range – killing possibly a hundred million Chinese, the U.S. and China would have been most certainly at war, resulting no doubt in WWIII.

In any case, most agree that the U.S. missiles on Okinawa – if they were known by the Russians – made the island a potential Soviet target. There was a very real chance of Okinawa evaporating in a preemptive or retaliatory Russian strike. JFK in 1962 had accused Castro of turning Cuba “into the first Latin American country to become a target for nuclear war.”   But now it seems clear that the residents of Okinawa were also pawns (see my related blog Pawn Shop) in a far larger power play among distant superpowers that apparently cared little about the civilians whose lives their nuclear weapons were supposed to protect.

Emotional  Art on Display in the Silo's Lower Level

Emotional Art on Display in the Silo’s Lower Level

Throughout the 1960s, neither the government of Japan nor the U.S. admitted that there were nuclear weapons on Okinawa. The Japanese government didn’t want to confirm officially the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on Okinawa because they hoped to avoid any responsibility for them. This kind of thinking has resulted in a big rift between Japan’s leadership and its ordinary citizens.

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

The Japanese government’s hypocrisy in pretending it knew nothing about U.S. nuclear weapons in Okinawa was necessary in order to maintain face with its public, especially since in 1954 the crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon #5 were mistakenly irradiated in the U.S. H-bomb test at Bikini Island. As a result more than 30 million Japanese people sign a petition in protest. Then, in 1956 the Ryukyu Assembly of Elected Officials demands the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from Okinawa and any other islands. In 1965 a hydrogen bomb is “lost” from the deck of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga 130 km off Okinawa’s coast, and in 1966 Iejima Island residents successfully blocked the deployment of U.S. Nike nuclear-tipped antiaircraft missiles. But it was only in 1971, when America and Japan were negotiating for the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty that the U.S. government publicly admitted to their presence for the first time. And it did so by demanding that Tokyo help pay for the removal of nuclear arms from Okinawa! Wow.

1,200 Nukes in Okinawa!

1,200 Nukes in Okinawa!

My visit to the Temple was fairly awe-inspiring. I consider myself not prone to naiveté, but I had assumed that Japan was left nuclear-free per their wishes. Silly boy! As one of the missilers put it, “We [Americans] were all just kids doing a man’s job. The American military machine taught us that it was our right to take anything or go anywhere we wanted. But we never realized that people didn’t want us or our weapons on their island.” To America, Okinawa then was neither American nor Japanese, but solid ground on which to station a far reach of our war machine. A machine that of course included nuclear weapons.

Peace Sculptures on the Grounds

Peace Sculptures on the Grounds

The Base of World Peace located at the Site

The Base of World Peace located at the Site

The Statue Standing over the Silo Museum

The Statue Standing over the Silo Museum

In the opening of the Monument to World Peace at the site of this relic of a different age, President Ikeda proclaimed, “We turn this missile site into a foundation for our thoughts and reflections on peace, not only for Japan, but for the whole world. Let’s preserve these remnants forever. Let’s leave them as evidence that humanity once engaged in something so foolish as war!”

Unfortunately, it seems that we, along with the majority of humanity, continue to act so foolishly. I however stand firm for change. In leaving the Memorial Hall today, I signed the SGI’s roster, officially making me “Cosmo Politan” World Citizen #90,761. Each of us should always endeavor to Choose Hope…Choose Peace…Choose Life. Even if it’s one of us at a time.

Onna MACE-B Site 4, Now a Fortress of Peace

Onna MACE-B Site 4, Now a Fortress of Peace



More on Nuclear Weapons Deployed to Okinawa:

Some of the weapons deployed to Okinawa included the B43, B57 and of course the Mace cruise missile. The B43, put in service starting in 1961, was an air-dropped variable yield nuclear weapon used by a wide variety of aircraft, and was one of two primary nuclear weapons that I was trained to employ while flying the A-6E Intruder in the 1990s. The B43 was built in two variants, each with five different “dial-a-yield” options, and 2,000 weapons were produced through 1965. The B43 was 18 inches (45 cm) in diameter, about 13’ feet long, and around 2,100 pounds. Explosive yield varied from 70 kilotons to 1 megaton of TNT. The BDU-8 pictured below is the practice “shape” for this nuclear weapon and was recovered by Okinawans when it fell outside of the bombing range in Ie Island.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Nuchi du Takara Anti-War Peace Museum, nuclear bomb shapes lost off-range WM

