Traces of War: Hiroshima Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum


 

Ghostly Shell of an A-Bombed School

Ghostly Shell of an A-Bombed School

It seemed that the space was haunted. The sounds of laughing children lost so long ago wafting down through the still blown out windows. Searching through the gloom of the dark basement, we could almost see the ghosts of happy children – young souls innocent of the war mongering of the age, taking their seats for class or running and playing. None of them knew what fate had in store for them.

Before and After Views; Honkawa Elementary can be seen just across the River

Before and After Views; Honkawa Elementary is Labeled in Blue just across the River

The atomic bomb exploded in a blinding flash of light and heat. Virtually all buildings within 1.2 miles of the blast were destroyed, and the city as a whole, completely burnt down since most flammable objects within 0.6 miles burst into flame. At 8:15 in the morning of August 6, 1945, about 400 students and more than 10 teachers were killed instantly at the Honkawa Elementary School, and while the building took great amounts of damage, it remained standing. Students and teachers who were outdoors were completely scorched by the radiated heat of the fireball, and along with all those outside within one kilometer of the blast suffered almost 100% lethality. More than 70,000 people were killed within a few days; by December 1945, over 140,000 people would be dead from this one attack.

Honkawa can be seen over the Devastation in the Center Background

Honkawa can be seen over the Devastation in the Center Background

But the sounds we heard were not of phantom students, but living students arriving for school during our early morning visit on Monday morning. The school has been rebuilt, restored, and repopulated. Elementary-aged children, all wearing the same brightly colored yellow school cap and wearing the unique leather backups so ubiquitous throughout Japan, were running about, laughing and chatting as they maneuvered through their friends to find their classrooms. Pointing my camera in their direction, I lowered it just as quickly without pressing the shutter release, wanting to respect the happy moment for these children, so fortunate to be born in a different time.

Urban Preservation

Urban Preservation

The Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum (本川小学校平和資料館 Honkawa Shogakkou Heiwa Shiryokan) is a peace memorial and museum located on the grounds of a still-active elementary school in Hiroshima, Japan. In 1945, it was the school which was closest to the hypocenter of the first atomic bomb used in wartime.

Scorched Basemen Switchboard

Scorched Basemen Switchboard

Against all odds, two students who were in the basement – the site of the present day museum, miraculously managed to survive. A memorial service for those killed here is held each year at the school on August 5, a day before the larger, more overwhelming services which occur in the nearby Peace Memorial Park (see my blog Atomics Footprints in the Sands of Time for more about that feature of the country’s atomic past).

Basement Diorama of Post-Bombed Hiroshima

Basement Diorama of Post-Bombed Hiroshima

Artifacts still being Recovered on School Grounds

Artifacts still being Recovered on School Grounds

The Peace Museum, which opened to the public in 1988, is housed in a very small part of the ground floor and basement of the original reinforced concrete structure, preserved with much of the damage suffered in 1945 still intact. It serves a dual purpose of helping to inform the students who study there, and as a memorial so that all who visit can learn about the importance of peace. The exhibition rooms are primarily found in the basement and include pre- and post-bombing photos, a large collection of school-related items affected by the bombing, and a massive diorama of the city after the attack.

Original Stairs leading to the School's Basement

Original Stairs leading to the School’s Basement

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, original stairwell WM

Charred Doorframe

Charred Doorframe

The L-shaped building was constructed in 1928 as the first three-story reinforced concrete public elementary school in Hiroshima. In the days leading up to August 1945, as the food supplies gradually decreased and the threat of allied bombing loomed more lethal, an evacuation of children throughout Hiroshima began. The students that left generally traveled without their parents, attending ad hoc schools set up in countryside temples, segregated by sex. Meals were supplemented with plucked wild grasses, but consisted mainly of leaves with a bit of rice, sometimes mixed with soybeans. A favorite ploy among the youngsters: those who got sick were often given sweetened rice porridge, so stomach aches were faked on more than a few occasions! Some students became so homesick in their unfamiliar surroundings that they ran away from their temporary lodgings and attempted to return to Hiroshima, often blindly following railways. Searches in most cases resulted in their safe return to exile. The real tragedy however occurred after the bombing. As an example, of the 40 students evacuated to Saifuku-ji temple, there was only a single child which still had both parents alive. Seven were reduced to a single parent, with the rest having become instant orphans, having lost not only their parents, but often their entire families.

