One for the History Books: a Story of the Battle of Okinawa

I wish I’d had accounts like these in my high school textbooks.

Last week, I brought you the story of a WWII soldier stranded on a Pacific island for a month, forced to eat raw monkeys and move only at night. The story was told to me by the soldier’s son, himself a Vietnam veteran. It was one of only two war stories his father ever told him–the story of his first mission and the story of his last mission. “What happened in between, I don’t know,” he says.

Here is the story of the soldier’s last mission, as told by his son:

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(Some background: Okinawa was the last major battle of WWII and is the largest land-sea-air battle in history. The 82-day battle resulted in Japan losing over 77,000 soldiers and the Allies suffering 14,009 deaths [with an estimated total of more than 65,000 casualties of all kinds]. Tens of thousands of local civilians were killed or committed suicide. Japanese suicide bombers sank over 30 U.S. ships.) 

My dad’s last mission was the last big battle of the Pacific–Okinawa. It was the last landing before they dropped the atomic bomb. They were one of a bunch of pre-invasion teams that went into Okinawa to gather intelligence. It’s a relatively small island, narrow and only about 60 miles long. There are places you can stand in the middle and see ocean on both sides. The southern half is relatively hilly. It’s where all the population centers are. Before they went in, the intelligence assumed most of the Japanese were dug in on the northern half of the island. It was mostly jungle, mountainous. Rough terrain. They had estimates of 100K or more. The plan was that the Army would take the southern half, and the Marines would land on the northern part, where the Japanese were supposed to be.

My dad’s unit flew in, managed to get dropped on the beach this time. They went inland a bit and had to sneak by these bunkers the Japanese had built into the cliffs. They realized that there were a lot of Japanese on the southern end of the island. They knew it was probably wrong that most Japanese were on the north end.

Later on, after it was over, they looked at these bunkers. They were made out of cement, walls three-foot thick. When the Navy bombarded the island, they did no damage. The walls had all these slits in them, just like you see in Normandy, so the machine guns can sweep the area.

ch17p6

My dad’s unit was supposed to get off the island before the shelling started but couldn’t, I don’t know why. They were told to find a cave; Japanese were all over the place. They were there several days while the Navy flattened the southern end of the island. If you look at pictures of that end of Okinawa, there was nothing standing afterward. They really did level the island. But my dad said you could be hunkered down in a cave or gully at night and could hear the Japanese all around them. One of his buddies claimed he talked to a Japanese officer during all this who had gone to UCLA. That is a common story. Don’t know if it’s ever true. Wouldn’t be surprised.

Marines land on Okinawa

Marines land on Okinawa

So my dad’s team was sitting above the cliffs where the Japanese were in bunkers. They couldn’t do much because the Japanese were all around them. When the Army came ashore, they had to watch them just get cut to ribbons. I believe Okinawa was the bloodiest battle in the war, at least in the Pacific. The land was littered with bodies. There were 30,000 casualties. The Army just kept coming. Once they got a foothold, they joined up with some of the troops like my dad. Then their job was to clean out the bunkers best they could. They crawled around in front of the bunkers so the firing porch was right above their head. They’d pitch a grenade into the hole. If they had no grenade, they’d stick their gun barrel up above their heads, into the slot, and empty it.

My dad spent the rest of his time with a unit just cleaning out caves. They’d find a cave with Japanese inside. Pin them down and then they would take Jerry cans–they’re flat gas cans that hold five gallons of gas or something. They’d pour powdered soap into the cans, turn the gas to gel. In effect, they were making napalm. These little gel balls would fly out and if you got hit by one, it’d stick to you. It burned. So they’d tie a rope to it and get somebody to crawl above a cave, lower a can down to the mouth of the cave. A sharpshooter would shoot the can and it would explode and start burning. Sometimes the Japanese would come out, sometimes the wouldn’t.

There was a famous story of 3-400 Japanese* who didn’t want to surrender so they committed suicide. That happened while my dad was on the island. He didn’t see it but he heard about it. The Japanese basically got cornered on a peninsula, and they marched off the cliff.
Japanese suicide bomber.

Japanese suicide bomber.

So that was one of the two stories he ever really told. And I would say he told those reluctantly. I don’t know how he left Okinawa but he ended up in the Huey P. Long hospital in New Orleans after VJ day. He had some jungle diseases. High fevers, out of his head half the time.

Somewhere in there, and for what I don’t know, he got a Bronze Star, which is a medal for heroism. I found out about the Bronze Star at his funeral. My cousin was a minister and he was sitting with my mother getting information before the service. So he mentioned it at the funeral. A lot of veterans are pretty closed mouthed. He probably never would have told me about Okinawa, except that in 1968, I was going there.

