Yasukuni Shrine:  Enshrining Japan’s War Dead


“I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  ~Colonel Curtis LeMay, Chief Architect of the Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign against Japan

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As Jody and I approached the Shrine from the west, my instantaneous thought was that its impact, physically, spatially and emotionally, was effusively worthy of its purpose.  Its entrance protected by two large, intimidating shishi lion-dogs, our journey through the shrine’s grounds took us under not just a single torii (shrine’s normally have one, which designates sacred ground; see Trampled Torii and Floating Torii for more), not even two, but three.  And they are perhaps the most impressive I have seen in all of our travels throughout Japan.

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First Torii (Steel)

The Daiichi Torii (Otorii), imposing in size, is the first of the three, found at the immediate entrance of the shrine’s grounds from the east.  First erected in 1921 and rebuilt in 1974, it was for a time the largest torii in Japan at over 75 feet tall over 100 feet wide.

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

Second Torii (Bronze) and Shrine Gate

The second Daini Torii (Seido Otorii) is encountered next.  Built in 1887, this remains the largest bronze torii in Japan.  Passing under this torii, a massive wooden cypress gate called the shinmon is confronted.  A commanding 20-foot-high structure built in 1934, each of its two massive swinging doors boasts an over-sized Chrysanthemum Crest, a symbol of imperial royalty.

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Gate and Inner (Third) Torii

Just feet beyond and through the final Chumon Torii built of cypress, Jody and I found ourselves at the apparent confluence of Shintoism and nationalism within all of Japan.

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-jody-entering-through-the-shrines-main-gatesYasukuni Jinja is a Japanese Shinto shrine, but one unlike all the others.  Dedicated to eirei, “hero spirits” who died in service of the Emperor of Japan during conflicts from 1867 to 1951, the shrine was specifically built to house the actual souls of the dead as kami, loosely translated to “spirits souls,” or what could be considered lessor deities.  Enshrinement is strictly a religious matter since one requirement post-WWII placed on Japan was a forced separation of State Shinto and the Japanese Government (“Church & State”).  The priesthood at the shrine has complete religious autonomy to decide to whom and how enshrinement may occur.  It is thought that enshrinement is permanent and irreversible by the current clergy, even though some surviving family members have formally requested removal of descendants.  In my opinion, what people can do – as in enshrining the dead, people can undue – as in removing souls previously enshrined.  People can get so lost in dogma….

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tokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-nationalism-at-the-shrine-wmtokyo-2016-yasunkuni-shrine-ground-rulesThere certainly are some unusual facets to visiting this shrine, even to the very casual foreign gaijin visitor with limited experience or knowledge of such locations.  First, there is a Japanese flag flying not only from an official flagpole towering over the shrine, but also near the main hall, where visitors come to pay their respects and pray, on a religious structure selling shrine-related tokens, talismans and amulets.  Second, there are posted warnings in multiple languages (Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English) about what is and what is not permitted on shrine property.  Finally, and most surprisingly for Japan, there is posted and uniformed security here, which didn’t allow us to loiter or pause for photos of the main hall where those who came to commune with the dead pray and pay their respects.

Prayers for the Dead

Prayers for the Dead

Yasukuni enshrines and provides a permanent residence for the spirits of those who have fought on behalf of the Emperor, regardless of whether they died in combat, and eligibility is extended to government officials and even civilians as long as they died in service of the state.  Interestingly and fittingly, all civilians who died in Okinawa during the war, and Okinawa schoolchildren who died during evacuation from the island are also eligible and enshrined.

Paying Respects

Paying Respects

At proximate issue is that 1,068 of the enshrined kami at Yasukuni are convicted war criminals, some of whom were charged and found guilty of heinous crimes.  Depending on your frame of reference, the enshrinement of those individuals may not be such a bad thing – but please note that is not my claim.  The wider, larger, more looming issue throughout the Far East is that enshrinement as a kami typically carries absolution of earthly deeds, no matter what those exploits entailed.  More significantly, it elevates those enshrined souls literally to deity status, where the deceased are all worshiped as equal gods.

