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Fumiko Shimabukuro will never forget the kindness of Americans during the Battle of Okinawa.
In the spring of 1945, the 15-year old fled for days from cave-to-cave beneath bombardments so ferocious Okinawans compared them to storms of steel. Shimabukuro witnessed scenes no civilian should ever see: a baby being carried by its mother decapitated by shrapnel, ponds dyed red by the blood of corpses.
Eventually, in the south of the island, Shimabukuro found shelter in a small cave packed with twenty other civilians.
“American soldiers approached our hiding place and ordered us out. But we were all too afraid to move,” she said in a recent interview.
Years of Japanese propaganda had taught Okinawans that American troops would torture then kill their captives; moreover there was the fear they’d be executed by Japanese soldiers whose military code stated surrender was dishonorable.
Trapped between both sides, Shimabukuro and her fellow Okinawans remained in the cave. Even when the Americans fired a shot into their midst, nobody exited. Then the GI’s called in a flamethrower.
“Around twenty Okinawans went into that cave – but only seven of us came out. When I emerged, my kimono was burnt to my skin and I was half naked,” Shimabukuro recalls. “I thought the Americans were going to kill me.”
But they didn’t.
The Americans brought Shimabukuro clothes, food and they treated her wounds.
“Without the Americans’ kindness, I wouldn’t be here today. They helped me to recover and I was so grateful. At the time, all Okinawans felt the same.”
* * *
Launched on 1 April 1945, the U.S. assault on Okinawa’s main island was one of the largest operations ever undertaken by the U.S. military. Involving 1500 ships and more than half a million troops, it also dispatched an unprecedented humanitarian task force to deal with Okinawa’s population of 450,000 civilians. It readied 5000 support personnel including interpreters and doctors, distributed booklets explaining Okinawan culture and drilled U.S. troops in survival Japanese such as “Dete koi!” (Come out) which Shimabukuro remembers hearing the day that she was rescued.
Thanks to these preparations, within a month of landing, the U.S. military was caring for 128,000 Okinawan civilians. By the end of June, it had rescued another 80,000 – around half of whom were wounded but survived due to American medical treatment.
According to “Descent into Hell,” a civilian history of the Battle of Okinawa published by Ryukyu Shimpo last year, the U.S. military treated captured Japanese soldiers humanely, too. Initially it interred them in POW camps on Okinawa before shipping many to the U.S. where the prisoners gained weight and recall being treated more kindly than by their own officers.
This conduct stands in stark contrast to the behaviour of Imperial Army soldiers. Throughout World War II, the Japanese military subjected Allied POWs to slave labour, beatings, starvation and medical experiments – leading to a mortality rate which, according to Gavan Daws’s “Prisoners of the Japanese” (1994), approached 25%. One such atrocity occurred on April 15 1945 on Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island, when three captured U.S. Navy aviators were tortured – including one used for bayonet practice – before execution.
Japanese troops extended such barbarity to Okinawan civilians – and one survivor who knows this better perhaps than anyone is Masahide Ota. At the age of 19, he was conscripted into the Japanese Army’s Blood and Iron Student corps where he was handed a rifle, 120 bullets, a pair of grenades and ordered into combat. More than half of his schoolmates were killed – he describes their deaths as more like those of worms than humans – and he himself only survived by hiding for weeks on a rocky beach.
Ota’s wartime experiences instilled in him a profound hatred of war. Between 1990 and 1998, he served as governor of Okinawa during which he pursued pacifist policies. Today he continues to be an outspoken critic of the Japanese atrocities against Okinawan civilians which many mainland politicians would prefer to forget.
Drawing on data collated by the Okinawa School District, Ota shows that, during the Battle of Okinawa, Japanese troops executed more than 1000 Okinawans as “spies” – their only crime being attempts to surrender or speaking in Okinawan which, at the time, was banned by military authorities. Ota also cites a 1960 Ministry of Health and Welfare report which reveals that at least 10,000 Okinawan children died when Japanese troops forced them from their shelters.
Ota likens Okinawans’ experiences of the battle to being “attacked by tigers at the front gate and wolves at the back” – they were trapped by both the U.S. and Japanese military.
By the time America announced Okinawa secured on June 21, almost a quarter of a million people had died – including more than 140,000 Okinawa civilians.
Following the ceasefire, the American military maintained its humane treatment of survivors. It established schools, orphanages and clinics; in September 1945, it organized elections in which Okinawans – including, for the first time women – could vote for their councilors and mayors.
“Right after the war was over, the American military government provided us with food, clothing and medicine,” Ota explained in a recent interview. “Okinawan people were so thankful and friendly to the U.S. military.”
During World War II, Americans had gone into combat to fight the spread of fascism and bring democracy to the world – on Okinawa, at least, it seemed that the U.S. was living up to these ideals.
However by the end of the decade, America’s good war on Okinawa had turned very, very bad.
According to a November 1949 TIME magazine article titled “Okinawa: Forgotten Island”, between March and September 1949, U.S. service members had committed 29 murders, 18 rapes, 16 robberies and 33 assaults against the island’s 600,000 residents. The article described troops’ morale and discipline as worse than that of “any U.S. force in the world.”
