Nambu World: Teri  Visits the WWII Battlefields and Caves of Okinawa

 Introduction

            I visited Okinawa February 19-22, 2006. I got an air-plus-hotel package that was very economical: return airfare from Tokyo to Naha on ANA plus three nights in a nice hotel (the Okinawa Rainbow Hotel) for 56,300 yen, less than US$500 at the time. Okinawa today is sort of the Florida of Japan: a place where Japanese go for cheap “fun-in-the-sun” package holidays. The flight from Tokyo takes about two and a half hours. A monorail brings you from the airport into the city of Naha. The main shopping street, Kokusai-dori (“international street”) is a typically tacky touristy place, shown here at night.

 

            Two things that are everywhere on Okinawa are shisa guardian figures (usually in pairs—the female has its mouth open) and Orion beer, a local brew. Other ubiquitous  local specialties include awamori (powerful clear liquor), Blue Seal ice cream (a leftover from Occupation days, I’m told), Okinawa soba (noodles with fatty pork), soki soba (noodles with spareribs), goya champuru (stir fry with bitter melon, usually made with Spam, another Occupation leftover), chinsuko (finger cookies), and little deep fried donut balls (I’ve forgotten the same). The sweets are often flavoured with kokuto, Okinawan black sugar, which has a molassses-like taste and is reputed to have health benefits.

 

Several covered shopping arcades lead south from Kokusai-dori and offer even more of the local souvenirs and specialties, including local fruit and sugar cane.

 

            I had taken an early flight out of Tokyo so I was in Okinawa by noon on Sunday, February 19. It was drizzling lightly. It was too early to check into the hotel, so I dropped my stuff in a coin locker downtown and got back on the monorail headed for Shuri Castle, Naha’s main tourist destination. Along the way you can see some of the traditional Okinawan tombs. Unlike the Japanese, who cremate their dead, the Okinawans built these horseshoe-shaped family mausoleums into the sides of hills. The bodies would be left inside, and after a suitable period of time, when there was nothing left but the bones, the tomb would be opened and the bones placed in an ornate funerary urn. These tombs had to be big enough to accommodate a lot of urns, so the Japanese Army decided they would make ideal, ready-made emplacements for machine guns and small field pieces. The result was that a lot of the tombs were severely damaged or destroyed by attacks by US bombs, shells and flame-throwers. Some Okinawan families took refuge in these family tombs as they could also serve as ready-made bomb shelters.

 

            The drizzle turned into a downpour, so I didn’t spend long at the castle the first day. I went back on my last day, when it was dry, and took this picture. The castle was the home of the Okinawan kings. Okinawa had a rather ambigious status and paid tribute to both China and Japan. Its culture reflects both these influences. In the 1890s Japan made it a Japanese prefecture, cut the ties to China and deposed the king. The castle was a Japanese headquarters in the war and was totally destroyed. After the war it was reconstructed.

 

There were performances of traditional music and dance being staged on the grounds.

 

Just down the road from the castle are the royal tombs. The actual chambers were closed when I was there due to the threat of rain.

 

Nearby I took this shot of an orchid.

 

Now the Military Stuff…

            My main reason for going to Okinawa, however, was not the usual tourist sites and beaches: I wanted to see sites related to the Battle of Okinawa. I was able to find a knowledgeable guide in the person of Mr. Chris Majewski, a former Marine who now does tours of the caves and battlefields for the Marine Corps Community Services travel agency. Since I have no connection to the US military, I could not go on one of their tours, but I was able to engage Mr. Majewski’s services on his days off for a two-day private tour. If you are interested in delving into the military history of Okinawa in any depth, a private tour like this is really a necessity anyway, as the ordinary tours by the Japanese travel companies seldom visit more than one or two of the WWII-related sites. The sites are also widely dispersed and have to be reached by car. Mr. Majewski is very knowledgeable about both the events of those fateful months and the sites where they occurred, many of which have now changed almost beyond recognition. Fortunately, many of the caves are still more or less as they were during the war. We spent Monday and Tuesday touring, then I did a little exploring on my own on the Wednesday before catching my 8PM flight back to Tokyo. Our itinerary included Kakazu Ridge, Hacksaw Ridge, the Battle of Okinawa Historical Society Museum and Sugar Loaf Hill on the first day. On the second day we visited the Buckner Memorial, Cape Kian, Himeyuri, Memorial of the Souls, the Prefectural Peace Museum and adjoining sights on Mabuni Hill, the headquarters cave of the 44th Independent Mixed Brigade, and the Underground Naval Headquarters on the Oroku Peninsula. If you are interested in contacting Mr. Majewski regarding a tour, please let me know and I will provide his contact information. He can tailor private tours to your particular interests. My instructions to him were just, “please show me the best stuff to see in two days”, but you could be much more specific. 

