Faces of Death: Haunting Victims of S-21


“Never will we forget the crimes committed during the Democratic Kampuchea regime.” ~S-21 Prison Memorial inscription

S-21 Genocide Memorial

S-21 Genocide Memorial

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time 2 WMEyes of crudely mounted photographs, pre-death mug shots in essence, seem to follow as Jody and I moved silently through the horrific halls of S-21. The peering stares of over 6,000 men, women and children unknowingly destined for demise seem to plead for intervention. Perhaps the saddest photo is that of a young mother and her baby lying by her side, blankly staring into the camera with an almost vacant expression of indignant resignation. All those photographed shared a tragic predicament – not knowing that they were facing imminent death just at the moment their photos were being taken – a commonality which results in a profoundly unnerving experience for any viewer.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), mom and baby victims WM

In early January 1979, on a bright and breezy Cambodian wintery afternoon, heavily armed Vietnamese military reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh after a blitzkrieg campaign beginning the previous Christmas Day. Vietnam had had enough of the obnoxiously militant culture that the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge of Democratic Kampuchea (“DK,” how the régime referred to Cambodia) had installed. And in an interesting turn of events just a handful of years after their victory over the Americans, Vietnam was doing something about the brutal, genocidal, suicidal régime next door when no one else in the world would.

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prisoner transport WMThe Khmer Rouge was taken aback in surprise by the rapidity of Vietnam’s assault. After barely two weeks of fighting, Cambodia cracked open as easily as that of a raw egg. The Khmer Rouge dissolved into the rural jungle and countryside just as quickly as it had appeared, while the invaders were welcomed as liberators by nearly every Cambodian who was left behind. Those people, altogether terrorized and literally exhausted by nearly four years of undernourishment, back-breaking labor, and widespread fear and executions, were ready for change. They were simply looking for peace, safety and security after decades of war in Southeast Asian, followed by a years-long internal civil war, and finally from the wretched atrocities suffered by their own peoples’ hand.

White Graves of 2 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

White Graves of 4 of the last 14 Victims are seen at the bottom.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building A 2 WMAs the Vietnamese troops secured the city, two photojournalists accompanying the invasion were drawn by the unmistakably smell of decomposing bodies. As they approached the silent source of the foul odor they noticed a large fenced compound topped with dense, electrified coils of barbed wire. The entrance gate was only marked with a single Revolutionary sounding slogan in Khmer colors of red and white: “Fortify the spirit of the revolution! Be on your guard against the strategy and tactics of the enemy so as to defend the Country, the People and the Party.” Nothing else identified this curious place.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), prison building C WM

Once inside, though, the photogs found themselves on the grounds of what had once been a large school, about two city blocks in size, consisting of four three-story buildings in the shape of a right-hand bracket (if facing north), each with open-air breezeway balconies on their successive floors. An additional single-story building, found littered with papers and office equipment, split the compound, dividing it into nearly identical halves.

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

Documentary Photo of a Murder Victim and the Crime Scene as it was found in 1979

It was the rooms of the building on the southern end of this arrangement that brought the first horrors. Here the journalists discovered several murder victims, some still chained to simple iron bedframes, in rooms almost complete barren. Most had suffered numerous serious injuries, but almost all had their throats slashed, and the blood pooled below the beds, although congealing, was at places still wet. In total, 14 victims were found, killed only a couple of days previously.

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 10 WM

Improvised Toilets

Improvised Toilets

But what was discovered in the other buildings is what started to illuminate the sinister nature of the place: heaps of ankle shackles, hundreds of handcuffs, whips of various material, and lengths of chain and electrical cord. Other former classrooms had been crudely divided into cells by clumsily bricked partitions, while others still had more elaborate and larger cells created by wooden walls and doors. Metal American 7.62mm ammo boxes in some of the cells contained human feces. The Vietnamese had stumbled into a vicious and important Khmer Rouge killing facility known as S-21, “S” standing for “santebal,” a Khmer term that combined the words santisuk (security) and nokorbal (police).

Captive Chains

Captive Chains

S-21 now houses the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which chronicles the auto-genocide that happened in Cambodia in the 1970s under the inhuman Khmer Rouge régime. Tuol Sleng translates roughly as “Hill of the Poisonous Trees,” and was but one of at least 150 execution centers dispersed throughout the country. Although some estimates put the death toll from S-21 as high as 20,000, a more accurate number is probably somewhere between 14,000 and 17,000.

Balcony Razor Wire

Balcony Razor Wire

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge began to adapt the school as a prison. The buildings were cordoned into a compound enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, windows were covered with iron bars, and balconies covered with a thick matrix of razor wire to prevent suicidal leaps from the upper floors.

Crude Prison Cells

Crude Prison Cells

Postmortem, Death from Torture

Postmortem, Death from Torture

At any one time, the prison held as many as 1,000–1,500 prisoners. In the early months of S-21’s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Western-propped Cambodian Lon Nol regime and consisted of mostly soldiers and government officials, but also included academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, and engineers. But during early 1977, when the Khmer Rouge enacted large-scale internal purges, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived.

