Last “Ticket to Ride!!!!”


“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”  ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher

I got the news a few days ago of the passing of a friend and fellow skydiving brother, Daniel Eric Morgan.  When I first heard, it was via a biker friend of mine through a FaceBook message, and I’ll be honest:  I didn’t even recognize his name, or the connection due to the convoluted path of the message.

But that wholly understates the importance Eric had on my life – and so many others’.  You see, I became known in skydiving circles for shouting “TICKET TO RIDE!!!” in the jump plane as it took off on its climb to altitude so we its passengers could fling ourselves from two miles up in the sky.  People in proximity would often brace for this moment; I often would grab and vehemently shake the person closest to me, or perhaps someone I wished to target on that particular jump.  BUT, truth be told and in full disclosure, Eric was the originator of this phrase – and it will always belong to him.

That notion – of illuminating the charged emotions of a skydive in voice, gesture and motion, captures the very notion of life and living.  Skydivers now this feeling all too well.  That we experience life to the fullest by accepting that death may be just around the corner, or in our case, a mere 50 seconds away….  And it reflects the gregarious nature that Eric would extrude from his very pores at those times when he could be found at the dropzone.

I didn’t know Eric well.  Actually, I didn’t know him really at all.  I probably knew his last name at one time, but over the years, it slipped away.  He was a Navy “bubblehead” veteran of the submarine force, and worked in some IT or technical capacity based on his navy experience and training.  He was a family man, although I can’t even say how many kids he has or whether he was/is currently married or not.  He wasn’t what I would consider a “regular” at Emerald Coast Skydiving Center (ECSC, our home dropzone, now sadly defunct), but when he was around, his charismatic presence was unmistakable.  In a sense, he was a caricature of himself, a zany personality full of smiles and laughter.  Because of this, I came to refer to him as “Crazy Eric.”

I have almost 10,000 photos on my Flickr photostream tagged “skydiving.”  But I can only find a single photo of Crazy Eric.  That makes me sad, but his loss causes an emptiness that I can only really fill by capturing and sharing our intersection, our story.  In this one photo, however, one can gleam all that needs to be known about Eric:  his welcoming smile, kind eyes, and a rig on his back ready to jump.  And clearly, just beneath his calm exterior, that clever grin, ready to exclaim in only the way in which he could, “TICKET TO RIDE!”

Crazy Eric has a TICKET TO RIDE!

Eric’s life indeed can be warmly found in the happy memories of the skydiving family he left behind.

Blue Skies, Black Death My Friend.

Ride on.

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


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

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

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

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

Alter in the Cave of 1000 People

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

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

Fertility Stone

Fertility Stone

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

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

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

Ahasha Gama

Ahasha Gama

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

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

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

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

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

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

Jody temps fate with the Sacred Stone!

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

1,000 Person Cave

1,000 Person Cave

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

Cave Alter

Cave Alter

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

Words of Life Finally Work

Words of Life Finally Work

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

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

“It shall be life.”

Traces of War: 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

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“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.

Battle-Damage

Battle-Damage

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.

Okinawan Traces of War: Lily Corps, The Himeyuri Schoolgirls


Haunting Apparitions

Haunting Apparitions

The room is haunted, of that there is no question. The ghosts, most fuzzy and out of focus, manifest in black and white, gazing outward from the dark recesses of their vault like wallflowers often do, in silence, inanimate and expressing little emotion.

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But unlike most paranormal activity that is ultimately debunked, the apparitions of the young girls of the “Lily Corps” are real: striking black and white portraits of all those who died line this gloomy chamber.  With each victim is the circumstance of their demise.  Visitors can’t help but read about such horrific endings.  How their jaws were blown off and they bled out.  Or how they were horribly burned by flamethrower, or napalmed in their caves, or how they used hand grenades to kill themselves.  It is inconceivable to imagine such fates for these young mostly 15 or 16 year olds given the very promise of youth found indelibly inscribed on each of their faces.  And these phantoms, covering three walls of this dark, mournful space, all stare towards the deep recesses of a life-sized diorama of the Himeyuri “Cave of Virgins,” where there were only three survivors out of the nine soldiers, 28 doctors and nurses, eight civilians and 51 student nurses which hunkered down there.

The Cave of Virgins at the Himeyuri Monument

The Cave of Virgins at the Himeyuri Monument

 

Each of these girls has a story to tell; all we have to do is listen. So many of these young ladies needlessly and tragically either committed suicide or were overcome by the more disgusting realities of war.