Fortunes

Fortunes

There are over 2,466,000 enshrined kami at Yasukuni.  This total includes not just members of the military, but hundreds of thousands of civilians as well, specifically women and students who were involved in relief operations on the battlefield or worked in factories in support of the war effort.  There are neither ashes, bodies or bones at the shrine, and enshrinement is not exclusive to people of Japanese descent.  Yasukuni has enshrined 27,863 Taiwanese and 21,181 Koreans.  And many more millions of kami of a much wider array of nationalities are enshrined at the nearby Chinreisha, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in conflicts worldwide.

Themes on the Shrine's Lanterns

Themes on the Shrine’s Lanterns

The Chinreisha is a small peripheral shrine constructed in 1965, and is dedicated to all those killed by wars or conflicts worldwide, regardless of nationality, but who are not “eligible” for enshrinement proper.  Most visitors who wish to balance their respects for all those who suffered, especially during WWII, make it a point to prayer here as well, just as Japanese Prime Minister Abe did very recently.

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There were not too many visitors on the Tuesday afternoon we visited.  Most were Japanese, many solitary visitors, but a few in smaller groups, who would approach the main hall almost one at a time.  The altar, draped in large white curtains adorned with the Imperial crest, hides details of the hall from everyone less those at prayer in front of the small opening in the drapes.  The Honden, built in 1872 and refurbished in 1989, is the main area where Yasukuni‘s enshrined deities reside and is generally closed to the public.  Behind the Honden is another smaller structure called the Reijibo Hoanden which houses the “Symbolic Registry of Divinities,” a handmade Japanese paper document that lists the names of all the kami enshrined.  Interestingly, this particular structure was built of quakeproof concrete in 1972 with a private donation from Emperor Hirohito, Imperial Emperor of Japan during the whole of WWII, himself.

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Those praying would clap their hands loudly, and then pause, some with heads bowed, some with hands held together in front in the internationally recognized symbol of prayer.  One gentlemen prayed for many, many minutes, standing stoically still, deep in thoughtful meditation.  I can only imagine the loss that this man was trying to reconcile.

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The word Yasukuni, taken from classical-era Chinese text of Zuo Zhuan, literally translates as “Pacifying the Nation.”  It was chosen by the Japanese Meiji Emperor when the shrine was founded in the latter half of the 19th century.  For many Japanese, it is the most important Shinto shrine in Tokyo.

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During the allied occupation of Japan in the late 1940s, a much-needed separation of church and state was forced on Japanese culture.  However, the shrine’s authorities and the Japanese government’s Ministry of Health and Welfare established a somewhat clandestine system in 1956 for the sharing of information regarding deceased war veterans.  Most of Japan’s war dead who were not already enshrined at Yasukuni were done so in this manner by April 1959, without much fanfare.

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Japanese war criminals prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (MTFE), better known as the “Tokyo Trials,” were initially excluded from enshrinement.  But as time went on, government authorities began considering their enshrinement, along with providing veterans’ benefits to their survivors.  This movement gained significant momentum following the signature of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951 which effectively returned peace between Japan and the Unites States, opening the way for a return of Japanese sovereignty.

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During Allied occupation of Japan from 1945-1952, the Allied General Headquarters (GHQ) planned to burn down the Yasukuni Shrine and build an entertainment venue in its place.  Lucky for Japan, and perhaps because of Divine intervention, two Western Priests Fathers Bruno Bitter and Patrick Byrne insisted that honoring war dead is the right and duty of citizens everywhere, even for the Japanese, and cooler heads prevailed as the decision was made not to destroy the important and sacred site.  At that time, the Health and Welfare Ministry began forwarding information on Class B and Class C war criminals (those not involved in the planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of the war) to Yasukuni Shrine authorities in 1959.  These individuals were gradually enshrined between 1959 and 1967, often without permission from surviving family members or wide knowledge within the government, or the public, and even of the Emperor.  As an independent religious institution, the governing Shinto priests were free to unilaterally do what they considered spiritually most appropriate.

An Unhappy Visitor

An Unhappy Visitor

In 1954, some local shrines started accepting enshrinement of war criminals from their local areas.  However, no convicted war criminals were enshrined at Yasukuni until after the parole of the last remaining incarcerated war criminals in 1958.