The B57 nuclear bomb was a tactical nuclear weapon developed during the Cold War, entering production in 1963. The bomb was designed to be dropped from high-speed tactical aircraft and was specifically streamlined for supersonic flight. It was about 10 feet long, about 15 inches in diameter, and weighed about 500 pounds. The B57 was produced in six versions with explosive yields ranging from 5 to 20 kilotons. 3,100 weapons were built through 1967, the last of which was retired in June 1993. The BDU-12 Pictured above is the practice shape for this nuclear weapon, and was recovered in the same fashion as the shape described above.


The Martin Mace (TM-76, MGM-13 or CGM-13) is a tactical cruise missile designed to destroy ground targets. It was developed from the MGM-1 Matador, and reached operational status in 1959. Mace was launched from a transporter-erector-launcher or a hardened bunker using a solid rocket booster for initial acceleration and an Allison J33-A-41 turbojet for sustained flight. The Goodyear Aircraft Corporation developed ATRAN (Automatic Terrain Recognition And Navigation, a radar map-matching system) in which the return from a radar scanning antenna was matched with a series of “maps” carried on board. The missile could reach Mach 0.85 (~600 mph) over a 540-mile range (low-level 750’), or 1,285 miles at high altitude. Mace “B” incorporated a jam-proof inertial guidance system (designated TM-76B), with range exceeding 1,300 miles. The Air Force first deployed Mace to West Germany, where six missile squadrons served with just short of 200 weapons. In South Korea, the 58th Tactical Missile Group became combat ready with 60 weapons in 1959, but was relocated to semi-hardened sites on Okinawa in 1961-62 with the 498th Tactical Missile Group.


Sources used in crafting this blog:

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).


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.”


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.


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….”


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



Okinawan Traces of War: Ie Island’s Municipal Pawn Shop

“The isolated pawn casts gloom over the entire chessboard.”  ~ Aaron Nimzowitsch


The pawn in chess is the game’s most numerous piece, meant to represent foot infantry, and generally is considered its weakest. In historical terms the pawn actually reflected the rag-tag nature of medieval foot combatants: that of simply armed peasants. Chess begins with pawns shielding all the other pieces, the higher strata’s of society.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, Jody biking by 2 WM

lonelypawn-180031So too was the “Municipal Pawn Shop” on the Japanese island of Ie (pronounced “EEE-a”), part of the Okinawan prefecture and located only mere kilometers off Okinawa’s central west coast. Iejima was invaded by the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division in April of 1945 as a supporting action to the larger Battle of Okinawa occurring around the Ryukyu Islands, but primarily on Okinawa proper. Read more about Weather the Typhoon of Steel from some of my other blogs.

The Pawn Shop is located down towards the lower left.

The Pawn Shop is located down towards the lower left.

bloody_chess_by_thanatosofnicte-d494k17The beaches of Ie, like Okinawa’s, were not defended. Rather, the 5,000-7,000 Japanese defenders had dug into well-fortified positions inland, but also utilized natural caves wherever they occurred. During the fierce fighting that occurred on Iejima, the Americans suffered 1,120 casualties, including 172 KIA. The Japanese military suffered about 5,000 casualties, including 4,706 KIA. Only 149 Japanese prisoners were taken. Of note is that legendary photojournalist and war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed on Iejima during combat operations which occurred there (see my blog The Demise of Ernie Pyle for more).

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, holed structure WM

bloody-chess-2-e1340760928315But the civilians on Iejima, like the pawns in chess, paid the real price: about 1,500 civilians were killed, between 1/3rd and ½ of the island’s residents. The Americans found it impossible to tell friend from foe, as the Japanese armed many of the locals. There were also terrible instances of widespread civilian suicides as dictated by the crazed code “death over surrender” of the then Imperial Japanese mindset.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, battle damage WM

Unlike other chess pieces which can usually be moved to a safer position if they find themselves at risk, a poorly positioned pawn is limited in options and usually remains at risk. This certainly held true for Iejima’s “Municipal Pawn Shop.”

