Losing their Hearts in San Francisco:  The San Francisco Maru of Truk Lagoon

“Come back.  Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”  ~Euripides, Greek classical tragedian playwright

Built in Japan in 1919 by the Kawasaki Dockyard, The SS (Steam Ship) San Francisco Maru was a medium-sized freighter of the time specifically designed for the Japanese Yamashista Kisen Line.   She was a 385ft, 27ft beam, 5,800+ ton passenger-cargo ship that served as part of Japan’s wider commercial fleet involved in world-wide trade.  The word “Maru,” meaning “circle” in Japanese, has been used to designate a Japanese merchant vessel since the 16th century.  Although the exact reasoning of this particular ship-naming convention is lost to time, the idea of a safe circular journey for ships and their crews is probably not far from the mark.  As to the city-name?  The Japanese at the time often named ships to reflect their primary destinations.

The San Francisco Maru

The San Francisco Maru

During World War II the Japanese were in desperate need to meet the logistical needs of their new Pacific empire, suddenly stretched far, wide, and thin.  Many commercial vessels were thus taken into service of the Emperor, a fate no different for the San Francisco.  Following her requisition by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the ship was detailed to transport military cargoes between the Japanese homeland and far-flung Pacific destinations.  Like most of the other Japanese merchants during WWII, the San Francisco was armed, in this case with a single 75mm/3” deck gun forward to both defend against surface submarine attack, and to provide an opportunity to attack and capture other unsuspecting merchants she happened to meet along the way.

Although damaged by aerial bombing in 1943 while delivering supplies in New Guinea, the San Francisco suffered her fatal blows after arriving at Truk Lagoon (current day Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia) in February 1944.  Packed with war materials, including cargo holds full of bombs, mines and torpedoes, she arrived just days before a massive American attack on this Japanese stronghold.  During Operation “Hailstone” (ラック島空襲 Torakku-tō Kūshū, lit. “the airstrike on Truk Island”) between 17-18 February 1944, waves upon waves of US Navy carrier-based planes were launched against shipping found at Truk, as well as the significant military presence Japan had built up there since the end of World War I.  After the first day’s attacks, the San Francisco was observed and reported by US forces as being on fire with smoke belching amidships.  The next day, she was reportedly hit by at least six 500-lb bombs, and was left burning furiously and sinking stern first.  At least five crew members were killed.  Operation Hailstone is often referred to as the “Japanese Pearl Harbor” due to the massive damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet.

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

It’s position lost to the fog of war made even more obscure by the passage of time, the wreck was “discovered” in 1969 by Cousteau (no doubt with the help of locals who all but knew her location), but was not dived again until 1973 when the ship’s bell was recovered and her identity confirmed.

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

The San Francisco lies very deep, and rests on an even keel with the superstructure beginning at ~140fsw, weather deck at ~165fsw, and the sea bottom around 210fsw.  Upon descent, her wreck remains invisible, and only passing about 50’fsw do her twin masts first come into view, themselves reaching up only to 105’fsw.  Heading from the forward mast to the bow, you cross over the open access to cargo hold 1 and finally reach the vessel’s most impressive and picturesque deck gun at ~150fsw.  Most deck guns of the wrecks in Truk are covered with an immense amount of growth, but due to the depths of the San Francisco, this is not that case of her wreck.

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

After touring the gun – a must on this shipwreck in Truk – one should immediately descend down into hold 1 forward, where you will find a cargo space packed with hemispherical landmines, at one time destined to help defend the beaches and shallow waters of Truk Lagoon against potential Allied invasion.  Watch the depth here though; the hold descends down to almost 200fsw!  Exiting up and aft out of hold , immediately proceed aft and around the forward mast to hold 2, where divers will find a plethora of scattered aerial bombs, complete with tail fins and the remains of their original wooden packing crates, along with the remains of Japanese trucks in the hold’s ‘tween decks.  Still deeper, drums of fuel can be seen.


Perhaps the highlight of visiting the San Francisco, however, are the three iconic Japanese tanks still found resting on the ship’s main deck.  These tanks, built by Mitsubishi, are Japanese Light Type 95 HA-Go tanks covered in with ½” armor.  They appear toyishly small in appearance, but would have been manned by a crew of three and could make up to 30mph on a six-cylinder, air-cooled 120hp diesel engine.  Weighing ~7.5 tons, the tanks were armed with three weapons:  a 37mm main battery turreted gun, and two 7.7mm machine guns, one forward (non-coaxial) and one rear-facing.  The tank was only mildly effective against infantry and was never designed for armored battles, and with an extremely cramped interior, only the lightest armor, and a hand-operated turret, the tank suffered enormously in battle as more modern battlefield weapons came into play.  Two tanks are found on the starboard side of the ship, with one to port.  This is perhaps the most photogenic part of the wreck, and if your bottom time is already limited (as it is on this wreck), make sure to reserve at least a few minutes for these infamous tanks.


From here, our planned dive run time required us to start our long ascent to the surface, where we completed our accelerated decompression profiles as we went.  It’s hard to leave the wreck, especially seeing the cratered remains of the superstructure (severely damaged from bombing), and knowing that the rear cargo holds contain a mixture of trucks, crates of ammunition, more mines, some depth charges, and scattered torpedoes….  How this wreck failed to detonate under such intense bombing is hard to imagine.  Equally as befuddling is the lack of other visible damage from the other reported bomb hits of the 2nd day’s attacks.


But exploring the 2nd half of this ship, where those five unfortunate souls who lost their hearts in San Francisco can be remembered as a shadowy dream, will have to wait for my return to Truk Lagoon.  Until then, stayed tuned for more “Traces of War” from this year’s adventures exploring this iconic battle site.

Heroes of the Great Wall of China

“If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men.” ~Mao Zedong and his quote which inspires millions of tourists visiting the Great Wall each year

Heroes of the Great Wall - China's label for us, not our own!

Heroes of the Great Wall – China’s label for us, not our own!


Finding our Chinese tour guide Allen upon coming down off the Wall, I corner him with a dose of ornery attitude and personal-space invading sassy body language.

