Okinawa delegation seeks closure for POWs held on Hawaii

The Okinawa Peace Memorial Park in Itoman, Japan.


By TIMOTHY HURLEY | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: May 16, 2017

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Following the bloodiest World War II battle of the Pacific at Okinawa, the United States brought some 3,000 prisoners of war to Hawaii, where they were held in detention camps between July 1945 and December 1946.

Early next month those POW days will be formally remembered when a delegation from Okinawa, led by a pair of elderly camp survivors, returns to Hawaii to retrace their steps.

A group of more than 70 family, friends and officials, including the vice governor of Okinawa prefecture, will join the mission, which will include a memorial service honoring the 12 Okinawan POWs who died in Hawaii.

Leaders of the Hawaii United Okinawa Association on Monday announced the visit at a news conference at the site of the former Okinawa prisoner camp, now a garage door supply company in the center of a Sand Island industrial park.

Jane Serikaku, the association’s executive director, said the surviving POWs and their families are interested in meeting the local Okinawan families who befriended them while they were prisoners.

These local Hawaii Okinawans, she said, brought the prisoners musubi, bentos, cigarettes, candy and other humble offerings of friendship.

“They were not happy campers,” Serikaku said of the prisoners. “They did not know what their life was going to be like. But with the encouragement of all the local Okinawans who came to the camps, it was their saving grace.

Serikaku said the Okinawa visitors want to meet as many of them as possible.

“They know most of them are gone, but perhaps their children would remember,” she said. “So far we’ve been lucky to have five or six step forward.”

The group from Okinawa will also be carrying with them a treasured musical instrument — a gift from someone in Hawaii who apparently observed the POWs using a makeshift version of the traditional Okinawan “sanshin,” a banjolike, three-string instrument normally made from snakeskin.

According to stories passed along through the decades, the POWs scrounged around for materials to build their “kankara sanshin,” or canned sanshin, made with a large empty can for the instrument’s body, pieces of wood for the neck and tuners, and wires for the strings, Serikaku said.

Playing that same sanshin during a memorial ­service here will be Choichi Terukina Sensei, described as a national living treasure of Japan on the sanshin. He will accompany the delegation.

The Battle of Okinawa was the last major campaign of World War II, launched April 1, 1945, and stretching 82 days. Some 100,000 Okinawan civilians lost their lives. Also killed or reported missing were 12,000 American military personnel and 107,000 Japanese and Okinawan soldiers and conscripts.

Civilians captured in the battle were held as prisoners of war in camps on Okinawa before the U.S. military shipped them to Hawaii in June 1945. Most of the prisoners were housed at Sand Island. Others were sent to Honouliuli, Schofield Barracks, Kaneohe and Kilauea Military Camp on Hawaii island.

The 12 Okinawans who died while in Hawaii apparently were buried at Scho-field Barracks. Their grave markers, however, were lost during an expansion project, and there are no records or data to indicate their remains were ever returned to Okinawa.

Among the Okinawa delegation will be descendants of the deceased POWs and ex-POW Hikoshin Toguchi, 90, who has visited Hawaii on at least two previous occasions in an effort to find out what happened to his lost comrades.

“He hired a lawyer and everything trying to look for them, but he was unsuccessful,” Serikaku said. “Therefore, the mission this time is to pay final respects and find closure.”

The group will attend a memorial service at the Jikoen Hongwanji Temple in Kalihi. Its members will also visit Schofield and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam. A dinner and program will be held at the Pagoda International Ballroom. The group will also visit the Hawaii Okinawa Center in Waipahu.

In addition, there will be a ceremony at the Sand Island campsite now occupied RK Oshiro Door Service, owned by Oki- nawa-born Ralph Oshiro.

Oshiro, who emigrated to Hawaii in 1960 when he was 10 years old, had no idea about the historical significance of the place when he acquired the lease for the Sand Island lot from the state decades ago.

Five months ago he was approached by officials with the Hawaii United Okinawa Association who had searched for and pinpointed the camp’s location.

“When (Serikaku) showed me the map, I was surprised,” he said, adding that there was nothing on the original empty lot to offer any clue it was once the site of a POW camp.

Serikaku said that when she sent the information about RK Oshiro Door Serv­ice to Okinawa, they responded positively and insisted the group visit the place. Oshiro agreed to allow all the visitors on his property.

“It’s like everything was meant to be,” Serikaku said.

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