Explosive Find:  The Special Attack Tunnels of Miyakojima


“With back hunched, pushing forward the control stick, now comes an end to many countless hopes.”  ~Japanese Suicide Pilot’s last words

I’ve learned while exploring the world to stop and check out all those “historic markers” that most people blow past as they go haphazardly barreling through their lives and down the road.  Driving around Miyakojima, a Ryukyu island in the Okinawa Prefecture of Japan, Jody and I passed just such a monument.  Of course we stopped, and found a more remote but significant trace of war in jungled-covered coral mounds of the Far East.

Roadside Historic Marker

Roadside Historic Marker

After their defeats of 1943, Japan knew they were losing the war.  Looking to the hurried and desperate defense of their homeland, and in attempts to slow the steady but American advance, in March of 1944, Japan began the Shinyo (震洋 Shin’yō, “Sea Quake”) manned Explosive Motor-Boat (EMB) program.  The first models of these kamikaze craft were copied from existing Japanese 18-meter motor torpedo boats, themselves copies of American hulls from the late 1930s.  Initially built of steel and constructed at Yokosuka Naval Base, wood was ultimately selected because of availability of materials.  These boats were just one component of the wider Japanese “Special Attack Units: program which incorporated aircraft, divers, boats and torpedoes in suicide attacks.  Nothing much “special” about that.

Shinyo Suicide Boats

Shinyo Suicide Boats

In August of 1944, the first 400 future boat captains started training near Yokosuka.  The students, all would-be aircraft pilots with an average age of 17, were diverted from flight schools because of the lack of aircraft production throughout Japan, given the strangling American maritime blockade of that island-nation and the ongoing strategic fire-bombing campaign of their cities and industrial centers.

Braving the Banana Spiders at the Tunnel Entrance

Braving the Banana Spiders at the Tunnel Entrance

Initially there was a planned 3-month training period focusing on small-boat handling, mechanics and attack techniques, but the pressing needs to defend the Philippines, Okinawa, Formosa and Hainan Island required hasty deployments starting almost immediately.  In September 1944, the first Shinyo Squadrons were sent to the Bonin and Haha (islands about 600 miles south of Tokyo), and the Philippines.

Tunnel Entrance

Tunnel Entrance

The 41st Shinyo Squadron with 55 authorized EMBs and a compliment of over 100 men were deployed to Miyakojima in March 1945.  On this island, roughly halfway between Okinawa and Taiwan, the Japanese Imperial Navy 313 Construction Unit dug numerous tunnels to hide the unit’s Model 1 Shinyo EMBs at Karimata Inlet and various other locations.  The Squadron was there to defend the island from expected invasion because of the active airfields found there, but invasion never came.  The squadron never had a chance to engage in battle.

Shinyo Type 5

Shinyo Type 5

Type 1, one-man Shinyo EMBs were relatively slow and only capable of speeds up to about 18 knots when fully armed.  Typically, Navy EMBs were equipped with a bow-mounted explosive charge of 500-600 pounds that could either be fired by contact fuse (when ramming an enemy vessel), or manually from the craft’s cockpit.  Army EMBs carried depth charges at the stern and were not considered “true” suicide boats as the pilot was supposed to drop the depth charges, setting off a timed fuse, and run.  Very few pilots survived, however, given there was only 6-seconds to escape from an ensuing massive explosion.  Some boats were armed with anti-personnel rockets to help neutralize surface fires from the ships being attacked.

Type 1 and 5 Suicide Boats

Type 1 and 5 Suicide Boats

The slightly larger and faster two-man Type 5 Shinyo EMBs were powered by two Toyota 6-cylinder automobile engines, armed with a 13.2mm heavy machine gun (roughly equivalent to our 50 cal), and were designed to serve as command & control boats being equipped with radio.

Tunnel Interior Today

Tunnel Interior Today

Over 6,100 Shinyo EMBs were manufactured for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and roughly 3,000 somewhat similar Maru-ni EMBs were built for the Imperial Japanese Army.  Around 1,100 boats were transported to the Philippines, 400 to Okinawa and Formosa (modern-day Taiwan), and smaller numbers to Korea, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hainan and Singapore.  The vast majority – some remaining 7,000 kamikaze boats – were stored along the shores of coastal Japan for defense against the expected invasion of the Home Islands.  The Naval General Staff expected a 10% success rate, or roughly ~900 successful attacks for the suicide boats.  This was not the case.

