The Forgotten Grief of Okinawa
Saturday, July 2, 2005 Posted: 03:08 PM JST
Hiroshima has become the symbol of the stupidity, horror and senselessness of war. Of the terrible price that the unarmed civilian pays in modern warfare. Hiroshima was in great part a direct result of events in Okinawa some months earlier. Sixty years ago a terrible battle was fought for 82 continuous days on this Japanese island. Now Okinawa battles again. Against being forgotten.
It was the last battle of the Second World War, and one of the most terrible. But other dramatic events soon overshadowed the bloody battle of Okinawa. American President Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, not even two weeks after the battle started. German capitulated on May 8, and in early August an opportunistic Soviet Union joined in the fight against Japan.
Okinawa was positively removed from the front pages of history books when on August 8 for the first time in world history a city was destroyed by an atom bomb. A few days later Hiroshima was followed by Nagasaki.
The decision to use the nuclear bombs was a direct result of the allied experience during the Battle of Okinawa. The Japanese resistance was so fierce, and the losses were so high during this bloody battle that American military leaders feared the worst for the invasion, planned for August, of the two Japanese main islands.
Ironically the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa eventually lead to them being forgotten. Okinawa would be forever overshadowed by Hiroshima.
Associated Press journalist Sid Moody already foresaw in 1945 that in spite of the terrible bloodletting, and the important role that Okinawa had played, the battle would be soon forgotten. "'Before Hiroshima there was Okinawa," he wrote, "Because of Okinawa, in considerable part there was Hiroshima."
Figures usually hide the horrors of war. They belittle them and neutralize the pain and grief. But in case of Okinawa, figures bring the horror and grief to live. That terrible were the losses here.
More people died in Okinawa than as a result of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On the American side there were 12.520 dead and 36.631 injured. The Japanese army counted as least 110,000 dead. Only 7,400 Japanese combatants were taken prisoner.
The price paid by the Okinawans was terrifying. Estimates vary between 100,000 and 150,000 dead. At least a third of the civilian population lost their lives, 90 percent of the survivors lost everything they owned. Only the inhabitants of Stalingrad paid a higher price.
Materially the battle was also one of the bloodiest ones of the war in the Pacific. The Allies lost 36 ships, mainly as a result of kamikaze attacks, 368 were badly damaged. More than 760 allied planes were lost. Japan lost 7,800 planes and 16 ships, among which the highly priced Battleship Yamamoto, a ship that had been considered unbeatable.
The battle was so inhumane that 26,000 American soldiers were lost to combat fatigue. They could fight no more. As a percentage of the number of injured that amounted to 48 percent. During no other battle in American history were so many soldiers lost to stress. Even during the later battle in Korea, which also is known to have been demanding on the ones that fought it, the figure stood at 30 percent. Actually, the American losses in Okinawa were so high that voices in the American Congress called for an investigation into the conduct of the military commanders.
On April 1, 1945 the American and British navy assembled a giant armada off the coast of Okinawa: 1,300 ships, among which no fewer than 40 carriers. On the first day alone they landed 183,000 troops. This would eventually be as many as 548,000 troops. In comparison, during the enormous D-Day invasion of Normandy the previous year, the allies landed 150,000 with just 284 ships.
The incredible numbers show the enormous strategical value of Okinawa. It lay only 500 kilometers South of the Japanese islands of Kyushu and Honshu. Not only could the allies completely cut off Japan from it supply lines by invading it, but the island was also a perfect staging area for the final attack. The only two large harbors between Formosa (Taiwan) and Kyushu, lay in Okinawa. Additionally Okinawa was large enough to build several airfields.
The island had been a Japanese colony since the 17th century. Although the Japanese didn't completely trust the peaceful inhabitants of Okinawa, they still saw the island as Japanese soil. The Japanese forces therefore were deeply motivated to fight to death. They now protected their own country.
During the first 24 hours of the invasion the allies fired 3,800 tons of shells onto the island. Okinawans later described it as a "typhoon of steel".
This enormous firepower even surprised the experienced Japanese soldiers. On April 23 one of them wrote in his diary, "Although nearly a month has passed since the enemy landed, a terrific battle is still going on day and night. I am really surprised at the amount of ammunition that the enemy has. When friendly forces fire one round, at least ten rounds are guaranteed to come back.”
Japanese General Ishijima had dug in his 100,000 troops deep in the South. In tunnels and caves hidden in the high mountains. He knew that without protection of planes his troops had no chance whatsoever to withstand the Americans on the beaches. The Americans therefore, to their great surprise, landed with with virtually no opposition
The first week of the battle surpassed all expectations. The Americans pushed straight through to the east coast and the north. On April 6 however they got a little taste of the ordeals that were awaiting them. Massive formations of hundreds of kamikaze planes hurled themselves onto the fleet that day. By the end of the battle some 1,465 kamikaze pilots would sink 30 American ships and badly damage 164 more.