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, holed wall WM

The ruins made a great stop during our bike ride around the island.

Rest Stop

Built in 1929 during the height of the Great Depression (from which the world suffered), using local stone and reinforced concrete, the “pawnshop” was managed locally as a kind of welfare safety net for the island’s poor, suffering unusually hard under the era’s crushing loan interest rates. In that capacity, it served the locals as a pseudo-bank based on pawning material, primarily aimed at assisting local farmers.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, Jody biking by WM

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, destroyed in color WMDuring the battle for Iejima, the pawnshop found itself poorly positioned on the frontlines, set on a steep slope at the foot of the island’s Mount Gusuku. Due to its rugged construction, unusual in the Okinawan villages of the time, it was used as a reinforced fighting position by defending Japanese troops. Obviously, such a position is going to suffer significant damage. Actually, it’s amazing that it survived at all. Almost every other structure on the island was, in fact, destroyed.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, wall damage WM

Alter or Ashes???

Alter or Ashes???

Unrestored in the manner of the Hiroshima Atomic Dome, the pawnshop today serves as a silent but haunting reminder of the harrowing last days of World War II and all those who suffered – American, Japanese, and Okinawan – on what had been a small and peaceful island-farming community. It is said to be the only remaining building on the island untouched (externally) since the war.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, missing wall WM

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, battle damaged WM“Pawn” often means “one who is easily manipulated” or “one who is sacrificed for a larger purpose.” “Pawn” is also used metaphorically to indicate unimportance or outright disposability. For the Japanese and Okinawans who found themselves isolated and trapped on Iejima in the spring of 1945 as mere shields for the homeland, this was most certainly their tragic case.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Municipal Pawn Shop, two stories of destruction WM


Read more about the “Capture of Ie Shima” from the Army’s own historical record:

Find more pictures of Okinawan WWII Battlesites in my Flickr stream here:

Traces of War: Loyal Soul Monument of Yomitan, Okinawa

“Every memorial in its time has a different goal.” ~Maya Lin, Chinese-American artist and architect, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC


“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 the Ahasha shelter cave on Ie Island (blog to follow). “She was never brain-washed by the faculty and the government….”

We were visiting a cave where approximately 150 Okinawan civilians had committed suicide or murdered during World War II. At the time, Setsuko was less than a year old and was in hiding in another part of Okinawa. She remarkably had a chipper attitude about the whole thing; I guess there’s really no other way to really be once you’ve cheated death in such a destined way.

You see, in the lead up to the war, Japan had embarked on a full-fledged campaign to nationalize their people, far and wide. And perhaps it was nowhere easier to do just that on an island-nation where literacy was low and minds were easy to impress.  The Japanese taught their populace that, during WWII, the Americans would torture and kill all the men and boys, and would savage and rape their women.  There was no option of surrender; the expected and honorable thing to do instead was to kill your family and commit suicide….

But there were many decades of indoctrination that led up to such a dramatically unbelievable and sad conclusion to so many lives wasted in 1944 and 1945.  Two things the Japanese used to affect this militaristic paradigm shift in their population was the cenotaph and hoanden.

The monument in the 1960s.

The monument in the 1960s.

A cenotaph is, generally speaking, an “empty tomb” or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. The word derives from the Greek κενοτάφιον, Romanized as kenotaphion, with kenos meaning “empty” and taphos, “tomb.” In Japan, such memorials were erected beginning in the late 19th century, and continued throughout the 1920s and 30s. Almost all were dedicated to the memories of groups of soldiers and civilians lost in battle fought for Imperial Japan. Chukonhi as they are better known in Japan first began to be constructed during the Meiji Restoration period in honor of people who died in the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars. As death in the Emperor’s name is the ultimate sacrifice these monuments emphasized the virtue of loyalty and was often used as a symbol of militarism in order to help form and formalize a militaristic ideology prior to the 1940s.

