Monday, July 13, 2009

Typhoon Alley and the Typhoon of Steel

Okinawa Island is one of the most beautiful places on God's Green Earth. It was once known as the "Kingdom of the Ryukyus" and was forcefully annexed into Japan first by the Satsuma Clan from Kagoshima in 1609 and later became a Japanese prefecture during the Meiji Restoration and direct rule of the Imperial government in the late 1800's. Other than its location, the island has no natural resources to speak of. They are strategically located halfway between Kyushu and Taiwan and smack dab in the middle of Typhoon Alley. By its very location, Okinawa is instrumental to the stability of the region.

The Battle of Okinawa, known to locals as the "Typhoon of Steel" was the last great land battle of WWII and the largest in the Pacific theater. It claimed the lives of Japan's top military commanders (through suicide) and the top two American commanders as a result of enemy fire. The battle lasted nearly three months and claimed nearly a quarter million lives. The vast majority of these were the local civilian population. Roughly one in four civilians was killed and in some cases, whole family lines were wiped out.

These days, the island is still home to a large U.S. and Japanese military contingent though they are now allies. The island is slowly transitioning from a military based to a tourism based economy. It is home to some of the world's best diving and beautiful pristine beaches. It has a glorious past from its days as an independent kingdom and is the birthplace of Karate. The people here live to ripe old ages. Many stay active well into their 90's and it is home to the largest number of centenarians in the world. It also has the history it would like to forget, the typhoon of steel. Fortunately, as a result of tourism, tiny Okinawa is starting to blossom once again.

But as the great battle is such an important part of its history, the people have devoted themselves to make sure the horrors they suffered are never repeated again. Instead of hiding them, they've rebuilt or restored many of the more famous places associated with the great battle. For example, Mabuni Hill where the battle finally ended is renamed and dedicated as the Peace Prayer Memorial Park. Here visitors can walk amongst the many monuments and the "Cornerstones of Peace" on which are inscribed the names of all who perished here. Shuri Castle which was the Headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army's 32nd Division has been restored to its former glory. Monuments at places like Kakazu ridge, Hacksaw Ridge and Sugarloaf Hill are there to remind visitors of the horrors of war.

One of the few places that weren't totally destroyed as a result of the battle is the Imperial Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters just south of the Capital City of Naha. This bunker, hand carved out of a hillside, was so deep underground that even the most powerful of bombs couldn't penetrate it. It was from deep inside this location that Rear Admiral Ota directed his part of the islands defenses.

The complex is a maze of tunnels of which only a small part is accessible to the public. Above it stands a new visitors center and museum in which artifacts from the tunnels are on display along with photographs from the battle itself. From the museum, visitor's make their way down a steep stairwell that is as long as it is dark and foreboding.

Once down to the main level, there are several rooms which are preserved and each has an artwork drawing on display to show how they were used with explanations in multiple languages. In more than one room one can see where the walls are scarred with both bullet holes and grenade fragments when the occupants either met their end fighting or as a result of suicide.

As visitors roam the passageways, a recorded message is played in multiple languages that provides many important details about the complex. During the time we were down in the tunnels we heard the same recording repeated in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. Perhaps the most stirring part of the whole visit was a chance to read a translation of Admiral Ota's final Communique which is as follows:

"While the governor should be the one to relay this report on the present condition of the Okinawa Prefectural inhabitants, he has no available means of communication and the 32nd Division Headquarters appear to be thoroughly occupied with their own correspondences. However, due to the critical situation we are in, I feel compelled to make this report without the governor's consent.

Since the enemy attack began, our army and navy have been fighting defensive battles and have not been able to attend to the people of this prefecture. Consequently, due to our negligence, these innocent people have lost their homes and property to enemy assault. Every man has been conscripted to partake in the defense while women, children and elders have been forced into hiding in underground shelters that are not tactically important or are exposed to shelling, air raids and the harsh elements of nature.

Moreover, girls have devoted themselves to nursing and cooking for the soldiers and some have gone so far as to volunteer in carrying ammunition or join in attacking the enemy. This leaves the village people vulnerable to enemy attack where they will surely be killed. In desperation, some parents have asked the military to protect their daughters against rape by the enemy, prepared that they may never see them again.

Nurses with wounded soldiers wander aimlessly because the medical teams had moved and left them behind. The military has changed its operations ordering people to move to far residential areas; however, those without means of transportation trudge along by foot in the dark and rain, all while looking for food to stay alive.

Ever since our Army and Navy occupied Okinawa, the inhabitants of this island have been forced into military service and hard labor while sacrificing everything they own as well as the lives of their loved ones. They have served with loyalty.

Now we are nearing the end of this battle but they will go unrecognized and unrewarded. Seeing this, I feel deeply depressed and lament a loss of words for them. Every tree and every plant life is gone, even the weeds are burnt. By the end of June, there will be no food. This is how the Okinawan people have fought the war. And for this reason, I ask that the Okinawan people be given special consideration from this day forward."

After the battle, Okinawa was to be the springboard from which the Allies would invade Japan with a force of over one million men during the invasion alone. Seeing the ferociousness of this battle as well as the tenaciousness of the Japanese defense of Iwo Jima, President Truman authorized the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It wasn't until these extreme acts of horror occurred that cooler heads finally prevailed and the people of Japan were spared what the people of Okinawa suffered.

Okinawa was ceded to the U.S. as part of the peace treaty and from the end of WWII till its reversion to Japan in 1972 was the springboard for military action in Korea and Viet Nam. This tiny island is now home to 75% of the U.S. bases in Japan as well as many Japanese Self Defense Forces (JSDF) bases. With the political stability of the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan straits still in doubt, it's unlikely that the people of Okinawa will see their dream fulfilled anytime soon. That is a world free of the fear of war.


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1 comment:

  1. I spent 13 interesting months on Okinawa in 1956-57 as a member of the 3rd Marine Division seconded to the Far East Network Okinawa; I was the all-night disc jockey.
    Okinawa is a great place for a "get-away-from-it-all vacation."