An Okinawan Caught In the Battle of OkinawaBy Karleen Chinen
The Hawaii Herald
July 2, 1993
"Mitsugo no tamashi hyaku made. . . The spirit of a 3-year-old child will last a hundred years."
Few can appreciate the essence of those words in the same way that Takejiro Higa does.
Higa was one of more than a dozen American soldiers of Japanese ancestry who were involved in the Battle of Okinawa, which some historians have called the "cruelest battle of the Pacific." It was a costly battle. More than 12,000 Americans and some 95,000 Japanese--60,000 of whom were Okinawan civilians--were killed.
For Kalihi resident Takejiro Higa, the Battle of Okinawa would pit two "parents" against each other.
Higa was born in Waipahu. At the age of 2, his mother took him, his brother Warren, then 5, and 8-year-old sister Yuriko to Okinawa to meet their grandparents. His father remained in Hawaii and operated the family store. Three years later he went to Okinawa to accompany his family back to Hawaii.
However, upon arriving at the family home in Shimabuku village, he found his wife seriously ill and unable to travel. Reluctantly, he returned to Hawaii with only Yuriko and Warren. Takejiro, then 5 and still in need of his mother's nurturing, remained behind with her until she died six years later
Higa was 11 when his parents died within a year of each other. His grandparents, with whom he and his mother had lived, died the following year. For the next four years, he lived with an uncle.
As his 16th birthday neared, Higa began thinking seriously about returning to Hawaii. New immigration to Hawaii had been halted in 1924, and Japan had begun sending young, able-bodied men to settle in Manchuria in its efforts to control Asia militarily.
When Higa turned 16 in April 1939, he wrote to his sister in Hawaii, asking her to sponsor him back to Hawaii "before the Japanese army grab me." "Personally, I didn't want to go Manchuria. If I had to leave Okinawa, I'd rather go back to Hawaii where my sister and brother and other relatives were."
That July, 14 years after leaving Hawaii as an infant, Takejiro Higa went "home."
Less than three years later, Japan and America were at war.
In early 1943, despite reservations about his lack of proficiency in English, Higa volunteered for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. His brother volunteered, also. Warren made the cut; Takejiro didn't.
Several months after the 442 had left for training at Camp Shelby, Higa received a letter from the War Department, informing him of its plans to organize a unit of Japanese language soldiers, the Military Intelligence Service (MIS), to serve in the Pacific warfront. Was he willing to serve?
"It put me in terrific turmoil, psychologically, because, if it's Japanese, it's understood I'll be sent to the Pacific warfront," he says. What if he came face to face with someone he knew - a relative, a classmate. "It may not happen, but it was possible," he said.
It left him torn between his personal anxiety and his desire to serve his country. After days of soul searching, Higa decided to volunteer for the MIS. This time he made the cut.
Higa was shocked when he reported for his interview with the FBI and Army intelligence. "They seemed to know more about me than I knew about myself," he says of their dossier on him. "And I'm a 'Mr. Nobody'--just another kid that came from Japan a couple of years before the war."
Higa was accepted into the MIS and underwent eight months of language training at Camp Savage, where he studied not only the language, but technical and military terminology based on a Japanese Military Academy textbook. He graduated in July 1943.
While at Savage, he had been corresponding with his brother Warren, who was in basic training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi. His letters spoke of the good life in Minnesota and of how wonderful it was to have fresh milk and eggs for breakfast. "Compared to Mississippi, life in Minnesota was much, much better," he says.
Warren was hooked. When a recruiter from Camp Savage went to Shelby to recruit more nisei for the language school, Warren volunteered. He finished basic training at Shelby and then went north to begin his language training.
Meanwhile, Takejiro headed south for basic training at Camp Blanding, Fla. Due of the urgent need for interpreters in the Pacific, basic training had been pared down from the normal 16 weeks to an accelerated eight weeks.
At his sister's request, Takejiro was assigned to his brother's team, an action that required War Department approval. The practice had been banned after five brothers serving on the same cruiser were killed when it was torpedoed in the South Pacific.
"In my case, my sister wanted me to be with my brother because of my lack of proficiency in English. She felt that two brothers serving together would cover each other and help each other," Higa explained.
Approval was granted.
The brothers returned to Hawaii in the summer of 1944 and were assigned to the 96th Infantry Division. After two weeks of jungle training on Oahu, their jobs as soldiers officially began when the 96th was sent overseas.