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EMBs scored very limited successes in the Philippines and Okinawa.  Heavy gunfire from Allied ships and PT-boats (patrol boats referred to as “fly-catchers”), along with relentless attack from the air given allied air supremacy stopped most of boats before they could even be utilized.  In the Philippines in 1944, six smaller landing and patrol craft were sunk, while a few others were damaged.  In the 88 day campaign for Okinawa in 1945, about 700 suicide boats, supported by about 7,000 personnel, were employed against the Americans, sinking only two ships and damaging the same in massive waste of the youth of a country;.  Luckily the boats at Miyakojima were never employed, although many kamikaze pilots flying from that island’s airfields suffered the ultimate sacrifice.

Tunnel Exit Today

Tunnel Exit Today

On Miyakojima, a monument to the 41st Shinyo Special Attack Squadron was erected in 2006.  Plaques there in multiple languages (Japanese, English, Chinese, and German) explain the site’s significance, and the unit’s historic tunnels can be accessed immediately behind the monument.  Three entrances/exits can be found, all connected far inside the complex (~300m), but upon exploration, no other artifacts can be found in this far-flung trace of war, except for welcoming light at the end of the tunnel.

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Cherry Bombs: The Darker Side of Sakura in Japan


Ah, Gods of the Flaming Arrow ~ Title of a poem written in memory of the Jinrai Special Attack Corps as published in Asahi Shimbun, June 5, 1945

I’ve written previously about the happy history, immense popularity and deep symbolism of cherry blossoms threaded through the fabric of Japanese culture. In modern times, sakura are cause for celebration, exactly because of their beautifully ephemeral nature (see Budding Beliefs for more).

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However, there’s a darker side to this story embedded in recent Japanese history. During World War II, the historically rich history and moving symbolism of the cherry blossom was used as a propaganda tool with aims of not just stoking nationalism and militarism among the populace, but helping to motivate the Japanese people (and others such as the Okinawans) to sacrifice their very lives for country and emperor.

Japanese Military with Sakura

Japanese Military with Sakura

In the long lead-up to the Japanese war of imperial conquest and expansionism, sakura were used as hype to inspire “Japanese spirit” by exulting citizens to be “ready like the myriad cherry blossoms to scatter.” In other words, be ready to die. In the 1930s, poetry based around the symbolism of the sakura urged Japanese soldiers to endure sufferings as they themselves committed the most terrible atrocities in China (see the movie Flowers of War to see and feel just how bad the then Imperial Japanese could be, and read about other atrocities committed by Japan in Asian in The Railway Man and Nuking Japan), comparing their dead comrades to beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms. During the war, Imperial Japan often planted cherry trees as a means of visually and symbolically claiming occupied territory as Japanese.

Japanese school girls waving sakura at a departing Kamikaze

Japanese school girls waving sakura at a departing Kamikaze

Such mysticism seems to have taken root in that war-mongering version of Nippon. In the fall of 1944, Japanese senior military leaders pleaded that, during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, the Navy be permitted to “bloom as flowers of death.” The last message of the surrounded Japanese forces on Peleliu before they were annihilated was “Sakura, Sakura.”

Note the Cherry Blossom Nose Art

Note the Cherry Blossom Nose Art

Pic44Japanese Kamikaze pilots would paint sakura on the sides of their planes before embarking on suicide missions, and even took branches of such trees with them on their fools’ errand. In Japan’s resulting desperation after facing their impending wholesale defeat in 1945, falling cherry blossom petals came to represent the sacrifice of the country’s youth, woman and old men in suicide attacks…all in honor of their god-like emperor. The government even encouraged the Japanese people to believe that the souls of downed warriors were reincarnated in the blossoms found throughout Japan.

The "Baka Bomb"

The “Baka Bomb”

Ohka's Basic Cockpit

Ohka’s Basic Cockpit

Taken this idea to its ultimate extreme, the Japanese embarked on designing and producing large numbers of disastrous suicide missiles. The Yokosuka-made MXY-7 Ohka (桜花 Ōka, “cherry blossom”) was a purpose-built, rocket powered human-guided anti-shipping kamikaze attack plane employed by Japan towards the end of World War II. American sailors and GIs were quick to give it the exceedingly fitting nickname “Baka” (or “Baka-bomb), Japanese for “fool” or “idiot.”

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I’ve always been confused about the naming of the Ohka suicide plane. They are referred to as “cherry blossom,” but in Japanese that word is sakura. In terms of written languages, kanji, the intricate characters that seem impossible to draw let alone learn to read, are shared between Japan and China. Thus, Japanese kanji characters have more than one reading – one in Japanese and one in Chinese. Sakura is the Japanese reading of the kanji 桜, but in Chinese it is pronounced as “ou” or “oh.” Likewise, the Japanese reading of 花, “hana,” is pronounced in Chinese as “ka.” This character means flower, bloom or blossom or both languages. Thus, “cherry blossom” in Chinese is written as 桜花 and holds the same meaning in Japanese. The pronunciation just happens to be different. Turns out the Ohka is named correctly…if you’re Chinese. I have yet to find a credible explanation of why the Chinese name, when it seems that the Japanese despised the Chinese of the time….