Memorials at the Museum's Entrance

Memorials at the Museum’s Entrance

Energy ReleasedHiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, bombing artifacts from the schoolyard WMThe atomic bomb blast occurred less than ¼ mile to the school’s southeast, and at about 2,000 feet overhead. The air blast is a not-so-known feature of nuclear weapons which allow the weapon’s fireball to expand to its full potential, thereby maximizing the bomb’s destructive power. The school’s proximity to the fireball subjected those students and staff present at school to lethal bursts of gamma rays, incinerating temperatures and a severe over pressure, followed by strong winds driving firestorms, and finally radioactive fallout. While the building’s frame survived due to its modern sturdy construction, the inside of the building was completely gutted, leaving only a skeleton in place. It was one of only a few standing buildings left after the A-bombing of Hiroshima.

Crematory on School Grounds

Crematory on School Grounds

Atomic DamageHiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, atomic pipe WMWith only the iron frame of the school remaining, all the people, furniture and implements in the school were lost. Those in the schoolyard all were killed instantly, burning to carbonized black, with some people turning to nothing but charred bones. Those inside the school fared no better, most dying instantly. Those surviving incurred serious mortal injury from glass fragments piercing into their bodies, third degree burns and blast-related wounds, crying as they headed towards and into the nearby river – the only place not on fire. But the waters were already full of corpses and injured people, floating by one after another….

Devastation near Ground Zero

Devastation near Ground Zero; The school is Labeled in Japanese

The day after the bombing the school became a temporary first-aid station, still having walls and a partial roof to provide some semblance of shelter. The school quickly filled with the dead and dying.

Classes Resume in the Ruins

Classes Resume in the Ruins

In February of the following year, however, classes resumed at the school. Four teachers and 45 students, most of who had been evacuated prior to the bombing, were all that was left to make up the entirety of the combined faculty and student body when the doors reopened. The staff, in attempting to restart the school, was deeply affected by the almost impossible task they faced. In their words:

Upon entering the school building, we were at a loss for words. The walls had burned and fallen, the floor had burned to the earth, having the appearance of an accumulation of volcanic ash. Among this, 14-15 children’s desks and chairs that seemed to have been brought in from an evacuation area were lined up. In the front, a blackboard composed of a board painted with black ink was resting on the desks, leaning diagonally. Outside, nothing could be seen. On the window, a bent frame of iron remained. Of the glass, however, not even broken fragments were left. Old straw mats were hung up to block the cold north wind, and its waving back and forth pierced the heart. Children were studying earnestly, trembling in the cold. None of the children had a normal complexion. The teachers were wearing either a soldier uniform for the males, or women’s work pants for the females. Everyone’s face looked to be the color of dry grass. In particular, a male teacher’s face color was completely lacking in vitality, looking as if he were supporting himself purely through willpower. One of the female teachers was holding a cane, and had a strong limp. This was the condition of Honkawa Elementary School at the time.

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, atomic bombed classroom

One student described the miserable conditions in 1947: “When it rained, we would study under umbrellas. Even during the cold winters when snow would blow into the room through the open window, we sat in the broken glass on top of burnt bricks. Nevertheless, we had a fun time at school. We hope that the school will be restored to how it was before.”

Jody across from the Diorama

Jody across from the Diorama

Fire Damage

Fire Damage

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, artifact displays 2 WMA large diorama of the destroyed city, even larger than the one found at the nearby Peace Memorial Museum, with a red ball showing the burst point of the atomic bomb is housed in the museum’s basement. The bare concrete slab walls and blown-out windows still open to the sky above combine with the facility’s gloomy spot-lighting to make a visit here, in many ways, more moving than to other A-bomb sites in the city. While the masses shuffle through more popular sites in Hiroshima, the solitude one can find here makes any stopover so much more…personal. But what makes this place so eerily dark is the chance to actually stand in a building that suffered the full brunt of the atomic energy and its associated death and destruction unleashed in the closing days of World War II.

Cutaway Showing Original Fire Damage

Cutaway Showing Original Fire Damage

080707Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, artifact displays WMA visit to the museum is self-guided. After checking in with the school’s main office, you are left on your own to transit the lively school grounds, part of the intimate experience of visiting. Inside the museum’s entrance is a small desk where leaflets in English can be found, alongside a large collection of donated colorful memorial origami cranes so common at war memorials in Japan. They are a constant and visual reminder that underscores the significance of the place and peoples’ wishes for peace. During our visit as students were arriving and being greeted by school staff at the main entrance, several pupils bowed to welcome me and Jody, and took the opportunity to practice their English “hello.” Remember, there is no “L” sound in Japanese, making our standard greeting very hard to pronounce for most Japanese!

