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Yokosuka cave network dug by Japanese during World War II sealed

Guests take a tour of the caves under Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, after a ceremony officially sealing the caves on Friday. The caves most recently were used for a command center for Commander, Naval Forces Japan.

JIM SCHULZ / S&S

By JULIANA GITTLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 7, 2005

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — More than 60 years after his father gave the blessing opening the labyrinthine caves under Yokosuka’s shipyard, a Shinto priest gave a blessing Friday to officially seal them.

The caves were dug into the hills with picks and shovels to fortify against possible American attacks during World War II. The system included rails for moving heavy equipment, a hospital and even a power substation.

After the United States took over the base, the caves — totaling approximately 16 miles — held the Navy hospital and several commands.

Safety fears from falling rocks caused the U.S. Navy to seal off much of the system of halls and walkways 30 years ago. The final area of caves still in use was vacated when the Japanese government built a new Command and Control Center nearby last year.

The Japanese military began building the caves in 1938. The cave system went on to swell as the military later ordered all commands on the base to build additional emergency shelters against air raids.

The patchwork system extended several levels and opened out into small holes dotted around the base.

Most of the caves were closed off after World War II and the remaining working areas were converted into rooms with metal walls and flooring.

“It’s hard to find exactly what went on in here,” said Cmdr. Tom Stith, from CNFJ operations, during a tour for visitors attending the closing ceremony.

Much of the cave’s history still is classified, so its functions before and after the war aren’t completely clear. During the Korean War, it was used as an emergency shelter. It also served for storage.

Fluorescent lights now cast an eerie pallor over the windowless room inside the main area, used as the Commander, Naval Forces Japan operations center. A yellowing map covers one gigantic wall, where in years past a sailor on a ladder attached to a rail would roll back and forth plotting coordinates.

Down a long hall, a locked door marks the entrance to the original caves, where the rounded rock walls still drip water.

Along the ceilings, bits of metal protrude where light systems once ran.

In the late 1970s, Senior Chief Petty Officer Harold L. Jarrell, operations chief for the CNFJ operations and plans department, spent his workdays inside the structure. A large glass apparatus called “the octopus” was heated and set before blowers to draw moisture out, to protect the sensitive equipment inside, he recalled.

During earthquakes he and his co-workers could hear rocks breaking off and hitting the internal metal walls the Americans added to the caves, which were used then for storage.

Jarrell said he remembered being joined at work by the mosquitoes that loved the damp, dark passages, and by giant wolf spiders.

“You’d come in in the morning, open the door and they’d look at you eyeball to eyeball,” he said.

Most of the entrances to the caves were cemented over in the 1970s as the Navy began gradually shutting down the structures.

With the last personnel vacating the premises, the Yokosuka facilities office now will take over the caves for safekeeping.


A Shinto priest offers a purification blessing during a ceremony Friday to close the network of caves under Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan. The priest's father gave the initial blessing for the caves' opening during World War II.
JIM SCHULZ / S&S

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