Ushijima, who knew that he could not win, tried to gain as much time as possible and afflict as much damage as possible. For each Japanese that lost his live, ten Americans had to die. For each Japanese plane that was lost, one American ship should be taken. This would give the Japanese mainland enough time to prepare itself for the big invasion. Even more important, as long as the battle lasted the American fleet would be exposed to the kamikaze aircraft attacks. Ushijima fought a battle of attrition and did it masterly.
Each cave and each tunnel was fought over. Even when faced with flame throwers the Japanese would hardly budge. The terribly bloody combat continued through June 22 when the Japanese finally gave up. But even between June 23 and 29, during "mopping up" operations, no fewer than 3,800 Japanese were taken prisoner and 9,000 were killed.
When the Japanese stood with their backs towards the sea and had no place left to go their world collapsed. Instead of surrendering, they committed suicide in large numbers. Many of them by exploding a grenade against their stomach. General Ushijima committed suicide on June 16. In the traditional manner, using a sword.
For the Okinawan population the battle was true hell on earth. Many of them were shot as spies by the Japanese troops. Even using the Okinawan dialect was seen as treachery. The men were conscripted. Their families were ordered to move south, where the battle was planned to take place. Eventually, mothers, children and the elderly stood between the two armies.
Those that had sought shelter in the caves were thrown out by the Japanese soldiers. Many tens of thousands committed suicided to at least not fall in the hands of the Americans. They had been told that these would rape the women and eat the children. They were scared to death of the "barbarians".
Famed American journalist Ernie Pyle, who himself would fall in Okinawa, described the fear that he saw in the eyes of the Okinawans. And their subsequent confusion when they realized that the propaganda had all been one big lie. The Americans even had, they soon discovered, stocked large supplies of food specifically for the local population.
Even young girls were used by the Japanese troops. About 255 girls between fifteen and nineteen were conscripted as nurses aides in military hospitals that were set up in caves and tunnels. The girls in what was called the Himeyuri Corps were from good schools and were looked up to on the island. But they were forced to do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.
On June 18 the corps was suddenly disbanded. The girls had to leave the caves. They were given no new quarters. "The disbandment order left me in a daze," Ruri Miyara, one of the few survivors, wrote years later in her book "Watashi no Himeyuri Senki", "Where was I supposed to go, abandoning the cave when the enemy was right out there?''
Many of the girls died in the caves, by machine gun fire, grenades and flame throwers. Others wandered on the killing fields, together with abandoned wounded soldiers, in search of a save place to shelter. By the end of June only 21 of the 225 girls were still alive. Says one of them sixty years later, "My classmates died one after another."
The tragedy of the Himeyuri Corps became symbolic for the battle. At least six movies have been made that dramatically describe the fate of the girls. The first one in 1952 was seen by six million Japanese. It was a major hit. In 1989 the Himeyuri Peace Museum was also opened in Okinawa.
But slowly a younger generation hardly cares about all this. This February Aoyama Gakuin Senior High School in Tokyo made up an English entrance exam question. In this question an imaginary student says to be "bored'' by a personal account of a Himeyuri survivor.
One of the former Himeyuri Corps members told Japanese media that it had deeply shocked her. It convinced her that she had to tell her story. "For years, it was too painful to recount my experience. But I began telling my story because I felt I had to...'' Now she is a volunteer at the Himeyuri Museum.
A recent survey by The Okinawa Times found that only 60 percent of senior high school students in Okinawa realize it is the 60th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa.
To keep the memories of the battle alive Okinawa build a large monument in 1995. Long walls inscribed with the names of all the victims. Regardless of nationality and role. Soldiers and civilians. Men and women. Japanese, British, Taiwanese and Koreans. This year 720 new names were added, so that the total now comes to 239,801. More than four times as many as the impressive Vietnam Memorial in Washington, on which it is modeled.
It was the idea of former Okinawa Governor Masahide Ota, himself a survivor of the battle, to inscribe all the victims on the “Cornerstone of Peace”, and not only those of the Japanese.
In 2000 Ota shook the hand of Bill Clinton, the President of his former enemy. During his visit to the monument, the American President was clearly moved: "The Battle of Okinawa," he said, "was warfare at its most tragic. But this monument built in its memory is humanity at its most inspired; for here, no grief goes unrecognized. And while most monuments remember only those who have fallen from one side, this memorial recognizes those from all sides, and those who took no side."
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