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.

Hero of War: The Railway Man


takashi-nagase-quote-i-want-to-make-the-railway-an-antiwar-symbol-in-o

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trailer for “The Railway Man”

Lomax and Nagase in their WWII Days

Lomax and Nagase in their WWII Days

Starvation and Slave Labor, the Japanese order of the day

Starvation and Slave Labor, the Japanese order of the day

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

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

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

“She walked through bullets and haze

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

So I lifted my gun and I fired away

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

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

Hellfire Pass, tragically dug completely by hand.

Hellfire Pass, tragically dug completely by hand.

Horrific living conditions for POWs

Horrific living conditions for POWs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A hero of war, is that what they see

Just medals and scars, so damn proud of me

And I brought home that flag, now it gathers dust

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

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

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

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Statue of Nagase in Thailand

Statue of Nagase in Thailand

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Okinawan Traces of War: Telegraph from the Past


 “There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.”  ~ Dwight David Eisenhower

Carrier aircraft attack Ishigaki-jima in the Ryukyus

Carrier aircraft attack Ishigaki-jima in the Ryukyus

Kamikaze-Attacks-of-World-War-II-Okinawa-Ryukus-MapIt was probably a lazy day at the office in the fall of 1944 or spring of 1945.  Having finished a shift full of mundane duties and boring watches, perhaps a few decided to enjoy the sandy beach and pristine waters immediately adjacent to this wooded site.  Others were probably enjoying their time off, tending to personal business nearby.  Being stationed on a remote island far in the southern reaches of the Ryukyu Chain, and then being billeted to such a small, isolated communications station in a completely rural part of the island, the War in the Pacific seemed many thousands of miles away, if not of a different time.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), bullet scared WM

Then, without warning, death rained down from above.  And nothing was ever the same again.

Death came from above by means of the Navy's "Avengers"

Death came from above by means of the Navy’s “Avengers”

Sakishima%20IsIshigaki Island is the most inhabited and developed island of the Yaeyama Islands (Yaeyama-shoto) in the deep southwestern waters of Okinawa Prefecture (Ryukyu Islands) and the second of this grouping of sub-tropical isles.  The Yaeyama Islands are, at the same time, the mostly southerly and westerly parts of Japan, located approximately 430 kilometers/260 miles south of Okinawa.

Ishigaki's relationship to Okinawa, the Ryukyu Island Chain

Ishigaki’s relationship to Okinawa, the Ryukyu Island Chain

Japanese-WWII-key-capturedOn a small peninsula out to the west of Ishigaki-jima is a former Japanese Military Undersea Telegraph Station, built at the turn of last century (1897), which operated until attacked during World War II.  While not the easiest place to find, and certainly not a well-visited “touristy” destination, the unimproved road leading to the coastal site is well signed off the primary road in the area.  Be prepared though; the long and winding path leading down to the facility can be very rough on your vehicle!  We had a rental (wink).

Telegraph Lines converge at Ishigaki

Telegraph Lines converge at Ishigaki

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), now defunct and dead station on the beach WMDuring the time in which Taiwan (then Formosa) was administered by Japan, this small structure served as a critical node in the larger Japanese Imperial Army communications system between Taiwan and headquarters in Honshu.  Numerous relay stations were located all the way from the Japanese mainland to Taiwan, all connected by huge undersea cables.  From the Sino-Japanese War until World War II, this station, known as Denshinya, was used by the Japanese military.

Attacks on the Japanese airfield at Ishigaki-jima.

Attacks on the Japanese airfield at Ishigaki-jima.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), old wooden signage WMDuring WWII, it was attack by carrier-based aircraft, was abandoned, and has been in this damaged state ever since.  Severe damage can be seen, and although it appears the building escape a direct hit by bombs, it certainly was well-strafed with heavy machine gun and aircraft cannon fire.  Some locals claim that many ghosts haunt the area, but on the bright, warm sunny day of our visit, we unfortunately (fortunately for my wife) encountered none.  I cannot find any reports of casualties or of the actual attack in my research (read about the frequency and magnitude of attacks across Ishigaki-jim).  Ishigaki was frequently attacked in the lead-up to the Battle of Okinawa, particularly its airfield.  Read about an unfortunate American crew that was shot down perhaps at the same time this station was attacked in Beauty and Honor Entombed, and about their particular story Shipley Bay.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), bullet scars remain WM

