End of War in Okinawa

Maybe because I grew-up on this tortured tropical island, the reminder today of the Okinawa_turtle_back_tomb70th anniversary of the fall of Okinawa to US forces jumped-out at me like a punch.

This 90-day battle was epic even among truly epic battles elsewhere in the three WWII theatres (Pacific, Europe, Africa).  Ninety-days!  What this could have possibly been like?  Simply, it had to have boggled… even now with hindsight, it must even now boggle the mind and shock one’s sensibilities.

Today … we too are confronted with global trends and aspects of the economy, the human-condition that we cannot quite grasp.  Things are underfoot that we cannot quite accept as reality.  We in fact refuse to believe: they are too huge, too incomprehensible. They run counter to everything that our society, our religions and our training have guided us to conclude about the world and how things “work”, i.e., the financial collapse, drone-surveillance, the bail-outs, NSA big data vacuuming, the encroaching death of the US Constitution, the black-shirted TSA, the US war-machine. But back then, too, alien concepts were thrust upon Americans.

With this reference, try to put yourself back in time, after the Marco-Polo Bridge Incident, then Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore.  Not so long ago… consider this:

Guadalcanal was a shocker.  America for the first time was confronted with the ferocity of those Jap fighters, the concealment of nests, the tactics employed, the tunneling, the inhumane treatment of prisoners, the preference of death-over-capture, reverence for the Emperor.  Only afterwards and with the benefit of hindsight spanning 7 decades is anyone able to appreciate any of this at all.  While astounding, we would not be mesmerized today if kamikaze-type fighters plunged into ships in a far-off war.  Back then, this new tactic in fact had soldiers and sailors frozen in place, so new and incomprehensible a sight it presented.  Comparably, it would be as if watching an authentic star-fighter warship, replete with hieroglyphic symbols and bearing obvious scarring / discoloration from an ageless trip, landing today, just there, a stone’s throw away!

Similarly, when sleepy, countrified, insular & agrarian America joined the world community and was confronted by something equally incomprehensible (the Japanese), we too were dumbfounded.  Honestly, people on decks of aircraft-carriers already on fire stood frozen in fear as plane after plane struggled to crash INTO them (kamikaze), or waves of Jap soldiers with bayonets fixed charged foxholes and usually being successful!, having wrapped each other tightly in gauze so that even if hit, they could continue.  This tactic created the absolute necessity for the deployment of the .45 calibre sidearm which would drop an elephant.  They just couldn’t kill these other-worldly Japs.

Unfathomable.  Yet, just like us today: lost in our training, schmeared in the lie that is consumerism controlled by mass-media, (and thinking it is “natural”), pursuing money… never getting “there”.

My teenage pals and I came to know all the battlefields in Okinawa by exploring caves in jungle fatigues, crawling like tunnel-rats, outstretched arms holding candles, probing into the damp, heavy darkness, waving away cobwebs, squealing like little girls at monstrous bugs, centipedes, spiders… always forward.  Reading topography for possible jungle-swallowed sniper-nests; being rewarded with discoveries of bones, ordinance, undiscovered cache, discarded bodies, hidden tunnel openings.  And this insatiable appetite was not just generated by a terrain burdened with raw, recent and abundant scars.

We would dive in turquoise colored waters that sometimes dropped suddenly hundreds of feet, hovering like skydivers over bombed-out wrecks.  The battle of Okinawa, the gashes in the landscape, pill-boxes and gun-emplacements, rusting wrecks were all daily reminders to us and the Okinawans, only 2/3 of whom were fortunate-enough to have survived this hell a mere 20 years earlier. Wounds everywhere were gaping, though healing very slowly.

During this very brief battle, one third of the 300,000 Ryukyuan population were annihilated, most of the children, all the young men.  All livestock, chickens, pigs: gone.  Agriculture came to a complete halt months before the campaign.  Ryukyuans who spoke in their native dialect were killed as potential spies, not even a second-consideration given: “just do it”.  Entire villages were regimented, 100% of them!  Tunnels were dug everywhere: into sacred tombs, into naturally occurring limestone caverns (lots of these!), double-backs formed into the hills, concealments in water-wells, inside ponds, under floorboards of houses.  Ninety-days!  And every inch intended to be a bloody, hand-to-hand battle.

In any conflict, to suffer a double-digit loss is a catastrophe: a 5% attrition guarantees a courts-martial. Historically, casualties will normally be three times greater than fatalities.  But civilians?  For Japan, Okinawa could simply not be lost.