“Allen, you can’t see Tower 13 from here, can you,” I emphatically inquire, hoping that my accusatory tone was coming through loud and clear.

“No-no-no, of course not,” came his dismissive reply slathered in an overly coy smile. “It is much higher and much deeper into the pass than that up there,” he continued, pointing to the highest tower visible from our base camp of sorts.

We were almost the last down the wall well past the given meeting time for our tour group. Having been filled with wall-scaling propaganda on the hour-long journey, filled with Mao quotes and talk of the herculean efforts in becoming a hero of the Great Wall, we were thoroughly indoctrinated upon our arrival and were fixated on summiting the pass “Tower 13” at all costs. We did. But boy-oh-boy what a climb!


Known in Mandarin as chang cheng, literally “long fortress,” the Great Wall of China dates back as far as the 5th century BCE. Several sections of the Great Wall are located within close proximity to Beijing, so trekking small portions of the long fortress is not difficult, logistically speaking at least.

China 2014, Great Wall, signage along the way WM

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications made of stone, brick, tamped earth, wood, and other materials, generally built along an east-to-west arc that very roughly delineates the southern edge of Mongolia, equating to the historical northern borders of China. It was envisioned as protection against nomadic intrusions and full-scale military incursions by various warlike peoples from the north. Several permanent walls were being built as early as the 7th century BCE, but most were later joined and strengthened by the 14th century resulting in what we see today. Most of the existing wall dates from the Ming Dynasty in China (14th-17th centuries).

China 2014, Great Wall, ridge-top wall at a mountain pass

Upon our arrival at the Great Wall, where we were one of the early buses for the day, we had to, of course, walk through a wholly atypical capitalistic Chinese “ancient village” where every vestige of originality has been removed and replaced with perfect, cartoonish copies Disney-style, and where any and all structures house souvenir shops. The weather, well, was not what we wanted: cold temperatures and a forlorn hazy overcast which we were repeatedly told was fog. “Fog” in China is more than synonymous with “smog;” it’s actually PC-speak for downright pollution! Unfortunately the weather was to shed all of our views that day, and result in the somewhat bleak set of pictures found here.

"Allen."  Not his real name.

“Allen.” Not his real name.

Allen, our tour guide, casually briefed us at a map of the Wall. Pointing out our goal – “Tower 13” – he casually waved his hand at the top of the ridgeline above where we could see a tower. “That’s not too bad,” I optimistically thought to myself. I remember thinking it didn’t seem to be that much of a climb. But then again we were only given about two hours to make our trek.

Well maybe he was point to Tower 13....

Well maybe he was point to Tower 13….

My first clue of what lay ahead? “Tower 13.” Ah, of course, it’s has to be unlucky 13. Only in Italy does it seem that the number 13 is considered anything but wickedly sinister.

juyongguan_mapChina 2014, Great Wall, find Jody along the wall! WMDue out limited time, our tour took us to Juyongguan Pass. Also written as Juyong Pass (居庸关 or 居庸關), this 11 mile long valley through a ridge of mountains lies just 31 miles outside of central Beijing. Here a large portion of The Great Wall of China passes through and has been fully restored. Juyongguan historically is one of the three greatest mountain passes of the Great Wall of China. It includes two sub-passes, one at the valley’s south (“Nan”) and the other at the north (“Badaling”). Although fortifications here date much earlier, the pass we see today is the site that was built in the 14th century under the supervision of Xu Da, a general of Zhu Yuanzhang, the First Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. It served as the northwestern gate of ancient Beijing City, and most certainly an important defensive ring for empire’s capital. However, like any good massive public undertaking, there were other uses for the wall as well. The tax man loved the barrier it proved, using it to place duties on goods traveling the historic Silk Road. Oh, and it was an effective barrier to both illegal immigration, and at times undesirable emigration. Makes one think it might be a good idea to have a “Great Wall of American.” And it wouldn’t be along our Canadian border….


There is debate about the actual linear measure of the wall, since it includes many branches, trenches, and other natural barriers, but the measure lies somewhere between 8,850 km (5,500 mi) and 21,196 km (13,171 mi). Even at the low-end of the measures, it’s still over twice as far as the Miami to Seattle drive I’ve done…four times…which takes a minimum of 4 “reasonable” days averaging 60 mph for 12 hours per!

I couldn't resist....

I couldn’t resist….

great-wall-construction-smallgreat-wall-battle-illustrationThe cliché goes that “many hands make light work.” Although it’s tempting to take the original length of the Great Wall (say 3,100 miles), assume that it was built over 10 years by over 1,000,000 unlucky souls, and run the math to figure that each worker was “only” responsible for about 1.65 feet of wall per year. of MASSIVE wall running across IMPOSSIBLE terrain. Which includes everything needed to complete that 1.65 feet: quarrying, transporting, cutting, lifting, fitting, tamping, and finishing. No, any way you slice this construction project, it was hell to be in its employ. In actuality, if we take that 1.65 linear feet and multiply that by the average height of the Ming wall of 33 feet, and then multiply that by the average width of about 15 feet, converting to cubic yards we find that each poor soul was actually responsible for almost 30 cubic yards of construction. To put this in better perspective, realize that a full-sized cement truck carries only 8 cubic yards of mix; standard dump trucks carry between 5 and 10 cubic yards of earth. Oh, and the Empire paid you only in food…. In actuality, the network of smaller projects was built well over the course of 2,000 years, or 100 generations, and most likely involved many millions of people.

China 2014, Great Wall, private pausing on the way up

China 2014, Great Wall, Kevin happily on the way down!Yes, we dressed appropriately for the weather, forecast to only be in the 40s that day. And luckily we were forewarned to dress in layers. It may seem chilly at first on the Wall (and it is when that dry wind blows right through you), but I guarantee you’ll be breaking a sweat once you reach the second beacon tower along your journey. What we lacked, and could have used, was some water! It’s not like climbing Mount Fuji, but it’s much more of a climb than you think.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody just starting the climb WM

rsz_screen_shot_2014-04-08_at_45452_pmAnd although it’s also been referred to as the “longest cemetery on earth,” confirmations of mass graves or deaths on the wall are hard to come by online. I have, although, seen estimates that put the death toll of construction at over 300,000, but I cannot find one credible instance online that states people were actually buried in the wall. Our tour guide claimed that during restoration of the pass we enjoyed over 5,000 sets of human remains were found in the vicinity.