*He might have also been referring to a story of hundreds of Okinawan civilians who jumped to their deaths in a mass suicide, urged on by Japanese soldiers who told them they would be raped, tortured, or killed by the conquering Americans.

Meet: John Doe

JD was stationed in Iraq from August 2010 to June 2011 as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army.

I compiled information on certain terror networks. We were trying to put a puzzle together, trying to wrap our heads around who was who and who was doing what. We got info from various sources. People talk, and it’s a good way to get information. Especially when they’re compensated.

A US Marine base in Iraq

There were no days off. I worked a minimum of 12 hours a shift starting in the late afternoon. Dusk ‘til dawn. New information was always coming in, every day. Whether the info had value depended. We had to make decisions and notify the right people and ask them what they wanted to do–React? Let it play out?

Unfortunately, I’m limited in what I can tell you. Everybody we went after, we went after for a specific reason. We weren’t going to waste resources. There were numerous times we knew things they had just done. It might have been their involvement in the death of a U.S. soldier. In those particular cases, it’s a bit more personal. Going after the person who pulled the trigger in a sniper attack, or the guys who built the vest bomb that was used to kill soldiers at a checkpoint…it doesn’t change the mission, but to say it’s not personal would be lying.

We had constant radio and visual communication with the soldiers out on a mission based on information we’d supplied them. We learned a lot early on in the war in terms of taking care of our soldiers, absolutely ensuring that nobody gets left behind, learning how to fight an urban war. We got pretty good at it. All I can say is, drones are invaluable.

A lot of the policies and restrictions that came up were because of civilian casualties, whether during a drone attack or a firefight. You’re there to accomplish a mission; it doesn’t help to have your hands tied but at the same time, you don’t want to shoot first and ask questions later.

We weren’t allowed to go off post very much, just a few times. There were bazaars where local people came on base to sell products—trinkets, bootlegged DVDs. We had interaction with a lot of the police force and Iraqi army. They wanted things to be just as peaceful as we did. I think a lot of people have a misconception that so many over there are fanatical and that just isn’t the case. These are people just like us. They get up in the morning and go to work. And they want a decent life.

Some soldiers, marines, and sailors went over there 5-6 times. It was like a second home for them. They developed relationships. A lot of trust built up between the US and Iraqi people.

I didn’t disagree with anything we did over there. The way in which the military was operating at the tail end of Operation Iraqi Freedom was geared toward being absolutely legal. It was not the Wild West. There were protocols and procedures. Absolutely.

There were times I was frustrated – you think about terrorists. These are just bad people who need to be stopped. A lot of people, myself included, want to get rid of them by any means necessary. The protocols can be frustrating. Someone can be right there, you know they did something, but just like in the States, for some reason you can’t touch them.

Not to say there wasn’t corruption going on. Suspected terrorists were caught, turned over to Iraqi authorities, and all of a sudden they were seen out in town in a day or two. It wasn’t a common occurrence, but it definitely happened.

We did the best we could with what we had and the Iraqis were doing the same. There have been bombings and attacks since we left and, with us being gone, it’s primarily Iraqi on Iraqi, but that was going on between the Shiites and Sunnis before we left. Been going on forever. Afghanistan is gonna be a lot rougher once we’re gone. I’m not nearly as optimistic about Afghanistan as I am for Iraq.

Ryan

“He served in Iraq. Three years.” The pudgy man pointed to his friend next to him, and the friend nodded over his beer.

“Cheers,” she said, and clinked bottles with him. A subtle motion, completely ineffectual.

The pudgy man continued talking to her, as if the veteran wasn’t there. “He has…what do you call it? PTD?”

“PTSD?”

“Yeah, that’s it. So we take him out once in awhile, get him drunk. Try to help take his mind off it.”

She looked at the veteran and he smiled. “You could try something else,” she said to the pudgy man. “For your friend.”

He might have heard this before, and raised his eyebrows. “Like talk to him?”

“Yeah.”

“He doesn’t talk.”

She looked back to the veteran and noticed he was popping his jaw side to side, over and over. Probably coke, or maybe ecstasy.

“I wouldn’t mind helping other vets,” he said. “I’d like to get involved in something like that. If there was a program. But I don’t want to talk about me.”

“I suppose helping other vets could help you as well.”

He shrugged. “Lots of things happen in three years. I lived it. I don’t want to talk about it. I’d rather…” He made a motion with his hands of pushing down from his chest to his stomach. “I just can’t think about it anymore. I’m here. I don’t want to think about there.”

“But maybe if you talked about it, it would leave you. At least a little. Bit by bit would leave you.”

She knew she was naïve, and probably sounded ridiculous. That the problem was too big for a conversation with a stranger over a beer. But her only other choice was to not say anything, and she couldn’t do that.