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Information on the fourteen most prominent Class A war criminals, which included the prime ministers and top generals from the war era (but not the Emperor himself, a mistake in my opinion), was secretly forwarded to the shrine in 1966.  Health and Welfare Ministry officials and Yasukuni representatives agreed during a secret meeting in 1969 that Class A war criminals judged at the Tokyo Trials were “able to be honored.”  The secrecy of these meetings however points to moralistic problems that those involved had or feared, especially since these same people decided not to make public the idea that Yasukuni would enshrine the worst of Japan’s convicted war criminals.  The actual timing for enshrinement was left to the discretion of the then Shrine’s head priest Fujimaro Tsukuba.  Tsukuba, not being entirely comfortable with the notion of elevating the worst of the worst to deity status and therein providing complete absolution for their horrific crimes and sins, delayed the enshrinement and died in March 1978 before giving his approval.

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

Former Japanese Prime Minister at the Tokyo Trials, Later Executed

But things quickly changed.  The priest’s successor, Nagayoshi Matsudaira, personally rejected the Tokyo war crimes tribunal’s verdicts and enshrined the war criminals in a secret ceremony on October 17 of that same year, proclaiming them as “Martyrs of Showa.”

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Emperor Hirohito, Japan’s Emperor during WWII who was allowed to retain his position and status, visited the shrine as recently as 1975.  However, after finding out about this most questionable enshrinement, he was “displeased,” a finding held in private until memoirs were published after his death, and subsequently refused to visit the shrine.  His visit in 1975 was the last visit by a Japanese Emperor.

Purifying Waters

Purifying Waters

While Hirohito’s stance may seem prudent for the cultural leader of the nation, I suggest it’s for much more selfish reasons.  Hirohito’s evasive and opaque attitude about his own responsibility for the war and the fact he has claimed that the atomic bombings of Japan “could not be helped” imply strongly that he may have been more afraid that the enshrinement would reignite the debate over his own responsibility for the war…and the fact that he should have been tried and judged as Class A War Criminal No. 1.  But that’s just my opinion.  The details of the war criminals’ enshrinement eventually only became public only in 1979, but only minimal controversy resulted for the next several years.

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Today there is burning outrage in some quarters about the controversy surrounding Yasukumi Shrine.  No matter where you fall, It would indeed be shameful to erase a memorial to literally 2.5 million dead solely because of 14 very bad people.  Indeed, there are many, perhaps thousands or tens of thousands of people enshrined there that committed truly horrific acts of violence and depravity during the war, but who escaped prosecution and justice.  The very fact that Hirohito escaped justice throughout his life reflects the fallacy belittling the great many, the overwhelming majority, for the sins of the very few.  Remember, in any way, those that suffer the most are the poor, uneducated, and predominantly the innocent….  Remember, General LeMay, the American Army Air Corps Commander who directed the bombing of Japan resulting in 300,000-350,000 civilian dead and many more wounded, framed the debate best:  “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”  In other words, objective judgment of right and wrong is a moving target, almost impossible to hit, while waging war.

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Now, the adjoining war museum, operated by the shrine, that is another story altogether.  But that subject is for another dedicated blog.  Stay tuned!

Atomic Footprints on the Sands of Time: A Visit to Hiroshima


“When the rich wage war it’s the poor die.” ~Linkin Park, Hands Held High

“Holy cow, there it is,” I said to Jody as I caught sight through our airliner’s window of the distinct “T-bridge” which served as the aiming point for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima is 1945. “What an incredibly easy feature to spot,” I thought to myself rather coldly in a manner reminiscent of my bombardier/navigator background flying nuclear-armed attack aircraft with the US Navy. I hadn’t expected to spot this little-known aspect of that fateful bombing on our flight into Hiroshima, but what better way to start our Far East Fling in this iconic Japanese city.

The T-Bridge Aiming Point, just Northeast of the Actual Hypcenter  shown by the Rings

The T-Bridge Aiming Point, just Northeast of the Actual Hypcenter shown by the Rings

13This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a single weapon dropped from a single aircraft that effectively destroyed the city and killed an estimated 140,000 human beings. All politics and revisionist history aside, August 6th should serve as a time for everyone to reflect on the very nature of these devastatingly inhuman weapons. And our visits to the city’s ground- zero park and monuments provided another uniquely Japanese perspective. If you are interested in the scale of destruction visited upon Hiroshima during WWII, check out what would happen to your own hometown if attacked by the same sized weapon, see Hometown Atomic Bombing. Keep in mind that modern air-delivered nuclear weapons are many orders of magnitude more powerful than those of WWII; their use on densely populated urban centers would result in casualties numbering a million or more.