An Ohka Carried under a Betty Bomber

An Ohka Carried under a Betty Bomber

kamikaze_betty_ohkaThe Ohka was necessarily carried underneath a mothership, usually a twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M2e “Betty” bomber, since it had to be carried within range of American shipping. However, a catapult-launched version was being prepared to be located in caves and shelters all along potential invasion beaches of Kyushu and Honshu, while a submarine-launched version was also in-work to provide a suicidal layered defense of the homeland (proper).

Massive 2,500+ Pound Warhead

Massive 2,500+ Pound Warhead

The only operational Ohka was the Model 11. Essentially a 2,646 pound bomb with wooden wings and a tail, the craft was powered by three Type 4 Model 1 Mark 20 solid-fuel rocket motors which allowed the missile to attain very high speed but with very limited range. The slow, heavily laden mothership needed to carry the missile within 23-25 miles of potential targets made the coupled pair extremely vulnerable to defending allied fighters. On release, the pilot would first glide towards the target, and when close enough, would fire the Ohka ’s three solid-fuel rockets, one at a time or in unison. The “pilot” would fly the missile using conventional aircraft controls all the way to impact against the ship intended for destruction.

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The manned-missile’s terminal approach to its target was almost unstoppable due to its excessively high speed, in excess of 400 mph in level flight and up to an unseen and almost unbelievable-for-the-time 620 mph in its terminal dive. This diving velocity was almost 200 mph faster than the fastest conventional fighters which saw action in the Pacific (the German Me-262 jet fighter had similar performance but was only seen defending Germany in 1945). From combat records, Ohkas struck less than ten American warships (although never a capital ship), sinking one American destroyer and damaging beyond repair three other ships.

A Betty Carrying an Ohka goes Down in Flames

A Betty Carrying an Ohka goes Down in Flames

During the Battle of Okinawa these perverse weapons – the Ohka specifically – achieved little success, given the sacrifice suffered: out of 185 total planes used in Ohka attacks, 118 were destroyed, taking the lives of 438 persons, including 56 suicide pilots and 372 mother-plane crew members.

Kadena AFB WWII Shelter

Kadena AFB WWII Shelter

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, historical marker on KAB WM-1But their presence is still darkens the mood of a few wooded areas of modern Kadena Air Force Base.  There, along one a main thoroughfare which cuts through the expansive base one can still find shelters from WWII which, when discovered by the invading American army on April 1st, 1945, contained various Ohka aircraft in various states of assembly, some even ready to employ.  As a nearby placard states, these shelters – and suicide rockets – came as a complete surprise to the Allies.  The Ohka attacks started against the fleet the very next week.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, wooded aircraft shelter 2 WM-1

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, filled aircraft shelter on KAB 2 WM-1Kamikazes in general caused a significant amount of death and destruction, and while they created terror in the hearts and minds of sailors throughout the Pacific, they also highlighted the need to avoid an invasion of Japan proper at all costs. During World War II, about 3,860 kamikaze pilots were killed and although only about ~15% of kamikaze attacks managed to hit a ship. However, these strikes when successful were devastating: sinking at least 34 combat ships – including three small aircraft carriers, they damaged another 368 others and killed over 4,900 sailors and wounded another 4,800 in the process. Roughly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank, and from casualties, it was safer to be a Marine ashore fighting the Japanese on land than a sailor at sea during the Battle of Okinawa. You can read about my scuba dives visiting the Wreck of the USS Emmons, an American Destroyer/Fast Minesweeper sunk by Kamikazes off the coast of Okinawa in early April of 1945.

Bunker at Atsugi

Bunker at Atsugi

Av_J_4507_Baka_p211_WOn the surface, it’s hard to feel any compassion for these pilots who would so knowingly die in the pursuit of nothing more than mass-murder. But then again, we give medals to our troops – often posthumously – that sacrifice to the same end. In the final analysis, many of these boys went to their deaths scared, alone and with no other choice, no matter the happy and brave faces they hid behind. As Hayashi Ichizo, a Kamikaze pilot puts it, “It is easy to talk about death in the abstract, as the ancient philosophers discussed. But it is real death I fear, and I don’t know if I can overcome the fear. Even for a short life, there are many memories. For someone who had a good life, it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel. To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor….”

