On Okinawa, widely differing lessons of war

June 22, 1995|By New York Times News Service

MABUNI, Okinawa -- It was 50 years ago that Yoshiko Shimabukuro pleaded with the U.S. soldiers to shoot her in the head immediately instead of raping and torturing her first.

The five soldiers refused her pleas and held her down as one used a knife to slice the leg of her pants, even as she scratched and bit him. Three of the Americans were bare-chested and sunburned red, so that they looked to her like "oni," Japanese folk devils.

Then the man with the knife abruptly stopped cutting her pants at the thigh and poured disinfectant over the bullet wounds in her leg. He was a medic.

"They carried me away on a stretcher," Mrs. Shimabukuro recalled yesterday, laughing at the memory. "By this point, they looked to me like gods." Mrs. Shimabukuro, now 67, is one of the survivors -- on both sides of the bomb bays and flamethrowers -- who this week will draw wildly different lessons from the 50th anniversary of perhaps the greatest land-air-sea battle in history: the battle of Okinawa.

Some 545,000 U.S. troops, backed by 12,000 aircraft and 1,600 ships, stormed Okinawa, an island in the south of Japan, in the last major battle of World War II. The invasion was considerably bigger than the one at D-Day, and it marked the beginning of the planned assault on Japan.

U.S. troops fired 7.5 million shells and almost 30 million bullets at Okinawa over the course of three months, and by the end more than 200,000 people were dead, including a third of Okinawa's civilian population. By most estimates, more people died in Okinawa than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Hundreds of U.S. veterans are to gather tomorrow along with their one-time Japanese enemies as Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama dedicates a memorial with the names of 235,000 war dead -- including the names in English of the 12,000 Americans killed in the battle, and the names of Okinawans killed elsewhere in the war.

Yet the conclusions that the Okinawans have drawn from their experience is not one that Americans want to hear.

"War makes people crazy," said Choji Kobashigawa, who spent a month during the U.S. invasion hiding in a culvert with his family as a stream flowed by his feet, watching his brother die of sickness and then burying him. "I want to erase war by all means. And for that, I want to see the removal of the American bases."

The United States handed Okinawa back to Japan in 1972, but 20 percent of Okinawa island is still occupied by U.S. military bases. Most Okinawans do not mind the 55,000 Americans, mostly in military families, who live on the island today, but they are upset by the bullets that occasionally go astray and about the live fire over Okinawa Highway 104.

Okinawa, a beautiful sun-dappled island of spectacular beaches and lush jungle whose people are ethnically distinct from other Japanese, seems so traumatized by its experience half a century ago that it wants nothing whatsoever to do with war.

"The Okinawan people do not want to have bases that are related to warfare," said Masahide Ota, the governor of Okinawa. "We want to use all our land in a productive way, not for killing people."

Kikuko Miyagi, 65, a teacher, is one of the many Okinawans who has concluded from her own experience that all sides in all wars are wrong. To an American ear she may sound prone to naive homilies, but it is hard to dismiss what she went through.

As a 15-year-old, she tended the Japanese wounded along with other student nurses in a network of underground caves that protected the army from American bombs and artillery.

The Japanese generals, who eventually committed hara-kiri in their underground cell, did not challenge the U.S. landing, but popped out of tunnels and caves to fight a horrific battle intended to slow down the invaders and give the main Japanese islands more time to prepare their own defenses.

Mrs. Miyagi helped with surgery -- a progressively grimmer experience as the army ran out of anesthetic for amputations -- and scrounged at night for water and food to keep the patients alive.

As the Americans advanced, taking huge losses themselves, Mrs. Miyagi retreated with the Japanese army each night.

The escape ended near the jungle of Mabuni in the south end of Okinawa, where cliffs and the ocean blocked any further retreat. U.S. shelling was constant, and Mrs. Miyagi's group of 18 nurses decided to commit suicide rather than submit to the rape, mutilation and killing that Japanese soldiers had told them they would face if captured by the Americans.

The girls asked for hand grenades and memorized how to use them: pull the pin, bang the grenade on a rock, hold it to your stomach and wait until you are blown to pieces.

Just offshore, an American Navy ship used a loudspeaker to call on people, in Japanese, to save themselves by surrendering and swimming to the ship. This was a trick, Mrs. Miyagi and her friends were sure, and they watched what would happen to one soldier who accepted the offer and swam toward the American ship.

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