The Hiroshima Bomb if Dropped on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan

The Hiroshima Bomb if Dropped on Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan

Before I continue, and regardless of your perspective on the use of nuclear weapons, there exists an inextricably truism about war, one that has remained unchanged as long as there has been armed conflict:

When the rich wage war, it is (primarily) the poor (and innocent) that die.

Sure, there is a cadre of well-educated and financially secure people who chose the military as a profession or answer a patriotic call. And yes, generals do from time to time die in conflict. Politicians? Almost never, unless executed afterwards. But such losses of the more elite sectors of society pale in comparison to the suffering of the masses. The vast number of casualties grieved in war has always been that of bystander civilians…either through direct action – like the intentional bombing of civilian populations, or through secondary effects of war – such as disease, famine, and the hazards of unexploded ordnance.

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The City, Before and After the Atomic Bombing

I’ve blogged about the atomic bombings of Japan before (see They Deserved It for more). We dropped the bombs at the time in order to avoid what would have been a bloody ground assault on the Japanese mainland, which would have cost millions of lives at a minimum. Putting aside the still-raging debate of whether or not Japan would have surrendered the fall of 1945 or winter of ’46 without the atomic attacks, the bombs worked in avoiding countless deaths…on both sides of the Pacific.

First View of the A-Bomb Dome

First View of the A-Bomb Dome

But there’s nothing like visiting Hiroshima to underscore the stark reality of nuclear warfare. Taking a small ferry into the city from nearby Miyajima Island, our first eyewitness views of the iconic “A-Bomb Dome” came into view as we rounded Hiroshima’s peace memorial park. The memorial, still standing tall under bright blue skies, is eerily silent in its nearly demolished state.

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08The A-Bomb Dome is an iconic structure, left nearly as it was in 1945 (see Ie Island’s Municipal Pawn Shop for another example of leaving only a single unaltered structure as a war memorial). Internationally recognized as a symbol of war, it immediately exudes the inexplicably suffering that the modern atomic age can bring. But our day and night-time visits there were only the beginning of our growing awareness of the multi-dimensional anguish experienced there during the closing days of WWII.

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14The Peace Memorial Park – of which the A-Bomb Dome is part, is a huge greenspace near the city center of Hiroshima. Surrounded by rivers and canals, the park exhibits various memorials, sculptures, and testimonies, along with the remains of tens of thousands of victims hastily cremated in the days following the attack. The combined ashes of over 70,000 people are still kept in within a burial mound found in a quiet corner of the park; there are still over 800 individual containers of ashes of known (named) people still unclaimed.

Burial Mound in Peace Memorial Park

Burial Mound in Peace Memorial Park

17The Children’s Peace Monument in the park is one of the more popular and most visited. Here under the “Atomic Bomb Children Statue” is told the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who died of leukemia caused by bomb-produced radiation. She is immortalized at the top of the statue found there, holding a wire crane above her head. In the days prior to her death, Sadako attempted to create a thousand folded paper cranes in hopes of helping to rid the world of nuclear weapons; tradition in Japan holds that if one folds such a number of origami cranes, they are granted on wish. Sadako achieved her goal and continued to fold even more cranes in the last months of her life. But ultimately she passed away in October 1955, her one wish left not granted…. Her story is presented in more detail and accompanied by many photos in the nearby Peace Memorial Museum.

Children's Peace Monument

Children’s Peace Monument

Today the Children’s Peace Monument serves to commemorate both Sadako and the thousands of other child victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. People from all over the world offer thousands of brightly colored origami cranes, both in honor of those children, and in the hopes of a safe, more peaceful world.

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Atomic bombing survivors, referred to as hibakusha in Japan, today number only about 183,000. Their average age is 80, very close to Japan’s average life expectancy. And many are still fighting illnesses and injuries traced to the bombings seven decades ago. We encountered a few of these hibakusha during our walks through the Peace Memorial Park, where they set up small ad hoc displays and tell their stories. Some even sell books, or offer internet sites dedicated to their story and/or cause.