Me with a Watch or Beacon Tower

Me with a Watch or Beacon Tower

Progress on the climb is measured by Watch or Beacon Towers: each is numbered. Although without a portable map, and thinking that the visible tower on top of the ridge was our goal, I didn’t pay much attention to the tower numbering when we first set out. I believe we started at Tower 6…. The visible one I mistook for 13 was actually only tower…EIGHT!!

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody thinks it's lonely near the top

smoke-great-wall-watchtowers-smallgreat_wall_of_china_12The Ming watchtowers were critical components of the Great Wall. Used primarily for observation, they are also called “Beacon Towers,” where their elevated roofs served as platforms for signaling. In fact, it seems that each beacon tower had a ready bunker of firewood, hay and sulphur for making quick, bright and smoky fires. Built no more than twice an arrow’s flight (about 100 yards) apart, the towers provided full defensive coverage; the more elaborate towers stood over 40 feet tall and offered unobstructed views and fields of fire. Observation posts were located on the top floor of the tower; lower floors were used to store supplies and equipment and house soldiers.

China 2014, Great Wall, crowded lower reaches of the wall WM

Note the "Watchful" Cameras

Note the “Watchful” Cameras

Of course there are the ubiquitous cameras on each of the “watch” towers; c’mon, what else would you expect to be going on there! Security cameras are literally everywhere in modern China, and lends credence to the premise of the show Person of Interest. If a machine is tracking your every move, you are most certainly in China. Are you being watched? Yes. In streets, classrooms, stores, mass transit and tourist destinations. Everywhere. If you want to visit China, get used to it.

China 2014, Great Wall, vespa treatment for the mountainous wall WM

China 2014, Great Wall, walking the lonely mountain wall WMChina 2014, Great Wall, the long climb up to Tower 13 WMWe press on with our climb. And make no mistake: trekking this section of the Great Wall is a climb. Like setting the stair-stepper at the gym on the hardest setting and then going for a full 60 minute workout! For the love of god, watch your step! When wet, the stone pathways and stairs are super slick; even when dry and on restored stairs, the footing can be questionable. The steps are never the same height two stairs in a row (modern building code is a wonderful thing), and some are so steep and high that it becomes more like scaling a ladder than even climbing steep stairs. Steps higher than their width are not uncommon. It’s not until you turn around and look back at the rising, snaking path that you really appreciate the steepness of those steps. It’s hard to find firm information on the vertical ascent to tower 13. At the low-end it seems to be about 630 meters, or about 2,100 feet. At the high-end, the round number 3,000 feet is often quote. My own estimates on the wall, using my trained skydiver and pilot’s eye, was about (but not quite) 3 grand.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody on the climb into the heavens

China 2014, Great Wall, misty wall in a mountain pass WMBattlements are obvious all along the wall. Naturally, the crenellations (and holes for firing) faced the enemy, but drainage is all to the Empire’s side, helping to prevent vegetation which could provide concealment to an enemy. At one point I mentioned to Jody about how low the Wall was in one section. I didn’t realize I was looking onto the “friendly” side; Jody motioned me to the opposite wall where the wall connected to the crest of the ridge, which dropped precipitously a few hundred feet.

There are not many facilities along the way....

There are not many facilities along the way….

The Wall worked, but only marginally, and only for a short period of time. Manchu tribes from the northeast finally surmounted the Wall in 1644 and promptly took over Beijing, then all of China, and established their Qing dynasty, ending the Ming era. Can’t you just see about a million soldiers, slaves, and peasants turning over in the graves sighing, “All that work for nothing!!!”

China 2014, Great Wall, ridge-line wall trace (low key)

Once we realized the tower numbering system, we knew a bit more what we were in for. There was no turning back; climbing ahead of us was an older Marine Colonel Nancy who moved out like this was something she did everyday back on Okinawa. Climbing with us was a Marine Major, who you expect to be in good shape, but who was hauling up his 4-year-old daughter on his back, back-pack style! And behind them was a pregnant woman. We all made it up, but only after reaching a point where the pathway actually descended for a couple of hundred yards, before a steep final push to Tower 13.

China 2014, Great Wall, locks of love explanation placard WM

China 2014, Great Wall, kisses atop Towe 13!! WMChina 2014, Great Wall, locking our love together on the Great Wall of China WMAlong the way we noticed locks attacked to various points along the wall. Jody and I had seen this idea of “Love Locks” in our other worldly travels. Sad that we most likely missed our opportunity to pick one up at the base of the wall, we both longingly looked at this missed opportunity. Thankfully, up at Tower 10 or so, the locks were being sold! Writing down our names and date, the Chinese gent immediately engraved our Lock of Love, and off we went in search of “the spot” to leave our romantic impact on China. We found it in the vicinity of Tower 13.

China 2014, Great Wall, Jody happy about our locked love on top of the Great Wall WM

China 2014, Great Wall, we were there placard on Beacon Tower 13 WMChina 2014, Great Wall, Jody and tea after our arduous climbFinally, retracing our steps back down – there is not cable car or slide down at this spot on the wall – we decided to have a nice hot tea while waiting for our “Heroes of the Great Wall” certificate to be finished. We all were led to believe, again, by propaganda – or maybe just a really bad assumption – that we needed some type of stamp or document from Tower 13 to be a “hero.” This is not the case! Even so, for our own proof, we took a photo of the placard at the top tower in the pass.

Celebrating becoming a Chinese Hero at Tower 13!

Celebrating becoming a Chinese Hero at Tower 13!