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Survivors Today

Survivors Today

The Himeyuri students (ひめゆり学徒隊, Himeyuri Gakutotai), sometimes called “Lily Corps,” was a group of 222 students and 18 teachers of the Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School and Okinawa Shihan Women’s School formed into a nursing unit for the Imperial Japanese Army during the Battle of Okinawa. Daughters of Okinawa’s privileged class, most hoped to become teachers. But instead they were mobilized by the Japanese army on March 23, 1945, an act which sealed their untimely, unfortunate fates.  The name of their unit is derived from one of the schools anthems, “Star Lily” or “Princess Lily,” depending on the source of translation.

Prewar Group Photo and a Cave of their Demise

Prewar Group Photo and a Cave of their Demise

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.

At the outset of their mobilization, their spirits were high. After decades of political and militaristic indoctrination in the Imperial Japanese culture of the time, the Okinawans held some notion of nationalism for the Emperor and Empire of the Rising Sun that had plunged the Eastern Hemisphere of the world into brutal conflict starting in the 1930s.  In fact, many of the Himeyuri students thought that the Japanese Army would defeat the Allies in a matter of days, and accordingly, brought school books and supplies to ensure their expected graduation later that spring.  While the girls (and their teachers) had little military training, hours of nursing indoctrination had replaced subjects such as English, and physical education shifted from learning traditional dances to marching in step over the preceding year.

Beautiful Tickets

Beautiful Tickets

Carry provisions to the hospitals.

Carry provisions to the hospitals.

The Himeyuri Peace Monument and Museum offers a unique and moving window into the lives, struggles and sacrifices of this group of girls, aged 14 to 19 years old, recruited and pressed into service. The museum chronicles the lives, studies, and trials faced by these girls.  Caught in the crossfire of raging battles and rampant disease, roughly 200 lost their lives, most in the dark, dank caves which served as shelters, hospitals and fighting positions (often all at the same time) in the southern reaches of Okinawa Island.  After visiting, in a very real sense, these young women put faces to all the innocent victims who suffer while fighting someone else’s war, regardless of time or place….

Remembering the past...Educating for the future....

Remembering the past…Educating for the future….

“News of their mobilization to [an] Army Field Hospital had led the students to believe that they would conduct their medical duties in safe wards flying Red Cross flags,” a museum display states. “The reality was that they were thrown into the hellish war front full of oncoming shells and bullets.”  During the nearly 3-month-long battle, the Himeyuri students served all along the serpentine front lines performing surgery and other difficult duties.  For the duration, most lived deep within improvised and impoverished cave hospitals filled with countless gravely injured and dead soldiers.

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The Japanese military, who then held the Okinawans with some measure of disdain, mobilized a huge number of civilians to compensate for their falling ranks. They conscripted Okinawa’s children and elderly for menial labor, where they too were often directly exposed to fatal combat conditions despite their supposed non-combatant nature.  To the Okinawans’ credit, they served the Japanese military well and with honor, despite their forced colonization and open discrimination by Japan proper.  Okinawa, seen more as a backwards place populated by an unworthy people rather than an integral part of Japan, was largely sacrificed by the Japanese leadership while executing their pointless war of attrition.  In that sense, the Japanese military treated Okinawans as outsiders and deemed their safety or needs as blatantly insignificant.  Quite surprisingly, many Okinawans continued to enthusiastically assist the Japanese, exactly in the hopes that they would finally and fairly be recognized and in turn treated as true Japanese.

himeyuri_peace_museum_itoman_okinawa

Origami Cranes

Origami Cranes

To the Japanese leadership, however, there was no illusion to their sure defeat. After six weeks of fighting on Okinawa, being pushed back further and further south, an “order of dissolution” was issued to the Lily Corps on June 18, 1945.  Up until that time, only 19 of the students had been killed, but in the following week after being simply told to “go home,” approximately 80% of the girls and their teachers perished.  Survivors committed suicide in various ways because of fears of systematic rape by US soldiers, throwing themselves off cliffs, or killing themselves with hand grenades or cyanide poison given them by Japanese soldiers and even their Doctors.

The Himeyuri Monument

The Himeyuri Monument

The Himeyuri Monument was built on April 7, 1946, in memory of those from the Okinawan schools who so needlessly and carelessly died. Many survivors of the Lily Corps helped build the facility, and in fact continue to volunteer there today.  There are still Himeyuri students alive, but all are now well into their 80s.  Sadly, they won’t be with us much longer to offer their firsthand, emotional testimonies to the more horrific nature of war.