En route to their destination, Yap Island, they learned that the island had been secured. So the 96th was diverted to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in New Guinea and then dispatched to Leyte lsland in the Philippines.
A month later, Higa, who had been nicknamed "Junior" because he was serving with his older brother, was ordered to report to the G-2 Photo Interpreters Section.
The captain said he heard that Higa had lived in Okinawa for many years. In what area, he asked. Higa pointed to the general area of his grandfather's village in Nakagusuku.
Next he pulled out an aerial photo of Okinawa's capital, Naha City. "I couldn't recognize it at first," Higa says. "It was completely destroyed."
In October 1944 Navy carriers had launched an extensive bombing raid of Okinawa. Large aerial photographs of the island had been shot after the raid.
The captain then pulled out another photo. Higa recognized it instantly as his grandfather's village, Shimabuku, which, up until five years ago, had been his home. "My hair stood up! For awhile I couldn't even open my mouth; I was so choked up."
Higa looked at the photo through a special three-dimensional glass capable of picking up minute details. "I instantly recognized my Grandpa's home and from there, finger-traced all of my relatives' houses." To his relief, their homes were intact.
The captain then pulled out a shot of a typical country hillside in Okinawa. Higa glanced at it and then looked back at the captain with a "so what?" look. "Godammit, look carefully," shouted the captain. "We think the whole island is fortified!"
The captain had mistaken traditional Okinawan burial tombs for fortifications. "I suddenly realized the wrong impression the captain and other intelligence officers had." Higa proceeded to give the officers a crash course in Okinawan culture.
He explained that Okinawans view their burial tomb as their permanent home. Thus, they try to build them on a hillside with a good view, overlooking the ocean.
He also explained that the crater-like holes intelligence officers had observed in the comers of fields were composting pits used by farmers, not machine gun nests.
"From that time on, he (the captain) said, 'Sgt. Higa, you're going to assist us right through here.'" Higa was sworn to silence. When he returned to division headquarters later, his brother asked him what he had done during the day. "Don't ask me, because I've been told not to say anything," Takejiro replied.
Unbeknownst to him; Warren had informally volunteered his brother's first-hand knowledge of Okinawa to the division brass in the event of an Okinawa invasion.
All the signs--the aerial photos, the questions--pointed to an Okinawan invasion. Higa says he knew of the plans at least five months before the actual strike. The only thing he didn't know was the exact landing date.
Higa proved a big help to Corps headquarters because the area in which they landed was about a mile from where he had grown up.
"It was a horrible feeling," he says. "Ever since the first day I saw the picture, every night I used to dream about my relatives. Every night . . . never miss," Higa said, his voice breaking. "I dreamed about my uncle, my cousins, and even schoolmates."
But as an American soldier, he had a duty to perform. The last thing he wanted to do was harm his former countrymen, but he didn't know how he could do that without violating the military code of conduct.
"Deep inside I was torn," he says. "That feeling is hard to describe. Unless you yourself experience it, you don't appreciate it."
By late December, Leyte had been secured. In March 1945 the soldiers in the 96th Division boarded a troop ship. On their second day at sea, they were told their destination: Okinawa.
Higa was often called to the radio shack to translate radio transmissions they had picked up from Okinawa. Most of the time they were music programs with some Okinawan language sprinkled in the broadcast.
The Okinawa offensive, code-named "Operation Iceberg," began April 1. Early that morning the soldiers lined up on the deck."When the outline of Okinawa came up, I instantly recognized the hills. I couldn't help but choke up," Higa says almost 50 years later, fighting back tears, his voice breaking.
Only five years had passed since he left Okinawa, and his heart was being tugged in two opposite directions. "I'm an American G.I. I have a duty to perform, and yet I have a cultural obligation to Okinawa. I was really torn between loyalty and patriotism versus personal feeling . . . . I can tell you I had tears in my eyes."
It was different for his brother Warren, he says. True, he was Uchinanchu and Okinawa was the land of his ancestors. But he had not established an emotional attachment to the island in his three years there. "In my case, I grew up there. Although I've been back in Hawaii over 50 years, even to this day, the little country roads and small ditches and taro patches that we played in seem more like a real homeland to me than Honolulu."
Higa recites an old Japanese saying: "Mitsugo no tamashi hyaku made. . . The spirit of a 3-year-old child will last a hundred years." "What you learn in your small kid time, you'll never forget."
Because of his first-hand knowledge of the area and the Okinawan dialect, Higa was assigned to the division's advanced unit. They landed at the Chatan beachhead on the western side of the island.
