The Battle of Okinawa: 50 Years Later

Two Veterans, Two Perspectives

By Karleen Chinen
The Hawaii Herald
August 8, 1995

They came together on a humid June day in Okinawa, where the bloodiest and costliest land battle in the Pacific was waged 50 years ago: enemies, innocent bystanders and today's messengers of peace. They came to remember the horror of a half-century ago and to recommit themselves to building a peaceful world. Most of the more than 300 Americans who gathered in southern Okinawa on former battlegrounds - erased and replaced with tributes to peace - were veterans of the Battle of Okinawa.

This story presents the perspectives of two men - both of Okinawan ancestry, both veterans, of different wars, however. Takejiro Higa served as an interrogator, translator and interpreter with the Military Intelligence Service in World War ll. On April 1, 1945, he was part of the invasion forces that landed on Okinawa, where he had spent the formative years of his life, from age 2 to 16. Higa's Okinawa experience was profiled in the July 2, 1993 edition of the Herald.

The other perspective is that of Brigadier General Paul Chinen, a Hawaii-born sansei who retired from the U.S. Army last year after 31 years of service. Chinen, who was accompanied by his wife Karen, mother Betty and younger brother Albert, attended the ceremonies in Okinawa with several members of the Hawaii Uchinanchu Business Group. It was his first visit to his ancestral homeland. We were interested in how this career military man viewed the battle that devastated the land where his roots begin.

For Takejiro Higa, this trip was "very, very special." "Ever since I heard about the memorial service; I had planned to go and pay my respects to those who died - not only military, but civilians, too."

Higa's former school teacher, 86-year-old Shunsho Nakamura - whom he visits whenever he travels to Okinawa - had told him many times that because of the nisei linguists, many Okinawans hiding in caves were saved. Still, he'd never heard it with his own ears. Until last month.

Shortly after arriving in Okinawa, Higa was interviewed by a Ryukyu Shimpo reporter about his experiences as an American soldier in Okinawa during the war. Soon after the article was published, the reporter, Miwa Saito, received a call from a woman, asking to meet Higa.

Toyo Tawada said she had thought long and hard before deciding to contact Higa through the paper. "My life was saved by this person, but at that time, because of the education we received, I remember I reacted very strongly against him. I am truly sorry for that," she told Saito.

On April 6, 1945, Tawada was among 200 people hiding in the cave near Futenma. She was about 20 years old at the time. "If this person (Takejiro) did not come to our cave, it was clear that everybody inside had committed suicide," she said. The young people, including Tawada, refused to go out. Finally, the elders encouraged them to take a chance. "We were saved, but I remember that I threw very strong words," she told Saito.

"He was calling us by Okinawan language. I heard his name was Mr. Higa. He had saved so many people's lives. I owe Mr. Higa for the life I enjoy today . . ."

For a long time, Tawada had wanted to meet this American soldier. She finally did last month.

"That's the first time I've seen anybody, face-to-face, thanking me, that because of my continuous urging, they came out," he said.

Higa says he always tried to gain the trust of the civilians by introducing himself, telling them he was Uchinanchu, just like them. He told them his name and his parents' and grandparents' names. He told them that they were from Shimabuku village. "'I'm a nisei, born in Hawaii, but I grew up in Okinawa.' I always spoke in the Okinawan language," He assured them that they would be treated well if they came out. "That was my main point, to make them feel at ease, knowing that Uchinaa boy (an Okinawan boy) out there."

Fifty years ago, Higa's approach had made a difference. Toyo Tawada is living proof of that. "She said they were all ready to commit suicide. They all had hand grenades," Higa said. Tawada's daughter, who sat beside her mother at the meeting, also thanked Higa. "Because of you, I'm also here," she said. "I said, 'Thank you. Up to now, my only thought was, I hope I was of some help.' Hearing from a person, directly, meant so much to me. But when the daughter told me, that even hit me harder."