Cenotaph in better times in Yomitan, Okinawa

Cenotaph in better times in Yomitan, Okinawa

In Okinawa there are very few of these monuments left. Some were damaged beyond repair or outright destroyed during the war. Some were destroyed or removed after the war by locals and/or occupation forces as neither wanted such reminders of a warmongering nation or government. Only a handful have survived, and one survives in Yomitan village on Okinawa, just a few blocks away from the old Japanese aircraft shelter that I’ve previously written about (see Traces of War: WWII Yomitan Aircraft Shelter).

This “Loyal Soul Monument” was originally erected in 1935 on the grounds of an Okinawa school together with the Hoanden, which housed the sacred portraits of the Emperor and Empress, the Okinawans were taught to revere the nations’ war dead as true heroes, and made to acknowledge the divinity of Emperor Hirohito and his wife. This particular cenotaph was originally located adjacent to a national elementary school (Yomitan Mountain Senior elementary school), where the students every morning and afternoon would be required to bow deeply to both the cenotaph and hoanden. In this way, the violent perversion of the young minds of Okinawan children began.

The militarization of Okinawa's youth via hoan-den.

The militarization of Okinawa’s youth via hoan-den.

Hoanden were small structures, concrete houses that doubled as alters, which housed the emperor’s portrait and the “Imperial Rescript on Education.” Like the cenotaphs, they too were erected in most schoolyards. The Imperial Rescript on Education (教育ニ関スル勅語, Kyōiku ni Kansuru Chokugo) was signed by Emperor Meiji of Japan in 1890 to articulate government policy on the guiding principles of education. The 315 character document was read aloud at all important school events and students were required to memorize the text while the act of recitation took the form of an oath or pledge, much as the Pledge of Allegiance used to be recited by American students in American schools. The basis of the Rescript was based on Japan’s historic bond between “benevolent rulers” and “loyal subjects,” and that the fundamental purpose of education was to cultivate appropriately supporting virtues, especially of loyalty, above all else to the Emperor and country. A key passage of the Rescript, translated into English, reads, “…should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of the Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.” It’s not hard to see how the seeds of tragedy were so easily planted and fully cultivated in a society bent on unquestioned loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice. After World War II, the American occupation authorities in Japan forbade the reading or teaching of the Imperial Rescript in schools, and the Diet (government) of Japan officially abolished it in 1948.

Todays damaged and defaced monument.

Todays damaged and defaced monument.

Pre-WWII cenotaphs were specifically erected for honoring the souls of “loyal” officers, enlisted and civilian employees that war died for His Majesty the Emperor of Japan. Such monuments helped to hammer the way to war for Japan, as it stressed that the most important meaning in death possible was what could be achieved for the Emperor and country. In this way, many were lives were scattered and wasted on far-away battlefields, while civilians were left to contemplate murder-suicide over capture by the allied forces.



Today the monument is now adjacent to a national worker physical education center. And the Okinawans are very careful to point out that this monument, left as a testament to times gone by, is in no way to be confused with a memorial. As it was explained to me, a memorial in the Okinawan culture is a place for mourning, prayer and contemplation that such horrific acts of violence would never again be repeated.

Today's Monument

Today’s Monument

According to some sources, the Loyal Soul Monument, although damaged during the war, suffered greatly in the post-war years. The placards and Japanese calligraphy that once adorned the monument has been stolen, defaced, or otherwise destroyed, a testament about how the local Okinawan survivors thought about the way they were treated in the 1940s. Not by the Americans, but more so, by their original occupiers, the Japanese.

What the Okinawans wish from leaving such silent witnesses of the past is that future generations never forget the horrific nature of the not-so-distant past, and admonish any attempts to glorify war or violence once again. For the more casual and removed observer, I leave it to you to reach your own conclusions.

The Girl with the White Flag.  Look her up....

The Girl with the White Flag. Look her up….

Peace is not a hard deduction to infer.

...if this is the alternative.

…if this is the alternative.