Jody and I reached the Great Wall, and affirmed the true and heroic nature of not just this wonder of the world, but of the true and heroic nature of mankind in the world. Come to the Great Wall and set your own goal. No matter where you trek or how high you ascend, the Wall will leave on your soul the indelible mark of greatness.

China 2014, Great Wall, curving ridgeline mountainous wall WM

Just remember, like mounting Tower 13 of the Great Wall at Juyongguan Pass, most worthy goals involve an unexpected and challenging journey, one not visible at the outset. Persevere, and you too can become a Hero in your own right.


China 2014, Great Wall, Heroes of the Great wall and their bamboo medal

For more photos of our Far Eastern Flings among the Great Wall of China, see my Flickr Album The Great Wall of China at Juyongguan Pass.


As an aside, there is often confusion surrounding Mao’s quote about the Wall and the nature of being a man, true or heroic. The quote is taken from the poem “Mount Liupan,” written in late 1935 after the Red Army almost finished the famous Long March. Mount Liupan is a mountain in northwestern China. For context, the poem is included here:

The sky is high, the clouds are pale,

We watch the wild geese vanish southward.

If we fail to reach the Great Wall we are not men

We who have already measured twenty thousand li

High on the crest of Mount Liupan

Red banners wave freely in the west wind.

Today we hold the long cord in our hands,

When shall we bind fast the Grey Dragon?

Traces of War: Yomitan Okinawa WWII Aircraft Shelter

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

The Yomitan Japanese Aircraft Bunker from World War II

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


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

The Commandos' Ride

The Commandos’ Ride

Actual Commando Helmet from Okinawa

Actual Commando Helmet from Okinawa

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

Hangar at Yontan during WWII

Hangar at Yontan during WWII

Wrecked Japanese Planes at Yontan

Wrecked Japanese Planes at Yontan

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

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

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


Disarming the 2,600+ lbs warhead!

Disarming the 2,600+ lbs warhead!

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


Japanese Paratroopers

Japanese Paratroopers

Japanese Commandos Readying for their One-Way Mission

Japanese Commandos Readying for their One-Way Mission

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

Missing Historic Marker

Missing Historic Marker

In earlier times...

In earlier times…

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

Okinawa Battlesites 2014, Yomitan Aircraft Shelter, arched shelter WM

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

Blockhouse in the rear.

Blockhouse in the rear.

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

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

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

Crude Construction

Crude Construction

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

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

Just think about all the stories it could tell….


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

Hero of War: The Railway Man


~ Takashi Nagase, Imperial Japanese Army Officer during WWII, reflecting on his and Japan’s role in the brutality, torture and death suffered on the Burma-Thai “Death Railway”

“He said, ‘Son, have you seen the world? Well, what would you say if I said that you could? Just carry this gun and you’ll even get paid.’ I said, ‘That sounds pretty good.’”

I found myself frozen and sobbing uncontrollably. Sitting there at our living-room sited computer processing photos in Photoshop, listening to iTunes on headphones while Jody milled about the kitchen, a song – Hero of War (Rise Against) – started to play, a song I hadn’t heard in a very long time. Jody, realizing I was unexpectedly in some type of serious distress and came to comfort me as best she could. But unknowing and unexperienced with my own personal brush with PTSD, all that she could do was to hold me.  And that was all I really needed.

“A hero of war, yeah that’s what I’ll be

And when I come home they’ll be damn proud of me

I’ll carry this flag to the grave if I must

Because it’s a flag that I love and a flag that I trust”

For me, this is thankfully a very infrequent occurrence now; the realistic flashbacks, the empty hopelessness, and the crushing sadness all but extinct. I’m not even sure I’ve suffered a service-related nightmare since getting remarried in 2011. But this episode unfortunately shows that parts of my past still coldly lurks, ready to attack, without providing any quarter.

“I kicked in the door, I yelled my commands, the children, they cried, but I got my man. We took him away, A bag over his face, from his family and his friends

They took off his clothes, they pissed in his hands; I told them to stop, but then I joined in. We beat him with guns and batons not just once but again and again”

But it wasn’t just the song’s lyrics that brought about this offense to my otherwise happy and settled state of mind. Jody and I recently watched The Railway Man, one of the many movies I have in my Netflix queue that are war-related. This one, however, deals not only with coming to sensible terms with a horrific past, but focuses on the legacy of the atrocities – on all sides – committed by the Japanese during WWII in the Far East.  It was the thoughts of my own remorse weaving through my subconscious resulting from our theatrical viewing that finally erupted to the surface, catalyzed by the powerful song.

Trailer for “The Railway Man”

Lomax and Nagase in their WWII Days

Lomax and Nagase in their WWII Days

Starvation and Slave Labor, the Japanese order of the day

Starvation and Slave Labor, the Japanese order of the day

Upwards of 2,000 people died everyday during construction.  Most of them locals.

Upwards of 2,000 people died everyday during construction. Most of them locals.

The Railway Man concerns a small corner of the horrific war in the Pacific, just another of the many hundreds of thousands of heartbreaking footnotes to World War II which all cry for telling as well as this movie does. This particular TRUE story will humble the hardest, and touch even the untouchable. Based on the best-selling memoir of Eric Lomax, the story opens in Singapore as the War in the Pacific spreads like an inoperable cancer. Lomax was then a young and idealistic British soldier serving overseas, but was captured by the Japanese in 1942 as Singapore fell to brutal Imperial expansionism. Subsequently, he becomes a slave laborer and prisoner of war compelled to help in the construction of the notorious “Death Railway,” so named because of the thousands who died and were buried along the rails traversing between Thailand to Burma. Some of you may more readily recognize the railway as the backdrop for the fictional movie award-winning movie, Bridge over the River Kwai.

“She walked through bullets and haze

I asked her to stop, I begged her to stay, but she pressed on

So I lifted my gun and I fired away

The shells jumped through the smoke and into the sand that the blood now had soaked

She collapsed with a flag in her hand, a flag white as snow”

Hellfire Pass, tragically dug completely by hand.

Hellfire Pass, tragically dug completely by hand.

