Battle of Okinawa: Quiet remembrance at former battlefield
Stars and Stripes June 26, 2003
ITOMAN, Okinawa — Warm, humid winds provided little relief from the summer heat as a group of Americans gathered Monday near the polished slabs of black granite. Soft murmurs filled the air as people passed the zigzag patterns of chest-high stone, each filled with names.
Thousands of names are here at the Cornerstones of Peace at the Peace Prayer Park. Hundreds of thousands, actually.
Some are etched in Japanese, the names of Imperial soldiers killed defending their homeland.
Others are etched in English, names of invading U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who fought, bled and ultimately died here. Still others are written in Korean.
Some Japanese names are distinctly Okinawan — they were those caught in the crossfire.
It’s silent here now. But on June 23, 1945, the echoes of war still were fresh. Fifty-eight years ago, this was where Okinawans came to throw themselves off the cliffs, dashing themselves on the jagged coral rocks hundreds of feet below. They believed they were better dead than facing the invading U.S. forces.
A few hundred yards away stands a nondescript shelter from the sun. There, Marine Maj. Gen. Roy Geiger raised the Stars and Stripes and declared the end of combat on Okinawa.
The signs of war have faded — but the names have not. Two hundred thousand names etched into cool black stone remind passers-by that this once was a battlefield where warring forces clashed — and died — mightily.
Brig. Gen. Timothy B. Larsen, commanding general of Marine Corps Bases Japan, stepped in front of the stone wall. He cleared his throat and, in a clear and deliberate voice, spoke of the occasion’s significance.
“My father fought on Okinawa as a Marine,” the general told the small gathering. “There are seven Larsens on these walls. My father wasn’t among them.”
Larsen attended Okinawa’s official memorial services for the war dead, marking only the second time a U.S. military representative has received an official invitation to the event.
“It is truly significant for me to be included in this,” Larsen added, standing in front the Cornerstones’ American section. “It is because of their sacrifice, we’re able to be here.”
Larsen told reporters he grew up hearing his father’s stories of the Battle of Okinawa. He saw the island for the first time in 1969. Decades later, being part of the ceremonies to honor the dead was soothing, he said: “I felt very good about this today. It was a very difficult time for everyone.”
Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine spoke of the war’s legacy during the ceremony, which included a poem read by an Okinawan schoolgirl and the release of doves.
“Okinawa is the island where the last ground battle in the Pacific war took place, and more than 200,000 precious lives were perished and numerous invaluable cultural assets were lost,” Inamine said.
But he also used the ceremony to press his long-standing argument against U.S. bases on Okinawa, saying, “Although Okinawa has achieved remarkable development … vast U.S. military are still concentrated on the island, forcing an unproportionately heavy burden to the people of Okinawa.”
The U.S. military presence contributes to Japanese and regional Asian security, said Hiroyuki Hosoda, minister in charge of Okinawa, reading a statement by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. However, Koizumi’s statement said, the U.S. military concentration on the island imposes a “heavy burden. … I will commit myself to reduce the burden of Okinawan people.”
For retired Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Stanley Stewart, though, the ceremonies were about neither politics nor debate over the U.S. role on Okinawa. They were to honor sacrifice.
Monday marked the fourth straight year Stewart and his Veterans of Foreign Wars group gathered to mark the occasion — a practice he vowed to continue.
“I look out here and see 14,000-plus American names from all branches,” Stewart said. “It makes me feel proud [to] see all these names.
“It is a personal policy of mine to come down and pay tribute to this final resting place,” he said. “It’s very important for anybody to pay tribute to lost comrades.”