Higa remembers his first image on land. "There were farm houses all on fire, farm animals all over the place, all dead, some of them burning."
The soldiers began moving towards higher ground. While walking through a narrow road, Higa saw something move in a small roadside dugout. "My heart stopped beating." Higa jumped back and took cover. Slowly he began walking toward the dugout. With his carbine trained, he ordered loudly, "Come out, whoever you are! Come out!"
Higa was so scared he can't remember whether he spoke English, Japanese or Okinawan. "I meant to speak Uchinaguchi (Okinawan dialect), but I have a feeling it was a mixture of everything," he laughs.
After returning to Hawaii in 1939, he had made a concerted effort to not speak Okinawan and to learn English. In the excitement of the moment, he says he wouldn't be surprised if what he uttered was a mish-mash of Japanese, Uchinaguchi, English and pidgin.
There was no response to his order, so Higa began squeezing his trigger. Suddenly he saw a thin human leg appear. "'Njiti (come out) mensooree (please)!" he ordered in Uchinaguchi.
An old woman, thin and frail, her clothing covered with dirt, crawled from the dugout. With her was a little girl, about 5 or 6 years old--her granddaughter. Higa began questioning the old woman. She said her family had escaped to the north; however, because of her weak leg, she had remained behind with her granddaughter.
Higa recommended that they be taken to a civilian refugee camp. "To this day I'm very grateful that I didn't pull the trigger." At point blank range, he knows he wouldn't have missed. "If I ever shot that old lady, I think I'd go crazy, knowing that she was a civilian. . . "
Higa has tried locating the granddaughter, who by now, would be nearly 60 years old. The old woman has probably died by now. "In all probability, the kid might have been the first Okinawan civilian prisoner," he says.
Soon after arriving at Chatan, what Higa had hoped would never happen, did. While scurrying around, looking for potatoes to eat, his former teacher, Shunsho Nakandakari, had been caught and sent to a civilian refugee center. Because of his tall, conditioned physique, he was suspected of being a Japanese soldier trying to pass himself off as a civilian. Higa was sent to interrogate the prisoner.
"I recognized him instantly, because he was my teacher for seventh and eighth grade. I looked at him, 'Sensei . . .' He turned around, looked at me and recognized me. 'Ah, kimi ka (oh, it's you)!'" Teacher and student were at a loss for words. "We were so choked up," Higa recalls.
He told the escort officer that Nakandakari was a teacher, not a soldier--and that he should be allowed to remain at the refugee camp.
The division continued to advance. One day, they set up camp inside an Okinawan kaaminakuu ufaka (turtle-back burial tomb). The concrete tomb offered lots of protection. In no time captured documents began arriving. Higa was assigned to translate some Japanese maps. He worked around the clock for three days straight, without any sleep, burning a gas lantern at night. A dark curtain concealed their whereabouts from the enemy.
Lined behind them were jiishigaami, or ceramic containers, which contained the bones of the deceased. Higa said he was uneasy about working in someone's final resting place. The Japanese put up virtually no resistance in the first two days, Higa recalls. Okinawa took such a beating because one Japanese division had been pulled and sent to Formosa, leaving Okinawa under-defended, said Higa. By the close of the second day, the island was cut completely in half. The Marines went north and the Army proceeded south. The 96th Division was [missing text] enemies.
Higa estimates that in two weeks, the 96th lost about a third of its combat strength, with the Japanese losing an equal number. Nakandakari sensei later told Higa that the Japanese army was effective for only 50 days of the nearly three-month-long Battle of Okinawa.
The Japanese troops were pushed back to the south after their line at Shuri, Okinawa's ancient capital, had been broken. The headquarters of the 96th was moved one last time, to Yonaha.
In May, shortly before Okinawa was secured, two men were brought in. Their uniforms were tattered and they were hungry. Higa was ordered to interrogate them. He offered them some biscuits and D-rations, a hard chocolate candy bar, which is equivalent of a complete meal.
The prisoners refused to eat. "Why won't you eat?" he asked. They said they thought the rations contained poison. "Baka yaro! (Stupid!)" Higa shouted at them. He began nibbling at the candy bar to show them that it hadn't been laced. Relieved, they began gobbling down the candy bars.
The two had been captured in a cave. When they refused to come out after repeated calls from U.S. soldiers, the engineers had sealed the cave and planted dynamite. The two frantically dug themselves out. The American soldiers were waiting when they surfaced. The men surrendered and were brought into headquarters.