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But for each Japanese Kamikaze who died, we must account and remember the over 13 allied servicemen who also met their demise. To the victor go the spoils of course, but losses on all sides should and need to be honored.  The Ohka pilots, members of the Jinrai Butai (“Thunder Gods Corps”), are remembered in Japan at various locations, including Ohka Park in Kashima City, the Ohka Monument in Kanoya City, the Kamakura Ohka Monument at Kenchō-ji Kamakura, and the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Crews Briefing a "Thunder Gods" Attack

Crews Briefing a “Thunder Gods” Attack

“I remember vividly the change in the war situation, and there are painful memories of saying farewell with tears day after day to rosy-cheeked men departing never to return. Filled with the emotion of all Japanese people, I write these words praying for the repose of the souls of these young soldiers.” ~ Sohachi Okamura, naval press correspondent at Kanoya airbase in 1945, as quoted on a modern Kanoya City memorial

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Typhoons: A Divinely Okinawan Experience


A "Rishi" Calling up a Divine Storm

A “Rishi” Calling up a Divine Storm

Divine Wind destroying the Mongrels in the 13th Century

Divine Wind destroying the Mongols in the 13th Century

Kamikaze (神風):  literally, “God wind,” but more commonly translated as “Divine wind.”  Kami is the Japanese word for “god,” “spirit,” or “divinity,” and kaze translates as “wind.”  The word kamikaze originated as the name of major typhoons in 1274 and 1281 that dispersed and destroyed Mongolian invasion fleets under Kublai Khan which otherwise would have most likely defeated Japan at that time.  However, Kamikaze has been forever negatively morphed in meaning due to the incomprehensibly suicidal Japanese actions against the Allies in World War II, many of which occurred right here in Okinawa.  But this latter context certainly doesn’t apply to our current-day experience with typhoons and their still-divine winds in Okinawa.

Crimson Typhoon - Not a Threat to Okinawa

Crimson Typhoon – Not a Threat to Okinawa, but to Godzilla!

The word typhoon comes from the Cantonese word tai feng, meaning “great wind” and when pronounced sounds very close to “typhoon.”  A typhoon is defined as a tropical cyclone in the western Pacific, where these storms generally track in a westward and northern direction and occur most frequently in the western Pacific region of East Asia that includes the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, southern China, South Korea, southern Japan, Guam, the Marianas Islands and parts of Micronesia.  It is essentially the same thing as a hurricane occurring in the west Atlantic and the eastern Pacific.  Similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called tropical cyclones.  Ones that strike Australia are NOT called willy willies contrary to popular belief (and I hate to burst your and my bubbles), which are nothing more than a small dust devils that often occur in parts down-under.  Cyclone is a catch-all phrase which describes all low-pressure systems over tropical waters and includes typhoons and hurricanes.

Typhoon Alley; hitting Okinawa is considered a Strike for Mother Nature

Typhoon Alley; hitting Okinawa is considered a Strike for Mother Nature. She has come close to rolling a Turkey this year so far….

Massive Storm Earlier this Summer

Massive Storm Earlier this Summer

The typhoon season here is very similar to that back home and lasts from the early summer to early autumn (June to November), often coinciding with the monsoon season in Southeast Asia and the wet season in eastern Japan.  An average of 2.6 typhoons make landfall on the four major islands of Japan annually since record-keeping began in 1951, while on average 10.3 approach within 180 miles of the coast each year.  Twelve named typhoons in this part of the Pacific are considered “many,” while eight or less is considered “few.”  Rarely is there a year without landfall, with a record 10 making landfall in 2004.  Landfall on the relatively tiny island of Okinawa occurs at three times the rate of any other prefecture of Japan!  In fact, Okinawa lies right in the heart of “Typhoon Alley.”  It gets hit by an average of seven typhoons a year.  It is customary that the finances of the families of Okinawan fishermen are in the name of the wife in case the fisherman go out to sea and don’t return, historically a common occurrence, but a seldom modern occurrence due to modern weather-forecasting and storm warning.

The Japanese can find a sexy Manga Character in Anything!

The Japanese can find a sexy Manga Character in Anything!

Japanese Fetish: Umbrella use during Typhoons!

Japanese Fetish: Umbrella use during Typhoons!

Living with typhoons on Okinawa is a completely difference experience than surviving storms back home.  Often there are literally back-to-back storms threatening the coast, and Category 3, 4, and even 5 “super typhoons” are more common and commonly encountered here.  We have lost track of the number of named storms we’ve dealt with in just the eight weeks we’ve been on-island; we are either at seven or eight, with the next due here this week sometime on Wednesday or Thursday.  Oh, and there is another depression out there just waiting to be named….

