This weekend we ventured to the southern end of Okinawa to tour the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. It is here where Vice Admiral Minoru Ota made his last stand and ultimately committed suicide so he would not be captured. It now stands as a monument to peace and remembrance.
The battle of Okinawa was among the bloodiest of World War II, lasting 82 days from when American forces first landed on the beaches on April 1, 1945 until June 13, 1945 when Admiral Ota died an “honorable death” for Japan. The total death toll for the battle of Okinawa stands at 12,520 Americans and 188,136 Japanese over the course of the battle. In the tunnels of the headquarters, according to the Sixth Marine Division, 175 Japanese deceased soldiers were found.
The outdoor monument and green spaces are free to tour, but there is a small admission fee for the tunnels and indoor museum. The museum features the timeline of the battle as well as Japanese uniforms and artifacts recovered from within the underground headquarters. Few weapons remain as the Japanese intentionally destroyed them so they could not be used against the Japanese later in the war. While some areas of the museum were in Japanese as well as English, some exhibits are only in Japanese, so the Google translate app on our phones proved very useful. As one starts down the stairs into the tunnels the walls are adorned with Japanese Senbazuru. These hanging paper sculptures are each made from 1,000 tiny origami cranes threaded together into strands of 100. They are gifted for the purpose of conveying prayers for healing and peace.
The headquarters consisted of multiple interconnected tunnels and rooms complete with ventilation shafts and emergency exits. The core of the headquarters lies 20 meters (65 ft.) below the surface to protect it from enemy attack. We were able to view the operations room, Commanding Officer’s room, 3 generator rooms, the code room, a staff room, as well as 3 rooms for soldiers. These rooms of soldiers were so tightly packed at times it was said one could sleep standing up. As many as 2,000 soldiers and officers occupied the headquarters during the battle of Okinawa. In one room of the headquarters the walls are riddled with shrapnel scars from the hand grenade that Admiral Ota used to commit suicide.
Touring the headquarters was very interesting from an exploration point of view, but it also holds additional significance to my family because my grandfather was stationed aboard the USS Edgecombe, a Haskell-class attack transport ship that landed assault troops on the Okinawa beach on April 1, 1945: the first day of the battle of Okinawa. His job as a navy corpsman was to accept the dead and wounded from the beach and provide medical care to them. Of course while he was rendering aid to American soldiers the Japanese kamikaze pilots were strafing the decks of the American ships with gunfire. I remember my grandfather telling me when he heard the planes swooping down he would tuck himself into the side of an I-beam and watch the hot rounds ricochet off the steel ship deck. As I pause in reflection some 76 years later I am an American Naval officer stationed on Okinawa standing in the Japanese Naval headquarters that was so fiercely defended from my grandfather and the Americans who came before me. It really is thought-provoking.
On a lighter note, once we finished our tour the kids played at a near-by park and we tried Japanese curry, which is based on British curry, with a milder spice than Indian curry. Heather and the kids had various beef or chicken dishes while I tried the shrimp & clam curry. It later occurred to me as I was looking at our receipt that mine was the least expensive dish. In the states I would think it would have been the most expensive. I guess that’s what you get when living on a sub-tropical island.