Today is heavy, hot, and humid. The sun beats down on us, the mercury easily above 90. But still we trudge on, phone in hand – our handy GPS (pun intended), winding our way up and down the mountainous terrain. For some reason Google maps chose a circuitous route through back alleys and narrow streets.
My shirt is glued to my back. I feel claustrophobic. Alex is behind me, sweating profusely as the heavy Canon camera weighs around his neck.
“How much longer?” he complains.
“We are almost there,” I lie.
“Are you sure it’s only a couple miles?” he persists.
“That’s what the directions say.” I look away, trying to evade his glare. Clearly, I have underestimated the difficulty of this journey. It looked so easy on the map.
“Hmmm,” he grunts.
Sticky with perspiration and more than slightly out of breath, we finally arrive. Destination: The Former Imperial Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. After a few moments of heavy breathing, we look around and admire the view, bright green vegetation and crisp blue oceans as far as the eye can see. The entire southern portion of the island is visible from here. Easily defended; a well-chosen spot.
We walk into the front lobby, eagerly awaiting the cool relief of AC. We are disappointed. Somehow it’s hotter inside; the slight breeze has disappeared.
We look around the sparse glass enclosure. There is nothing here with the exception of a bulletin board against the back wall, covered in paper crane streamers. The rainbow of colors is eye-catching, especially against the monochromatic space. I walk over and gently touch the delicate origami. Only then do I notice the small sign at the base of the board: “From the hands of Okinawan children in hopes of peace.”
Alex takes my hand and squeezes it gently. He, more than I, knows what to expect as we descend the stairs. He, more than I, knows the story. The story of how the Okinawan people fought the war.
Together we begin our journey through the crudely built underground tunnels. Every step forward takes us further back in time. Back to 1945.
It is cramped and damp. My shoes squeak with every step on the stone floor. The tunnels, which withstood nearly 10 days of close combat, are smaller than I imagined. Comprised of a few individual rooms and a dozen long hallways, it seems almost crowded as we explore the facilities, accompanied by thirty or so other tourists.
It’s hard to believe that more than 2,400 bodies were recovered from these cramped quarters. 2,400 men, military and civilians alike, fighting until the bitter end with little more than sharpened sticks as weapons. There was nothing left to wield.
Okinawa may be a tropical paradise today, covered in lush greenery and underdressed tourists. But its sacrifices are immeasurable. The numbers speak for themselves:
Total deaths in the Battle of Okinawa: 200,656
Number of Civilian Deaths: 150,000 or more, twice those of the US and Japanese military combined.
Furthermore, 90% of Okinawa’s cultural assets were destroyed, including its abundant flora and fauna. The island, previously littered with ancient castles and medieval fortresses, now boasts crumbling foundations, decimated by over 3 million explosive devices. You can still find bullet holes in the rubble. In fact, you cannot walk a block in this city without witnessing physical evidence of a war that ended more than 70 years before.
This place paid the ultimate price. When military manpower came up short, thousands upon thousands of civilians joined the effort. And when that wasn’t enough, young teens – boys and girls – were conscripted. Men, women, and children. No one escaped unscathed.
Till the bitter end, the Construction Corp continued to dig. Day and night, with no rest, they fought to meet the military’s needs with no true equipment. They made these tunnels with all they had, hand shovels and pickaxes.
When the battle neared its bitter end, Rear Admiral Ota and his staff officers committed suicide within these very walls. June 13, 1945. With its leadership gone, the men and women of Okinawa continued to fight on for two more days until there was no one left to fight.
Labeled the “Typhoon of Steel,” the last battle permanently altered the landscape of this small island, leaving tens of thousands of bodies unburied. The 80,000 survivors, mostly injured women and children, were left to pick up the pieces. Though I cannot imagine any of them ever truly healed after living through literal Hell. One can only hope they clung to their local saying: “Nothing is more precious than life.” Because for those who survived, this was the only treasure they had left in the world.
