Maybe because I grew-up on this tortured tropical island, the reminder today of the 70th 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.
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.
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 soldiers 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.