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), now defunct and dead station WMThe facility was never repaired or reclaimed, and continues to deteriorate.  The day we visited there was some archeological study going on, where a Japanese man was taking meticulous measurements which annotated some amazing sketches of the facility he had done.  There is no English here, but there are what appears to be a couple of memorial plaques in Japanese.  As simple and small as the building may appear, it was once played a key role for the Japanese Imperial Government.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), war-torn decaying structure

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), ruined interior WMSurveying the scene today, one can only imagine the horror of the day when the facility was attacked.  Set in a rustic yet beautifully bucolic setting, I’m sure the death from above was both a shock and a surprise to the Japanese that were pulling duty here.  The remoteness of the site, along with the preserved state of battle-damage and ensuing decay, allows this particular location to certainly convey somber and silent commentary on the darker complexion of war.  There certainly was no glory here at this station, even though blood was surely shed.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), Jody modeling the Army's Station

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), station's beach & ocean warningsTo Visit: Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph) 556, Sakieda, Ishigaki City (Ishigaki-shi), Okinawa Prefecture.  There is no fee, nor hours; the site is not lighted, and no facilities are anywhere nearby.  Easy beach access is adjacent to the site, but parking is very limited.

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), looking back through time to WWII WM

Ishigaki Vacation 2014, Denshinya (Imperial Japanese Army Telegraph Station), Jody on the beach-front property 2 WM

Okinawa’s Sobering Sick Wards: From Vengeance to Forgiveness


“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”  ~John F. Kennedy

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”  ~Leo Tolstoy

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”  ~Bertrand Russell

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”  ~Voltaire

war-quotes-1

“They fought dirty. It is what it is…,” a friend responded to my Facebook posting of pictures of Okinawa’s cave hospital from WWII and comment on how sobering it was to experience first-hand.  And if you want to skip all the drama below and read about that hospital, scroll down the page to find the discussion and see photos of this amazing battle site.

“A must see, even if we all fight dirty!!” came my response, trying to focus more on the historic and sobering aspects of visiting this place rather than some misplaced sense of vengeance.  Oh, and a hint that war itself is dirty business.  I had just visited just one of the 30 mountainside tunnels that served as the Imperial Japanese Army’s field hospital during the Battle of Okinawa.  You can look at all the pictures, still and moving, you want but you still never get the guttural sensations of just how bad conditions can be in war.  They were dreadful here on Okinawa.

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

But I quickly added, “BTW, I would wish no one’s son to die in a cave in conditions like this…,” which, is the honest truth.  Being a combat vet and having spent twenty years in military service, I felt I had some status and experience to comment maybe more appropriately.

“I have not forgotten what my father saw in the Battle of Luzon or how they fought in other battles.  He is the reason you have the freedom to walk in that cave.  I have no sympathy for the Japs of WWII,” my friend responded.

Now, for those of you that know me, I am not one to back down from such an extremist position.  One of my foremost rules of living a better life after participating in combat and being personally responsible for killing other human beings and after seeing firsthand the pain and suffering caused by armed conflict of any flavor is this:  nothing good comes from an extreme position.  Think about it; friendships, marriages, children and politics all involve moderation and compromise.  Extremism is perhaps the major problem with our seemingly across-the-board dysfunction in the same.

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“I try to steer away from absolutes,” I continue the discussion. “Like in most conflicts, when the rich and privileged wage war, it’s the poor, uneducated and ignorant that lose and die.  Many on Okinawa were conscripts; many more were civilian OKINAWANS (they are not Japanese, merely subjugated by them) who died here, many more than soldiers.  Remember too that I am a combat vet having served 20 years in uniform.  And my family was right there with your Father; he didn’t do it alone.  The truth is usually somewhere in the middle of what are 3-sided stories.  The battle for Okinawa just isn’t about the good United States versus imperialist, violent ‘Japs’.  There is a much larger story to be told and heard.  But you have to want to hear it…..  I stand by my sympathy for all those unwillingly and unwittingly caught up in other people’s wars….”

“I am sympathetic to my father, your father and all WWII vets.  I appreciate your service.  Japan is on their own,” she flatly concluded….

Wrongly, if I can say so.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I certainly do not give Japan a free hall pass for their attitude or behavior for World War II or the years leading up to that conflict (it started in China long before we got involved, but interestingly we chose not to get involved until cornered).  Japanese war crimes are well-documented, and thousands were tried as war criminals after the war, with almost 1,000 convicted being executed.  Their crimes are so horrific and pervasive that they cannot be escaped.  I have blogged extensively about some of my conflicted but realistic thoughts on Imperial Japanese brutality of WWII it:  see Nuking Japan:  They Deserved It?, and Should the Rising Sun Finally Set?  As an aside, the movie Flowers of War does more to visually depict Japan’s wanton and perverse ruthlessness than most any other treatment I’ve seen; it will make your blood boil that any people could be so vicious.