Hiroshima 2015, Honkawa Elementary School Peace Museum, memorial origami WM

 

This school, along with its sister museum housed at the Fukuro-machi Elementary School, are well worth visiting in conjunction with a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and in many ways, more moving and respective. The promise of youthful life here more than balances the scales against the weight of such dark death and demise.

Youthful Hope Restored

Youthful Hope Restored

 

Helpful Information

Address: 〒730-0802 1-5-39 Honkawa-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima City

Phone: 082-232-3431

Open: School days 0900-1700, except for national holidays and during school vacations. Please check in at the school’s office just inside and to the right of the front gate before entering the museum. The museum is also open to the public during summer recess from August 1 to 10.

Fee: Free of charge

Phone: +81-(0)82-232-3431

Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Honkawa-Elementary-School-Peace-Museum/105650649468063

Map

Sources: Quotes, stories, facts and figures are all transcribed from on-site museum displays and pamphlets.

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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Seeing Red: Khmer Rouge and The Killing Fields


 Well you’ll work harder | With a gun in your back | For a bowl of rice a day

Slave for soldiers | Till you starve | Then your head is skewered on a stake

Now you can go where people are one | Now you can go where they get things done

What you need, my son…

Is a holiday in Cambodia | Where people dress in black

A holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll kiss ass or crack

Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot, Pol Pot!

And it’s a holiday in Cambodia | Where you’ll do what you’re told

A holiday in Cambodia | Where the slums got so much soul

~ Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial stupa WM

Buddhist Memorial Stupa

The tall Buddhist memorial stood in relative silence, highlighted against the bright blue skies, appearing to lean in against the fast-moving puffy white clouds. The heat of the morning was coming on strong, keeping most people in close proximity to whatever shade could be had. But it is the chilling sight of the over 8,000 human skulls stacked tier after tier within the memorial stupa that stuns most into the deep, contemplative silence that permeates this place.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), skulls in the stupa WM

Over 8,000 Skulls are Interred within the Stupa

The skulls came from the shallow, sunken mass graves all found within 100 yards of this their final resting place. And all are eerily marked with colored dots to show age, sex, and the weapon which brought their previous owner’s demise.

Camboida 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim skulls at rest in the pagoda WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), map to the Choeung Ek filling fields WMThe Killing Fields (Khmer: វាលពិឃាត) are a number of sites spread all over Cambodia where collectively more than a million people were systemically murdered and secretly buried by the Khmer Rouge regime during its savage rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. The scale, scope and premeditated nature of these crimes is on a scale that only be rightfully recognized as state-sponsored auto-genocide. Cambodian journalist Dith Pran coined the term “killing fields” after his escape from the regime; the movie of the same name is set against his captivity and suffering under the brutal régime.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave at the Killing Fields (Nath painting

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), women and children mass grave by the killing tree WM

One of the many mass graves.

It is hard to wrap your head around these kinds of numbers. We experience tragedy in America measured normally in single digits (the recent church shootings in the south), or perhaps hundreds (say a plane crash), or in very rare instances, thousands (terrorist attacks of 9-11). However, what would happen in our country and how we would respond and attempt recovery if tragedy visited on a scale that was say 100 or even 1,000 times higher in order of magnitude?

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victim bones WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), show your respect WMAnalysis of 20,000 mass grave sites across Cambodia indicate there are at least 1.3 million victims of summary execution. Estimates of the total number of deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies, including disease and starvation, range from an absolute minimum of 1.7 million dead, but all indications point to a number of somewhere between 2 and 3 million. Even the Khmer Rouge themselves acknowledged that 2 million had been killed—though they attributed those deaths to Vietnam’s subsequent invasion in 1979. Most accounts settle on a likely death toll which approaches 2.2 million. Given that in 1975 the population of Cambodia was somewhere south of 8 million, somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 people alive in the late 1970s was methodically erased by the government. There is not a family in Cambodia that wasn’t personally touch by devastation.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), human remains (teeth) WM

Victims’ teeth we found scattered about.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), do not walk on the mass grave WMOutside, on the grounds of this memorial park, I was equally as stunned to find human teeth and other bone fragments scattered about as if just tossed there just yesterday. Our guide explained to us that there are still so many people buried here in shallow graves that their bones and clothes continue to be resurrected as the ground erodes away with heavy rains and tourists’ many feet. And those exhumations by the Vietnamese in the 1980s only collected skulls and large bones in order to try and assess the magnitude of the murder which occurred there. There are boxes spread across the park so that found bones can be placed for later collection; at other sites, posted signs plead for people not to walk on bones and the mass grave sites.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), don't step on bone WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), jaws and teeth WMThe best known of Cambodia’s many Killing Fields is located at once was the village of Choeung Ek. Today, the site has been almost subsumed by the creeping urban sprawl of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Here visitors find a memorial park and Buddhist stupa (burial tower), built around the mass graves of over 14,000 victims, most of whom were executed after being tortured at the infamous S-21 Prison about 10 miles away in Phnom Penh. Many dozens of exhumed mass graves remain visible.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), rags of victims' clothes WM

Bone fragments are everywhere.

