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People visit Sesoko Beach on Okinawa, Oct. 28, 2022.

People visit Sesoko Beach on Okinawa, Oct. 28, 2022. (Frank Andrews/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Marine Corps has launched a smartphone app that provides troops with information about drowning hazards around Okinawa and a bridge over language barriers in an emergency.

Drowning in riptides is a leading cause of accidental death on Okinawa. The forceful undertow rip currents near many of the island’s beaches can pull a swimmer quickly out to sea, often as they struggle helplessly against it.

Marine Corps Community Services developed the Liberty MCCS Okinawa app to provide users upfront information about Okinawa’s often beautiful but hazardous shoreline, according to Shawn Curtis, safety director at the Marine Corps Installation Pacific Safety Office. The Liberty app was initially developed in 2017 and is free to download and use.

It’s available for download from Google Play or the Apple App Store. Among its features, the Liberty app gives users a map of recommended sites for recreation, but also the drowning hazards associated with the island’s beaches and the locations of past drownings. It includes information on places to eat on and off base, off-limits establishments, command and emergency numbers, liberty policy and scam alerts.

It comes with an audio translator that allows English speakers to report an emergency by clicking the statement that corresponds to the emergency. An audio message plays back in Japanese for bystanders or an emergency services operator.

Waves approach Cape Zanpa, Okinawa, Oct. 28, 2022.

Waves approach Cape Zanpa, Okinawa, Oct. 28, 2022. (Frank Andrews/Stars and Stripes)

Drowning is the No. 1 cause of accidental death on Okinawa and October is the deadliest month in that category, according to Curtis.

The island prefecture is a hot spot for watersports like surfing, bodyboarding, snorkeling and scuba. But its year-round volatile weather can go from safe to dangerous in minutes. Some of the most popular sites along the prefecture’s 296 miles of shoreline are also associated with hazardous water conditions.

Altogether, 33 people have drowned on Okinawa this year, according to the Okinawa Prefectural Police website. Sixteen were Okinawans; 16 were tourists, including people from elsewhere in Japan; and one was a U.S. service member.

Forty service members have drowned on Okinawa since 2000, according to the safety office. Ten have perished since 2020, including five last year, Curtis said in an email Thursday to Stars and Stripes.

Since 2014, he said, 37 service members, civilian employees or family members have been rescued on Okinawa beaches, although he suspects many more incidents go unreported. One drowning and two rescues were reported this year to the Marine Corps in Okinawa, he said.

The Marine Corps on Okinawa encourages people to download the Liberty app to their mobile phones and preprogram emergency phone numbers into it, including the Japan Coast Guard emergency number, 118, and the off-base emergency dispatcher at Kadena Air Base, 098-934-5911.

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Frank Andrews is a reporter at Camp Foster, Okinawa. He’s an alumnus of the Defense Information School and University of Maryland University College. His previous Navy assignments have taken him to Iraq, Bahrain, Diego Garcia, Japan, South Korea and Naval Special Warfare Command in California.

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