Visiting One of the Many Memorials

Visiting One of the Many Memorials

One survivor we met was only a small child at the time of the attack, while another was yet to be born, still inside her mother’s womb. These witnesses, both of which spoke very good English, provided a unique, live first-hand account of the bombing that cannot be experienced in any other way. Hiroshima is doing all they can to record these personal accounts; it is important these stories do not disappear, lost to time and circumstance.

The Now-Dated Peace Memorial Museum

The Now-Dated Peace Memorial Museum

31But it was visiting the Peace Memorial Museum located in the park that the horrors of Hiroshima are presented on a personal, human level. Perhaps the most moving – in a long line of terribly tragic stories, mostly involving children and teenagers, is that concerning a lone tricycle, mangled and rusted, displayed in a Plexiglas case under subdued lighting. This child’s bike remains in silent tribute to the demise of just one 3-year-old boy, but is analogous to the misery felt throughout the city so long ago in August of 1945. The boy’s name was Shinichi Tetsutani, and was nicknamed “Shin” by his family (see Shin’s Tricycle for an illustrated account by Shin’s father).

Shin's Tragic Trike on Display

Shin’s Tragic Trike on Display

29“The air was filled with the sandpapery sounds of cicadas rubbing their legs together in the nearby trees,” states Shin’s father, Nobuo Tetsunani, describing the calm and sunny morning of the bombing. Shin and his best friend, a little neighbor girl named Kimi, were outside playing with his favorite toy, a tricycle with red handlebars, no different from one might find in the hands of an American child deep in the heart of the United States. At 8:15 that morning, though, the first atomic bomb used in anger detonated high over the city. In a bright flash, everything changed for everyone. Forever.

Horrors of the Atomic Age

Horrors of the Atomic Age

The massive over-pressure created by the blast and expanding fireball created an “explosion so terrible, a flash so blindingly bright, I thought the world had ended,” the boy’s father said. “Then, just a quickly, everything went black.” Shin’s home collapsed in on the entire family.

Finding Shin

Finding Shin

In the chaos following the attack Shin could not be located. His family frantically searched among the wreckage of their destroyed home, where they found the small boy pinned under a heavy and fractured beam of the house. He was badly hurt. “His face was bleeding and swollen,” his father solemnly recalls. “He was too weak to talk but his hand still held just the red handlebar grip from his tricycle. Kimi was gone too, lost somewhere under the house.” Shin would not survive the night.

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Shin needed to be buried, but Nobuo could not bear the thought of his son being left so alone in a faraway grave. Instead, he decided to bury Shin in a grave in the backyard of their flattened home. He was placed to rest with Kimi, both lying beside his beloved tricycle.

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22Decades later, in 1985, Shin‘s father decided to move his son’s remains and entomb them more properly in the family grave. He and Kimi‘s mother unearthed the backyard grave, where they found “the little white bones of Kimi and Shin, hand in hand as we had placed them.” But Shin‘s father had all but forgotten about the tricycle. The very next day he donated the trike to the Peace Memorial Museum in the hopes of making the world a safe place for all children to play. And today, the legacy of this 3-year-old boy continues to remind us all of the horrors of war and of the atomic age.

The Fireball to Scale over Hiroshima

The Fireball to Scale over Hiroshima

27Yes, the stories featured in the museum primarily focus on children and teenagers, which of course maximizes the emotional impact on visitors and makes it appear, on the surface, that every victim of the bombing was wholly innocent of wrongdoing in WWII. The museum focuses little on Japan’s significant military presence in Hiroshima, nor on their culpability in causing the War in the Pacific or the long history of crimes against humanity committed by their forces in the region starting in Manchuria in 1931. But, as the opening quote states, those most responsible remained unaffected. It was, by and large, innocent civilian bystanders, those trying to live their lives as best they could under extreme circumstance beyond their control or influence, who suffered the most.

Fused Sake Cups

Fused Sake Cups

Interesting, an oral survey was offered us by Japanese volunteers upon exiting the museum. Only a couple of questions was asked, one of which was, “Did today’s visit change your opinion of nuclear weapons?” I answered truthfully and said, “No,” but quickly qualified my answer that I was already anti-nuclear weapons before visiting. I wonder if most Japanese think America and most Americans as pro-nuclear.

