A Lamentation for Okinawa

By David Chrisinger
22 Jun 20

I cannot tell you what it is like to go to war. I sometimes wish I could tell it, but I’ve never been to war, you see. What I can tell you is this: I know what it looks like when a man comes home from war and never finds that path that can lead him to a life of peace. I know about the alcohol and the rage, the depression, and the thoughts of suicide. I know what it feels like when trauma reverberates throughout the generations of a family. I know how the ripples eventually fade with time, but not before they do their damage. I know about bitterness and hopelessness. I know about silence. And lies. I know about the great gate that is the truth and what it feels like to have that gate swing shut on silent hinges.

I’m not writing to you today—this 75th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa—to memorialize the past. I’m not writing to litigate it, either. I’ve come to believe that when one memorializes during such times of tribulation and uncertainty, that in and of itself can become the worst kind of dishonesty.

And so I lament.

I lament for a cratered island, once so full of peace-loving people. How much she was like a widow. She mattered. And then she was nothing.

For seven days in May 1945, the Sixth Marine Division fought what was probably the most intense battle of the entire Okinawan campaign. To finally expose the flank of the Japanese defensive line on the southern third of the island, the Marines had to take what became known as Sugar Loaf Hill. After suffering more than 2,600 casualties (with another 1,300 more who were evacuated because of combat fatigue), the Marines eventually cracked the line. It was, finally, the beginning of the end of the Pacific’s longest and bloodiest battle.

On June 22, 1945, the commander of the Japanese forces on Okinawa, along with his chief of staff, committed ritual suicide on Mabuni Hill, the southernmost tip of the island, effectively ending the struggle for the island.

“Ernie appears in the following Universal newsreel, which was released nine days before he was killed on Ie Shima”

During the summer of 1945, American forces moved Okinawan survivors from temporary camps in the north to the southern third of the island, where much of the fighting and dying had taken place. The Allies needed the northern two-thirds of the island so that bases, ports, and airfields could be constructed. They were needed for the planned invasion of mainland Japan.

The Okinawan survivors made their new homes on cratered lands, sewn with mines and unexploded ordnance. Corpses literally littered the earth. Over the course of a decade, the peace-loving survivors collected 135,000 remains and either cremated or deposited them in over a hundred hastily built ossuaries.

In the process of these “bone collection” campaigns, the caves used by the ill-fated Himeyuri Student Nurses Corps—which was comprised of female Okinawan students who were conscripted to serve the Japanese and who mostly died by suicide—were discovered and became Okinawa’s first and most important war memorial site.

By the mid-1950s, private groups of Japanese veterans and families of those who had been killed during the battle took an active interest in establishing memorials to their war dead, who they believed had heroically given their lives to protect the Japanese mainland. By the time Okinawa was reverted back to Japanese rule in 1972, more than 300 memorials to Japanese war dead and ossuaries full of Japanese remains had been erected.

In contrast, there are only two American memorials on Okinawa—one to Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. and one to Ernie Pyle, both of whom were killed during the battle. The American Battle Monuments Commission, which is responsible for establishing and maintaining American military cemeteries and monuments abroad, pushed for a monument to be built in Okinawa memorializing the American sacrifice there, but they were ultimately denied out of diplomatic fear that the Japanese government would misinterpret such a monument as an indication that the United States did not intend to return Okinawa to Japan.

Fifty years after the battle ended, once the island had become something again, the people who had always called her home could barely recognize her. She who was once free had lost that freedom. Bitterly she wept at night. Her invaders, the people came to realize, did not understand her. They believed they were her rescuers, but they were, in reality, the agents of her destruction. Then they became her master.

The Sixth Marine Division Association, wanting to commemorate the heroic sacrifices of both American and Japanese soldiers, requested permission from the peace-loving people to erect a memorial plaque at Sugar Loaf Hill. The request was never going to be granted. By the mid-1990s, the people were fed up with American military presence on the island and critical of the existing Japanese memorials.

The same year the Association’s request was denied, the peace-loving people unveiled their own memorial to the war—the Cornerstone of Peace—which comprises concentric arcs of wavelike black marble walls inscribed with the names of more than 240,000 soldiers and civilians, from all sides, who were killed. It does not speak to the righteousness of the cause or to the courage of the sacrifice. It speaks to something simpler. It says: “This is what it cost.”

From the sea the invaders sent fire, sent it down into the island’s bones. The invaders soaked into her land like an oil spill. The invaders made her desolate, an open wound all the day long.

“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” she asks.

Seventy-five years later, one has to wonder: Is any suffering like her suffering? Will it ever end?

2 responses to “A Lamentation for Okinawa”

  1. Michael Bialas says:

    My father spent time on Okinawa as a member of 1st US SF in the early – mid 1960’s. I remember his stories of the odd Japanese solider still on the island at that point. Wandering aimlessly about, caught between what was total structure prior to May 1945 and then complete chaos after that spring. His entire world having been ripped away in 1945 and replaced with shell holes and concrete airstrips.

  2. LuAnn Zieman says:

    Powerful opening paragraph! I read it to your grandpa, who responded that you are a really good writer. Interesting using the perspective of the native inhabitants, which gives a completely different twist to war study, which usually focuses on the opposing forces. Good job!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


A Great Pile of Ready-Made Crosses


Pocket Guide to North Africa