Horrific living conditions for POWs

Horrific living conditions for POWs

Somehow Lomax miraculously survives the War, and after almost succumbing to his metaphysical injuries, he finds himself…40 years later…precipitously able to confront one of his torturers who had unjustly escaped prosecution as a war criminal. After tracking down ex-Japanese officer/translator Takashi Nagase, who was then running a peace museum at the site of their old POW camp, Lomax returns to Asian in an attempt to let go of a lifetime of bitterness and hate.

Lomax’s trials and tribulations with “shell shock” as it was called back then are painfully portrayed in the film. And it serves to highlight the nuances of injury that veterans may suffer from the impossible situations many find themselves unprepared to confront. National Public Radio recently did a story focused on what is being described as “moral injury” among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. This new labeling – a modern recharacterization of PTSD – centers on the psychic trauma caused by acting or witnessing acts that conflict with one’s own core values, like brutalizing prisoners, for instance, or killing non-combatants.

There is a new push to recognize such injury as a distinct condition within the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder spectrum and treat it more appropriately with customized interventions. For instance, the pain and suffering with which a soldier may be afflicted after he and fellow soldiers kill an entire Iraqi family of five after their car inexplicably failed to slow for a checkpoint requires a treatment that be may quite differently than, say, the care required for more typical post-combat miseries…like killing combatants…that afflict most military personnel who have been exposed first-hand to combat.

But, like I wrote recently in Sober and Sobering, a sharp but narrow focus “here” on our own [insert issue de jour here] doesn’t necessarily capture all the pressure points over “there.” In The Railway Man, the suffering of all sides is highlighted, even though for some extending compassion to a former enemy seems quite inconceivable. The self-absorption that most Americans feel about our veteran’s state of suffering as an inevitable result of the last decade (plus) of sustained combat overseas, and comes silhouetted against a gaping backdrop of the absence of care centered on the horrendous damage suffered by “others” in the very same conflicts.

Take, for example, a drone strike gone bad. The operator of that drone, sitting in a flight simulator station in a secure, air-conditioned building on some Air Base, USA, acts on intelligence, good or “bad.” Targeting what he believes to be a terrorist cell meeting, what ultimately is centered in the weapon’s crosshairs is a wedding party in Afghanistan…destroyed by a Hellfire missile that kills…say…fifty celebrants. Only later does this operator learn that the KIA had no military “value.” Hopefully this person has a conscience and feels some sense of remorse. Maybe he’s stricken to a level that interferes with his daily life. He deserves, no doubt, compassion, intervention and remedy.

But so do the direct and indirect victims of the strike: all the dead, all the mangled injured, their families and friends caught up in the surges of sorrow over such horrific tragedy at what should have been a joyful celebration of the highest order.

The point is that it’s easy to lack empathy for the pain and suffering caused by war when the people hurting aren’t “yours.” Everyone suffers in war; it’s a common mistake to assume that your enemy is not. The maladies of the battlefield haunt all sides and all classes of peoples indiscriminately.

Wars and killing will continue. Wars sometimes involve murder, whether intentional or not. And the longer our current “engagement” overseas continues, the more it becomes lost in all the other noise of everyday life. The realities of war and killing go largely unnoticed by most. Only when we are forced to face the full range of destruction and heartbreak we have wrought does one truly know what it is like to stare into the abyss. For those of us who have shared such a vision, many are on a constant quest, seeking absolution for our own culpability, and remedies for our own lingering moral injury.

“A hero of war, is that what they see

Just medals and scars, so damn proud of me

And I brought home that flag, now it gathers dust

But it’s a flag that I love, it’s the only flag I trust”

Astonishingly, former enemies find common ground in forgiveness, remorse, and finally friendship.

Astonishingly, former enemies find common ground in forgiveness, remorse, and finally friendship.


Statue of Nagase in Thailand

Statue of Nagase in Thailand

Lomax was successful in his pursuit. He both found and provided absolution; his remedy, the only one with the efficacy to comprehensively heal, was to become friends with his former captor. The Japanese record throughout Asian is undeniable; I’ve written about their wholesale atrocities before in From Vengeance to Forgiveness, but realize that war and it’s companions Nationalism and Propaganda warp our very natures as human beings. Gaining a more appropriate perspective by re-humanizing his ex-enemy, Lomax wax able to grow and heal as he continued to correspond with Nagase until their deaths in the last decade. Nagase, after the true nature of the war was revealed, became burdened with remorse, inspiring him to help search for POW graves before devoting his later life to reconciliation and peace. Lomax died at age 93 in 2012 while The Railway Man was in editing; sadly, he never saw the finished product. What Lomax achieved in his later years is noble, poignant and of lasting value to us all, which is why his astonishing story remains so compelling…as hard as it is to believe. In the end, Lomax’s inspiring tale provides proof that heroism, humanity and the redeeming power of love are all real, and most times not at all what we expect. Lomax is a Hero of War.  He, along with Nagase, are both Heroes of Life.

Lomax and Nagase visit a Death Railway bridge over the River Kwai

Lomax and Nagase visit a Death Railway bridge over the River Kwai

War always comes at a steep, unaffordable price. I continue on in my own personal journey, and hopefully, like Lomax, one day I will make permanent peace with the violence in my own past. I believe I’m well on my way.

“He said, “Son, have you seen the world?

Well what would you say, if I said that you could….”


See more about The Railway Man’s amazing story here: http://www.therealrailwayman.com/railwayman-the-story.html, and here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2215357/Eric-Lomax-A-tortured-war-hero-Japanese-tormentor-redeeming-power-forgiveness.html

Love, Intrigue & Death at Katsuren Castle

“Akusai wa hyaku-nen no fusaku.” Literally:  A bad (or wrong) wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest.  ~Japanese Proverb

Okay, it's not always the woman's fault....

Okay, it’s not always the woman’s fault…. This modern Asian wedding is just an all-around bad idea.

