By Betty Gordon
© 2018 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the seventh in a series about my March 2018 trip to Okinawa and Tokyo, Japan, and Guam. See my April 1 discussion of Navy man George Tweed’s eluding capture by Japanese soldiers for more than two years on Guam in World War II; April 8 about Okinawan food specialties, and visits to a market and area known for its pottery; April 15 about the sinking of Japan’s Tsushima Mara and the deaths hundreds of schoolchildren during WWII; April 29 about photographing newlyweds after their Shinto ceremony; May 14 about the WWII destruction of Shurijo Castle; and May 21 about making soba noodles from scratch at cooking class in Naha.
On the southern tip of the island of Okinawa, formidable jagged cliffs rise several hundred feet, picturesque and imposing in equal measure.
Nearby, pine tree branches reach up and outward forming living sculptures, and scrub sprouts from cracks in the rocks, once again providing cover for wildlife.
Endlessly, the tide breaks toward the shore and recedes, revealing a swath of deserted beach. A few small boats bob in the distance as fisherman throw their nets, anticipating the day’s catch. Birds ride the currents, soaring and swooping as they look for their next meal.
The peace and quiet that pervade the landscape adjacent to this scene today belies what happened here, as the Japanese military, its back literally against the Pacific Ocean, played out the dwindling days of its last major stand of World War II.
The former battlefield is now a somber memorial, sprawling over more than 116 acres. The exquisitely manicured terrain includes the Cornerstone of Peace, comprised of folding-screen-like columns of black granite arranged in semicircle rows that list every name of every person (in their native language), military and civilian, foreign and domestic, totaling about 250,000, believed to have died on Okinawa.
The 118 “waves” of the Cornerstone of Peace were unveiled in the summer of 1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 82-day battle.
Two information kiosks nearby aid visitors intent on locating specific names, which are arranged by Okinawa prefecture (largest section), other Japanese prefectures and foreign countries (smallest section).
The rows’ southern end borders Peace Plaza, overlooking the sea, at the center of which is the Flame of Peace, a pointed cone surrounded by a flat black and light blue stone disk. Three flames meld here, brought from Aka Island, west of Okinawa, the first place that American forces landed in the Kerama island chain, and one each from the atomic-bomb devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I spent the better part of a warm rainy Friday at Peace Memorial Park, walking slowly along the stone paths between Japanese prefectural monuments constructed in myriad shapes and sizes and from a variety of materials, and visiting the concise exhibits at the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum.
I saw few other visitors, leaving me alone with my thoughts to contemplate what had happened here and on Okinawa in general.
My uncle, my father’s twin brother, fought on Okinawa, with C Company, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division (part of the greater 10th Army). Though I asked him many times, he never, ever related to me his experience here, or at Leyte in the Philippines, where he earned a Bronze Star.
When the Japanese staged a strategic retreat from the Shuri Line in late May 1945, they had only one direction they could to go: south.
The Allies controlled everything north of the Shuri Line, about two thirds of 60-mile-long Okinawa, which the Allies invaded on April 1 after a week of offshore bombardment from a fearsome U.S. Navy armada, the size of which — more than 1,450 vessels — dwarfed every other Pacific campaign.
With the fall of Naha, the prefecture capital, and Shurijo Castle itself — headquarters of the Japanese 32nd Army — the Axis power regrouped in another series of caves and underground tunnels around an agricultural village known as Mabuni.
The tunnels and caves were not as well-fortified, -provisioned or -equipped as those around Shurijo Castle, the preparation of which had taken almost a year.
Shortages of food, armaments and ammunition were increasingly severe, and every inch of space was crammed with filthy bodies, giving rise to the spread of disease.
What the Japanese soldiers found most intolerable was the lack of fresh water. And the vaunted Japanese morale was sinking fast, too.
Snipers were still picking off Allied soldiers, but the Japanese, confronted by superior manpower and firepower, very soon had a decision to make: Surrender — anathema to their military code — or suicide.
When the Battle of Okinawa was finally over on June 22, more than 100,000 Japanese troops were dead, including General Mitsuru Ushijima, commander of the 32nd Army. (There is some controversy as to whether he committed seppuku — ritual suicide — or died from gunshots to the head. “Eyewitness” testimony attesting to the former turned out to be unreliable, but a bullet to the temple would have been against Ushijima’s samurai-like code). A sign points to his headquarters but the cave entrance is gated and not open to the public.
About 11,000 Japanese did, in fact, surrender.
The Allies lost about 12,000 men, with 36,000 wounded and more than 26,000 other casualties, including battle fatigue. Among the dead were General Simon Bolivar Buckner, commander of the 10th Army, killed on June 18 by flying pieces of exploding rock and metal caused by an artillery shell.
