The Continuing Tragedy of Okinawa


June 22, 1993|By GEORGE FEIFER

Thirty-eight years ago this week, a new commander of American forces on Okinawa declared the island ''secure.'' The new commander had just replaced Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner, the highest-ranking American officer killed in all of World War II.

With so many desperate Japanese defenders still hidden in caves, and so much killing still taking place, few infantrymen understood his decision. It was one of the smaller puzzles of a campaign that never found its proper place in American history: three months of mammoth sacrifice whose importance and enduring consequences have been all but ignored.

Among the major puzzles are why so little is remembered -- more precisely was never appreciated, even at the time -- about the immense cost of the Battle of Okinawa in April-June, 1945. How to account for the scant interest in a central event in modern American history?

Okinawa was the site of the largest battle in history involving land, sea and air forces. Apart from a few sorties elsewhere, the entire Japanese kamikaze effort was directed against the American armada offshore, the largest in the history of warfare. This caused the Navy greater casualties than in all its previous engagements in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. The agony and carnage were even greater on land, where the Japanese defenders were far better fortified and armed than anywhere else in the Pacific. More than twice as many Americans were killed and wounded as on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima combined.

While it is entirely proper that one of Washington's best known statues is of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima's Mount Surabachi, it is wholly wrong that virtually no mention at all is made of the far longer, harder, more costly Battle of Okinawa. In terms of American casualties alone -- over 72,000, including 23,000 missing and killed -- not Iwo Jima but Okinawa should be the symbol of the Pacific War's savagery.

But American casualties were a small part of the (probably unavoidable) losses. The Japanese story, essentially untold in America, is even more gruesome and enlightening. However, the defenders' immense suffering and losses were minor compared to the those of Okinawa itself, a once-independent kingdom of amiable, hospitable, gentle farmers and traders who had maintained no arms whatever on their island for centuries before Japan swallowed them in 1879.

Americans tend to associate Okinawa with Iwo Jima -- with which, in fact, it shares little but climate and geography. The Japanese garrison island of Iwo Jima had no resident civilians at all, whereas Okinawa was the home of an ancient, charming, tolerant civilization. The greatest suffering was borne by this remarkably peace-loving homeland, which ended in rubble and ash, its cultural landmarks and heritage almost totally obliterated.

The civilian tragedy on Okinawa far exceeded that of Hiroshima in every way, including the numbers of non-combatants killed. At least 150,000 of them died even more horribly than the seared and slaughtered under the mushroom clouds, with weeks to witness their childrens' mutilation by ''the typhoon of bombs and steel,'' as they called the colossal deluge of American firepower, or by Japanese troops when morale collapsed after months of sacrificially courageous defense.

And if innocence can be quantified, the Okinawans had more of it than the Hiroshima victims; they bore less responsibility -- actually none -- for the war in which they were massacred.

Although hundreds of books have been written about the atomic victims, the far greater Okinawan devastation -- cultural, material and spiritual as well as corporal -- remains unknown to most Americans. So does the natives' current plight.

War being war -- and the Japanese being a supremely difficult enemy -- what was done to them in 1945 was perhaps inevitable. This was not true during the occasionally generous but generally shameful American occupation that followed, until the island reverted to Japan in 1972. And what our military domination is doing to them now is another hidden tragedy -- which continues because our public knows even less about our current role on the island than about the 1945 horrors.

Whereas the Hiroshima tragedy is essentially ended, the Okinawan one abides because the Pentagon still runs the island largely as one big military base. No people now suffer more from American military policy than Okinawans, 80 percent of whom want our installations reduced or removed. Those installations occupy a fifth of the chronically overcrowded island; much of the best farmland lies beneath the concrete of our runways. Our planes, tanks and missiles cause the pacifist natives to shudder.

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