Bone fragments are everywhere.

The place is at once fascinatingly horrifying, and rightfully so. But to think that it is just one of the thousands of other such sites around the country where the Khmer Rouge practiced auto-genocide during the late 1970s is hard to comprehend.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave 450 victims WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), victims' stares WMThe Khmer Rouge eventually executed almost everyone suspected of even remote connections with the former or foreign governments, as well as almost every professional and anyone with any type of education…and even those with poor eyesight in a vain effort to genetically improve their mix. Ethnicities which were undesirable, like the Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and Cham, along with the religious such as Cambodian Christians and the local Buddhist monkhood were equally targeted and suffered almost wholesale destruction. What makes this genocide so abhorrent is that, unlike the Nazis who visited death upon others, the Cambodians did it to themselves.

Victim's clothes still litter the grounds.

Victim’s clothes still litter the grounds.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killed by hand at the Killing FieldsR.J. Rummel, an acclaimed analyst of worldwide political killings, highlights the Khmer Rouge’s clear genocidal intent. He states that of the estimated 40,000-60,000 monks in 1975, only between 800 and 1,000 survived to carry on their religion. We know for a fact that of 2,680 monks documented living in eight specific monasteries in 1975, a mere 70 remained living as of 1979. The Khmer Rouge destroyed 95 percent of the country’s Buddhist temples, turning them instead into warehouses or using them for other mundane and degrading uses. But it’s much worse, argues Rummel. Within the very short span of a year or so, a small clique of Khmer Rouge criminals managed to effectively wipe out the center of Cambodian culture, along with its spiritual incarnation and its social and governmental institutions.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), the killing fields' killing tree WM

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), evidence of killing tools WMThe executed were buried in mass graves throughout the country, at night and with loudspeaker music playing in order to help escape detection and hide the crimes. Since ammunition was so prized, executions were most often carried out using farm tools, like spades, axes, iron rods, wagon axles, knives, or at times from simple sharpened bamboo. And in the case of the “killing tree,” small children and infants were swung so their heads were battered by the tree’s hard trunk, then thrown away like garbage into a pit alongside their dead parents. The régime took the approach that if one member of a family was sentenced to death, the whole familial line had to be destroyed to avoid any chance of future revenge; “…to cut the grass you have to remove all the roots.” Another guiding principle of that time was, “better to kill an innocent by mistake than let one enemy go…. To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss….”

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), killing tools WM

Items used in detainment and execution.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), memorial friendship bracelets WM

Friendship bracelets.

Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was called under the Khmer Rouge) in 1979, ending this dark reign of terror. Late that year, when United Nations and Red Cross officials were able to physically take stock of the dire situation, a further 2.25 million Cambodians faced death by starvation due to the widespread destruction of Cambodian society under the regime of ousted Prime Minister Pol Pot. International aid saved a large portion of these Cambodians.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), inhuman humans

Small museum on the premises.

Small museum on the premises.

But for me there was a deeper realization during my visit. It’s not just sadness that I felt for the victims still buried or on display at The Killing Fields, but for Cambodia as a whole. The sadness became wider and deeper than I had expected, after realizing that everyone in Cambodia, then and now, was and in many ways, remain a victim. I believe that most everyone were left with nightmares. Even those child soldiers of the régime that were forced to join the revolution, who were then methodically brainwashed and turned to even kill their own parents. Almost every tourist that goes to Cambodia goes to see Angkor Wat; over 30% now go to visit The Killing Fields as well. In an odd congruity, both sites offer a profound sense of spirituality.

Cambodia 2015, Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields), mass grave missing heads WM

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

Bullet casings I found during our visit.

We ended up seeing The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek and its associated prison S-21 on the same day. Our guide, who was only a small child during the time of The Killing Fields but who suffered personal loss in her own family, called it our “sad-sad” day of visiting Cambodia. And she’s absolutely right: The Killing Fields is not a happy place. Nor is there a happy history or stimulating story to learn about. But like with the other truly horrific events of humanity, we don’t get to pick and choose what should and should not be shared, exactly because it is a shared history. In Cambodian, like most other countries which have suffered a dark, sad past, the view is that light must be allowed to shine in on the darkness, destroying shadows where such evil can continue to lurk.