However, it was the beleaguered, starving civilians, many hiding in caves, who paid the highest price. Estimates put their dead at 100,000 to 150,000. No definitive number can ever be determined because nearly all village records were destroyed as a byproduct of the fighting. Some were killed by Japanese soldiers, even those conscripts who had fought alongside Imperial forces.
In addition, the landscape was in ruins on an island whose beauty had often been compared to Hawaii and other pacific spots: unspoiled beaches, an abundance of tropical fruit and flowers and a friendly population.
Compounding the problems, Japanese propaganda spread the falsehood that American soldiers would rape and kill Okinawan women. Many threw themselves off 200-foot-high cliffs, some holding their infants and children, believing this drastic action was their only option.
In the museum’s Room of War Testimony, visitors can read transcripts or watch video about how Okinawan civilians tried to survive. Some tell of the brutality inflicted by Japanese forces, who occupied the island in early 1944. The military took their food stores, killed indiscriminately and gave orders to many islanders to commit suicide.
Another section re-creates a dimly lighted cave where civilians huddled, sharing the few provisions they had, often guarded by a Japanese soldier. Nearby are examples of tattered clothing and implements such as a ceramic canteen, illustrations of their meager supplies.
Also of interest is the post-war Keystone of the Pacific exhibit. The reconstruction frenzy under way in Tokyo, which had been extensively bombed with conventional weapons, did not extend to the same degree in Okinawa.
American occupation forces turned their attention to Cold War defenses — and later the Vietnam War — more interested in strengthening military bases than helping the Okinawan people, who were struggling to rebuild and get their lives back on track.
Understandably over the decades, the Okinawans’ increasing desire for American troops to leave and the island to be returned to Japanese sovereignty served only to heighten tensions. Demonstrations and political pressure finally paid off in 1972 eliminating U.S. control, but about 28,000 American military remain on the island today.
Also on the park’s grounds is Okinawa Peace Hall, known for its seated Buddha-like figure made from 3.5 tons of Chinese lacquer, a tree sap widely used in Asian arts and crafts. It took artist Shinzan Yamada, who lost two sons in the the Battle of Okinawa, 18 years to complete the nearly 40-foot-tall praying statue. Also inside the building are books with the names of everyone listed on the Cornerstone of Peace.
Two recreation fields, a picnic area and a playground are on the northern edge of the property, particularly popular on holidays and special occasions.
It’s highly likely that the Okinawan families and others who come for a relaxing outing also at some point visit the Cornerstone of Peace to pay tribute to the memory of their loved ones, lost in the waning days of World War II.
Getting to Peace Memorial Park by bus
Naha, my base for six days in Okinawa, is less than 15 miles from Mabuni, reachable by car in about 30 minutes. My preference is to take public transportation — always an adventure — so my travel time was considerably longer.
My first task in Naha was to find where to wait for bus number 89. Construction was ongoing on a new modern terminal — the whole structure was covered by scaffolding and tarps — so much of the “normal” operation was literally being run from street level.
There was a lot of signage, and I luckily picked the right side of the street on which to wait. I had expected to pay the driver when I got boarded — the brochure I had indicated the fare — but I quickly found out the correct procedure: Take a slip of paper showing the zone number where you got on, and watch the overhead monitors on the lefthand side by the front window to learn the destination price. (A machine gives change, but try not to have too large a yen bill to pay.)
Bus 89 is a local and leaves three times an hour for Itoman City. It wends its way through Naha making frequent stops, so the leg to Itoman City took about 45 minutes and cost 580 yen (about $5.25). No matter; I got a look at a part of the city I hadn’t seen.
The “terminal” in Itoman City was a nondescript one-story building with absolutely nothing to indicate this is where buses arrive and depart from.
Inside, two men sat at desks piled high with stacks of papers. Hmmm. Where was I supposed to wait for the hourly bus number 82? Pointing at my destination’s brochure, they understood my pantomimed question.
Outside, they pointed to the opposite side of the building. Two shaky wooden benches with flaking blue paint backed up to an exterior wall also in need of maintenance. Fortunately, the “waiting room” had a roof because it was raining harder than it had been while I was on the bus. Not surprisingly, several vending machines were nearby, because, well, wherever you are in Japan, you’re never very far from a vending machine.
The second bus cost 470 yen ($4.25) and took about 40 minutes, and dropped me on the outskirts of Peace Memorial Park.
And yes, I did the trip in reverse to get back to Naha.
Quick reference: There is no charge to tour the grounds, Cornerstone of Peace and the monuments of Peace Memorial Park. For Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Closed December 29-January 3. Admission: Adults, 300 yen (about $2.71); children, 150 yen (about $1.36). Audio guide is included. No photographs are allowed inside the museum. Okinawa Peace Hall: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Adults, 450 yen (about $4.07); junior and high school students, 350 yen (about $3.16); elementary school and under, free. 614-1 Mabuni, Itoman City, Okinawa. http://www.peace-museum.pref.okinawa.jp