Traces of War: Yomitan Okinawa WWII Aircraft Shelter

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, bunker's arch and marker WM

The Yomitan Japanese Aircraft Bunker from World War II

Aircraft maintenance was in full swing at Yontan Airfield on Okinawa during the night of 24/25 May, 1945. Parked in this shelter most likely was an American fighter, perhaps a radar-equipped night variant of the classic fighter F-4UN Corsair, a few of which were airborne and flying Combat Air Patrol in the vicinity. The mechanics were hard at work and secure in their location as the raging battle on Okinawa, although still quite audible, had moved far to the south during the previous 7+ weeks.


But then the anti-aircraft fire started, growing in crescendo to a cacophony of an impossible number of overlapping staccato reports. The sky became illuminated with crisscrossing tracer fire, making night seem like day. But then came the concussions of bombs detonating in close proximity, unpredictably interrupting both the light and sounds shows now playing.

The Commandos' Ride

The Commandos’ Ride

Actual Commando Helmet from Okinawa

Actual Commando Helmet from Okinawa

Just then, an unknown aircraft made a crash-landing, sliding down one of Yontan’s compacted-coral runway in a shower of sparks and fire, going dark as it screeched to a halt. Unknown to the mechs working mids that night in this shelter, the plane was Japanese, and pouring out of it were specially trained and equipped commandos who immediately began to pitch their explosives in a savage attack covered by the blackness of night….

Hangar at Yontan during WWII

Hangar at Yontan during WWII

Wrecked Japanese Planes at Yontan

Wrecked Japanese Planes at Yontan

The aircraft bunker pictured above and still standing on Okinawa was most likely built in 1944, around the same time that Kita Airfield (as it was then known to the Japanese) was being constructed by the Imperial Japanese Army, just before the battle of Okinawa, which was officially invaded on 1 April 1945. During the Battle, United States Marine Corps and United States Army forces swept ashore and quickly seized this recently bombarded and then deserted, mostly destroyed airfield on the first day of the landing with almost no resistance. The airfield was littered with wrecked planes and structures, but was quickly repaired and became the first operational airfield on Okinawa used by American forces. Later, it was developed into a major American base for Army, Marine, and Navy aircraft. The Boeing B-29 “Bockscar” landed for scheduled refueling at Yomitan after dropping the atomic bombing on Nagasaki in the summer of 1945.

The "Baka-Bomb," many of which were found on Okinawa.

The “Baka-Bomb,” many of which were found on Okinawa.


Disarming the 2,600+ lbs warhead!

Disarming the 2,600+ lbs warhead!

It was at Yontan that the American forces first found the Yokosuka MXY-7 “Ohka” (Cheery Blossom) rocket-propelled kamikaze aircraft. It was a manned flying bomb that was carried beneath a twin-engine mother plane to within range of its target – usually an American ship. At release, the pilot would first glide toward the target, but when close enough he would ignite the Ohka’s rocket engine and provide terminal guidance for the 2,600 pound warhead hidden in the nose. The final approach of this manned-missile was almost unstoppable as its tremendous speed provided a good measure of protection. Even so, only seven allied ships were damaged or sunk by Ohkas throughout the war due to the effective layered defenses of the allied fleet. American sailors gave the aircraft the nickname Baka, Japanese for “fool” or “idiot,” and was most often used as “Baka-bomb.”