After giving them time to compose themselves, Higa began his interrogation. Their answer to his question about the school they had attended, Kishaba Shogakko, made his ears perk up--for Higa had attended the same school.
Without revealing his identity, he began asking more specific questions, drawing on his memories of school. "Each response led me to believe that these guys were my classmates." Finally he asked whether they knew Nakandakari sensei. They were shocked. How would this American G.I. possibly know Nakandakari sensei? Higa looked them square in the eye. "I'm an American Military Intelligence Service language school graduate, noncommissioned officer. I know everything about you guys. Don't lie to me," he ordered sternly.
Higa decided to put them through one final test. "Do you remember one of your classmates named Takejiro Higa from Shimabuku?" he asked. They were shocked.
"How do you know him?" they asked. "I told you I know everything about you guys. Don't lie to me," Higa repeated.
One prisoner said he heard Takejiro Higa had gone back to Hawaii. They hadn't seen each other for so long and didn't know where he was, nor if they would recognize him today.
By then Higa was positive they were his classmates. "I looked at them straight in the face, and in Okinawa-go (Okinawan dialect), said, 'Godammit, don't you recognize your own classmate?'" They looked up, shocked beyond belief, and began crying.
"Why are you crying?" asked Higa. They said they were crying for joy. After answering his questions they thought they were no longer useful and would thus be executed.
"Now, knowing that our own classmate is on the other side, we believe our lives will be saved. That's why we're crying, because we're happy."
Higa couldn't restrain his emotions any longer. "The three of us grabbed each other's shoulders and had a cry." Higa says he still gets "chickenskin" whenever he recalls the reunion.
He never saw the two again. What he regrets most is that he can't remember their names. So far, his search for them has been futile.
Higa interrogated suspected imposters at the civilian compound at Sashiki-Chinen for the remainder of the Okinawa offensive. One of them was a Japanese colonel. The incident is testament of how valuable Higa's personal knowledge of Okinawa was to America.
He nabbed the colonel after his claim to be from Yamachi village turned up a series of inconsistencies. And how did Higa know? He had grown up in neighboring Shimabuku village.
Finally in perfect Uchinaguchi, he asked, "Who the hell are you?" The prisoner was stuck. He couldn't understand a word of what Higa had said. He then proceeded to tear apart the prisoner's story.
"Ah, shimatta! (Dammit!)" exclaimed the colonel, who thought he would get better treatment in a civilian refugee camp than in an Army POW camp. And he might have gone though undetected had Higa not been assigned to interrogate him. Higa concedes also that he might not have detected the charade had the colonel claimed to have been from a village Higa was unfamiliar with.
Higa remained in Okinawa for the duration of the battle - early August - when the 96th Division returned to the Philippines. En route, they learned of the bombing of Hiroshima and. Nagasaki which ended the war. The division reached. Mindoro on Aug. 15, the day Japan surrendered, bringing World War II to a close.
Warren Higa had accumulated enough points for an immediate discharge. Takejiro, however, was sent to Korea, where he interrogated Japanese evacuees for almost four months. He had wanted to remain in Okinawa and serve with the Occupational forces, but his request was denied because the 96th was being reorganized.
The Okinawa Takejiro Higa left behind when he boarded the transport ship back to the Philippines in 1945 was very different from his memories of Okinawa in 1939. "Everything was burned out, especially in the south. . . . The worst ground battle of World War II took place in Okinawa. Just about everything was busted up. You couldn't recognize anything."And there were changes from 1945, when the war ended, to 1965, when Higa returned to Okinawa for the first time since the war's end. The landmarks were all different. What he had seen as targets 20 years earlier were gone.
Higa did not see Nakandakari sensei, whom he bad interrogated, until his first visit back to the island. Today, the bond formed in childhood and strengthened in war remains tight.
Higa visits Nakandakari whenever he goes to Okinawa nowaday. At 83 years of age, his former teacher--and prisoner - is still spry and healthy. "'Take one bottle of whiskey and I go visit him," says Higa, smiling broadly. "We have oodles of things to talk about."
In retrospect, he says he's glad he was sent to the Pacific warfront--and to Okinawa. Innocent people were killed; that is the nature of war. But if his personal knowledge of not just Japanese, but of the Okinawan language and culture saved even one life, Takejiro Higa is content Today he can tell the story of going to war--and finding his peace.
Karleen Chinen's article was reprinted courtesy of The Hawaii Herald. Copyright is retained by The Hawaii Herald.