Every day on the way to White Beach back in 1999 I would pass what appeared to be ruins on a hilltop among the urban sprawl of Okinawa’s Katsuren peninsula.  Then for a few weeks, there was intense activity at the site, something which of course peaked my interest.  Finally deciding to play hooky from work one day, I turn my Honda Accord hatchback up the steep, crudely constructed concrete hillside road and barely made the climb to a grass and gravel parking lot.  And then my adventure really began!

Dramatic at Night

Dramatic at Night

It turned out that these ruins, once the site of one of the most significant castles of Okinawa which played a key role in Ryukyu history, were being hastily (and only partially) rebuilt, repaired, restored and cleaned in anticipation of a millennial celebration in early 2000.  And thus began my love affair with this castle that I admired during my daily commute to and from work, and to which I visited often with my family back in the early 2000’s when we lived on Okinawa for almost four years.


One inescapable aspect of living on Okinawa is that the very ground is dotted with a plethora of intriguing castle ruins, reflecting in the present the rich Ryukyu past when regional kings fought a series of wars over their fiefdoms, eventually leading to the unification of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.  By some accounts, there are upwards of 500 documented sites that once held a castle, large or small.

Artistic Impression of Katsuren in its Heyday.

Artistic Impression of Katsuren in its Heyday.

8583934564_5464537517_oOkinawan castles are often called gusuku, and are indicated by a “- ” suffix in writing. But “castle” is a bit of misnomer; a gusuku is more akin to fortresses of regional chieftains, dating to a time when Okinawa was independent from Japan, and more aligned with Korea and China.  Except for Shuri Castle, completely destroyed in World War II but impeccably restored to its rightful grandeur, most castles exist as ruins, many just mere crumbling stone walls.  Although little may be visible to the eye, the remains of the day reflect the strong history of Okinawa and remain culturally important.  In fact, all the places where gusuku once stood are regarded as sacred sites, still used as active places of worship and for religious and cultural ceremonies by local residents.

Lord Amawari portrayed in modern times.

Lord Amawari portrayed in modern times.

14519091370_9947c54c7c_bUnfortunately, much of the specific history of most of the sites remains unknown, with little specifics being well-recorded.   Primarily, we know those that had developed into strong fortresses, having been led by powerful chieftains that grew in size and stature by subsuming lesser gusuku.  Three of the most famous chieftains in Okinawan history are Lord Amawari of Katsuren, Lord Gosamaru of Zakimi and Nakagusuku, and Lord Hananchi of Nakijin, all on the main island of Okinawa.  Archaeological excavations at their respective castle sites prove the power and wealth of these Sovereigns, and show their entrenched engagement with China and other Southeast Asian countries.


14519173368_f6bc538061_bOne of the most popular sites among visitors is Katsuren Castle on Okinawa’s central eastern shore, dating to well before the 15th century. Katsuren Castle (勝連城 Katsuren-gusuku), also Katsuren-jō, is known in the Okinawan language as Kacchin Gusuku. Katsuren Castle was built on a large hill of Ryukyuan limestone, 322 feet above sea level on the Katsuren Peninsula of Okinawa. Not surprisingly, the castle offers magnificent panoramic views of the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With water on two sides, it is sometimes referred to as the “Ocean Gusuku.” As a sacred site the castle contains a shrine of the Ryukyuan religion dedicated to Kobazukasa.


14705473812_28e79f13bf_bIts walls, although massive and timeless, couldn’t contain the intense royal intrigue brewing there. According to rich legend and some historical accounting, King Sho Hashi considered the regional chieftain named Lord Aji Amawari of Katsuren, the 10th Lord in succession of Katsuren castle, a powerful rival.  Famous for fostering prosperous international trade, Amawari was also known as a cunning and politicized leader.   Legend has it that he pushed his predecessor, the 9th Katsuren Castle Lord, Lord Mochizuki Aji, off the top of the castle walls.  As Aji was considered a tyrant and was detested by the people, not only did Amawari assume Lordship, he also became a popular savior to the people of Katsuren.

Momoto Fumiagari

Momoto Fumiagari

momotofumiagariKing Hashi sent his daughter, matchless beauty Momoto Fumiagari, to marry the young Lord Amawari, as one means to keep Amawari in check.  Ah, I hear you sigh, a tale as old as time as lovers’ intrigue generally leads to ruin.  But as Awamari’s strength and popularity continued to grow, Hashi then moved his faithful disciple Lord Gosamaru, from Zakimi Castle in the north, to Nakagusuku, just south of Katsuren, to keep a watchful eye on his ambitious son-in-law. Amawari, whose dream was to unify the island under his control, eventually attacked and killed Gosamaru (with Shuri’s support), and then attempted to overthrow King Sho (of Shuri), but was defeated and killed in 1458.


14702652921_f835efe616_bHowever, like in the genesis of all legends where truth is lost to time, the people of Katsuren today sees things quite differently. Amawari, popular among and compassionate to his people at the time, was a great threat to the King, and thus it was the King who held the hidden agenda.  In another example of revisionist history, the characterization of Amawari is being slowly transformed from one of traitor to hero.  Funny what a few centuries can do to rehabilitate just about anyone’s character.


007In any case, the 10th Lord of Katsuren Castle, Lord Amawari, was abruptly killed in some sort of politically charged spat, no doubt involving the rivals of Nakagusuku and Shuri castles.  Oh, and surely over the girl (wink).  He was the last powerful personality to infect Katsuren, and the castle slowly fell out of favor and into slow decay.

www.pbase.com/dbh/okinawa; katsuren jo

14702565151_6f594ac651_bThe castle has 4 enclosures, each at a differing elevation. The first is relatively open, with the castle’s walls there being actively rebuilt during our visit.  The 3rd Enclosure, going from bottom to top, is most likely where ceremonies and rituals took place.  Moving up the large wooden staircase to the 2nd Enclosure, visitors find the foundation of a massive pillared building as grand and on par with Shurijo stood here, based on fragments of expensive Chinese and Korean pottery and colorful architectural decorations.  This level served as the core of the castle where the Lord and his Lady resided, and, in effect, served as the public “government” offices for the region.  Moving up some stone stairs to the uppermost 1st Enclosure, one finds the best views and smallest space, used for the safe repository of valuables according to most speculation.



