Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters serves as a reminder of the bloody battle of Okinawa

The symbol of the Imperial Japanese Navy overlooks the sprawling tunnel complex that was defended to the death by the Japanese Navy during the Battle of Okinawa at the tail end of World War II.


By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 17, 2014

Water drips through porous rock in the cool, dark cavern, providing a respite from the subtropical humidity outside. The shrapnel-peppered concrete provides a stark reminder that this refuge was once a battleground.

The Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters was the scene of extreme violence, where 5,000 sailors from the Former Imperial Japanese Navy under the command of Rear Adm. Minoru Ota made their last stand during the Battle of Okinawa at the tail end of World War II, many armed with only rudimentary spears.

The remains of 2,400, many of whom committed suicide as the 6th Marine Division closed in, were later recovered in the damp tunnels and rooms that had been carved from stone.

“Destroy the ugly Americans,” is scrawled in Japanese on a wall in Ota’s quarters.

Nearby, Ota wrote the words to his favorite waka, or Japanese poem, before he, too, committed suicide: “Born as a man, nothing fulfills my life more than to die in the name of the Emperor.”

The former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters in Tomishiro city in southern Okinawa is a time machine, opened so “future generations might understand the tragedy of war, and to invite prayers for lasting world peace,” according to the Okinawa Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

One step inside the cavernous maze transports visitors back to 1945.

The desperation of the Japanese sailors who lived, fought and died there still hangs heavy in the dank air. It’s also easy to see the uphill fight faced bu the U.S. Marines; the site stands atop the tallest point in the area and looks down on Naha city.

The 450 meters of semi-circular tunnels were built by the Japanese Navy Corps of Engineers’ Yamane Division in 1944 using little but pick axes, hoes and determination. The complex was then reinforced with timber and concrete.

It was meant to outlast aerial bombardment and shelter 4,000 troops.

On Oct. 10, 1944, nearly 1,000 American aircraft descended on Okinawa, turning Naha virtually into ash, according to Visitor’s Bureau literature available at the headquarters. Of the 110,000 Japanese defenders of the island, about 10,000 were stationed in the Oroku district, site of the underground headquarters.

On April 1, U.S. forces touched down on Japanese soil for the first time in the mid-island region of Okinawa. The Japanese battleship Yamato and 2,000 kamikaze were dispatched to the area. The ship was sunk; few of the kamikaze survived.

As American forces pushed north and south, sailors from the Oroku district were sent north as reserves in the fighting on several occasions. Civilians died in the fighting after Japanese forces expelled them from caves.

Japanese propaganda encouraged locals to commit suicide. Husbands slashed their children and wives to death before taking their own lives. Others used hand grenades.

Ota had made an agreement with the commander of the 32nd Army that once they retreated south he would destroy the weapons at the underground headquarters and follow.

Due to a “miscommunication,” Ota enacted the plan, but when they arrived in the south, he realized the 32nd Army was not there. He ordered a return to the tunnel complex.

On June 4, the 6th Marine Division landed on the coast of Oroku, where Naha International Airport is located today, and began to push the Japanese defenders back inland. Many locals decided to die at their homes rather than evacuate.

His last telegram to his superiors was sent a week later: “Our headquarters fell at 11:30 p.m. on the 11th. The attack by enemy combat vehicles is still continuing. I am grateful for your friendship and send my best wishes.”

Ota and his officers killed themselves in the wee morning hours on June 13. Ten days later, organized fighting on the island ended. The “Typhoon of Steel,” as the battle would be called, cost over 200,000 lives.

After the war, the bodies of the underground headquarters’ defenders were removed and interred. In 1970, the tourism development board opened up 300 meters of tunnels for viewing. They had been largely left alone for the better part of a quarter of a century.

Today, the underground headquarters stands as a testament to the horrors of war and fanaticism. It is hard to imagine that two stalwart allies like the U.S. and Japan fought and died there on opposite sides.


Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.


Japanese Navy Underground HeadquartersDirections


The Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters is located approximately 20 minutes from Naha Airport by taxi or car at 236 Aza Tomishiro, Tomishiro-city, Okinawa. Take Route 58 toward the airport, but stay left after Meiji Bridge instead of going up the ramp that leads to the airport off-ramp. Take a left onto Route 7. Go straight until you reach the Route 7 By-pass. Take a right onto the By-pass but stay left at the “V” shaped intersection. Take a left after passing the Uebaru Elementary and Kindergarten. Stay to the left at the fork and wind your way to the top of the hill. There are signs in Japanese but they point in the right direction.


8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Adults pay 440 yen to enter the bunker complex and museum; children 220 yen. Groups of 20 or more get a slightly lower rate.


A small store onsite sells beverages and snacks. There is also a gift shop that sells an English language history of the bunker and the war for 100 yen among other Imperial Navy memorabilia.


Telephone: 098-850-4055; website http://kaigungou.ocvb.or.jp/top.html (Japanese only).

An artist's rendition of the petty officer's room in the Japanese Underground Headquarters during the Battle of Okinawa. Room was so scarce, that sailors were forced to sleep standing up.

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