Survivors remember commotion then calm inside Okinawa cave

Chibana stands before a monument erected at the entrance of Shimuku Gama to honor two men, his grandfather and great-grand uncle, who saved about 1,000 residents from ‘mass suicide.'



YOMITAN, Okinawa — Not far from Torii Station is a cave complex where more than 1,000 civilians took shelter during the shelling that preceded the landing of U.S. forces on April 1, 1945.

It’s only by calming words from two men who had once worked in Hawaii that they all did not kill themselves with hand grenades the Imperial Japanese Army issued to them, says Haruo Chibana, 74.

During a recent tour of one of the caves in the Namihira community, Chibana spoke of being saved from the fate that struck Okinawans who cowered in nearby caves.

Chibana recalls the morning when U.S. soldiers with machine guns appeared at the entrance of the cave, called Shimuku Gama.

“People were terrified and screaming and crying voices filled the cave,” he said. “Some people prepared to drink poison and others discussed how best to kill themselves.”

It was at that time that Heiji Higa, Chibana’s great-granduncle, spoke up.

“He told people in the cave that the Americans would not kill unarmed civilians,” Chibana said.

Heiji worked in the sugarcane fields on the Big Island of Hawaii. To press his point, he called on his nephew, Heizo Higa, a former Hawaii bus driver, to back him up.

Propaganda from the Imperial Army and the government in Tokyo depicted Americans as “beasts” who mercilessly killed and mutilated their enemies and raped women.

According to several accounts of the invasion day, U.S. soldiers set up a machine gun at the mouth of the cave and shouted in English at the terrified villagers.

“There was a terrible commotion,” Chibana said. Then Higa and his nephew stepped forward. “That’s when the commotion in the cave calmed.”

The Higas spoke to the soldiers and then convinced the villagers that they would not be harmed, and ushered all the residents out, Chibana said.

Twelve years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, survivors dedicated a monument at the mouth of the cave to Higa and his nephew.

What had happened at Shimuku Gama was a stark contrast to the fate of people huddled in a cave called Chibichiri Gama, in the same village.

“Among the people in that cave was a man who was conscripted and fought in China,” Chibana said. “He brought back the military mindset with him.”

According to survivor accounts, some civilians resisted the Americans with bamboo spears and were killed. Others drank poison after stabbing their children with knives, while others killed themselves with hand grenades.

Of the 140 people in Chibichiri Gama, 84 people died.

And they died a second death in 1987 when right-wing nationalists took sledgehammers to a sculpture of writhing figures reaching toward heaven, mothers embracing their dying children and human skulls heaped near funeral urns.

“The nationalists said the memorial insulted the emperor,” said Setsuko Inafuku, a tour guide for 18th Services on Kadena Air Base. “So many people died here foolishly believing the propaganda,” she tells the Americans she takes to the hidden cave.

Inafuku has said that guides for Japanese tourists often tell her to tone down her comments to Americans.

“But I have to speak the truth,” she said. “I am not anti-Japanese. I am anti-lies.”

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Okinawans outraged by what they say is a cover-up of military-urged mass suicides during WWII battle

Haruo Chibana (left) and Akihiko Shinjo, Yomitan’s Namihira District Mayor, stand at the entrance of Shimuku Gama, where Namihira residents used as a bomb shelter.