Soldiers from all over Japan poured into the islands.  Eventually 100,000 soldiers occupied the island and conscripted the locals.  Fewer than 8% of these soldiers survived (!).  The largest battleship ever built (even today) was the mighty Yamato with a crew of 3,000.  In transit, on a one-way kamikaze mission to “rescue” Okinawa (to be purposefully beached in Buckner Bay), it was sent to the bottom with all-hands.  The US forces lost 12,500 soldiers suffering an astounding 5 time multiple in casualties.  Even more sobering is the fact that as bad as it was on land, the Navy suffered more deaths than the army or the marines.  In fact, the Navy suffered more deaths than casualties, a rare reversal generated from the successful plunder of kamikaze attacks.

The most lasting impact of the battle is vivid and well-preserved.  I’ve visited Okinawa and outlaying islands endlessly since departing Okinawa, then returning to focus my career on this marvelous, insanely-difficult-to-master country & culture.  The final days of the battle focused on the southern tip as defensive-position after defensive-position fell (none “surrendered”) and as a smaller and increasingly more decimated bands of soldiers retreated, eventually carving-out a last-stand on the Mabuni hills of the Itoman peninsula.

Clean-up lasted another month as the beachhead at Buckner was expanded and mopping-up increasingly centered around the Cliffs area. At this time, caves everywhere were packed with the wounded remnants of decimated forces.  Ammo was almost all spent, little water, few rations. US Piper planes (spotters) identifying pockets while Japanese soldiers ordered Okinawan kids to crawl out to the lines to do damage and keep the GIs at bay. Caves given-up still contained wounded and soldiers, who each took turns killing themselves. The terror in the south had civilians killing one another after taking turns ‘taking care of’ their parents, infants, then their beloved children last.  This insanity just escapes description.

The last remaining unified bands of survivors were nurses, all Okinawan teenagers who straggled from shelter to shelter dragging or carrying, and caring for the wounded who might be saved… but eventually giving-up even on them.

With so, so many, and not enough grenades to go around, they tried to tightly huddle in groups of five or so, pull the pin… struggle with each other in these last desperate seconds to hold the device closer to their chests … but this always left most just mortally wounded … and absolutely terrifying even more the 14 year-olds who watched, or came across piles of withering bodies afterwards.  This went on for days: too afraid to die, not knowing how, no easy methods, and always the pounding of aerial bombs, mortars, pillars of black smoke rising into the sky.  The verdant vegetation now long gone, the sea can be seen beyond.  But this only conveys more horror as it is absolutely, impossibly, covered to the horizon with ships of every imaginable shape: the devil-amerika-jin G.I. are here.  Panic.

As the noose tightened and the GIs approached on foot, and with no self-defense and no IMG_9617 IMG_9642 IMG_9643soldiers to protect them or even order them around, the cliffs preventing further escape beckoned them as their only escape. In droves they just leapt … Japanese-speaking G.I.s pleading with them, begging them with canteens of water, pleas and promises.  Reports from spotters in the piper airplanes were ghastly, reporting the final dash, girls in white, in pairs or just perched on a craggy edge, sometimes approaching soldiers only yards away,  pleadingly … a brief hesitation, then falling to the coral 200~300 feet below.

Very, very few didn’t leap and survived in inerasable shame, guilt, exhaustion… maybe less than two hundred?  In the twilight of their lives now (as of this writing), these beautiful girls now take turns walking tourists through the quiet, preserved caves… and thereby honoring their friends by being the echoes of such a wretched, wretched story.

  • Heidi

    Intense. Great read, Timothy.  

  • Eneiheisel

    Tim, I am speechless, and after nearly 40 years here I have nothing to say or add to your amazingly poignant  descriptions. I did truly leave in tears. For me, Okinawa has never been a place for a vacation – I never felt comfortable, it hurt my soul every time I went there and really never understood why beyond the obvious history which I had studies in detail  — more a ohakka mariri experience for me — but your article brought it home. Well done, Tim!

  • Gigiontyson

    OMG!  Oh, Tim, what a heart wrenching account……..the respect you have for ‘your’ people
    is awesome……

  • Mimi

    Oh, Tim, I am writing with tears in my eyes. This is so sad. My dad was a medic in Okinawa & the South Pacific. He never talked about what he saw but I know he carried a horrible scar over whatever he saw. This sad story makes me wonder if he got a glimpse of what happened here.