Japanese Paratroopers

Japanese Paratroopers

Japanese Commandos Readying for their One-Way Mission

Japanese Commandos Readying for their One-Way Mission

Yontan/Kita airfield was also the site of a famous Japanese Airborne Special Forces unit “Giretsu Kuteitai” suicide attack called “Operation Gi-Gou” described in the opening. Roughly 50 Japanese Navy and Army aircraft bombed the Yomitan and Kadena areas as a diversionary raid. Twelve twin-engine aircraft of the 3rd Dokuritsu Chutai (“Independent Company”), commanded by Captain Chuichi Suwabe and flying from Kumamoto Army Airfield among the main islands of Japan. Each of these aircraft carried eight to twelve commandos, destined to attack Yontan and Kadena airfields. Only about half-dozen Japanese planes approached the targeted airbases, but alert antiaircraft gunners and night-fighters flamed five [note: there is conflicting information on the actual numbers of aircraft and commandos, along with the damage inflicted]. The surviving plane(s) made a wheels-up belly landing on the airstrip and discharged troops. Roughly a dozen commandos survived the crash-landing(s), and using explosives destroyed 9 aircraft and damaged 29 more, set fire to 70,000 gallons of fuel, and created confused havoc throughout the night before being effectively neutralized about twelve hours later. The Americans suffered 3 dead and 18 wounded, while Japan’s losses amounted to 69 pilots and commandos, and of course all their aircraft. This Giretsu raid by the Combined Special Forces Unit is revered in Japan, with a special shrine erected in Peace Prayer Park on Okinawa which marks their heroic but futile efforts.

Missing Historic Marker

Missing Historic Marker

In earlier times...

In earlier times…

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, wooden marker WMThe lone structure of the Kita airfield that exists from 1945 is the subject of this blog. The structure is designed to be hardened by concrete, but to be reinforced and hidden by earth and vegetation. The Japanese called these earth-bermed facilities entaigou ( 掩体壕 ). Originally completely covered with soil and most likely some vegetation (at least grasses), heavy rains, typhoons, and general exposure to the elements have completely eroded such earthen cover. At the time, almost all of these type hangars were constructed by forming dirt to a desired shape, and then applying concrete to the desired thickness, while a more conventional cinder-block shed/office area was constructed at the rear of the facility. As far as I can tell, there is no rebar reinforcement. Once cured, the sand/dirt was removed and used to cover the facility. Finally, vegetation was planted in order to attempt to camouflage from the prying eyes of American reconnaissance planes. By that time in the war, though, using side-looking cameras and vertical stereoscopic imagery easily defeated these attempts. Even so, it’s amazing that such a structure did survive the war, seeing that Kita airfield was the focus of intense shelling, bombing and rocket attacks, including everything from light single-engine fighters strafing the field with machine gun and rockets, to the mighty 16 inch guns of multiple battleships firing 2,000 pound explosive shells. As unlikely as its survival during the war, it is equally unlikely that it continues to survive in the middle of Yomitan’s urban sprawl.

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, arched shelter WM

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, hangar's approach (color) WMOkinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, wooden marker and concrete alter WMSuch structures were no doubt utilized by the airfield’s new tenants after capture. After the war, the airfield was maintained and expanded by the US military as an Auxiliary Army Airfield (AAF), but became primarily utilized for parachute training. Over time, it lost its strategic value to the growing presence of the much larger Kadena Airbase just to the south, and slowly the Americans returned land – and this shelter – back to the local Yomitan residents. Thus, the farmers moved in, and found the shelter once again useful as a garage and storeroom, places to keep their carts and equipment protected from the weather, and their bodies cool and dry away from the sun and downpours common to the area.

Blockhouse in the rear.

Blockhouse in the rear.

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, roughed and reinforced interior WMOkinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, inside looking out WMUnfortunately, the historical marker was missing during my visit, although I understand it was only very recently erected. In any case, it appears that someone or some group is serious about preservation of this structure. There is a robust internal skeleton reinforcing the concrete arch, and although entry is completely blocked by chain-link fencing, it is fully accessible otherwise. However, with a few more decades exposure to Okinawa’s harsh climate, I anticipate that the concrete will degrade and unfortunately start to crumble unless there is even more remediation.

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, bunker's profile WM

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, historic bunker and modern alter

Crude Construction

Crude Construction

Although there are still a few of these once-hidden Japanese-built bunkers preserved on Kadena Air Force base, only the American military community has easy access and can visit there. Those shelters, however, are small and made for the Ohkas as described above, mostly filled-in (with sand/dirt), and almost completely inaccessible. I believe that this shelter in Yomitan is the only full-size aircraft shelter left on the island of Okinawa from World War II.

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, roughed and reinforced internal structure 2 WM

Just think about all the stories it could tell….


For a good location of this rather hard-to-find monument, see my dropped pin.  It is located in the vicinity of 2944 Zakimi, Yomitan-son, Nakagami-gun, Okinawa-ken.