 

Orientation Maps

            Here are two maps. I traced these and then hand-labelled them, so they are not that pretty, but they should help to keep track of where the paces are that I am describing. This first one shows the whole island of Okinawa in 1945.

 

Here’s a map of the southern part of the island showing places I visited.

 

Landing Beach Area

            I visited this area on my last day on my own after taking a local bus to Kadena, but I am putting it first here since it was the beginning of the land battle. I got off the bus just north of the Bishi River, then followed it to its mouth on the west coast of the island. Most of the coast has probably changed beyond recognition due to the Japanese habit of covering everything in concrete. There are huge breakwaters on most of this area, and the bit just south of the river’s mouth looks like it has also moved outwards due to land reclamation. The Bishi River was the dividing line between the landing zones of the Marines (north) and the Army (south). The spot where this photo was taken was from the south of the mouth of the river, looking north. The spot would have been designated Purple I at the time of the landing. The landing met light to no resistance, then most of the US forces swung south, which is where the bulk of the Japanese forces were dug into caves and tunnels that had been prepared for a war of attrition.

 

Towards the sea the banks of the Bishi River become rather rugged, with lots of natural caves.

 

Kakazu Ridge

            Kakazu Ridge was the first stop on my tour with Mr. Majewski. This ridge is a few kilometres north-east of Naha, and a few kilometres south of the landing beaches. It has a bluish-coloured tower on it, from which the landing beaches can just be seen in the distance. In this photo they are on the far side of the water at the far left of the land that juts out towards the left.

 

            The highlight of this stop for me was the chance to examine a Japanese pillbox/machine gun emplacement. Here it is from the front.

 

            This is the back. The entrance is the small square hole at the bottom. Originally it would have been a bit more accessible, but the dirt has washed down into the entrance way over the years.

 

            Of course I couldn’t resist the chance to go inside. Here I am looking out one of the firing ports. My hair is a mess, but I had to crawl through a muddy hole to get in, so I don’t look that bad considering (fortunately you can’t see my muddy jeans).

 

This is the right firing port viewed from the inside (the left one when viewed from the front).

 

            Here is the left firing port (the right one when viewed from the front). The little notches below the port were for the legs of the machine gun stand, I think. The whole thing was maybe about eight feet by eight feet inside, if I remember correctly.

 

Hacksaw Ridge

            This is just southwest of Kakazu Ridge. This photo was taken looking north. Kakazu Ridge is the green hill in the centre of the photo. If you run your eye upwards from the red roofs in the lower right quadrant you can just barely make out the bluish tower I referred to above. It is a low tower and looks like a tiny little bluish oval here.

 

            On Kakazu Ridge we entered a couple of caves used by the Japanese in the war. Here is the very inconspicuous entrance of the first of these, just behind/to the right of the bundle of vines.

 

            Here is Mr. Majewski leading the way. Many of the caves started out as natural caves and then were enlarged by the Japanese. The work was done using just hand tools, largely by conscripted Okinawan and Korean labour. During the war the caves usually had wooden bracing. The rubble on the floor is from bits of the roof and walls that have collapsed over the years. The rock is quite soft, a kind of porous limestone.

 

            Since the footing is treacherous, one is tempted to brace oneself by putting one’s hands against the wall, but you have to be careful. There are lots of these huge centipedes in the caves. They can be up to six inches long and inflict a very nasty, though usually not fatal, sting.

 

            This is the rear entrance of the cave, which goes right through the ridge. Besides offering protection from bombardment, the caves allowed the Japanese to move back and forth between the front and rear slopes of Okinawa’s many hills undetected. If any Americans made it over a ridge, they could be attacked from the rear.