His chin rested on his chest for a moment, then he wiped at his eye with his thumb. His jaw popped.

He nodded at her beer. “You alright? I’m gonna get another.”

When he left with his friend, another man approached. “That guy’s a druggie,” he said. “I saw him here last week all coked up. Watch out.”

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A Veteran’s Post

 NEW YORK 

I’m here for a writers conference, as is my friend R.Y. Swint. She is a veteran of Afghanistan. In honor of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, and of her, I’d like to share a bit of her writing–one of my favorites.

So many events of this past year have taught me that the simple things deserve appreciation more than most others. A good box of Kleenex and some Vicks salve (VapoRub, for you uppity folks)  works wonders for my disposition, even though I’m a little under the weather.  Has me looking forward to my next sneeze as I listen to music from my childhood on YouTube or my iPod.  I hear bits and pieces of my life set to music, as so many people pass through, some fleeting, some lingering.

The Kleenex treat me like the cool side of the pillow.  The Vicks comforts me like my grandmother’s hands.  The music plays a soundtrack to a life I’d forgotten how to love.

Current plans have me attending the funeral of a fallen comrade and the wedding of a dear friend in the same weekend.  And such is how life goes.  And as life goes, I find that I’m moving along with it, but only making motions.  Watching it more than living it.  Observing, listening, appreciating, respecting it, but yet to revisit it.  Life.  As it goes.

A friend suggests that I might be exhibiting subtle symptoms of PTSD, but I doubt it.  It’s natural for folks to worry.  I wish they wouldn’t.  The monsters don’t come for me every night.  Something about the music seems to keep them at bay.

Post deployment indeed has me hovering between perpetual states of mourning and celebration.  It’s true that my patience is shorter.  My threshold for bullshit is even lower.  Self-control is a thin, yet deceptive enough veil over crazy.  Grief strikes me at the oddest moments.  Tears and dread and angst almost always follow.  For life lost, life wasted, lives forced into destinies of struggle and turmoil, and for others who will choose to walk the most difficult, misguided, and ill-advised of paths.  And then I smile or laugh in remembrance or anticipation.  Or appreciation.

My bathroom is two, maybe three feet away from my bed.  My bed is soft and warm.  The water in my shower is hot.  I just bought new shoes that I have absolutely no plans to wear any time soon.  And I no longer write with a rifle on my lap.  Simple things.

 *Originally posted on Swint’s blog, Write on Time.

Everything’s a Circle

Social psychologist Dr. Paul Slovic has conducted experiments to determine how and when people feel compassion. I’ll quote directly from Genocide Watch:

“In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary Americans to contribute five dollars to feed Rokia, a starving seven year old girl in Mali.  About half would donate the five dollars.  The same percentage would donate to save Moussa, a little boy from Mali.

But when photos of both Rokia and Moussa were shown, the percent who would donate dropped to thirty percent.  And when the photo of Rokia was shown representing 21 million hungry Africans who could be fed by a group of trusted relief organizations, the percentage who would donate dropped to less than ten percent.

Professor Slovic calls this phenomenon ‘psychic numbing.’  He believes human beings are usually unable to feel compassion for large numbers of people.  The more victims, the less compassion.”

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In a recent interview, George Clooney stated that for years he has tried to appeal to people’s hearts regarding the ongoing genocide in Darfur, but it hasn’t worked. He’s given up. So now he is going to appeal to various countries’ economic interests in the region, in hopes of getting these countries to intervene.

How could a man like George Clooney not get people interested? I assumed it was because there is just Too Much Shit going on in the world—we simply can’t care about it all. Now I’m wondering if maybe, as the study above suggests, we won’t care. Not until we hear a specific story (the “hook”), or until we can relate (there’s always the question of possible underlying racism), or until the horror is so beyond our realm of thinking that we can’t help but pay attention–e.g., The Holocaust.

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A few weeks ago, I read an article about a Holocaust survivor who, every year, tours schools speaking about his ordeal. A particular quote struck me:

“We have to keep it alive so it doesn’t happen again,” a teacher at one of the schools said.

I hear this a lot. What do we mean when we say “it”? Six million specifically? Does the genocide have to be as efficient as the Nazi system—do the victims need to dig their own graves? Do engineers need to be involved, figuring the quickest way to exterminate millions of people? Does it have to be unique as well as horrific?

Because, in reality, genocide is occuring. Right now. Today. In various places around the world. And it has been occurring in every decade since World War II.

Children in OUR world are being forced to kill their own parents. They are being kidnapped, drugged, and turned into soldiers. Seven year olds. Ten year olds. Women and girls are being raped tonight, now, by men who burned their homes and killed their families. Millions have been, are being, murdered and displaced.

There’s a quote: Everything’s a circle. Nothing’s ever new.

Is that true?