Higa also met up with some veterans of the 96th Division at a reception. They had been part of the invasion forces that landed on the island in. April 1945. "I didn't know them in Okinawa, but because we come from the same division, we established instant rapport," he said.

During the reception, a former Japanese officer got up on the stage and asked whether any of the Americans in the audience had fought at a particular spot in Okinawa, which he named. The response gave Higa chickenskin.

"Several hands went up. He called them up front and shaking hands, said, 'I was there and you folks fought gallantly. We all had a duty to perform at that time, and even though we think about it, it's so silly now. We have become friends. . .'

"Ey, that really hit me," said Higa. "That was really a very touching scene. Yesterday's enemy shaking hands today, and each pledging to work for peace."

Today, Okinawa bears little trace, if any, of the bloody battle that unfolded there a half-century ago. That astounded the veterans, most of whom were returning for the first time since the war's end.

"It's just unreal to them. Every one of them had nothing but praise for the tremendous recovery and reconstruction - because when they left Okinawa, hell, the whole place was just burnt out villages and countryside," said Higa.

Many of the ex-GIs were surprised at how quickly Okinawa had rebuilt itself. "They just couldn't believe the tremendous progress that took place in 50 years."

The Shimajiri, or southern part of the main island, suffered the most damage. It was totally rebuilt and is, today, not only the most populated section of Okinawa, but its business and government hub as well.

"Even me, knowing the Okinawa before the war and during the war, and now, I just marvel at the amount of progress they made over 50 years," said Higa.

It is a tribute to the spirit of the Okinawan people, he says. "American aid was tremendous. But that alone isn't enough. The bottom line is the people themselves worked hard and rebuilt."

Higa is relieved that Shimabuku village, where he grew up, was spared massive casualties. Hawaii had a lot to do with that. In the early 1900s, many of the village people had come to Hawaii to work the sugar plantations. When their contract was over, many returned to Shimabuku village. Albeit very limited, their exposure to the English language during those few years made the difference between life and death, maintains Higa.

"My parents' village had so many people who went back from Hawaii; they can speak broken English. They understand the Americans. When the GIs told them, 'Come out, come out,' they came out, and they know that Americans are not savage," like (others had been) brainwashed by the Japanese military."

Fearing a face-to-face meeting with a relative or friend he had known while growing up, Higa had serious reservations about serving in the Asia/Pacific theater. However, in time he realized how valuable his knowledge of the Okinawan language and culture were from a humanitarian standpoint.

He has but one regret about Okinawa. "If the Uchinanchu had believed in us a little bit more and followed our pleas, we could have saved a lot more people." But he realizes how badly the Okinawan civilians had been brainwashed and knows he must let go.

Higa, who was involved in the landings at Leyte in the Philippines and on Okinawa, is at peace with himself. "By using the Japanese-English dictionary, notebook, portable megaphone and my mouth, I fully discharged my obligation to being a (U.S.) citizen and at the same time helped the people I grew up among.

"The bottom line is, I was able to serve both sides without firing a shot. That part, I'm very happy. No matter how often I repeat it, I feel that's the bottom line."

As retired Brigadier General Paul Chinen rode through southern Okinawa, not far from Yonabaru, the area his paternal grandparents had left to come to Hawaii, his eyes remained fixed on the terrain, trying to visualize the Battle of Okinawa from a military standpoint.

"It's a hilly country and you've got the caves, so you can even tell by the pictures - it wasn't normal-type combat. It was more individual, hand-to-hand. So it was a real hard type of battle," he surmised.

It differed greatly from the Desert Storm type of combat, in which the soldiers couldn't see their enemy; they simply fired at a bunker or a cave. "But, if you're going cave-to-cave, you're real close. When you can hear them die and all that, it's really painful."

For the first time in 31 years, Chinen is seeing the world through civilian eyes - and through the eyes of a sansei who traces his roots back to the southernmost prefecture of Japan, where the only land invasion of Japan took place.