Wooden Prison Cells

Wooden Prison Cells

Crude Destruction

Crude Destruction

Most lower-ranking prisoners at S-21 were held for a few days or weeks, whereas more important ones and those suspected of grave offenses were routinely incarcerated for several months. Thousands of prisoners, regardless of their perceived importance, had undergone interrogation, prepared concocted confessions admitting counter-revolutionary crimes up to several hundred pages long, and submitted lists of their friends, family and associates entitled “strings” that sometimes ran to several hundred names. These false indictments kept the cycle of paranoia and death endlessly flowing. All the dots making up each string were ultimately “smashed.”

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

All the Dots of a Family Lineage Smashed because Father was a Tradesman

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Few prisoners maintained their innocence for long under the torture widely inflicted at S-21. Considered guilty by the very fact that they were arrested in the first place, prisoners were all expected to confess their imaginary associations with the West and the CIA, or with the East and the KGB, or worse yet, with Vietnam in writing before they were taken off to be “smashed,” the Khmer euphemism for murder. Routinely beaten and shocked with electricity, nearly drowned by water-boarding and forced submerging, burned with searing hot metal instruments, suffocated with plastic bags, cut with knives and hung to near-death, prisoners confessed to that with which they were charged.

Water Board for Torture

Water Board for Torture

Imprisoned

Imprisoned

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), instruments of torture WMThe buildings at Tuol Sleng are preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979. The site has four main buildings, the first of which holds the large cells in which the bodies of the last victims of the prison were discovered. The second offers gallery after gallery of photographs of those tortured and ultimately executed. The third presents the original classrooms which were sub-divided into smaller cells for prisoners, while the final holds some interesting artwork by former S-21 inmate Vann Nath depicting torture alongside the actual instruments pictured. The last classroom of the last building contains a small Buddhist altar and stupa (burial tower), and empties into a large courtyard which features a remembrance memorial to the victims and the atrocity which occurred there.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), barbed balconies WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 8 WMMost of the rooms of the first building are bare, containing only a rusting iron bedframe, along with a black and white photograph hung on a wall. The grisly photo reflects the room as it was found by the Vietnamese. In each, the mutilated, bloated and decomposing body of a prisoner is shown, usually chained to a bed situated over pool of still-wet blood, obviously and brutally murdered by their fleeing captors only a day or two before the prison was uncovered.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP cell and torture-murder site 6 WM

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), VIP brother shackled in prison WMThe other buildings display about 6,000 silent, melancholy portraits. Some of the striking black and white images portray shock, while others reflect a depressed resignation. Others portray confusion. While it’s the scenes of mass graves and thousands of bones which are used to capture the imagination, the most haunting images are these stark portraits taken and preserved by the Khmer Rouge at S-21. Since the original negatives and photographs were separated from their respective records, most of the photographs remain anonymous today.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), victims lost to time WM

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

The museum today helps to provide an organized archive of Cambodia’s brutal past in the hopes that history will not be repeated. Combined with the Killing Fields close by at Choeung Ek (see Seeing The Killing Fields for my blog about that depressing place), it’s hard to escape the brutal reality of the evil which infected these places. For survivors, the vast and seemingly random cruelties of the Khmer Rouge are captured and effectively condensed in the museum’s displays. The indifference of the DK government officials, exhibited in room after room, is all too clear for anyone to see. But the museum, at times, overly represents the Khmer Rouge as a homogenous group of indoctrinated fanatics, the incarnation of absolute evil, responsible for most of the unhappiness of the Cambodian people. While this may be an easy or attractive explanation, it falls well short of the much more convoluted complexion of the Khmer Rouge phenomenon of the 1970s.

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

A visit to S-21 is at once disorienting. There is a stark, esoteric contrast between the now peaceful, green and sun-soaked compound against the horrific exhibits and photographs on display. There is an almost unbelievable dichotomy between the sounds of children playing outside superimposed over the silent induction photos of the many children and teens which were held at S-21 and ultimately smashed. The sheer ordinariness of the place makes it even more horrific.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), ankle shackle and rebar restraint WM

Together with a visit to the museum’s companion Killing Fields, the experience can be profoundly depressing, one our guide referred to as our “Sad-Sad day of touring.” While a broad debate continues to rage over the nature and appropriateness of “dark tourism,” I remain steadfast in my own personal convictions that we must experience such places firsthand. Only when the darkest aspects of the human spirit are seared into our collective consciousness will the evil that lurks in the shadows be remembered and banished from our civility.

Cambodia 2015, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21), never forget the crimes WM

Okinawa’s Sobering Sick Wards: From Vengeance to Forgiveness


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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

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

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

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

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

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

Wrongly, if I can say so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shameful

Shameful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from-vengeance-to-forgiveness

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

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

 

Okinawa Army Hospital

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

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

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

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

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

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

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

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

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

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

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

Medical supplies recovered in the tunnels.

Medical supplies recovered in the tunnels.

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

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

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

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

Tunnel reproduction in the Haebaru Town Museum.

Tunnel reproduction in the Haebaru Town Museum.

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

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

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

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

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

Exploring Tunnel #20 by Flashlight

Exploring Tunnel #20 by Flashlight

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

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

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

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

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