 

Battle of Okinawa Historical Society Museum

            Although not run by the US military, this museum is located on an active US Marine base, Camp Kinser, so you can’t just drop in, you have to go as part of a tour. Unless you are part of the US military and qualify for the services of the Marine Corps Community Services Tours Plus agency, that means booking a private tour with the curator, Mr. Chris Majewski, who was my tour guide. This was my first time on an active US military base, so I was both interested and a little nervous. It certainly seemed odd eating pizza at an American-style food court and paying in US dollars. The museum itself has both artifacts recovered on Okinawa and many donated by veterans who served there, so it shows more American materials from the Pacific War than Japanese museums. Of particular interest to me was the Type 14 pistol on display, which obviously spent a long time rusting somewhere underground or in the sea. Although now inoperable due to this rust, some of the markings are visible and it appears to be a  Showa19.4 Toriimatsu Second Series variation. Here is a photo of me in front of one of the displays in the museum. The painting shows a US machine gunner who was cut off from his unit and spent a couple of tense days holding off the Japanese on his own until US forces could withdraw him. Before leaving he destroyed his weapon so the Japanese could not use it. Decades later construction work uncovered the gun, which was identifiable because it had been spiked just as he described. The weapon is in the case behind me.

 

Sugar Loaf Hill

            Further to the south-west is Sugar Loaf Hill. Today a large part of it (the left side in the photo) has been removed to make room for a shopping centre with a Duty Free Store and there is a water reservoir on top of what is left.

 

            Here is the view from the top. The shopping centre is on the left. The Americans took thousands of casualties to get to the spot where this photo was taken. Nowadays there is a staircase, so it is a lot easier.

 

This small plaque is all there is to remind one of the fierce battle that was fought there.

 

Lt. General Buckner Memorial

            On the second day our first stop was the memorial to Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. He was the highest ranking US officer killed in combat and was commanding the US ground forces until his death.

 

            The memorial is located where he was killed while observing in action a unit that he planned on using later in the final assault on the Japanese main islands. The actual spot where he was standing is in the right of the photo, just down from the raised area.

 

The plaque is up on the raised area, a few feet from where he was standing.

 

            This is the actual spot where he was standing. A Japanese artillery shell hit the large rock in the left of the photo and a fragment fatally wounded the general.

 

            Just before you mount the stairs to the raised area of the Buckner Memorial there are two other memorials to fallen American officers. The memorials to Colonel Edwin May (left) and Brigadier General Claudius M. Easley were originally located at the spots where they were killed, but when Okinawa reverted to Japan in 1972, they had to be re-located because the US did not own the land where they were. The US does own the land where the Buckner memorial is, so that’s where they got moved to. That’s Mr. Majewski in the right foreground.

 

Cape Kian

            Our next stop was the southernmost tip of the island, Cape Kian. Once the US forces got this far, there was nothing more to capture. The scenery from here is spectacularly rugged.

 

Himeyuri Heiwa Kinen Shiryokan

            Himeyuri, literally “lily of the valley”, is the term applied to the young Okinawan girls who served as nurses for the Japanese forces. They were from elite girls’ schools and had to perform their duties in cave hospitals under horrifying conditions, doing things like sneaking out in the dark to dispose of amputated body parts during lulls in the bombing. Later when the Japanese retreated they were simply abandoned to look out for themselves, some of them taking grenades along so they could commit suicide (due to Japanese propoganda they feared rape and torture if captured by the Americans).      The museum often has one of the survivors present to discuss her experiences. Besides artifacts and a reproduction of a cave there is a hall with photos of most of the girls. The full name of the place means “Himeyuri Peace Commemoration Museum”.

 

            The museum is located by one of the caves where they served, but it is not open to the public. The cave mouth, located just behind the barrier in this photo, is the site of various memorials.

 

 

Memorial of the Souls

            On the coast south of Himeyuri is the Heiwa sozo no mori koen, “Peace establishment forest park”. Near the entrance is a memorial mound to thousands of unknown souls whose bodies were disposed of hastily by local authorities to prevent disease as soon as the fighting ended. The monument itself is called Konpaku no to, “Memorial of the souls (spirits)”.