Japan does continue a habit of "overlooking" their culpability to their own....

Japan does continue a habit of “overlooking” their culpability to their own….

Indoctrination:  Bowing to an Alter of a portrait of the Emperor of Japan.

Indoctrination: Bowing to an Alter of a portrait of the Emperor of Japan.

And therein lays the problem.  People are vicious.  When they are allowed to be.  Imperial, militaristic Japan of the turn of last century used extensive propaganda, religion fanaticism (the Emperor was considered a deity), and their far-reaching educational system to indoctrinate whole generations to a certain disturbed mindset and point of view.  We can see the same thing in the Middle East today, and the West has been just as guilty in the not-too-distant past.  All it takes is the right timing and wrong circumstance…and a world community that looks the other way.  No one rushed to save China in the 1930s.

General Curtis LeMay, the “father” of America’s strategic bombing campaigns of WWII, knew this all too well.  His personal realization of the vicious nature of war is reflected in perhaps his most famous quote:  “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time….  I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal….  Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing.  But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”  Of course there is no excuse for the intended fire-bombing of civilian targets, like Tokyo in Japan or Hamburg in Germany, where up to 100,000 civilians were exterminated by fire in a single night.  Except that it’s equally unfair for us to judge decisions of the past without the proper historical context.

Shameful

Shameful

Similarly, much of the American South still hasn’t forgiven (or forgotten) General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” where he brought what then was a new and halting concept in conflict:  the idea of “Total War.”  He states, in justifying his plans to burn his way through the South in order to destroy their means of waging war, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….”  Once again we see the idea of “they deserve it,” alongside the justification that the morality of actions in war are in some way relative.  In both cases of LeMay and Sherman, we would, today, never tolerate such actions, even in war-time.

What comes around goes around; karma operates on a cosmic scale.  History is full of “bad wars” and their inherent immorally shocking behaviors:  the Christian Crusades of 1,000 years ago, the American South in the Civil War fighting over the peculiar institution of slavery; the US Government’s violent diplomacy against the American Indians; Axis aggression in both WWI and WWII; purges in China, Russia, and Cambodia; Nazi Germany’s treatment of Russia and vice versa in WWII; the Korean “Police Action” and the Vietnam “War” (war was never declared); and more recently, the IRA, the PLO, and Hamas; rampant genocide in Africa, narco-terrorism in South and Central America, modern fanatical Islam-based terrorism, and finally the idea of obtrusive and unilateral régime change.  Without invoking the subjective emotion of the particular time and place, it’s rather hard to objectively defend these actions.  Some if not many (or most) involve horrific crimes against humanity…itself a rather modern invention…but an idea that has, in one form or another, existed through the ages.

Avenge_december_7Another element of WWII that often goes unconsidered, but which is clear in historical context, is this:  our greatest generation didn’t spill their blood for your freedom or mine; they instead literally saved the rest of the world.  Japan, when they orchestrated their sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor, had no fantasies of defeating and invading America.  The best they could hope for was a decisive blow that would push the Americans to sue for peace on terms beneficial to the Empire of Japan.  Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind Pearl Harbor who was educated in the United States, believed that Japan could not win a protracted war with the United States; he is quoted in Tora Tora Tora! (book and movie) as saying, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  The Japanese attack was muddled; politically, war was supposed to be formally declared prior to the morning of December 7th, but message coding and decoding delays lead to their aggression without warning, which did more to push American for vengeance that anything else.  It certainly was not about securing our freedom.

And although Hitler surely would have bombed America if he had the means available, the United States was in no danger of falling to Nazi fascism.  We in the States benefit immensely from being an island-nation, protected from warring factions of much of the rest of the world by massive oceans East and West, and a frozen wasteland to the north.  Germany couldn’t cross the English Channel let alone the Atlantic Ocean.  Once again, we rose to the occasion and freed Europe (but only part of it, hence, the rise of the Iron Curtain).  However, our Greatest Generation of warriors’ achievement is no less amazing, even in this characterization.