Three years later, the plight of Okinawans grew even worse when the Treaty of San Francisco – which ended the U.S. occupation of mainland Japan – placed Okinawa under U.S. control. The island had become the victim of a new Washington mindset which replaced the fight against Nazism with the Red Scare. Mao Zedong had taken China in 1949 and then the Korean War had broken out in 1950. Situated in the East China sea, Okinawa was regarded by Washington and Tokyo as a bulwark against the expansion of communism – with this in mind the U.S. embarked upon its second Battle of Okinawa.
Known locally as the time of Bayonets and Bulldozers, in the early 1950s, U.S. troops drove Okinawan farmers from their land to make way for new or expanded military bases. One of the most infamous of these confiscations took place on Iejima Island in 1955 where American troops first tricked residents into signing voluntary evacuation papers before dragging those who refused from their homes, bulldozing their farms and slaughtering their livestock.
As a result of these land seizures, many Okinawans had few job opportunities other than to work on the new bases.
At this time, Okinawan military employees were subjected to a racist pay-scale which pegged their wages far below those of their American, Filipino and Japanese colleagues. Moreover, Okinawans were often assigned the most dangerous jobs including defusing unexploded ordnance and handling toxic chemicals without safety equipment.
During this period, Battle of Okinawa survivor, Shimabukuro, worked as a maid on the U.S. Marine base in Nago City called Camp Schwab. The base, like many others on Okinawa, was named after a U.S. service member who’d died in the Battle of Okinawa.
“The commander always told us how grateful we should be. He said it was only because America won the war that us Okinawans had clothes and homes. Without the U.S., we’d be living naked in chicken shacks (tori goya),” says Shimabukuro.
With little employment in the area, Shimabukuro endured working at Camp Schwab for ten years. She finally quit during the Vietnam War when the U.S. military’s usage of Okinawa bases in that conflict made her feel complicit in the deaths of Southeast Asian civilians.
At this time, for many Okinawans, the sight of U.S. bombers over the island’s skies brought back horrific memories of World War II; a feeling compacted by the violence of U.S. troops who extracted their own Vietnam War trauma by assaulting, raping and murdering Okinawan civilians. Between 1965 and 1975, for example, no fewer than 17 Okinawans were killed by American service members.
Former governor Ota agrees that the Vietnam War erased many Okinawans’ lingering sense of gratitude to the U.S. military.
Today, he argues the notion of an island under attack from both American tigers and Japanese wolves still holds true – and the proof is clearest in Henoko Bay, Nago City. In particular, the district’s sea maintains a special place in the hearts of World War II survivors who evacuated there and were saved from starvation by its fish and seaweed.
Now, Tokyo and Washington are working together to landfill Henoko Bay to construct a new U.S. base replete with twin 1800-metre runways and a deep-sea port. Again in the spring of 2015 Henoko Bay is packed with government ships reminding many elderly Okinawans of World War II; furthermore injuries to demonstrators in confrontations with the Japanese authorities outside Camp Schwab trigger painful recollections of Imperial Army brutality.
“When I see these preparations (for the new base), it gives me a horrible feeling that Okinawa will be dragged into war once again,” says Shimabukuro who was injured last year during a demonstration against the installation where she used to work. “If the base is built, Okinawans will be killed here all over again.”
Both the island’s governor, Takeshi Onaga, and local mayor, Susumu Inamine, are against the new base plan – and opinion polls put Okinawan opposition at 80%. However the Japanese government under PM Abe insists construction will proceed as planned.
Many Okinawans believe the current administration underestimates the significance of the Battle of Okinawa in islanders’ collective conscience. A case in point is last June’s commemoration ceremony of the end of the Battle of Okinawa where PM Abe’s speech contained large chunks of text apparently copy-pasted from his previous year’s address.
Such insincerity towards those who died in the Battle of Okinawa is also apparent on the U.S. side. As reported in The Asia-Pacific Journal, the U.S. military on Okinawa has developed close ties to Channel Sakura – a Japanese neo-nationalist TV network. Guests on the station often glorify the role of the Japanese military in World War Two including the denial of wartime atrocities such as those which were committed against Okinawan civilians and captured U.S. troops on Okinawa.
Among many Americans outraged by the current U.S. military’s links to Japanese neo-nationalists is Dennis Halpin, a former advisor to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and current visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University.
Halpin notes that Camp Schwab was named after Albert E. Schwab, killed during the Battle of Okinawa and posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor. “Those Americans who have chosen to associate themselves with Channel Sakura should reflect on whether they want to be connected with a news organization whose goal is to rewrite World War II history and, in so doing, diminish the sacrifice of Albert Schwab and others of the Greatest Generation,” Halpin says.
Halpin, whose cousin served as a marine in the Battle of Okinawa, urges current service members on Okinawa not to betray the memory of those who died fighting fascism on the island in World War II.
“Those living U.S. veterans of the Battle of Okinawa would expect those who have come after them to honor their legacy and sacrifices.”
Jon Mitchell is a Welsh journalist based in Japan. He is the author of Tsuiseki: Okinawa no Karehazai (Chasing Agent Orange on Okinawa) (Koubunken 2014) and a visiting researcher at the International Peace Research Institute of Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo. Mitchell is an Asia-Pacific Journal contributing editor.
This is a revised and expanded article which originally appeared in The Japan Times on March