The Battle of Okinawa: 70 years later

  • Published
  • By Stephen Ove
  • 18th Wing historian
On the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, Peace Prayer Park serves as a reminder of that historic battle. It is an experience of contrasts for those who visit southern Okinawa. It is acres of monuments to a great battle, scenic vistas, towering sea cliffs and solemn storytelling. But to Okinawa it is a warning to the world.

With Peace Prayer Park, Okinawans expertly crafted a museum to do something extraordinary; shine a light upon a dark period in their history in hopes it might admonish war as a solution to international conflict.

Okinawans found themselves on both sides and surrounded by conflict as the world's largest amphibious invasion enveloped their island on April 1, 1945. In reality, of all the many people present, they share only one thing in common--a cultural narrative of epic suffering and inconsolable loss. However, as a civilization, Okinawa's loss of one third of its population in 82 days placed it, for a time, squarely in the path of extinction. Though the people endured, their experience shaped their attitudes to this day, experiences ranging from personal tragedies to the loss of entire families.

The milestone at 70 brings into focus the now dwindling population of survivors from all sides. With their passing goes too a cloud of deeply dark, deeply personal experiences that defy explanation or even a modern equivalent. With sunset approaching so many survivors comes a need for new generations to better understand the battle and appreciate its consequences, and Okinawa's often overlooked role in world history.

Perceptions and preconceptions, both good and bad, were formed in the growing conflict between the U.S. and Japan, tempered during the violent experience of the war and cooled to the shape it holds today in its chaotic aftermath. The survivors carry memories of relentless artillery, a typhoon of steel, banal violence, fetid caves, hunger, sacrifice, reintegration camps, food, recovery, and hope.  These personal memories indelibly forged the post-war consciousness of Japan, the U.S. and Okinawa.

For the lucky that did not perish immediately, the battle left an artifact in the psyches of its survivors. Documented psychological injuries raged in a way unknown to the U.S. in the Pacific War, requiring for the first time an entire field hospital devoted to psychoses. While that cost was often, literally, unspeakably traumatic for the victors, the vanquished suffered more in every measure. All survivors were burdened to tell the story of what was lost, but stymied in their ability to give words to the horrors they endured, often deferring the opportunity to speak of what their minds never could truly process.

Now, 70 years later, it's hard to explain how strong our alliance has become to those who fought here. But it is up to us, their decedents, to resolve to continue the discussion.