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Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to ridding ourselves of the atomic plague. The world still bristles with more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, and countries in possession all seem reluctant to break their collective addiction to the notion of nuclear deterrence or strength and security through the atom (see Fortress of Peace for a future than can be quite different). Worse, other nations who wish to be recognized actors on the global stage take every effort in obtaining such destructive technologies. A visit to Hiroshima can help to change both perspectives, even if it is one person at a time.

And maybe, in a not-to-distant future, the rich will stop waging wars so that we all can live.

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Faces of Death: Haunting Victims of S-21


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

S-21 Genocide Memorial

S-21 Genocide Memorial

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

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

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

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

Billboard of Survivor Children found in 1979; only one Survived

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

Crude Ankle Shackles and Rebar

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

Improvised Toilets

Improvised Toilets

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

Captive Chains

Captive Chains

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

Balcony Razor Wire

Balcony Razor Wire

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

Crude Prison Cells

Crude Prison Cells

Postmortem, Death from Torture

Postmortem, Death from Torture

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

Wooden Prison Cells

Wooden Prison Cells

Crude Destruction

Crude Destruction

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

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

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

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

Inverted Submersion Torture Device

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

Water Board for Torture

Water Board for Torture

Imprisoned

Imprisoned

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

Wooded Cell with Colorful Tile

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

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

Children Demented Into Murderous Thugs

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

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

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

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

Traces of War: The Demise of Ernie Pyle


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

 

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

The Monument Today

The Monument Today

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

Ernie doing what he did best.

Ernie doing what he did best.

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

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

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

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

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

One of the doughboys.

One of the doughboys.

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

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

Explanation at the monument

Explanation at the monument

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

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

Ernie Pyle looking aged in 1945

Ernie Pyle looking aged in 1945

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

Portrayed on the silver screen

Portrayed on the silver screen

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

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

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

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

Very worn road signage.

Very worn road signage.

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

Bride & Groom on the island of the USS Cabot

Bride & Groom on the island of the USS Cabot

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

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

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

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

Ernie Pyle is no more....

Ernie Pyle is no more….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funeral for Ernie Pyle

Funeral for Ernie Pyle

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

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

Ernie_Pyle_-_US_Army_photo_at_Anzio,_1944__Photo_Credit_-_USAMHI

 

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

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

Wireless to THE NEW YORK TIMES

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traces of War: Loyal Soul Monument of Yomitan, Okinawa


“Every memorial in its time has a different goal.” ~Maya Lin, Chinese-American artist and architect, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC

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“The only reason my mother didn’t kill me was that she never went to school,” smiled our Okinawan tour guide during a tour of the Ahasha shelter cave on Ie Island (blog to follow). “She was never brain-washed by the faculty and the government….”

We were visiting a cave where approximately 150 Okinawan civilians had committed suicide or murdered during World War II. At the time, Setsuko was less than a year old and was in hiding in another part of Okinawa. She remarkably had a chipper attitude about the whole thing; I guess there’s really no other way to really be once you’ve cheated death in such a destined way.

You see, in the lead up to the war, Japan had embarked on a full-fledged campaign to nationalize their people, far and wide. And perhaps it was nowhere easier to do just that on an island-nation where literacy was low and minds were easy to impress.  The Japanese taught their populace that, during WWII, the Americans would torture and kill all the men and boys, and would savage and rape their women.  There was no option of surrender; the expected and honorable thing to do instead was to kill your family and commit suicide….

But there were many decades of indoctrination that led up to such a dramatically unbelievable and sad conclusion to so many lives wasted in 1944 and 1945.  Two things the Japanese used to affect this militaristic paradigm shift in their population was the cenotaph and hoanden.

The monument in the 1960s.

The monument in the 1960s.

A cenotaph is, generally speaking, an “empty tomb” or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. The word derives from the Greek κενοτάφιον, Romanized as kenotaphion, with kenos meaning “empty” and taphos, “tomb.” In Japan, such memorials were erected beginning in the late 19th century, and continued throughout the 1920s and 30s. Almost all were dedicated to the memories of groups of soldiers and civilians lost in battle fought for Imperial Japan. Chukonhi as they are better known in Japan first began to be constructed during the Meiji Restoration period in honor of people who died in the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars. As death in the Emperor’s name is the ultimate sacrifice these monuments emphasized the virtue of loyalty and was often used as a symbol of militarism in order to help form and formalize a militaristic ideology prior to the 1940s.