 

The coastline here is also quite scenic.

 

Prefectural Peace Museum (Okinawa-ken Heiwa Kinen Shiryokan)/Mabuni Hill Sights

            This is a rather large museum in Mabuni that does not mince words about the poor treatment of the Okinawans at the hands of their Japanese “defenders”, although there is also a noticeable anti-American slant to some of the exhibits, particularly those regarding the post-war Occupation. Unfortunately a large display of weapons and other artifacts is just thrown in a big pile to slowly rust away.

            Outside the museum is a large area of monuments to the dead, with special sections for the dead of various prefectures, military units, etc. This is the memorial to the dead of the Japanese 62nd Division.

 

This one commemorates the dead from Fukuoka Prefecture, on the northern part of Kyushu, the most southerly of the four main islands of Japan.

 

            Walking a little further takes one to Mabuni Hill, the site of the last of the headquarters the Japanese established as they gradually retreated south. Here is the view.

 

            This memorial commemorates to place where Lt. General Mitsuru Ushijima and Major General Isamu Cho, the two top Japanese commanders, took their lives in June, 1945 when it became obvious all was lost and the end was only hours or days away.

 

This gap leads down to the entrance to the Mabuni headquarters cave.

 

This is another of the entrances to the headquarters complex. It is blocked with a grill, but I stuck my camera through for this shot.

 

            This is believed to be the actual spot where the Japanese commanders committed suicide, although there is some doubt since the bodies had been moved when they were found. We had to clamber over some barriers and go near the cliff’s edge to get here.

 

On the path down the hill there are monuments to various groups. This one commemorates the “Blood and Iron for the Emperor” youth group (Tekkestsu kinotai).

 

            The infamous “spring of death” referred to in the book “The Battle for Okinawa” by Colonel Hiromichi Yahara, the third in command, who survided the war. It was nicknamed this because the Americans had set their artillery pieces on it and shelled it frequently. The Japanese had to choose between dying of thirst for sure or running a high risk of dying to fetch water. Recently the huge piece of rock you see just inside the rope barrier fell off the overhanging cliff, adding a more modern motivation for the moniker.

 

44th Independent Mixed Brigade Headquarters Cave

            The headquarters cave of the 44th Independent Mixed Brigade is near the coast north-east of the Prefectural Museum, about half-way to the Chinen Peninsula. Here is the entrance we used; there are others.

 

            Inside this entrance was a huge chamber with the remains of a room on the right. I had to lighten this photo quite a bit to make things visible. It’s dark in these caves! That’s Mr. Majewski in the white shirt with the flashlight.

 

Here is one of the passages. I think Mr. Majewski is about 5’7” tall, which gives you an idea of the height of the passage.

 

Here is a room in the cave, probably for an officer.

 

Just outside is a machine gun emplacement.

 

Underground Naval Headquarters

            This museum is located in the Oroku Peninsula on the west side of the island. Oroku was where the bulk of the Naval Forces were stationed. A portion of the headquarters cave-and-tunnel complex has been restored and is open to the public. It is, of course, much larger than the makeshift caves which the bulk of the Japanese defenders used as shelters and gun emplacements.  Here are a couple of weapons in the display room before you enter the caves. I was struck by the contrast between a modern automatic weapon and the spear made of a bayonet fixed to a stick. I had read of the latter being used in desperate charges by unarmed support troops and those who had lost their weapons, but this was the first time I had seen how the bayonets were affixed.

 

Here is the layout of the headquarters complex.

 

            This was the operations room. The marks on the walls are labelled as having been caused by grenade fragments when the occupants committed suicide, however Mr. Majewski sees some discrepancies in this account, such as the lack of fragments in the ceiling, among other things.

 

This is one of the passages in the complex.

 

The commanding officer’s room.

 

            Two days turned out to be a very short time to revisit the history of those fateful months, but it was my first time to see one of the actual combat zones of the Pacific Theatre, so it was very memorable for me. I hope this short account has brought back memories to those who have been there before, and stimulated the interest of those who have not yet visited.

 

Last modified: March 29, 2006.

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