Just before his death, RADM Ota wrote a final farewell telegram in which he conveyed the situation in Okinawa and, more importantly, spoke against the injustices suffered by the Okinawan people, urging the Japanese government to recognize their sacrifices.
“Do without until we win” – the Japanese motto of World War II. But the Admiral felt the Okinawans paid too heavy a price. “Everything,” he wrote, “is burnt to the ground.” The military abandoned the people of Okinawa and now “they will surely be killed.” For this failure, he took his own life.
Our time in the tunnels was short. It doesn’t take more than five minutes to walk every space. Five minutes to see the hospital, little more than a 10’ by 3’ room. Five minutes to tour the cramped quarters where more than a thousand men stood, packed like sardines, resting before the next tragic fight, not a bed to be found. Five minutes to notice the countless bullet holes splattered like a Pollock painting against the whitewashed cave. Five minutes to find the room where the Admiral and his staff committed suicide, the impact of the grenades still scaring the walls.
We emerged from the dank, dark space greeted by the brilliant afternoon sun. We struggled to see as our eyes adjusted to the light. And our bodies became heavy once more in the oppressive heat.
Walking in silence, we began the four-mile journey back to the hotel. But all I could think of were the young men and women, civilians who fought with no training and no weapons, who had emerged from those very same tunnels, dressed in tatters, fighting for their lives. Hungry and dehydrated, they defended their homeland until the very end, watching their friends and family fall around them.
And as we wound our way down one mountain and then up the next our sweat still fell, but I didn’t mind it. It reminded me that I’m alive. Alex grabbed my hand, and I looked down, watching as our fingers intertwined, acutely aware of how lucky I am, for “nothing is more precious than life.”
As a small note to end this piece, I encourage everyone to be responsible tourists. Honor the places you go, the peoples you visit, not simply with tourist dollars spent in restaurants and pineapple plantation tours (which we did, and greatly enjoyed), but with knowledge. There are few places in this world untouched by tragedy. And while it might not be as fun as an afternoon at the beach, it is certainly more profound. So be responsible tourists. Do the legwork. Hike up the hill (or taxi if you’d prefer) and conquer the more unpleasant aspects of history, out of respect for those who paid the ultimate price.
This is How the Okinawan People Have Fought the War
Final telegram of Rear Admiral Ota
Please convey the following telegram to the vice admiral. The prefectural governor should be the person to relay this report on the present condition of the war on Okinawa, but the 32nd Division Headquarters appear to be thoroughly occupied with their own correspondence traffic. I feel compelled to file this urgent report though it is without consent of the prefectural governor.
Since the enemy attacks 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 conscribed to defend while women, children, and the elderly are forced into hiding in the small underground shelters that are not tactically significant and are exposed to shelling, air raids, and __ __ __ wind and rain. Moreover, girls have devoted themselves to nursing and cooking as well as volunteering to carry ammunition and 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, for fear that when the enemy comes, the elderly and children will be killed and young women and girls will be taken to private areas and harmed.
After military medical personnel had moved on, the volunteer nurses stayed behind to help the badly wounded move. They are dedicated and go about their work with a strong will.
The military has changed its operations, forcing people to evacuate residential areas. Those without transportation trudged on in the dark and rain, without complaining, all the while searching for food. Every since our Army and Navy have occupied Okinawa, the inhabitants of this prefecture have endured these constant hardships.
The Okinawan people have been asked to volunteer their labor and conserve all their resources (mostly without complaint). In their heart they wish only to serve as loyal Japanese. Finally, __ __ __. This battle is nearing its end, the situation of the island of Okinawa __ __ __. There are no trees, no grass; everything is burnt to the ground. The food supply will be gone by the end of June. This is how the Okinawan people have fought the war.
And for this reason, I appeal to you to give the Okinawan people special consideration from this day forward.
Note: This is the original document though some parts of it are illegible.