Cenotaph in better times in Yomitan, Okinawa

Cenotaph in better times in Yomitan, Okinawa

In Okinawa there are very few of these monuments left. Some were damaged beyond repair or outright destroyed during the war. Some were destroyed or removed after the war by locals and/or occupation forces as neither wanted such reminders of a warmongering nation or government. Only a handful have survived, and one survives in Yomitan village on Okinawa, just a few blocks away from the old Japanese aircraft shelter that I’ve previously written about (see Traces of War: WWII Yomitan Aircraft Shelter).

This “Loyal Soul Monument” was originally erected in 1935 on the grounds of an Okinawa school together with the Hoanden, which housed the sacred portraits of the Emperor and Empress, the Okinawans were taught to revere the nations’ war dead as true heroes, and made to acknowledge the divinity of Emperor Hirohito and his wife. This particular cenotaph was originally located adjacent to a national elementary school (Yomitan Mountain Senior elementary school), where the students every morning and afternoon would be required to bow deeply to both the cenotaph and hoanden. In this way, the violent perversion of the young minds of Okinawan children began.

The militarization of Okinawa's youth via hoan-den.

The militarization of Okinawa’s youth via hoan-den.

Hoanden were small structures, concrete houses that doubled as alters, which housed the emperor’s portrait and the “Imperial Rescript on Education.” Like the cenotaphs, they too were erected in most schoolyards. The Imperial Rescript on Education (教育ニ関スル勅語, Kyōiku ni Kansuru Chokugo) was signed by Emperor Meiji of Japan in 1890 to articulate government policy on the guiding principles of education. The 315 character document was read aloud at all important school events and students were required to memorize the text while the act of recitation took the form of an oath or pledge, much as the Pledge of Allegiance used to be recited by American students in American schools. The basis of the Rescript was based on Japan’s historic bond between “benevolent rulers” and “loyal subjects,” and that the fundamental purpose of education was to cultivate appropriately supporting virtues, especially of loyalty, above all else to the Emperor and country. A key passage of the Rescript, translated into English, reads, “…should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of the Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.” It’s not hard to see how the seeds of tragedy were so easily planted and fully cultivated in a society bent on unquestioned loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice. After World War II, the American occupation authorities in Japan forbade the reading or teaching of the Imperial Rescript in schools, and the Diet (government) of Japan officially abolished it in 1948.

Todays damaged and defaced monument.

Todays damaged and defaced monument.

Pre-WWII cenotaphs were specifically erected for honoring the souls of “loyal” officers, enlisted and civilian employees that war died for His Majesty the Emperor of Japan. Such monuments helped to hammer the way to war for Japan, as it stressed that the most important meaning in death possible was what could be achieved for the Emperor and country. In this way, many were lives were scattered and wasted on far-away battlefields, while civilians were left to contemplate murder-suicide over capture by the allied forces.

Battle-Damage

Battle-Damage

Today the monument is now adjacent to a national worker physical education center. And the Okinawans are very careful to point out that this monument, left as a testament to times gone by, is in no way to be confused with a memorial. As it was explained to me, a memorial in the Okinawan culture is a place for mourning, prayer and contemplation that such horrific acts of violence would never again be repeated.

Today's Monument

Today’s Monument

According to some sources, the Loyal Soul Monument, although damaged during the war, suffered greatly in the post-war years. The placards and Japanese calligraphy that once adorned the monument has been stolen, defaced, or otherwise destroyed, a testament about how the local Okinawan survivors thought about the way they were treated in the 1940s. Not by the Americans, but more so, by their original occupiers, the Japanese.

What the Okinawans wish from leaving such silent witnesses of the past is that future generations never forget the horrific nature of the not-so-distant past, and admonish any attempts to glorify war or violence once again. For the more casual and removed observer, I leave it to you to reach your own conclusions.

The Girl with the White Flag.  Look her up....

The Girl with the White Flag. Look her up….

Peace is not a hard deduction to infer.

...if this is the alternative.

…if this is the alternative.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.