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Really, what's with the umbrellas and storms??

Really, what’s with the umbrellas and storms??

BUT, given this what Americans would consider a threat, the reaction of the Okinawans is calm and subdued to that of America; even the military here doesn’t “panic” over a strong storm barreling down on their people and bases like they do back home.  Here there simply does not exist the pervasive culture of fear and the media-driven frenzied-panic to which Americans mindlessly prescribe and react without any critical thought.  The Okinawans learned long ago that they must learn to live with the furious side of nature, rather than react to threats and the effects of such storms.

Yikes!  It actually wasn't bad at all....

Yikes! It actually wasn’t bad at all….

 

Pre-Strom American Runs Deplete Shoppette Supplies of Ramen!

Pre-Strom American Runs Deplete Shoppette Supplies of Ramen!

While the Okinawans utilize a wide variety of talisman to help ward off evil and offer protections from damaging typhoons, they also utilize construction techniques that have, for centuries, offered much better shelter than that of many areas of the modern west.  Starting in the mid-19th century, culturally centered construction customs helped to defeat the threat of such storms, and still today include heartily tiled roofs adorned with protective shisa statues (lion-like dog creatures that ward off evil spirits and are omnipresent in Okinawa), and a stone wall and high deeply rooted trees for protection against damaging winds.

Nkamurake Home - Nearly Typhoon-Proof

Nkamurake Home – Nearly Typhoon-Proof

More modern construction codes here are deceiving; while structures look bland and unappealing, it is only because they are designed to withstand both earthquakes and typhoons at the same time.  This means that structures are poured concrete with rebar reinforcement attached to strong, deep foundations.  Modern roofs are flat concrete slabs.  Windows are generally barred, not to defeat crime, but for protection from wind-borne missile hazards.  And, by law, homes are required to have a certain capacity of roof-mounted gravity-fed water storage, which provides for families even when water and power are not available from the authorities.  And due to the harsh climate here and proximity to wind-driven salt-laden air, painting becomes a secondary concern, giving many homes and apartment buildings a rather dingy external appearance.  They are, however, every bit as nice on this inside as we would expect to find anywhere in middleclass American.

Do you sense a recurring theme here??

Do you sense a recurring theme here??

However, unlike back home, in Japan and Okinawa more damage is almost always caused by heavy rains (and resulting floods and landslides) than by the winds or storm surge.  This, in relation to huge swaths of the America eastern seaboard and gulf coast, is opposite in experience and effect. Japanese-centric flood prevention measures, improved planning and construction and storm and flood warning that began in earnest in the 1960s have dramatically reduced the number of people killed in typhoons.  Even the most destructive storms today – including Super-Typhoons (Category 5) – rarely kill more than a dozen people.  By contrast, typhoons even in America still can take hundreds of lives.  There is an obvious and blatant lesson to be learned here….

Two Typhoons and a Tropical Storm.  Can you even image this back home?

Two Typhoons and a Tropical Storm. Can you even image this back home?

The most interesting result of these types of construction practices?  Our sizeable condo building – at 5 floors situated not 20 meters from the East China Sea coastline – actually moves when strong typhoon winds strike just right.  That’s right – glasses rattle, and the floor literally moves.  The building is actually on rollers or tracks to help defeat the transmission of earthquake energy.  It is an eerie feeling indeed to have such a large structure shift beneath your feet!

Strom Survival Kits are the Same World-Round

Strom Survival Kits are the Same World-Round.  But with gas, we can continue to cook gourmet meals!  In other words, the Ramen is wholly optional….

Okay, maybe it's a sport.  He's probably bragging about his attempted umbrella use!

Okay, maybe it’s a sport. He’s probably bragging about his attempted umbrella use!

I wish our friends and family could see the rationale and grounded approach to nature that is part and parcel of the culture in Okinawa.  Acknowledge nature, respect her, and learn to live more in harmony with your surroundings.  But do not FEAR nature.  I’m convinced it’s part of the Okinawan secret to enhanced longevity (and to their less stressful quality of life); not just because they in large part survive storms relatively unscathed, but that they fail to freak like the American populace does at the slightest perceived threat from inclement weather.

The primary drawback of tiny Asian cars!!

The primary drawback of tiny Asian cars!!

Change your longitude next summer, and come visit us in Typhoon Alley.  You’ll go home with a much-improved disposition about life.  And perhaps, just maybe, you’ll see the beauty of the divine wind inherent in such magnificent machinery of nature, especially if Mother Nature decides to bowl a Turkey!