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

Friendship Bracelets left in a Spirit House

And in the heat of our Cambodian holiday, the light shines brightly indeed.

Traces of War: Ryukyu Islands Surrender Site


Japanese Delegation on the USS Missouri

Japanese Delegation on the USS Missouri

The Japanese in WWII surrendered on September 2nd, 1945, or so most people think. The surrenders of some of Japanese forces scattered across the Pacific occurred later, as it day here on Okinawa. Five days after the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo harbor, the last remnants of their Okinawa garrison officially capitulated on September 7th, 1945.

Japanese Surrender on Okinawa

Japanese Surrender on Okinawa

With General Doolittle in attendance, General Joseph Stilwell and commanding representatives of the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy signed a surrender document in a ceremony held at what is now the Stearley Heights area of Kadena Air Force Base.

Japanese Representative Flag Officers Arriving on Okinawa

Japanese Representative Flag Officers Arriving on Okinawa

f3eec8bc2bf66e672bb5bf2a482254f3General Toshiro Nomi, flown in since all Japanese Flag officers in the Ryukyus – including Ryukyu Commanding General Mitsuru Ushijima and his Chief of Staff Isamu Chō – had been killed or committed suicide, signed on behalf of the Imperial Japanese General Headquarters and the Japanese Government.

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Signatures and Signatories

Signatures and Signatories

g344921g344919The ceremony was held at the then 10th Army Headquarters at what was known as Camp Kuwae. While victory on what was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific theater was declared much earlier on June 22nd by General Geiger, mopping up operations continued for many weeks. The capitulation was formal and befitting the end of hostilities on the Island, and remained marked by a flag pole and historical marker flanked by captured Japanese artillery pieces.

Surrender Site ~1946

Surrender Site ~1946

Surrender Site ~1960

Surrender Site ~1960

But through the years, some way and somehow, this site lost its place of importance, becoming overgrown and unkempt with each passing year.

Surrender Site ~1967

Surrender Site ~1967

Then, the area was repurposed as military housing to support the growing footprint of the American military presence on the island as the growing cold war turned hot in both Korea and Vietnam. Still, the site remained marked with a small granite stone in the center of a residential cul-de-sac, a marker less than befitting the site’s actual historical importance.

Surrender Site 2015

Surrender Site 2015

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, HQ Tenth Army Surrender of the RyukyusFinally, and only recently in 1997, the site was re-recognized for the pivotal point in history that it tangibly represents. A construction project was undertaken to transform the cul-de-sac into a “Peace Memorial Garden,” and more appropriate markers and plaques better tell the story of what transpired there.

Peace Memorial Park 2015

Peace Memorial Park 2015

Still, it’s odd that the location is flanked on three sides by nondescript cinderblock single family homes, where the garden doubles as a children’s playground for the immediate neighborhood.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender 2 September 1945 WM

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, Surrender placards WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, HQ Tenth Army Surrender of the RyukyusBut given the blood, sweat and tears shed over Okinawa by all sides civil and military, perhaps there is no more fitting use of this sacred ground than that which can produce laughter and happiness. I was only too happy to see a couple of children giggle and scream as they give chase through the monuments. For it is peace that the site represents, and the innocence of those children are exactly what help to consecrate the grounds to just such ends.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Ryukyu Surrender Site, war monument and peace garden WM

See more modern photographs of Okinawa Battlesites here on my Flickr photostream.

 

Fortress of Peace: A Buddhist Arsenal on Okinawa


This is a Buddhist  Temple.  And a former American nuclear missile site....

This is a Buddhist Temple. And a former American nuclear missile site….

Driving up to the Buddhist Temple entrance, I stopped at the gate where a well-dressed older Okinawan man motioned me to stop. I rolled my passenger window down and greeted him good day.

“Konichiwa!” I said with a big smile.

“Konichiwa,” came the man’s reply, a bit less emphatic.

“Visit?” I asked as I motioned towards the hardened silos ahead in view. He didn’t understand. “Tour?” “Photos?” I finally try as I point to the cameras on my passenger seat and then to the imposing structure just ahead….

Finally, out of desperation, I mimic the launching of a rocket, trace a ballistic arc through the sky, and then mime an explosion, but with appropriate sound effects. Ah, now he gets it…and after signing in with my name and vehicle license plate, I’m directed where to park.

