“The isolated pawn casts gloom over the entire chessboard.” ~ Aaron Nimzowitsch
The pawn in chess is the game’s most numerous piece, meant to represent foot infantry, and generally is considered its weakest. In historical terms the pawn actually reflected the rag-tag nature of medieval foot combatants: that of simply armed peasants. Chess begins with pawns shielding all the other pieces, the higher strata’s of society.
So too was the “Municipal Pawn Shop” on the Japanese island of Ie (pronounced “EEE-a”), part of the Okinawan prefecture and located only mere kilometers off Okinawa’s central west coast. Iejima was invaded by the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division in April of 1945 as a supporting action to the larger Battle of Okinawa occurring around the Ryukyu Islands, but primarily on Okinawa proper. Read more about Weather the Typhoon of Steel from some of my other blogs.
The beaches of Ie, like Okinawa’s, were not defended. Rather, the 5,000-7,000 Japanese defenders had dug into well-fortified positions inland, but also utilized natural caves wherever they occurred. During the fierce fighting that occurred on Iejima, the Americans suffered 1,120 casualties, including 172 KIA. The Japanese military suffered about 5,000 casualties, including 4,706 KIA. Only 149 Japanese prisoners were taken. Of note is that legendary photojournalist and war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed on Iejima during combat operations which occurred there (see my blog The Demise of Ernie Pyle for more).
But the civilians on Iejima, like the pawns in chess, paid the real price: about 1,500 civilians were killed, between 1/3rd and ½ of the island’s residents. The Americans found it impossible to tell friend from foe, as the Japanese armed many of the locals. There were also terrible instances of widespread civilian suicides as dictated by the crazed code “death over surrender” of the then Imperial Japanese mindset.
Unlike other chess pieces which can usually be moved to a safer position if they find themselves at risk, a poorly positioned pawn is limited in options and usually remains at risk. This certainly held true for Iejima’s “Municipal Pawn Shop.”
Built in 1929 during the height of the Great Depression (from which the world suffered), using local stone and reinforced concrete, the “pawnshop” was managed locally as a kind of welfare safety net for the island’s poor, suffering unusually hard under the era’s crushing loan interest rates. In that capacity, it served the locals as a pseudo-bank based on pawning material, primarily aimed at assisting local farmers.
During the battle for Iejima, the pawnshop found itself poorly positioned on the frontlines, set on a steep slope at the foot of the island’s Mount Gusuku. Due to its rugged construction, unusual in the Okinawan villages of the time, it was used as a reinforced fighting position by defending Japanese troops. Obviously, such a position is going to suffer significant damage. Actually, it’s amazing that it survived at all. Almost every other structure on the island was, in fact, destroyed.
Unrestored in the manner of the Hiroshima Atomic Dome, the pawnshop today serves as a silent but haunting reminder of the harrowing last days of World War II and all those who suffered – American, Japanese, and Okinawan – on what had been a small and peaceful island-farming community. It is said to be the only remaining building on the island untouched (externally) since the war.
“Pawn” often means “one who is easily manipulated” or “one who is sacrificed for a larger purpose.” “Pawn” is also used metaphorically to indicate unimportance or outright disposability. For the Japanese and Okinawans who found themselves isolated and trapped on Iejima in the spring of 1945 as mere shields for the homeland, this was most certainly their tragic case.
Read more about the “Capture of Ie Shima” from the Army’s own historical record: http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/okinawa/chapter7.htm
Find more pictures of Okinawan WWII Battlesites in my Flickr stream here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/divemasterking2000/sets/72157646178657021/