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How can we harbor such hatred and a constant sense of vengeance if we don’t more critically examine our own actions in the world?  Ask the Vietnamese I spoke with during my visit there in 2008 (see my blog Good Morning, Vietnam!) about America’s use of chemical weapons (Agent Orange) in spraying villages and rice paddies – and all those working and living there….  Ask the American Indians how they were treated by the “White Man,” and it’s easy to find the same degeneration and dehumanization that the Japanese projected onto the West….  Degrading labels like “Gooks” or “Skinnies” (for those in Somalia) are much more recent and make killing much easier.  And what about the mess we have left (and the hundreds of thousands of dead) after our régime changes and failed democratic experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Okinawa 2014, Japanese 32nd Army Field Hospital, religious monument WMI’ll tell you this:  the Okinawan/Japanese (they are different cultures) peace memorial to WWII here on Okinawa contains the names of over 230,000 Japanese and Okinawan lost during that conflict.  See my blog on the Typhoon of Steel for more about the magnitude of loss suffered by the Okinawans in 1945.  But the memorial also contains the names of all the allied soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors lost in the same battle.  To my knowledge, our war memorials do not include the names of the over 1.1 million Asian deaths related to the Vietnam War, or the 1.2 million deaths among the Chinese, North and South Koreans of the Korean Conflict.  The point is, the memorial on Okinawa is not about a specific war or the loss of a specific country; it is a “Peace Prayer Park” which focuses on the shared tragedy of war, but with hope for a more peaceful, conflict-free future….  It is much more than simply a place to mourn the dead.

Some of you may read this and thin-slice me as a bleeding heart liberal, and a few of you might even characterize me as an unpatriotic turncoat.  On the former, it is hard not to see the world with more compassion and empathy when you come face to face with the pain and suffering of a mother who has suffered the loss of her child, no matter the circumstance or country.  Grief, like anger, is universally shared.  On the latter point, remember, unchecked Nationalism is easily transcribed into Fascism, an infectious attitude promises much but offers no good outcome.  Trust me, you want your men and women in uniform to have an education and intellect that allows for critical thinking and moral analysis of their actions.  It is, in fact, one of the central elements of our military that make us so strong.

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The world will never become a better, and more peaceful place if we hold onto animosity and continue to harbor ill-will, especially if it is directed at a country, culture, or generation long-gone.  When we transfer these hurtful emotions onto the descendants of the original and responsible wrong-doers, all that results is a continuation of hostilities.  Look at the West Bank and Gaza today.  Look at the warring factions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the Balkans.  How can anything there be resolved if people first don’t let go of their hatred?

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For those that have made it this far, and who want to read about the WWII battle site that caused all this controversy, please read on below about one of the more sobering traces of war that I’ve ever visited.

 

Okinawa Army Hospital

The Okinawa Army Hospital Unit 18803 was organized within the 32nd Imperial Japanese Army forces in Kumamoto in 1944.  Although medical activities started in Naha in June of that year, allied aircraft carrier attacks of 10/10 (as they are known to history) destroyed the hospital facilities, which forced a move of the hospital to the Haebaru National Elementary School building.  Soon thereafter, under guidance of the 32nd Army’s Engineering Unit, approximately 30 cave tunnels were dug into Aza Kyan and Aza Kanegusuku.

Buried Meds:  many medicines were found deeply buried and intentionally hidden.

Buried Meds: many medicines were found deeply buried and intentionally hidden.

In late March 1945, allied naval bombardment forced the abandonment of all the regular facilities, and the entire operation was moved into the cave system.  The hospital was staffed by approximately 350 surgeons, nurses and hospitalmen, who were augmented by 222 female high school students from the First Prefectural Girl’s High School (Himeyuri Gakuto), who trained and served as nursing aids under the guidance of 18 of their teachers.  The director of the hospital was Hiroike Bunkichi.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Although initially organized into three departments of Infectious Diseases, Surgery, and Internal Medicine, after allied forces landed on the first of April, 1945, the hospital reorganized all the wards into the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Surgical Departments due to the sharp increase in battle-related injuries requiring emergency intervention.

Charred Support Beams:  Charring is thought to be from the use of US flamethrowers, a common weapon used to clear and destroy tunnels.

Charred Support Beams: Charring is thought to be from the use of US flamethrowers, a common weapon used to clear and destroy tunnels.

By the end of May, allied forces had pushed the Japanese far to the south of Okinawa, and the decision was made for all Japanese forces to retreat to the Mabuni area to make a last, protracted stand.  The order was sent to the hospital to disband and move all ambulatory patients by foot.  Those that could not travel were given potassium cyanide in their milk, and, as the museum’s brochure in English states, “…and compulsion of self-determination was carried out on this occasion.”  The Japanese killed all their seriously ill patients, and I’m not sure if this was out of compassion to end their suffering, or simply an act of murder so that they would not fall into US hands where they could provide military intelligence.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

A visit to this sit starts in the Haebaru Town Museum, just west and across a ridge from the tunnel’s entrance.  This museum houses a terrific reproduction of the hospital bunker complex, and is designed to give visitors a feel of the conditions at the time.  It features replicas of bunk beds (which you can try out), and an operating table as well as artifacts from the original tunnel.  Realistic replicas of an Imperial Portrait Shrine and a War Dead Memorial bring visitors to the time of Japanese militarization, begun decades prior to the Battle of Okinawa.