Mace-B Missile being Loaded in Silo

Mace-B Missile being Loaded in Silo

Entrance to the Silo Museum

Entrance to the Silo Museum

Silo's Transformed Interior

Silo’s Transformed Interior

You see, Okinawa is home to the Okinawa Training Center of the Buddhist sect of Soka Gakkai International, a place also known as their “Peace Fortress.” In the early 1970s, SGI’s President Daisaku Ikeda saw the abandoned, dismantled nuclear missile site and was immediately struck by a vision: what better way to utilize such a facility than to dedicate it to peace. In 1984, he achieved this vision when the site was ultimately transformed and officially opened as a base for world peace. The missile silos now provide meeting spaces and offers two free museums, one contained in a restored silo which tells the story of nuclear weapons on Okinawa, and the other which features the story of the sect’s peace movement.

Silo Transformed into a Museum

Silo Transformed into a Museum

Back in the fall of 1962, the US and the USSR teetered on the brink of nuclear annihilation after American spy planes discovered Russian-based nuclear missiles deployed on communist Cuba, a short 90 miles from the Florida keys. These atomic weapons placed large swaths of continental America within range of little-notice nuclear attack, something the President and US Government at the time simply would not stand for. The standoff sparked a two-week showdown between the world’s nuclear-armed superpowers that has been claimed as “the most dangerous moment in human history.”

The Onna Site nearing Completion.

The Onna Site nearing Completion.

However, a short six months prior, a potential parallel drama was being played out on the other side of the world. On the tiny island of Okinawa, the US had deployed short-range nuclear missiles, nearly identical to those the Russians placed in the Caribbean, but ones which (unnecessarily) targeted China.

Nuclear Missile Strike Range from Okinawa, 1962

Nuclear Missile Strike Range from Okinawa, 1962

The presence of these missiles on Okinawa, and more widely in Japan, still has not been fully or officially disclosed. But people have started talking: specifically, the people who were responsible for the maintenance and launching of these terrifyingly devastating weapons.

The Base for World Peace as it stands Today

The Base for World Peace as it stands Today

498th TMG PatchIn the early 1960s, men of the 498th Tactical Missile Group (TMG) were the stewards of America’s latest weapon in the nuclear toolkit — the TM-76 “Mace.” The 40 foot long Mace missile, weighing over 8 tons and costing $500k each, packed a 1.1-megaton nuclear warhead that, at many times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, could annihilate anything within a three-mile radius of ground zero. Or, it could create a crater 20 stories deep when employed against hardened, buried targets.

Mace Test Firing

Mace Test Firing

Some of those men, having trained intensively for months in the states destined for combat postings overseas assumed they would find themselves in Europe. Instead, much to their surprise, they found themselves on the long island-hopping flight to the far reaches of the Pacific, destination Okinawa.

Why and how? Well, the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco, the one which ended the U.S.-led Allied Occupation of mainland Japan, granted America continued control and administration of Okinawa – which lasted until 1972. After the communist transformation of China in 1949, followed by the hot and almost nuclear war in Korea in the first half of the 1950s, America rapidly transformed this peaceful sliver of land into the linchpin of its Cold War plans for Asia.

Mace Missiles being Transported through Gushikawa Village, Okinawa

Mace Missiles being Transported through Gushikawa Village, Okinawa

Starting in 1954, nuclear armed aircraft (see Nuking Japan for my very personal history involving nuclear bombs) and atomic artillery shells were deployed to and stockpiled on Kadena Air Force Base on Okinawa. These were the first of what would amount to at least 1,200 atomic weapons that would remain until their final removal in 1972. But that was just the start. Starting in the early 1960s massive construction projects were in-work building semi-hardened silos designed to shelter and launch some of the earliest nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to be deployed.

The Silo's 2nd Level tells the MACE Story

The Silo’s 2nd Level tells the MACE Story

 

War Wounds Remain:  Art on  Display in the Silo

War Wounds Remain: Art on Display in the Silo

Okinawa Traces of War 2015, Mace B Missile Site, preserved silo and museum bottom level war art 3Back then, just 15 years after the Typhoon of Steel (see my blog of the same name for more on the Battle of Okinawa) that overtook Okinawa during WWII, the island still visibly bore the scars of war. Within view of the rusting hulks of war wrecks still lying just offshore, Bolo Point in the village of Yomitan became the first of Okinawa’s nuclear-missile sites to become operational in 1962. The site held eight Mace missiles aimed west over the East China Sea, ready to, as the TMG put it back then, “defend the island, protect the institution of democracy and halt the spread of communism.” The missiles were kept ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

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Although some surely thought their posting to the sunny and sea-surrounded sub-tropical island was a dream, the events of October 1962 dashed such hopes. The missile force found out about the Russian deployment of missiles well before the American public, and from that moment on, life for the missilers became much more serious.

