Thousands recall Battle of Okinawa
Stars and Stripes June 25, 2007
ITOMAN, Okinawa — On Saturday thousands of people came to this park on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean to remember.
They came to remember the 240,609 lives lost during the final ground battle of World War II, when the Americans came with their “Typhoon of Steel” and changed forever the landscape of this subtropical island.
Under a blistering hot sun, elderly survivors of the battle brought their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to trace the names of the family members etched onto the black marble walls that stretch toward the sea.
Some 150,000 of the names written on the walls of Peace Memorial Park are the names of civilians who perished during the 83-day battle, representing one-third of Okinawa’s civilian population.
Other visitors were residents of mainland Japan who came to honor the 76,961 Imperial Japanese soldiers and kamikaze pilots who died defending the Motherland. They overshadowed a small knot of descendants of Korean forced laborers and comfort women who honored the names of those unfortunate victims.
In all, more than 5,000 people attended a ceremony to commemorate the battle’s end and pray for the end to war.
Also among them were about 50 Americans led by Marine Lt. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, the new commanding general of all Marines in Japan, who assembled for a separate ceremony to honor the 14,007 Americans who died in the Battle of Okinawa.
“As we remember these brave warriors and their comrades in arms today, we must look to the future as well as the past,” Zilmer said. “In today’s world, freedom comes cloaked in uncertainty. America still relies on her sons and daughters to defend her liberty.”
During the main ceremony sponsored by the prefecture, Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said Okinawans have learned “just how precious peace is.”
“Our beloved families and friends were lost, our homes and towns reduced to ruin, the cultural heritage founded by our forefathers extinguished,” he said. “Through the sacrifices of lives and possessions that can never be replaced, we were left with a keen sense of the importance of peace.”
He said many threats exist to peace in today’s world — something felt deeply on Okinawa.
“The heavy burden of military bases remains and subsequent incidents and accidents, noise pollution and other issues connected with these installations are a source of continuous distress,” he said.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged Okinawa’s burden.
“My heart is saddened when I think about the suffering, which is beyond what words can describe, that the Okinawan people had to go through,” he said.
“After the war, Okinawa rose from the ashes, overcoming numerous hardships and achieved remarkable development.
“The burden that Okinawa shoulders due to the concentration of U.S. military facilities must be reduced,” he added. “While listening to heartfelt voices of the Okinawan people, I will steadily carry out realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.”
Many speak of life after great loss
The Japanese population lost about 16 times as many lives as the Americans during the Battle of Okinawa. Here are remembrances from some of those connected to feelings of loss.
A short-lived reunion
At an adjacent wall, Koei Chinen, 68, of Ginowan knelt in prayer. He grew up as a war orphan. His father, Kosei Chine, was conscripted and died in the battle. His mother, Takeko, and 6-year-old Chinen evacuated from their Naha home but on the way, he was separated from her.
After the battle, he was taken to a refugee camp in Ishikawa, where he reunited with his mother. But his joy was short-lived. His mother soon died.
“I was all alone and had to go many hardships in my life,” he said, fighting back tears.
Life ended too soon
Not far from where the Americans gathered, Tsuru Gima, 88, traced the name of her baby boy and prayed. Gima said her husband was a conscript killed during the battle. As she was evacuating from their Shuri home to the south, she held the hand of her 3-year-old son while carrying her 9-month- old son, Katsuo, on her back, when a shell hit nearby.
Her baby died instantly, she said. “My 3-year-old son and I were taken to refuge around here,” she said gesturing to the hundreds of black granite walls that are arranged like wings stretching to the sea.
Bitterness that doesn’t fade
For many, the names on the walls are all they have left of their families. Yasuko Kameshima, 63, from Naha, was on Ishigaki Island, 265 miles south of Okinawa, when the war broke out. But her father was conscripted into the island defense force and was killed during the battle.
“I come here every year because this is the only thing I can do for my father who died at a young age,” she said. He was 25.
She visited the Cornerstone of Peace alone.
“My 83-year-old mother visited the memorial once, but after that she would never want to come back,” she said. “She told me that it was too painful to come here. For her, the war is not over yet and the bitterness still lingers.”
Proof that he once lived
Yukie Gondi, 70, from Saga on Kyushu, said she comes to Okinawa annually to “see” her brother. A kamikaze pilot, he died at the age of 17.
“I did not know about the memorial until several years after this was built,” she said. “But after I learned about the memorial, I just could not help but to visit here every year. My brother’s name is here. It is a proof that he once existed and fought for his country.”