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Located adjacent to the monument, the Himeyuri Peace Museum compliments the site as a befitting memorial. It was modeled after one of the main school buildings in which many of the girls had once studied.  The museum is spread across five different rooms, all which display in chronological order photos, personal mementos, and school documents from well before the battle, moving through the girls’ time spent at the Haebaru Army Field Hospital (read about my visit there here), and finally the circumstance of their demise.

Girls making rice balls at the Haebaru Field Hospital

Girls making rice balls at the Haebaru Field Hospital

HimeyuriDuring our visit, we witnessed one of the Himeyuri survivors giving a special talk at a mock-up of the Haebaru’s field hospital. Although we couldn’t understand a word, her animated gesturing coupled with the rhythmic tenor and inflection of her testament helped breathe life into a facility which seems so centered on death and loss.  “It was dark and humid and unsanitary.  There was no adequate treatment of the wounded; their condition was indescribably bad.  All the wounded soldiers were infested with maggots, especially their mouths and ears, and it was our [student nurses] job to remove the maggots from their wounds.”  Many of the nursing aids assisted in restraining unanesthesized patients during amputation, and would end their shifts by having to bury the rejected, mangled flesh.

Mockup of a Haebaru Army Field Hospital Tunnel

Mockup of a Haebaru Army Field Hospital Tunnel

0But there are also uncomfortably comical recollections. One survivor recounts her capture:  “We were hiding between rocks on a cliff when the enemy found us and started pouring gasoline from above to set it afire.  With no other choice but be burned, we climbed the cliff and saw American soldiers pointing their guns at us.  It was the first time in my life that I saw blue eyes.”

Admiral Minoru Ota

Admiral Minoru Ota

In retrospect, even the Japanese in charge of their futile defense of Okinawa realized their culpability. Masahide Ota, a high-ranking Japanese Army Officer who survived the battle, claimed, “…had the [Japanese] military regarded non-combatants as coming under their protection, evacuations [of Okinawan civilians] would have been unnecessary and the collective self-killings that took place in the Kerama Islands, Ie-jima, Yomitan, and Mabuni would never have been carried out.  In reality, non-combatants were far from being protected by the military.  Instead, they found themselves in a situation where they were attacked by tigers at the front gate (the enemy troops) and wolves at the back gate (their own troops).”  Similarly, Admiral Ota (no relation), the ranking Japanese Navy Officer on Okinawa, made the suffering and conduct of the Okinawans patently clear in his final telegram to his superiors before he himself committed ritual suicide (read my blog about the Japanese Naval Underground).  He pleaded that the Okinawans be not just remembered for their unwavering support even in the face of their grave mistreatment, but that Japan as a nation must see to Okinawa’s future prosperity.

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

7f3d9_himeyuriDuring the 83-day engagement that has come to be called Okinawa’s “Typhoon of Steel, more than 220,000 people were murdered, including a full third of Okinawa’s civilian population (read my blog concerning the nature of the Battle of Okinawa).  Himeyuri survivors eagerly volunteer as they feel it’s their “…duty to tell people of the reality of war, the brutality and stupidity of war.  It is our duty to speak for our friends who fell in the war and to repose their souls.”

okinawa-himeyuri-museumAlthough literally over 1000,000 Okinawans died here in 1945, it is the deaths of around 200 teenage girls that have captured hearts and speak volumes. The Lily Corps will always reflect the faces of daughters, sisters, and friends, all of whom hold happy hopes and destined dreams of the future.  The Himeyuri students will always remind us of the preciousness of life, that no one should be mistreated, cast away, and killed as if they were inconsequentially expendable.  “Collateral damage,” the sterile and unknowing cliché under which civilian deaths are so easily categorized and brushed aside in our modern times, falls so very short of capturing the true impact of conflict in terms of aggregate human suffering and loss.  Memorials are often about numbers in literal sense, or display innumerable names displayed for public contemplation.  The Himeyuri Peace Monument and Museum, however, offers a haunting humanization of the true reality of war:  pain, suffering, loss and tragedy.

Offerings of Peace

Offerings of Peace

The girls continue their static stare in my mind’s eye, an uncomfortable confrontation which makes me yearn for peace. I am happy and relieved to be divorced from my role in the US Military, now free to do what I can to repose not just these girls, but for everyone, everywhere, who suffered a violent, untimely end in a needless war.

In Happier Times

In Happier Times

Himeyuri Peace Monument & Museum

Address: 671-1 Aza Ihara, Itoman city, Okinawa

Hours: 9:00 AM – 5:30 PM

Admission: Adult 350 yen, High School 200 yen, Elementary 100 yen

Web:   www.okinawastory.jp/en/view/portal/0110987100/

Blue Skies, Black Death


“Dream as if you’ll live forever…
…live as if you’ll die today.” ~James Dean

Jim "Jimmy" Horak

Jim “Jimmy” Horak

Blue Skies, Black Death My Friend, Jimmy Horak.