    Thank you for writing this account. Part of me wishes I had not read it, but it MUST be read. If it is appropriate to say, “Well done.”, then so be it.

  • Pamela

    The End of the Innocence……..a very dark period, but one that deserves telling and retelling.  You wrote a beautiful and informative article that relays not only fact but understanding and compassion for the gentle giants on whose shoulders we ALL stand.  Thank you for sharing Timothy.

  • Greta Riordan

    Brilliant, heart-wrenching perspective.

  • Sue McCormick

    Beautifully written.  The truth regardless how horrific must always be  remembered and told.  May we never forget the horrors of war so that we may all strive to live in harmony and peace.

  • You have a great way with words Tim – easy to read and
    gripping content.  Having been born and
    raised on the Island plus shared time crawling the rocks and exploring the caves
    with you, your writing brings back many memories about Okinawa and it’s
    people.  In war everyone suffers but
    mostly civilians in the war zone – aka collateral damage.  In this case, as you point out, the Japanese
    predetermined that the whole Okinawa population was expendable and as far as
    the Americans were concerned everyone on the Island were Japanese.  The nature and reality of war is that humans
    get killed using inhuman methods.  If
    peace is the opposite of war, this world we live in doomed to war because
    humans are imperfect and peace is perfect. 
    Lucky for us humans we are only in this world for a very short time.

    OBTW – Check your statement on the .45 please. 
    The USA adopted the Cal. .45 Automatic Pistol Ball Cartridge, Model of
    1911 in 1911.  Most historians consign
    the development of the .45 cal 1911 as a replacement for the .38 cal revolver
    because the .38 cal was significantly less effective against determined
    opponents, such as the warriors encountered in the Philippine–American War (1899–1902).  Not a gotcha – just one of a few points.  Love BFF – Robin

  • Keelliott03

    Thank you Tim, your wonderful writing of such a horrific time only serves to honor a veery sad part of history. It really brings tears to my eyes.

  • Gene Suzuki

    I had heard fragments of what went on in the war from my Okinawan relatives:  my grandfather found with a Japanese bullet in his head and an aunt who survived  with a few others in an undersea cave.  Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s I recall a definite reticence to speak of their time in the war.  Thanks, Tim, for this insightful report….it gives me even more respect for what my relatives went through.

  • MasamiJ

    Thank you, Timothy san, for your perspective about the artrocities of war, truly revealed, the Battle of Okinawa is known as the bloodiest Battle of WWII. My mother was living in her village in the Southern tip of the island, when the US Marines invaded Okinawa. Her village was anilated, and all the villagers were killed.  Somehow my mother survived by hiding in the tombs of her ancestors. She lost her mother, father, and 5 brothers, and all her relatives. She was 10 years old, escaping from both the Japanese and American soldiers, hiding in the boondocks, surviving on her own, with no one to care for her. A shy, frightened little Okinawan girl, scared, and alone, again somehow survived to adulthood, without a family, home, or education. She later married a US Marine soldier, and had two daughters on the island. My father retired on the island, found a job as a civilian working for Civil Service, and fell in love with the island culture. During the Reversion in 1972, the Japanese govt. forced my dad to leave Okinawa, and we moved to North Dakota. My dad died a few months later. My mom and I went back to Okinawa, and I left my mother there, to come back to the states and attend college. After I graduated from college, my mom came to live with me in the States. Both my sister and I graduated from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, and have been living the American Dream. My mother never harbored any bad feelings against the Americans or Japanese for the destruction of Okinawa. She was a true believer in one’s self worth, and her spirit is what Okinawans are made of, something that all the education in the world can’t teach, the universal love for all people. The true of beauty of Okinawa lies in its people. Our past struggles, revealed through time, makes our present, even more beautiful, as we cherish our future.
    Masami Jenkins

    • LeRoy Richard Gatch

      thanks you for sharing with us …

  • Wes R

    Kudo’s…T.L., Kudo’s!!! This has a direct correlation to the stories My Maternal Grandmother and Mom used to talk about while living in the Philippines during the Japanese occupation in her village.

  • spenze

    Yoshi Kishaba Higa

    thanks Mom!

  • Papah3

    Tim this is a fantatic read , My father was stationed in Okinawa from 69 to 72 and like you I explored as much of the island as I could , caves , bunkers , snorkling around around the Rock . I am very proud to have been there & I enjoy sharing stories of what it was like to have lived in such a historical place with a Proud & Beautiful culture . I went back in 2001 when my son was stationed there for 2 weeks & I too left in tears with many years of memories bottled up inside .

