Typhoon of Steel — My visit to Okinawa

Originally printed in the Clear Lake Courier — 15 October 1997

During a recent trip to Okinawa, I toured several sites from the World War II battle for Okinawa. Known by the Japanese as “Typhoon of Steel,” the battle lasted almost ninety days, killing more than 12,500 Americans and 244,000 Japanese. The only land battle fought on Japanese soil during WWII and the costliest one in the Pacific, it destroyed all the cultural assets the Okinawans had labored for centuries to create.

Okinawa was a trade station when Japan annexed it in 1879.  Its people are a mix of all Asian nations, mostly Chinese. Their culture and history emphasized peace and cooperation, not the warrior tradition of Japan.

The Japanese military began fortifying the island in the fall of 1944, viewing Okinawa as the back door entrance to mainland Japan.  The 67-mile-long island varies in width from two to seventeen miles.

The U.S. invasion force landed Easter Sunday, 1 April 1945.  An 82-hour naval bombardment (one of the heaviest in military history) preceded the landings. The invasion fleet covered an ocean expanse 67 by 70 miles.

War correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed on Ie Shima, a small island to the west.

More than a third of the local population died during the Typhoon of Steel. Many people were blown to pieces by the bombardment.  Others, cornered and terrified of being captured, killed themselves with hand grenades or jumped off cliffs. A large number starved or died of disease.  Many were executed by Japanese troops for “spying.”

Military leaders hammered home to the civilian populace that Americans were “bloodthirsty brutes” who would rape, rob and pillage–they would mercilessly butcher their prisoners. After 82 hours of bombardment, the Okinawans had no problem believing that.

Because their religion involved ancestor worship and the need for proper burials, they saw mass suicide as the only way to prevent lost souls from coming back as evil spirits.

The Japanese 32nd Army was headquartered in Shuri Castle, the residential site of ancient kings, on the southern part of the island. Lieutenant General Ushijima, in an attempt to sustain the battle as long as possible, started giving up land while leaving death squads behind. The turning point of the battle came 29 May when the Americans raised a flag over Shuri Castle.

During our tour, we walked through the castle grounds but did not have time to go inside the castle, which has been rebuilt since the war. Later in the day we visited General Ushijima’s last command post, a cave in a high coral reef facing the ocean.  We climbed down steps built into the side of the cliff on the southern tip of Okinawa. This is where General Ushijima committed suicide.

By the time of General Ushijima’s death, his naval counterpart had already committed suicide. We visited the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters, where Rear Admiral Ota “died an honorable death” after losing most of his 5000 men in a desperate fight against the Americans.

The tunnels and caves, which still exist in their original condition, were dug out of rock with hoes and picks.  I could see the marks made by pick axes. Small alcoves along the passageways had housed generators and provided sleeping spaces.  Smaller tunnels led to staff rooms and the commanding officer’s quarters.

Most monuments on Okinawa are for non-combatants–Okinawan civilians and the slaves imported from conquered countries. Many civilians died when U.S. forces detonated cave entrances and entombed the people inside, both military and civilian, because there was no way to drive them out.

We visited a number of these monuments. Our last stop was “The Cornerstone of Peace,” erected in 1995 to convey the spirit of peace developed throughout Okinawa’s history and culture. The names of all those lost in the Battle of Okinawa, regardless of nationality or military or civilian status, are inscribed on fan-shaped black granite monuments as a prayer for eternal world peace.

The focal point of the memorial is the Flame of Peace in the center of a large water fountain. The flame represents Okinawa, with the waters of peace flowing from it to the entire world, represented by the monuments.

The names inscribed on the black granite identify who paid the price for this peace.  In the foreign section, U.S. losses are listed by service, with the Navy listed first because of its high number of fatalities from 335 kamikaze attacks.

Today the 1.5 million people on Okinawa have access to only eighty percent of their land.  U.S. military bases cover the other twenty percent and the people want the military off their island.  Their complaint is not so much with the Americans as with the Japanese government. Half the 40,000 U.S. troops in Japan are stationed on Okinawa, and the Okinawans want them moved to mainland Japan.

My visit gave me a better understanding of Okinawa and why the issue of military bases is such a hot topic there.

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