This weekend was my “last” chance to skydive for probably a very long time. There is no sport jumping on Okinawa, and the jumping in Japan is expensive and a substantial airline flight away from where I will be living. Most of my skydiving while overseas will be during my international travels and visits home. So, in honor of this last ephemeral chance, a group of us traveled to a dropzone over in Mississippi that we visit often to partake in a full weekend of skydiving.

Jim Doing What He Loved

Jim Doing What He Loved

I have an adventurer’s heart, if not budget, and “discovered” skydiving quite by accident. I was in that post-separation-martial-destruction thousand-yard-stare-through-the-haze daze in 2005, on a business trip (from Okinawa, where I was stationed at the time) to Hawaii, and started thinking to myself. I was always interested in skydiving, and actually physically was seated on a parachute all those years I flew ejection seat-equipped aircraft in the Navy, but never seized the day to try a jump. My brother-in-law Harvey (who was airborne with the army back in the day) actually took me to ground school and was paying for a static line jump back when I was in high school (and my parents still don’t know, so let’s try and keep in that way!), but a low overcast prevented me from jumping. And, to be completely honest, there was always that nagging, annoying question rattling around my consciousness – could I actually do it?!? I can still remember the relief I felt when I wasn’t able to jump from the plane, especially after being in the open door fixated on the clouds one thousand feet below me. Besides, after truly falling in love with technical (decompression) scuba diving in Miami in 2001, and having the world-class reefs of Okinawa literally at my doorstep between 1999 and 2005, I didn’t need too much more.

Jim's High-Altitude Record-Setting Tandem

Jim’s High-Altitude Record-Setting Tandem

Or so I thought.

So I take an excursion one day after a very light schedule of “work” to Dillingham airfield on the island of Oahu and sign up for a jump. I found the dropzone (DZ) amazing laid-back considering what they were doing. Having been overly-indoctrinated in the military’s ways, means and methods concerning high-risk activities and training, I’ll admit this was a welcome relief. And there were so many happy people. Truly joyful and glad, smiling directly from their eyes, complete with an infectious enthusiasm that seemed to be at once addictive and contagious. I make my jump, and – words have always and will always continue to fail me here – *WOW*. I literally could not stop smiling the rest of the day. Skydiving is the most exhilarating thing that I can contemplate, perhaps, besides spaceflight. The experience was a complete euphoric high that quite literally can come only from what I call “cheating death….” It is something that WUFOs – “what ‘foe you do that,” or, the what jumpers call any non-jumper – will never and can never fully grasp or begin to understand…until they too make that leap of faith.

My First Tandem, 2005

My First Tandem, 2005

I was hooked.

So I learned shortly upon changing duty stations from Okinawa to Pensacola in 2005. And Jimmy Horak was my instructor, and he was to most jumpers in the greater Pensacola area over the last decade or so. He also was my skydiving and instructor mentor. But more importantly be became my friend.

After 754 jumps, and 719 minutes and 50 seconds of free-fall, which, if you’re interested (and I am), that’s just ten frickin’ seconds short of 12 rounded hours of *REAL* flying during free-fall (and the coveted 12-hour free-fall award from the United States Parachute Assocation), each and every jump still makes me smile, beam, and giggle like a giddy boy and adrenaline-pumped man who…again…cheated death.

But what I didn’t count on in becoming an avid and regular skydiver was the *FAMILY* that would adopt and envelope me, and the one I would accept, gladly and gleefully, into my life. There is a certain bond, stout ties that bind that come from being a skydiver. There is a spontaneous camaraderie that connects skydivers, no matter their culture, country, or creed. I have traveled the world skydiving in foreign countries with foreigners foreign even to the country in which I jumped, and jumped with peoples of all types, shapes, and sizes. It is exactly the nearly instantaneously bonded brotherhood (and sisterhood) between skydivers which has become one of the more precious commodities in my own personal life. I simply can’t imagine my life without skydiving, but more-so and more to the heart of the matter, without my skydiver friends and family. In fact, the hardest part of leaving America for Japan this time around is leaving this facet of my family, a group of like-minded people who happen to share such a durable and lasting love of a communal sport.