    Thank you Tim

  • Mickmc

    Amazingly simple read of an horrific moment in the history of Man’s struggle.  Your concise descriptive account  leaves the reader wondering how such savagery could have taken place and, worse yet, how we as a World population seem to have forgotten the lessons.
    Thanks for the reminder, Tim.
    S. A. Mick McClary
    http://www.ClickOkinawa.com

  • RAFilms Okinawa

    Great commentary on the last days, but the reference to 90 days is absolutely incorrect. The US Military began the destruction of Okinawans and Civilians on Oct. 10, 1944. From the ships in the Pacific who began the barrage of shelling of Naha and Yonabaru to the planes who dropped bombs like rice from the skies. Naha, Yonabaru and the entire area was destroyed from the close to 6 months of continued destruction. Claiming the war began on Love Day, April 1, 1945 is an error because the civilians on the ground were the ones to bear the destruction and deadly assaults. It was not until April 1, 1945 that the war officially began. this is like saying the Vietnam war did not start until the lies of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964.
    My wife’s family as well as the large number of other Okinawa People who fled to the hills and hid in caves, where they either starved to death or were killed by American bombs or Japanese Military was just the opening chapter for the slaughter of a people well beyond the imagination of even this writer. 

  • Ryukyu Historian

    Indeed, the Ryukyu people have been tortured to the core at the hand of the Japanese and still have a zest for life that can be found no where else.  Many of the atrocities that took place when The Empire of Japan invade the Kingdom of the Ryukyus in the late 1800’s were simply a new version of the same story.  The Japanese annihilated the people of Okinawa twice.  Once, when the Meiji Emperor  invaded on that horrible night of the 11th of March 1879 and murdered more than 2,500 of the Ryukyu Royal Family and the courtiers.   Once again, when the Japanese Imperial Army forced the people of Okinawa to fight to the death supporting their own cause; followed by instructions to kill themselves sighting rumors that the Americans would torture them if they lived.  I feel torn inside knowing what has happened and resentful that even today Japan tries to erase the Japanese responsibility of the it all.  
    If one visits the Okinawan museum of history they even go as far as to say that the last King of the Ryukyus did not exist and display on the wall the picture of his grandfather – totally ignoring the night of horror that brought these gentle people to it’s knees in front of the Meiji Emperor.  This is the true and almost forgotten history of what Japan has done to Okinawa.  
    We could also talk about the slow and deliberate deletion of the Ryukyu language and how Japan tries to call it a “dialect” now as if the language is part of – and subordinate of – the Japanese language.  No need to go there since the words speak for themselves.  
    We should have only praise for the way that the American forces helped and temporarily liberated the Ryukyu people.  We should be reminded always of where the true burden of blame and words of distain should fall.

    • RAFilms Okinawa

      Yes we will not forget what the American Liberation forces brought. The Island was slowly rebuilt, new roads put in and governed by an American Governor with no requests for input from the Okinawan People themselves. While one can blame the current problems on the Government of Japan, one should also not forget that Okinawans were not treated any better than those Americans of Japanese Descent who were put into barbed wire enclosures while their land was systematically taken from them and turned into military bases to insure that American Business Interests in Asia would be well protected.
      Having first come to Okinawa in the early 1960s as a member of the US Military, I watched and listened to our commanders who described the Okinawan People as “needing” to be governed as they did not have the ability to do it for themselves. I learned a new word, “Gook” as a way of describing the people here. When I looked up the word, I found it meant foreigner and I contemplated the thought that we in the military were the actual “Foreigners” in the land called the Keystone of the Pacific. 
      While many great and kind Americans have made wonderful contributions to Okinawa and to Okinawans, I also note that what the majority have done was to conspire with the Japanese Government for self-serving agendas, based on greed and political well being. 
      Ryukyu Historian points out that “we should be reminded always of where the true burden of blame and words of distain should fall”. 
      This last comment tells me that the writer is publishing his own self serving history as he neglects to point out the damage done to Okinawa, by the American Military, for the Agenda of the American Military; while the government of Japan is complicit in this agenda, they are simply the puppets of the American Military Industrial Complex, a phrase coined by former President and Military General Dwight David Eisenhower upon his exit from government service. He warned the American People to be aware of this self serving notion that feeds the industry, aided by the politicians who all make money and use Japan as the tool to accomplish their need for greed.
      Japan itself in trying to change history by dismissing the near extinction of a people and their language is no different that what Hitler tried to do to the Jews and to some extent, America can also bear some responsibility for that as well. Ah history, what a wonderful thing to explore but do not be lead astray by the words of those who even in the guise of being an “Historian” claim to know the real truth. This is a truth sugar coated to minimize the terrible deeds conducted by a government who not only took land at the point of a bayonet, but also brought in Poison Gas, Agent Orange, DDT, Mustard Gas, Nerve Gas, plus the over proliferation of military bases, 37 and counting; for this, we should praise the American Military?

