CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Kiyola Ohara left the shade of her mother’s umbrella and slowly knelt on the crisp green grass before the sea of black granite.
The 8-year-old from Urasoe clasped her hands and prayed silently while her mother, Naomi, sat close by. When she was finished, she gingerly adjusted the American flag in front of the panel bearing Sgt. Elbert Luther Kinser’s name.
Kiyola was one of a small group of people in Itoman on Monday to pay respects to the 12,520 American servicemembers who lost their lives in the bloody Battle of Okinawa, which began April 1, 1945 and lasted for 82 days. The heavy U.S. casualties in the battle, the deadliest of the Pacific War, strongly influenced President Harry S. Truman’s decision to use atomic weapons against the Japanese mainland six weeks later.
Every June 23, thousands of residents — along with visitors and dignitaries — converge on the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the Japanese dead from the battle in a ceremony called Irei no Hi. Approximately 110,000 Japanese troops and 140,000 Okinawan civilians died during the battle, although, the total number of civilian deaths may never truly be known.
It has been years since any American survivors have attended, veterans groups said, so it is up to today’s veterans, servicemembers and Okinawans like Kiyola to keep the tradition going. For the past two years, Kiyola and her mother have paid their respects for Kinser, after meeting relatives of the American Marine by chance in 2012 while on a trip to Florida.
Kinser was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for jumping on a grenade during the battle to save his men. A Marine base on Okinawa bears his name.
Naomi Ohara’s grandfather also perished in the battle. Her father, then 7 years old, barely escaped with his life.
“I was always curious about [the American] part [of the memorial],” Naomi Ohara said. “There are never any flowers here. I always wanted to meet someone from this side.”
Kiyola was lost for words when asked what she was feeling while she prayed for Kinser, but Naomi Ohara said that they felt sadness and grief. They were happy to add a visit to Kinser’s panel to their yearly mourning routine at the park.
“Okinawa has a heart for both sides,” Naomi Ohara said. “Life is a treasure… This is mandatory for all of my kids.”
About 4,600 people attended Monday’s ceremony, which was marked by blazing heat and stifling humidity. Among the visiting dignitaries were Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy, and Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commander of the III Marine Expeditionary Force.
Prior to the ceremony, Kennedy and Wissler laid a wreath in the American section of the Cornerstone of Peace memorial, which features thousands of enscribed names. For Wissler, the day took on added meaning. His father, Private 1st Class Edward Wissler, fought there, including at the bloody Sugar Loaf Hill.
“They’re all heroes and we’re eternally grateful for their contributions to peace,” Wissler said. He then acknowledged the pain the war caused Okinawans and the Japanese war dead, before turning his attention to the close strategic partnership between the two allied countries today.
“We’re no longer divided,” he said.
Kennedy kept her remarks short. She spoke softly and read Stephen Spender’s poem, “The Truly Great.”
“Today, we remember the sacrifices of those brave Americans who gave their lives here 69 years ago so that we, their children and grandchildren, could live in a free and peaceful world,” she said. “And nearby, we also honor the memory of the 240,000 people who lost their lives in this terrible battle which devastated this beautiful island and its communities.
“The strength of the U.S.-Japan alliance today is a tribute to all of them. Built on the devastation of war by countless acts of courage, reconciliation, perseverance, and friendship, our two countries work together to ensure peace and prosperity around the world. Visiting this place, on this day, we renew our commitment to that cause.”
The ceremony that followed was somber.
Abe spoke of the importance of peace and pledged to reduce the military burden placed on Okinawa, which is home to roughly 30,000 U.S. troops.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima took it a step further and urged the suspension of operations at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within five years.
“A drastic reduction is necessary in the burden caused by the presence of military bases,” he said. “It is necessary for us to commit ourselves to solve eminent issues, by curtailing the operations at Futenma air station and taking every possible measure, including moving the operations out of Okinawa.”
The importance of the ceremony and honoring the sacrifices made during heavy fighting 69 years ago wasn’t lost on the handful of American servicemembers and members of VFW Post 9723 in attendance, many of whom were aging Vietnam veterans. Of 16 million Americans who served in World War II, approximately 1 million are still alive today, according to The National WWII Museum. They are dying at a rate of 555 per day. It is estimated by 2036, there won’t be any left alive.
“There are just none of them left,” said post commander Dennis Provencher who has been participating for 40 years. “It’s been a long time since a survivor attended the ceremony.”
Today’s veterans looked at the rows of names and vowed to stand vigil after the Vietnam generation passed the torch.
“Without those brothers of mine who fought in this campaign, I wouldn’t be here,” said Jackeline Fountain, an Army veteran of the Gulf War and the Balkans. “I am that next generation that feels compelled to continue on.”