Russia had stationed nuclear weapons outside its borders for the first time, missiles capable of reaching Washington D.C. in fifteen minutes with a megaton warhead. President Kennedy took their deployment as a personal affront, branding Khrushchev “an immoral gangster.” The President demanded immediate removal by the Russians publicly, but secretly ordered his top military generals and admirals draw up plans to bomb the Cuban sites and even invade if the Russians refused.

A standoff between the world’s nuclear superpowers ensued. The Pentagon raised the nation’s Defense Condition (“DEFCON”) to TWO. The Okinawan missilers were told that DEFCON 2 meant a declaration of nuclear war was possible within 15 minutes; if DEFCON 1 was reached, missile launch could be expected within 5 minutes.

One Missile = One Chinese City Destroyed = 1 Million Dead

One Missile = One Chinese City Destroyed = 1 Million Dead

It looked as if launch orders might actually be received as events began to spiral out of control on the other side of the world. The Cubans shot down a U.S. spy plane flying over sovereign Cuban territory, and the American Navy dropped explosives on Russian submarines within a self-declared maritime exclusion zone surrounding Cuba, forcing them to surface. Okinawa braced itself for an escalation to DEFCON 1 at any moment. Sealed launch codes were delivered to launch sites, and personnel were locked in place. The world – both eastern and western hemispheres – was seconds away from midnight on the nuclear clock.

Luckily for everyone, those launch orders were never issued. On October 28, 1962, Kennedy and Khrushchev finally struck a secret deal whereby the Soviets promised to withdraw their nuclear missiles from Cuba in return for promises by the United States not to invade the island and assurances we would pull atomic rockets out of NATO-aligned Turkey.

Art Displayed along the Silos' Lower Level

Art Displayed along the Silos’ Lower Level

But where would have the Maces of Okinawa struck if and when they were launched? The missilers didn’t know for sure, but a safe (and pragmatically the only) assumption was somewhere in China. The relatively short-range of the missiles based on Okinawa put almost the entire USSR tantalizingly just out of reach. At the time, US intelligence leaned toward a belief that China was largely aligned with the Soviet Union. However, the Sino-Soviet split of the time is now well-documented, and highlights one of the worst intelligence failures of the Cold War. Given the existing and serious tensions between Russia and China, it is highly likely that Chairman Mao would have sat out any such Soviet-American Armageddon. On the other hand, had the Okinawan Maces annihilated Shanghai and Beijing – both cities easily within range – killing possibly a hundred million Chinese, the U.S. and China would have been most certainly at war, resulting no doubt in WWIII.

In any case, most agree that the U.S. missiles on Okinawa – if they were known by the Russians – made the island a potential Soviet target. There was a very real chance of Okinawa evaporating in a preemptive or retaliatory Russian strike. JFK in 1962 had accused Castro of turning Cuba “into the first Latin American country to become a target for nuclear war.”   But now it seems clear that the residents of Okinawa were also pawns (see my related blog Pawn Shop) in a far larger power play among distant superpowers that apparently cared little about the civilians whose lives their nuclear weapons were supposed to protect.

Emotional  Art on Display in the Silo's Lower Level

Emotional Art on Display in the Silo’s Lower Level

Throughout the 1960s, neither the government of Japan nor the U.S. admitted that there were nuclear weapons on Okinawa. The Japanese government didn’t want to confirm officially the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on Okinawa because they hoped to avoid any responsibility for them. This kind of thinking has resulted in a big rift between Japan’s leadership and its ordinary citizens.

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

Traces of American Presence remain in the Silo

The Japanese government’s hypocrisy in pretending it knew nothing about U.S. nuclear weapons in Okinawa was necessary in order to maintain face with its public, especially since in 1954 the crew of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon #5 were mistakenly irradiated in the U.S. H-bomb test at Bikini Island. As a result more than 30 million Japanese people sign a petition in protest. Then, in 1956 the Ryukyu Assembly of Elected Officials demands the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from Okinawa and any other islands. In 1965 a hydrogen bomb is “lost” from the deck of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga 130 km off Okinawa’s coast, and in 1966 Iejima Island residents successfully blocked the deployment of U.S. Nike nuclear-tipped antiaircraft missiles. But it was only in 1971, when America and Japan were negotiating for the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty that the U.S. government publicly admitted to their presence for the first time. And it did so by demanding that Tokyo help pay for the removal of nuclear arms from Okinawa! Wow.

1,200 Nukes in Okinawa!

1,200 Nukes in Okinawa!

