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Air Force spouse driven to help after Okinawa ‘suicide cave’ vandalized

Air Force spouse Heather Yeatman recently presented 16,000 hand-folded origami cranes, which signify peace, to officials at an Okinawa cave where 83 people were forced to commit suicide by Japanese troops in the waning days of World War II. The cave was vandalized by local teenagers last month.

COURTESY OF JEFFREY YEATMAN

By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND KEN KUNIYOSHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 2, 2017

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — After vandals desecrated an Okinawa cave last month where 83 people were forced to commit suicide by Japanese troops in the waning days of World War II, Air Force spouse Heather Yeatman saw an opportunity to heal.

The damage to Chibichiri-gama, also known as the “mass suicide cave,” in Yomitan Village was discovered on Sept. 12. A wooden sign on the cave’s entrance was torn down, and glass water bottles used by those who died were smashed and scattered near their remains, which are still in the cave. Thousands of colorful origami cranes — signifying peace — were pulled down and strewn about.

The arrests of four local teenagers, who reportedly confessed to the crime, did little to assuage the heartache felt by the families of those who perished.

Yeatman, whose husband is a member of the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron at Kadena Air Base, was driven to help and sprang into action almost immediately. She used social media to mobilize people near and far, military and non-military, American and Japanese. On Saturday, she presented 16,000 of the hand-folded paper cranes to a group representing the families of those who perished. They were hung in the cave with care.

“We wanted to try and heal some of the hurt that had been caused [by the vandalism],” Yeatman said. “Everyone loves this island. We love this place and we want to give back.”

After reading local media reports about the incident, Yeatman put out a call for help on the Crafty Moms of Okinawa Facebook page. Responses began trickling in. Soon, that trickle become a tidal wave.

Yeatman decided to start an effort dedicated to the cranes. The Peace Cranes for Okinawa Facebook group was born.

In just a few weeks, the page got several hundred followers. Yeatman posted how-to videos showing the proper way to fold an origami paper crane. Her husband posted links on the Okinawa Typhoon Pics & Info Facebook page that they also run.

Yeatman placed origami paper and a collection receptacle at Kadena’s USO. The Kadena Girl Scouts allowed Yeatman use of their post office box to accept cranes from abroad. The little elegant birds poured in.

Yeatman believes she had about 1,000 unique volunteers that made more than 16,000 cranes. Ten schools from as far away as Michigan also contributed.

Chibichiri-gama survivor’s association chairman Norio Yonaha said he was surprised by the sheer volume of cranes.

“I conveyed my deep gratitude [to those who donated the cranes],” Yonaha said. “I hope this [vandalism] never occurs again.”

Yeatman said she and her husband are getting ready to leave Okinawa. She wants someone to take over the Peace Cranes for Okinawa Facebook group and continue making cranes for “other things.” She hopes to educate people about what the cranes symbolize, and show Okinawans that their “guests” are invested in the community and respect their traditions.

“All I wanted was to give a strand of cranes,” Yeatman said. “It’s become so much more than that. It’s a bit overwhelming.”

burke.matt@stripes.com
kuniyoshi.ken@stripes.com

Air Force spouse Heather Yeatman recently presented 16,000 hand-folded origami cranes, which signify peace, to officials at an Okinawa cave where 83 people were forced to commit suicide by Japanese troops in the waning days of World War II. The cave was vandalized by local teenagers last month.
COURTESY OF JEFFREY YEATMAN

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