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: The Demise of Ernie Pyle

“I’ve been immersed in it too long. My spirit is wobbly and my mind is confused. The hurt has become too great.” ~ Ernie Pyle


Our Okinawan guide, Setsuko, staring at Ernie Pyle’s monument, remarked in her very broken English, “He came here [Ie Island] because no fighting during ‘Honeymoon Landings’ at Okinawa.” The 25,000 crack Japanese troops tasked with fortifying and defending the landing beaches of Okinawa had, months previous to the invasion, been relocated to defend Formosa from a battle that never came.  We both thought, silently, how things might have been different for this one man if he had been content with less violence. But just as quickly, she beamed a smile our way and joked, her words choked by her infectious laugh, “Ernie Pyle, not Gomer Pyle!!”

The Monument Today

The Monument Today

Ernie should have been content with the landings on Okinawa, but then again, he had a job to do…which could only be done from the front, alongside the infantry that he had come to love so much.  And who loved him back for it.

Ernie doing what he did best.

Ernie doing what he did best.

Ernest Taylor “Ernie” Pyle (August 3, 1900 – April 18, 1945) was a Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist known for his columns during the bulk of WWII, written and sent from the front. Reporting from both the African, European and Pacific Theatres, he was killed in combat on Iejima during the Battle of Okinawa.


“For me war has become a flat, black depression without highlights, a revulsion of the mind and an exhaustion of the spirit.” ~ Ernie Pyle

By the spring of 1944 he enjoyed a following in some 300 newspapers and was among the best-known American war correspondents. He won the Pulitzer in 1944 for his spare, first-person reporting, which highlighted the role – and plight – of the common “dogface” infantry soldier, were written in a folksy style, much like a personal letter to a friend. Many were collected and published in Home Country (1947).


“In their eyes as they pass is not hatred, not excitement, not despair, not the tonic of their victory — there is just the simple expression of being here as though they had been here doing this forever, and nothing else.” ~ Ernie Pyle

His columns, done in foxholes, brought home all the hurt, horror, loneliness and homesickness that every soldier felt. They were the perfect supplement to the soldiers’ own letters. Though he wrote of his own feelings and his own emotions as he watched men wounded, and saw the wounded die, he was merely interpreting the scene for the soldier. He got people at home to understand that life at the front “works itself into an emotional tapestry of one dull dead pattern–yesterday is tomorrow and, O God, I’m so tired.”

One of the doughboys.

One of the doughboys.

“There is no sense in the struggle, but there is no choice but to struggle.” ~ Ernie Pyle

He never made war look glamorous. He hated it and feared it. Blown out of press headquarters at Anzio, almost killed by our own planes at St. Lo, he told of the death, the heartache and the agony about him and always he named names of the kids around him, and got in their home town addresses.

Explanation at the monument

Explanation at the monument

“I try not to take any foolish chances, but there’s just no way to play it completely safe and still do your job” ~ Ernie Pyle

By September, 1944, he was a thin, sad-eyed little man gone gray at the temples, his face heavily creased, his reddish hair thinned. “I don’t think I could go on and keep sane,” he confided to his millions of readers.

Ernie Pyle looking aged in 1945

Ernie Pyle looking aged in 1945

Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people … the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights … they are bound to be different people from those you sent away. They are rougher than when you knew them. Killing is a rough business.” ~ Ernie Pyle

Portrayed on the silver screen

Portrayed on the silver screen

Hundreds of thousands of combat troops, from star-sprinkled generals to lowly infantrymen, knew him by sight, called “H’ya, Ernie?” when he passed. His books Here Is Your War and Brave Men, made up from his columns, hit the high spots on best-seller lists, made Hollywood, where Burgess Meredith impersonated him on the silver screen. He was acclaimed wherever he dared show himself in public.

Ernie Pyle 1 - memorial sign on Ie Shima, April 1945

“I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can’t be won without.” ~ Ernie Pyle, The God-Damned Infantry (1943)

He had frequent premonitions of death. He said, “You begin to feel that you can’t go on forever without being hit. I feel that I’ve used up all my chances, and I hate it. I don’t want to be killed. I’m going [to war] simply because there’s a war on and I’m part of it, and I’ve known all the time I was going back. I’m going simply because I’ve got to–and I hate it.”

Very worn road signage.

Very worn road signage.

“War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.” ~ Ernie Pyle

Bride & Groom on the island of the USS Cabot

Bride & Groom on the island of the USS Cabot


In the Pacific he wrote with a soft touch of glorious Pacific dawns and sunsets at sea, of green islands and tremendous expanses of blue water. He journeyed to Iwo on a small carrier (the USS Cabot) and wrote about the carrier crew. Then he moved on to Okinawa and went in with the marines, and there were homely pieces about that. But Ernie Pyle came to the end of the line on tiny Ie, some 10,000 miles from his own white cottage and from his wife, “That Girl.”

In an odd connection, our wedding reception was on the deck of the USS Cabot!

In an odd connection, our wedding reception was on the deck of the USS Cabot!

“At last we are in it up to our necks, and everything is changed, even your outlook on life.” ~ Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle is no more....

Ernie Pyle is no more….