Medical supplies recovered in the tunnels.

Medical supplies recovered in the tunnels.

I visited the tunnel during what turned out to be a tropical storm, and I’m happy I did.  I think it provided a more realistic experience.  To get to the tunnel, you walk along the trace of the old footpath that leads to and from the kitchen area and well which supplied the entire tunnel complex.  It has been improved with a modern set of stairs, and thankfully so; moving up and over a substantial ridge would have been otherwise a challenge in the driving wind, rain, and slippery mud-soaked surfaces.

The school-girl nursing aids bringing in the tunnel's food supply for the day.

The school-girl nursing aids bringing in the tunnel’s food supply for the day.

Tunnel #20, the only one reinforced enough to be open to the public, is a man-made tunnel completely dug by hand, measuring roughly 70 meters in length (230 feet) and about 1.8 meters in height and width (a smidgen under 5’11”).  It was the main tunnel used by the 2nd Surgical Department, where the eastern half of the tunnel accommodated patients; the central “T” intersection with another tunnel was where most surgeries were performed; and where the western half quartered the staff which worked there.

Tunnel reproduction in the Haebaru Town Museum.

Tunnel reproduction in the Haebaru Town Museum.

My guide open the doors to the tunnel, and a river of water greeted us as it was freed to seek itself further down the hill.  The cave tunnel was much smaller than I expected and that reproduced in the museum, and I found myself having to at least nod my head downwards, otherwise my hard-hat would be riding along the tunnel’s ceiling.  Lighting was originally provided by candles spaced quite far apart, today the only light comes from the small flashlights provided with your admission fee, and the passage is at once imposingly dank and dark.  The tunnel was leaking everywhere, and water pooled in various depressions along the earthen floor.  While some areas have been reinforced with modern construction techniques and materials, much of the tunnel remains bare rock.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Most artifacts have been moved down into the town museum, but there are still some left in place, which are pointed out by the guide.  All the remains have been removed and reburied.  The one thing missing from the actual tunnel is the missing bunk beds which billeted patients.  These “beds” were bare wood planking, just over 35 inches in width.  Keep in mind our standard twin size bed is 39 inches…and even kids’ narrow beds are generally 36 inches wide!  Each patient got a canteen for water, a small dish for food (which consisted only of rice balls, the size of Ping-Pong balls by the end of the war), and a pot in which to relieve themselves.  No light, no padding, no sheets, and probably not a lot of hope.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

And after leaving the site, that was the overwhelming emotion with which I was left:  hopelessness.  While Japan did bring the war on themselves, and there is absolutely no doubt that many Japanese regulars were violent and vicious actors playing their parts in a morally bankrupt Imperial Japan, I stand by my claim that I wish no one’s son (or daughter) die in conditions or place like this.  Do me a favor:  if you visit, divorce yourself from whatever prejudice you may hold from your own conditioning, education, and exposure to World War II.  Remember, at our cores, there is not much that separates us in our shared human condition.  Death is death, and loss is loss, no matter.  War is tragedy, and immoral by most any definition.

Exploring Tunnel #20 by Flashlight

Exploring Tunnel #20 by Flashlight

For more pictures of the hospital tunnels and the adjoining Haebaru Town Museum, please see my Flickr set here:  Okinawa Battle Sites.

The town of Haebaru opened the 1st Surgery Tunnel #20 in 2007 as an important cultural asset that serves to educate the public about the misery and tragedy of war, and to protect this history for future generations to learn from.  The Hospital Tunnel is open from 0900-1700 by reservation only, and is closed on Wednesdays, and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3).  Admission is 200 Yen.  Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru-cho, Okinawa 901-1113.

The Haebaru Town Museum is open from 0900-1800, and is closed on Wednesdays and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3).  Admission is 300 Yen.  Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru Town, Okinawa; Email bunka-c@town.haebaru.okinawa.jp.

Memorial to those lost at the 32nd Army Field Hospital in Haebaru, Okinawa.

Memorial to those lost at the 32nd Army Field Hospital in Haebaru, Okinawa.