Seventy-five years ago today on June 23, 1945, with the confirmation of the suicide deaths of Army Generals Ushijima and Cho, the final resistance of Japanese forces on Okinawa ceased. The last major land battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II was over. Over eighty days, 149,193 Okinawan civilians, 77,166 Imperial Japanese soldiers, and 14,009 American soldiers were killed on this otherwise idyllic, tropical island in the East China Sea. Today there are large U.S. Air and Marine bases on the island, which have become unpopular with the local citizens.
I visited the Okinawan (Ryukyu) archipelago in the early 1990s when I lived in Japan. The main island of Okinawa is a three-hour flight from Tokyo and is closer to Taiwan than it is to the Japanese home islands. A friend of mine was living on the island of Ishigaki, which is in even closer to Taiwan than it is to the main island of Okinawa. The reefs around the islands of the archipelago are breath taking, and this is one of the reasons I visited. I was able to see sharks, manta rays, barracuda, and when I was returning from a dive off Chichi Jima (on a separate trip), I was able to snorkel with a group of wild dolphins. It was magical.
Another one of the reasons I visited Okinawa was to view the site of the last major campaign of U.S. forces against Japan in 1945. Marine and Army forces fought a bitter battle against their tenacious Japanese foes, and for only the second time in the war, U.S. troops confronted large numbers of Japanese civilians. In this case, the civilians were primarily Okinawans, ethnic cousins to, but linguistically different from the Japanese. They have always felt like an unwanted stepchild to the mainland Japanese people. As such, they were caught in the middle of a brutal “typhoon of steel” between the battling armies. During the fighting, any Okinawans caught speaking their own language were treated as spies and shot by Japanese forces. Most of them were conscripted to help Japanese forces in the battle against the overwhelming superiority of the American forces—even the young and old. One group of junior high school girls were brought onto the battlefield to serve as combat nurses. In the final days of the battle, 219 of these nurses were herded by Japanese forces into a cave and told not to surrender to U.S. forces because they would be raped and killed by the “American beasts.” The Marines knew that to bypass a cave meant a sure banzai charge from the rear at night. They were ordered to ‘seal’ the caves with dynamite and aviation fuel. Before doing so an interpreter would use a bullhorn and shout into the cave, asking for anyone still there to surrender. In the case of the nurses, they stayed put and consequently all but a dozen or so tragically—and needlessly—died in the explosion. Today there is a memorial at the site called the Himeyuri Cave of the Virgins.
When I visited the site, two of the survivors served as tour guides. They were gracious and willing to tell me details of their experience. They do not blame the Americans for what happened. I wrote down what one of them told me. The Japanese government, “deprived us of our rights to think and judge as individuals and denied us even the right to live as decent human beings, finally herding us like animals onto the battlefield.” I asked them what the Americans did when they came out of the cave. One woman said, they were given water and chocolate.
It was a moving day for me. I wrote about this episode in my novel Above the Water.