My visit to the Temple was fairly awe-inspiring. I consider myself not prone to naiveté, but I had assumed that Japan was left nuclear-free per their wishes. Silly boy! As one of the missilers put it, “We [Americans] were all just kids doing a man’s job. The American military machine taught us that it was our right to take anything or go anywhere we wanted. But we never realized that people didn’t want us or our weapons on their island.” To America, Okinawa then was neither American nor Japanese, but solid ground on which to station a far reach of our war machine. A machine that of course included nuclear weapons.

Peace Sculptures on the Grounds

Peace Sculptures on the Grounds

The Base of World Peace located at the Site

The Base of World Peace located at the Site

The Statue Standing over the Silo Museum

The Statue Standing over the Silo Museum

In the opening of the Monument to World Peace at the site of this relic of a different age, President Ikeda proclaimed, “We turn this missile site into a foundation for our thoughts and reflections on peace, not only for Japan, but for the whole world. Let’s preserve these remnants forever. Let’s leave them as evidence that humanity once engaged in something so foolish as war!”

Unfortunately, it seems that we, along with the majority of humanity, continue to act so foolishly. I however stand firm for change. In leaving the Memorial Hall today, I signed the SGI’s roster, officially making me “Cosmo Politan” World Citizen #90,761. Each of us should always endeavor to Choose Hope…Choose Peace…Choose Life. Even if it’s one of us at a time.

Onna MACE-B Site 4, Now a Fortress of Peace

Onna MACE-B Site 4, Now a Fortress of Peace

 

 

More on Nuclear Weapons Deployed to Okinawa:

Some of the weapons deployed to Okinawa included the B43, B57 and of course the Mace cruise missile. The B43, put in service starting in 1961, was an air-dropped variable yield nuclear weapon used by a wide variety of aircraft, and was one of two primary nuclear weapons that I was trained to employ while flying the A-6E Intruder in the 1990s. The B43 was built in two variants, each with five different “dial-a-yield” options, and 2,000 weapons were produced through 1965. The B43 was 18 inches (45 cm) in diameter, about 13’ feet long, and around 2,100 pounds. Explosive yield varied from 70 kilotons to 1 megaton of TNT. The BDU-8 pictured below is the practice “shape” for this nuclear weapon and was recovered by Okinawans when it fell outside of the bombing range in Ie Island.

Traces of War 2015, Ie Island, Nuchi du Takara Anti-War Peace Museum, nuclear bomb shapes lost off-range WM

The B57 nuclear bomb was a tactical nuclear weapon developed during the Cold War, entering production in 1963. The bomb was designed to be dropped from high-speed tactical aircraft and was specifically streamlined for supersonic flight. It was about 10 feet long, about 15 inches in diameter, and weighed about 500 pounds. The B57 was produced in six versions with explosive yields ranging from 5 to 20 kilotons. 3,100 weapons were built through 1967, the last of which was retired in June 1993. The BDU-12 Pictured above is the practice shape for this nuclear weapon, and was recovered in the same fashion as the shape described above.

71st_Tactical_Missile_Squadron_-_TM-76_Mace_Missile

The Martin Mace (TM-76, MGM-13 or CGM-13) is a tactical cruise missile designed to destroy ground targets. It was developed from the MGM-1 Matador, and reached operational status in 1959. Mace was launched from a transporter-erector-launcher or a hardened bunker using a solid rocket booster for initial acceleration and an Allison J33-A-41 turbojet for sustained flight. The Goodyear Aircraft Corporation developed ATRAN (Automatic Terrain Recognition And Navigation, a radar map-matching system) in which the return from a radar scanning antenna was matched with a series of “maps” carried on board. The missile could reach Mach 0.85 (~600 mph) over a 540-mile range (low-level 750’), or 1,285 miles at high altitude. Mace “B” incorporated a jam-proof inertial guidance system (designated TM-76B), with range exceeding 1,300 miles. The Air Force first deployed Mace to West Germany, where six missile squadrons served with just short of 200 weapons. In South Korea, the 58th Tactical Missile Group became combat ready with 60 weapons in 1959, but was relocated to semi-hardened sites on Okinawa in 1961-62 with the 498th Tactical Missile Group.

 

Sources used in crafting this blog:

http://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2012/07/08/general/okinawas-first-nuclear-missile-men-break-silence/#.VPWP-fFIuUk

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MGM-13_Mace

https://booksinmynook.wordpress.com/k-k-s-homework-page/okinawas-first-mace-missile-site-at-bolo-point-yomitan/

http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/147414

http://www.japanfocus.org/-Jon-Mitchell/3800

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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