137516676_UcxJqCRkThe journey to the ruin’s highest level can be completed (mostly) via the modern, handsome and sturdy wooden staircase, but you may also elect the more authentic and exciting journey up the crumbly rock ramp that is immediately adjacent. Be forewarned though, this is not the day to be wearing your laid-pack island-time flip-flops; sturdy shoes for this adventure are a must.  The limestone is jagged and especially slippery when wet.

Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire

Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire

IMG_6741_jpgAs a religious site, Katsuren is still very active.  Numerous gods were worshipped in ancient Okinawa, believed to protect the island and the Okinawans in daily life, and many of those are still worshiped today.  Not surprisingly, there are a few altars at Katsuren, which continue to protect the castle and region.  Interestingly, the castle’s kitchen also is the site of the Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire.  The grounds also hold an entrance to a cave called Ushinujigama (”gama” means cave), which was most likely used as a refuge during war and natural disasters.  Finally, the Tamanomiuji-utaki stone at Katsuren Castle serves as a sacred shrine.  This stone remains an active place of worship, and is believed to connect underground to Ushinujigama, connecting two sacred sites together.

Ushinujigama at Katsuren Castle

Ushinujigama at Katsuren Castle

Katsuren Castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.  It was also declared a Designated Historical Monument (史跡 Shiseki) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972.


Although the wrong wife can lead to the ruin of her husband, hopefully you can visit Katsuren with a mate more well-suited.  And maybe, just maybe she won’t have a power-hungry father with an army at his disposal.  More likely the long journey involving a couple of U-turns, poorly functioning air conditioning and perhaps and a man who won’t ask (or take) directions will be the origin of any relationship rift(s).  Don’t be in a rush to physically get there, even though you have must visit this fascinating site.  The drive there can be frustratingly slow.  Nevertheless, it can be made a scenic and relaxing ride.  So adjust your clocks to Island Time, and take in some of the more rural areas of Okinawan on your way.

I have a good one.  Spouse, I mean.

I have a good one. Spouse, I mean.

But just keep one eye on that spouse of yours…. You never know what schemes may be hatched with the rich Ryukyu Kingdom history and colorful intrigue as their guide!

Watch your spouse, and keep from visiting "Nightmare Castle!"

Watch your spouse, and keep from visiting “Nightmare Castle!”



Katsuren Castle

Open: Closed Mondays and December 29th – January 3rd.

Address: 3908, Haebaru, Katsuren, Uruma-City, Okinawa Prefecture, 904-2311

Entrance Fee: Free

Phone: 098-978-2201

Directions: Exit the Okinawa Expressway at Okinawa Minami and make a left onto Highway 23.  At the Ikento intersection turn right onto Route 16.  Follow the road straight for several kilometers (be patient – it takes longer than you think or want!) until the roads starts uphill as it gently curves left ninety degrees.  Just after the road curves, you’ll find a sign pointing to the Katsuren Castle ruins on the right, with the museum and parking area on the left.

Map: www.jcastle.info/castle/zoom/110

See my complete set of photos in my Flickr stream here:  Katsuren Castle

Traces of War: Former Japanese Naval Underground HQ on Okinawa

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

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

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the suffering of the OkinawansOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, timeline of war displayOne can’t help but imagine how devastated the landscape of Okinawa looked during the “Typhoon of Steel” suffered there in 1945. Having read, twice, both With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge and The Battle of Okinawa by Colonel Yahara (both authors actually present at the Battle of Okinawa), it is indeed a morbid privilege to be able to track the traces of war which still exist on Okinawa today.

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

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, Flag Officer's room chiseled into the rockOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the suffering of the Okinawans 2The Battle of Okinawa makes for fertile fields harvested by the Grim Reaper. WWII deaths here total upwards of 225,000, the majority Okinawan civilians.  Fully 1/3 of the Okinawan population perished in the spring and summer of 1945 when over 2.7 million artillery shells of all types and calibers were fired against the entrenched Japanese, working out to an average of 4.7 shells for every man, woman, child alive on Okinawa at the start of the battle.

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

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, larger room in the complexOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, signal communications room undergroundA heartbreaking trace of the war here includes the well-preserved and restored Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. The Japanese Navy Corps of Engineers, Yamane Division, dug this tunnel complex by hand using pickaxes and hoes in 1944 to serve as the Japanese Navy Imperial Headquarters on Okinawa.  The semi-circular tunnels and rooms, designed to sustain upwards of 4,000 people, were hardened into bunkers by post and concrete, designed and built to endure the American bombardment and the expected long drawn-out fight.

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, lonely wet passageways underground

Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, wall riddled with a hand-gernade when committed suicideOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, narrow chiseled stairwayNow located in a suburb of Naha, it was here deep in this hillside that Admiral Minoru Ota and over 4,000 of his men were killed in combat with the US 6th Marine Division. Many Japanese sailors, estimated at about 175 men including Ota himself, committed suicide in the tunnels, showing the ultimate dedication to their belief that death is preferred over the dishonor of capture.  Some used hand grenades; shrapnel marks are still dramatically visible in the plaster of one of the complex’s many rooms.  Ota shot himself with his service pistol.

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

Minoru_OtatomishironavyHQ08Minoru Ōta (大田 実 Ōta Minoru, 7 April 1891 – 13 June 1945) was the final commander of the Japanese naval forces defending the Oroku Peninsula of Okinawa during WWII.  Here Ōta commanded a force of 10,000 men, half of which were Okinawan civilian laborers conscripted into service, with the remainder sailors with almost no experience fighting on land.  Having been ordered to withdraw his men from the Oroku Peninsula to support the broader Japanese army retreating further south, Ōta began preparations for the move by ordering most of the heavy equipment, stocks of ammunition and heavy weapons destroyed since they could not be carried.  While in mid-march to the south, Ōta was ordered back…and thus the island’s naval combat elements returned with no heavy weapons and only half the force armed with even rifles.  The Americans subsequently isolated the peninsula by a seaborne landing behind the Navy’s positions, sealing the sailors’ shared fate.  Fighting a lost cause and having most of their equipment destroyed and out of food, water and supplies, many of the Japanese attacked the US Marines using makeshift weapons in a desperate last charge on June 13, 1945, and were decimated.  The remains of approximately 2,400 Japanese and Okinawans were found in and around the tunnels located here.


Okinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, wall riddled with a hand-gernade when committed suicideOkinawa Aug 2013, Naval Underground, alter left from WWII days of 1945After the war, the complex remained untouched for many years. Restored in the 1970s, the complex has been reopened to the public.  But only around 300 meters of the original 450 meter-long tunnels are open.  However, in these passages and rooms chiseled into the hillside’s rock, visitors can view the headquarters’ Operations Room, Staff Office, Code (Signals) Room, Medical, Petty Officer’s Quarters, and the Commanding Officer’s Room.  In order to make the facility safe for the public, additional cement and some other reinforcements were added, but very little else was altered so as to maintain authenticity and give visitors the gut feel for what the Japanese endured here.  A few plaques and drawings are found along the passages which help to illuminate the use of various areas of the bunker.

The HQ's Medical Facility

The HQ’s Medical Facility

Homemade Bayonet

Homemade Bayonet

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, Japanese Naval Officer's WWII uniform recovered from the tunnelsAt the entrance to the underground tunnels is a small museum dedicated to the events of the Battle of Okinawa, which contains a few interesting artifacts recovered from the complex. Most interestingly, prominently displayed is a translation of Admiral Ota’s final message to his superiors in Tokyo, which highlights the horrors of the mêlée, along with the suffering of the proud and loyal Okinawan people.  Equally as moving is Ota’s Death Poem, still visible on the wall of his room, which translates “How could we rejoice over our birth but to die an honorable death under the Emperor’s flag?”  Note that this poem’s tone and underlying message is much different from an earlier death poem telegraphed to his superiors:  “Even if my body perishes in Okinawa, the noble Japanese spirit within my soul shall defend Japan forever.”

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

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

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, anchor memorial monument flag staffOkinawa 2014, Navy Underground, recovered WWII artifacts from the tunnelsThe memorial on the hilltop consists of a tall central monument with Japanese inscriptions, three shorter monuments with dedications, and a ship mast (or flagstaff) and anchor in honor of the sacrifice of the Japanese Navy in WWII. All of the inscriptions and dedications on the monuments are in Japanese except for one.  In English, it states, “This monument is dedicated to the memory of Vice Admiral Minoru Ota, Commanding Officer of the Japanese Navy and his 4,000 men who committed suicide in this underground headquarters on June 13, 1945 after having shared in a hard-fought battle during World War II.  A poem carved in a wall of this trench by Admiral Ota as his farewell word is still legible.  Commanding Officer‘s room, center of operations, and the staff room remain in this underground headquarters which are reminiscent of the bygone days.”  Small tokens left by visitors are scattered at the monuments’ base and throughout the tunnels:  flowers, money left with a Buddha, and paper cranes representing grief and prayers for peace.

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground,  anchor memorial monument


Life finds a way....

Life finds a way….

Long shadow of the past....

Long shadow of the past….

Like most memorials on Okinawa, the focus here is on peace highlighted through the tragedy, calamity, and pointlessness of war. The only named person is Ota; the “rest” are simply a (large) number.  The monuments, reaching skyward, are set majestically on a hilltop overlooking the sea, surrounded by lush greenery and beautiful flowers, quite tranquil and apart from the urban sprawl found at the base of the hill.

Ota Commanding the Pitched and Hopeless Battle

Ota Commanding the Pitched and Hopeless Battle

At 1600 on June 12, 1945, after being encircled by the U.S. 6th Marine Division, Ōta sent a farewell telegram to the Imperial Japanese Army’s 32nd Army Headquarters. In it he amply highlights the fallacy of the battle, the mistreatment of the Okinawan people, and his deep concern over their future as a people and culture.  That telegram reads:

Please convey the following telegram to the Vice-Admiral.

While the Governor should be the person to relay this report on the present condition of the Okinawa prefectural inhabitants, he has no available means of communication and the 32nd Division Headquarters appears to be thoroughly occupied with their own correspondences. However, due to the critical situations we are in, I feel compelled to make this urgent report though it is without the Governor’s consent.

Since the enemy attack began, our Army and Navy has been fighting defensive battles and have not been able to tend to the people of the Prefecture. Consequently, due to our negligence, these innocent people have lost their homes and property to enemy assault. Every man has been conscripted to partake in the defense, while women, children and elders are forced into hiding in the small underground shelters which are not tactically important or are exposed to shelling, air raids or the harsh elements of nature. Moreover, girls have devoted themselves to nursing and cooking for the soldiers and have gone as far as to volunteer in carrying ammunition, or join in attacking the enemy.

This leaves the village people vulnerable to enemy attacks where they will surely be killed. In desperation, some parents have asked the military to protect their daughters against rape by the enemy, prepared that they may never see them again.

Nurses, with wounded soldiers, wander aimlessly because the medical team had moved and left them behind. The military has changed its operation, ordering people to move to far residential areas, however, those without means of transportation trudge along on foot in the dark and rain, all the while looking for food to stay alive.

Ever since our Army and Navy occupied Okinawa, the inhabitants of the Prefecture have been forced into military service and hard labor, while sacrificing everything they own as well as the lives of their loved ones. They have served with loyalty. Now we are nearing the end of the battle, but they will go unrecognized, unrewarded. Seeing this, I feel deeply depressed and lament a loss of words for them. Every tree, every plant life is gone.

Even the weeds are burnt. By the end of June, there will be no more food. This is how the Okinawan people have fought the war. And for this reason, I ask that you give the Okinawan people special consideration, this day forward.

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


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

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

Address: 236 Tomigusuku, Tomigusuku, Okinawa Japan

Phone: 098/850-4055