The Best Dang Jump Pilot Around

The Best Dang Jump Pilot Around

In the jump plane at the two-minute warning prior to jump, we skydivers in the aircraft do all our last-minute checks of gear and cameras and whatnot, and then we do something habitual and ritualistic: we literally say “goodbye” to each other. Most people may think our gestures of swiping fingers of one hand against another’s and then fist-bumping as analogous to pretty much any other other type of sportsmanlike focusing of energy and/or celebration of achievement, and that’s true.

Debbie & Jim at Our Wedding, 2011

Debbie & Jim at Our Wedding, 2011

To a point. In a “sport” where bad things can happen (and happen fast) if you don’t act faster (and properly), skydivers know…and accept…that each jump could be their last. As much as we are saying “have a GREAT jump” to each other, we are also saying our goodbyes. Yet they are goodbyes full of excitement and impulsive smiles, goodbyes emoted by an undeniable comradeship.

Me and Jim

Me and Jim

I had a specific ritual with Jimmy, however. Since I am an “up-jumper,” and usually am doing group skydives that necessitates me exiting the aircraft early and often as the first group out, and since Jimmy is almost always doing a tandem or has a student as an instructor, both of which necessitate him leaving the aircraft almost last, we are seldom mutually arranged to where we can say a proper and physical goodbye. For some reason, years and years ago, I adopted a ceremonial goodbye that I do whenever Jimmy and I are on the same plane, and one I only do with Jimmy. I call out loudly and with some forcefulness, “JIMMY!!!” Jim would stop whatever he was doing (usually), and look at me with a smile. I would gesture a la Meet the Fockers mime of “I’m watching you” by taking two fingers of one hand, pointing to my eyes, then pointing to him, and repeating.. Sometimes he would respond in kind, sometimes he would say something that I could NEVER hear (he was too soft-spoken), but he would, without fail, smile in acknowledgement of our shared esprit de corps.

Jim takes Jody on Her First Skydive, Nov 2012

Jim takes Jody on Her First Skydive, Nov 2012

Living out loud through cheating death (my personal characterization mind you, not the community’s), however, sometimes comes at a terrible, almost intolerable,

Japanese Funerary Traditional Card

Traditional Japanese Sympathy Card

and utterly incomprehensible price.

My friend, skydiving mentor, and fellow veteran did not survive a mishap this past weekend. The details of what went wrong and who’s to blame are all quite inconsequential; after his death was confirmed, the wind was literally taken from beneath my wings. And although I no longer had the euphoric desire to “cheat death” again during what was my last skydiving weekend in the states, and after telling everyone I was calling it a day and packing up for the drive home, I suddenly found an inner voice and strength telling me to make a jump. For and in honor of Jimmy. I felt Jim there telling me to “make the jump,” urging me on with his smile mentally impressed upon my mind’s eye.

I believe it is and what he wanted.

Japanese Funerary Black Crane Origami

Funerary Origami Crane

So I organized an impromptu memorial jump in honor of Jimmy. After we were ensured that the local news media van, camera and reporter were buttoned up and put away, eleven of us got together and briefed a very simple jump. And we brought our hands in and I spoke a for a couple minutes on behalf of Jimmy, for his skydiving family, that we all dream today like it’s your first, but live today like it’s your last. Because it very well might be. The commentary was short; most of us were too choked up to continue.

Impromptu Memorial Skydive, 3 August 2013

Impromptu Memorial Skydive, 3 August 2013

Jumping or Jimmy over Gold Coast, Lumberton, MS

Jumping or Jimmy over Gold Coast, Lumberton, MS

Memorial Jump for Jimmy

Memorial Jump for Jimmy

One of my most cherished pieces of prose to which I turn during trying times like these is Desiderata, by Max Ehrmann. It helped me immensely through my divorce, through some troubles early in my relationship with Jody, and oddly enough (and the clearer connection here), it showed up one day in the absolute last place I ever thought I would encounter it – my home Dropzone where I jumped most weekends with Jim. Dropzones simply are generally not known for their cerebral acumen, nor for very high EQ quotients. Seeing it there left adrift on the counter at manifest moved me in ways that no way, less Jody, probably can understand.

So, I leave my thoughts and reflections of my love for sport and Jim who made it all so very worthwhile, let alone possible, and with Desiderata in the hopes that it inspires you to contemplate, perhaps more deeply and a bit more sincerely, your own personal experience with a profound loss. And quite possibly you’ll find a small measure of charmed comfort at the same time.

You see, in the end, and even though it may not be clear to us, The Universe Unfolds How It Should…. The Desiderata:

Round Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

Jim's Spirited Shadow Will Always Be Close Beside Me

Jim’s Spirited Shadow Will Always Be Close Beside Me