The commemoration day, June 23, began with speeches by dignitaries: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale, Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota and representatives from China and Korea. And then the flame of peace was lit by Okinawan, American and Taiwanese children.

"It was a very moving experience, because it is the site of the last battle," said Chinen. Some 234 children from Itoman City, home of the Peace Memorial Park, took part in the unveiling of the Cornerstone of Peace. Chinen remembers the rush of emotion he felt as the youngsters, dressed in white shirts and black shorts, unveiled the wall. "When they gave the signal, all the kids unveiled the granite at the same time. So it went from white to dark granite."

The design of the monument was meant to symbolize the transformation of the violent waves that pounded the shores of Okinawa in 1945 into eternal waves of world peace.

Chinen says it was an emotional event for everyone attending the ceremonies. The theme was peace and everything in the program was meant to symbolize peace. There were no military representatives; it was strictly a civilian event, he says.

The retired general, who served two tours in Vietnam and assignments in Central America, praised Gov. Ota as a "visionary" leader who successfully captured the spirit of peace in the ceremonies. Chinen says he never sensed any anger for the lives lost 50 years ago.

"You couldn't help but be overwhelmed to see so many people that have died in this one area of Okinawa - over 130,000 civilians, because they happened to get caught in the crossfire," said Chinen, his voice filled with compassion - and frustration - for the situation. "Here you have a battle where you have soldiers defending their country. And in the middle are all these civilian Okinawans, caught, going back and forth, being given a certain type of propaganda by Japan, committing suicide because they're afraid of the Americans. It was. just a mess," he says.

"In the military, when you talk about battles, they normally talk about tactics and strategy and logistics, the command and control. Normally, they don t talk about how many civilians died. it's kinda ignored," he said. "But in this Battle of Okinawa, there was the greatest concentration of civilians that died in one place."

As Chinen walked through the peace park and the former battlefields, he felt compassion and sorrow, not just for the civilians, but for the soldiers - both American and Japanese. "They were serving their country," he says.

There was never any hostility or animosity directed at him because of his U.S. military background, he says. Quite the contrary, he says. "What I did sense a lot of was their pride, the fact that I'm Okinawan, part of the family, that I was able to succeed in the U.S. military," he said, recalling a visit with a relative.

"They opened up the scrapbook and showed me pictures of me in the military, and they had hanging in their room a picture of me shaking hands with Gen. Wilson." Wilson was subsequently assigned to .Okinawa as the high commissioner.

Chinen was also moved by the love Okinawans feel for the people in Hawaii because of their support after the war. "That bonding that was created during the war is an everlasting feeling for everyone that was involved, and it makes it real special," he said. "I'm not sure if that bonding exists between Okinawa and Brazil or Argentina or someplace else. But it definitely exists with Hawaii."

For the first time in his life, Chinen understood what the relief items his parents and grandparents had collected meant to the Okinawans. "I didn't know what it meant until I saw it on the other side.

"My parents, at that time, were living on a farm in Kailua, so I know they weren't well off. Still, they made the sacrifice to help out. I could see the gratitude on the part of relatives to my mom, who represented the family, the appreciation. They just couldn't do enough."

For all the thought and work that went into making the commemoration of the 50 years since the battle a memorable one, Chinen fears the memory of the struggle and the lessons of the war are slipping away, even in Okinawa.

"The people that experienced the war, like Gov. Ota, it's real to them. But then you have this generation that's come up after the war that has no first-hand experience with poverty and hardship. My sensing is that for that new generation, they're already losing their sensitivity and appreciation for what happened in Okinawa.

"I'm not sure how much of this is taught in the schools," he said, noting the Japanese government's history of suppressing unflattering information. "Hopefully, through the Governor's initiative, they'll tell the story, so young people can appreciate it."

Karleen Chinen's article was reprinted courtesy of The Hawaii Herald. Copyright is retained by The Hawaii Herald.

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