      • Ryukyu Historian

        “Self serving”?  How?  Why? And in what way does it serve me or anyone else in saying that the whole mess was started and completed by the Japanese Empire?  Ummm… 
        RAFilms seems to be writing a script to say that Japan did not cause all of the terrible things that Okinawa has befallen them.  If Japan had not invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom and taken over the peaceful state and forced it’s peoples to fight the Empire’s war then none of that would have happened to them anymore than it did to, say: The Kingdom of Tonga (which was not impacted in a similar way).  
        Still confused about your “self serving” comment but this reader supposes that it is simply a bad choice of phrases.  

    • Toranosuke

      “The first time was when the Meiji Emperor invaded on 11th of March 1879
      and murdered, in the dead of night, more than 2,500 of the Ryukyu Royal
      Family and courtiers;”

      I’d be very curious to hear more about this, as I’ve never heard of it before. Do you have any scholarly sources, history books or articles you can point me to, to learn more about this?

  • Kinue Oshiro-Avery

    For a video POV please feel free to look at our documentary titled Why Okinawa?Messages from the people, in English with Japanese Sub-titles, on you tube by RAFilms Okinawa under RAvery41 We screened this story in the USA between 2006 and 2009 and have kept it current as of 2012.

  • Lisa Van Dyken

    Masami’s Mom survived this, but not without it’s toll on her spirit. This is almost too much to comprehend. I am touched, and again, this gives me courage to face my minor problems…. again you are my Champion Tim.

  • cpaul

    Excellent article it’s so descriptive that you actually feel like you we’re there. Facts that I never knew. I explored caves as well, south oh Naha. Kudos Tim for a well researched article on the human condition! cpaul

  • LeRoy Richard Gatch

    enjoyed reading this, Timothy. Thanks for writing and sharing it.

  • A lot of the suicides are accurately described but you are mixing locations and incidents all into one. I am not sure what year you crawled through the caves as I did with a fellow Army Soldier did in our spare time. But I did it as a 19 year old, when stationed at Torii Station, and my friend was at Sukiran with the 25th Infantry. Some of my exploits were recorded in the original Tunnel Rats of Okinawa in what is now the Marine Corps Museum, but created by an Air Force Veteran. Some of the exploits will only be revealed in a book I am writing about this but in my conversations with a few WWII Marines, one who manned a machine gun at Hime Yuri, he still carries the guilt of shooting down many of the nurses forced out of the cave at Hime Yuri. There were also other caves which housed another school of nurses, few of which I observed in the films of those that jumped from suicide cliff and examining the photos of the bodies left dead at the bottom were mostly mothers with their children. Nice to add information that did not happen to make the story more vivid but I have visited as well ever nook and cranny on Okinawa and living here, my wife who lost many family members during the war while hiding in the caves, either starved to death or were killed searching for food. Her uncle, an expert on the caves all over the island takes tourists from the mainland to places I did not know of to show me other locations where those who hid, died from starvation or as you put it, gathered together to die together. There are also many stories from those who killed their own family to keep the US Military from butchering them as the Japanese Propaganda said they would. As a final note, the more accurate number of Locals who died in the war reaches closer to over 200,000 people.

  • Nancy Snow

    Astonishing story about the horrors of war. I will never forget that image of the nurses leaping to their
    deaths to the coral reefs below, despite the pleas from the Japanese-speaking G.I.s. Did an almost certain, gruesome death like that seem preferable to being captured by the Americans? It’s clear that both sides had a mutual fear and awe of each other. As Sam Keen (Faces of the Enemy) says, before we can kill the other we must “think each other to death.” The soldier, the civilian, must become less than human or else we aren’t sufficiently programmed to kill on a mass scale. I traveled to Okinawa in 2010 as part of a U.S. Speaker Program and marveled at its beauty, which I realize has the scars and blood of so many caught up in a madness of survival.