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument plaque from the USS CabotTraces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument erected June 1945On April 18, 1945, Pyle died on Iejima (then known as Ie Shima), an island northwest of Okinawa Island, after being hit by Japanese machine-gun fire. He was traveling in a jeep with the commanding officer of the 305th Infantry Regiment and three other men. The road, which ran parallel to the beach two or three hundred yards inland, had been cleared of mines, and subsequently hundreds of vehicles had driven over it without incident. As the vehicle reached a road junction, Japanese troops open with machine guns located on a coral ridge about a third of a mile away. The initial burst missed, allowing the men to stop their vehicle and jump into a ditch. Pyle and the CO raised their heads to look around for the others, where Pyle smiled and spoke his last words to his ditch-mate: “Are you all right?” Another burst from the machine gun and Pyle was struck in the left temple. A medic was called for, and although one wasn’t available, it mattered not. Pyle had been killed instantly.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument lost a buddy 1945

“There are no atheists in the foxhole.” ~ Ernie Pyle

“The nation is quickly saddened again, by the death of Ernie Pyle,” then President Truman said. “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument at this spot

“Swinging first and swinging to kill is all that matters now.” ~ Ernie Pyle

“More than any other man, he became the spokesman of the ordinary American in arms doing so many extraordinary things. It was his genius that the mass and power of our military and naval forces never obscured the men who made them. He wrote about a people in arms as people still, but a people moving in a determination which did not need pretensions as a part of power. Nobody knows how many individuals in our forces and at home he helped with his writings. But all Americans understand now how wisely, how warm heartedly, how honestly he served his country and his profession. He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

“If you go long enough without a bath, even the fleas will leave you alone.” ~ Ernie Pyle

Funeral for Ernie Pyle

Funeral for Ernie Pyle

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Ernie Pyle monument and stairsPyle was initially buried on Iejima with his helmet on, in a long row of graves among other soldiers, with an infantry private on one side and a combat engineer on the other. At the ten-minute service, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps were all represented. Two months later, Americans erected a monument to him at the site of his demise. Pyle’s remains were later reinterred at an Army cemetery on Okinawa, and then again – for the last time – at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific located in Honolulu. Pyle was among the few American civilians killed during the war to be awarded the Purple Heart, which is noted on his gravestone.  None-the-less, he ultimately became just another victim of death by mass production….”

“Dead men by mass production — in one country after another — month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer. Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous. Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.” ~ Ernie Pyle, from a draft column found in his pocket the day he was killed



Selections from Ernie Pyle’s Obituary, April 19, 1945

Ernie Pyle Is Killed on Ie Island; Foe Fired When All Seemed Safe


GUAM, April, 18–Ernie Pyle died today on Ie Island, just west of Okinawa, like so many of the doughboys he had written about. The nationally known war correspondent was killed instantly by Japanese machine-gun fire.

The slight, graying newspaper man, chronicler of the average American soldier’s daily round, in and out of foxholes in many war theatres, had gone forward early this morning to observe the advance of a well-known division of the Twenty-fourth Army Corps. He joined headquarters troops in the outskirts of the island’s chief town, Tegusugu. Our men had seemingly ironed out minor opposition at this point, and Mr. Pyle went over to talk to a regimental commanding officer. Suddenly enemy machine gunners opened fire; the war correspondent fell in the first burst. The commanding general of the troops on the island reported the death to headquarters as follows: “I regret to report that War Correspondent Ernie Pyle, who made such a great contribution to the morale of our foot soldier, was killed in the battle of Ie Shima [now called Ie Jima] today.”

AT A COMMAND POST, Ie Island, Ryukyus, April 18 (AP)–Ernie Pyle, the famed columnist who had reported the wars from Africa to Okinawa, met his death about a mile forward of the command post.

Mr. Pyle had just talked with a general commanding Army troops and Lieut. Col. James E. Landrum, executive officer of an infantry regiment, before “jeeping” to a forward command post with Lieut. Col. Joseph B. Coolidge., commanding officer of the regiment, to watch front-line action. Colonel Coolidge was alongside Mr. Pyle when he was killed. “We were moving down the road in our jeep,” related Colonel Coolidge. “Ernie was going with me to my new command post. At 10 o’clock we were fired on by a Jap machine gun on a ridge above us. We all jumped out of the jeep and dived into a roadside ditch.

“A little later Pyle and I raised up to look around. Another burst hit the road over our heads and I fell back into the ditch. I looked at Ernie and saw he had been hit. He was killed almost instantly, the bullet entering his left temple just under his helmet.” “I crawled back to report the tragedy, leaving a man to watch the body. Ernie’s body will be brought back to Army grave registration officers. He will be buried here on Ie Jima unless we are notified otherwise.

“I was so impressed with Pyle’s coolness, calmness and his deep interest in enlisted men. They have lost their best friend.” Colonel Coolidge was visibly shaken as he told the facts of the columnist’s death. Almost tearfully, he described the tragedy. He said he knew the news would spread swiftly over the island. A short distance ahead enemy machine guns and intermingled with friendly fire, while artillery roared overhead and rattled all things around….