The island of Okinawa is an unbelievable draw to not only the citizens of Japan, but also to people from across the globe. There’s plenty of appeal to this tropical little island; the beautiful nature, the abundant sea-life and the sweltering beaches. However for me, this wasn’t the main draw. Okinawa happens to come with it an incredibly rich and staggering history. Not just the ancient past with the ruins of former kingdoms and scattering of tombs, but a more recent horrifying past. Those are the scars left behind from the relatively recent Second World War.
The island played host to the bloodiest and most ferocious battles of the Pacific War. It was the last stop before the Allies could launch an assault on the mainland, thus the Japanese fiercely defended the island until the bitter end. For better or for worse, I consider myself a war buff. Nothing fascinates me more than remnants of war. I find it extraordinary being able to explore structures or locations that once played a significant role in some of the most devastating moments in human history. To be able to walk in the footsteps of warriors, touch the very same stones as they did, to share the exact same views of the land as they contemplated their futures, fearing for their lives.
The war in Okinawa left behind plenty of opportunities such as this, of all different varieties. The majourity of my week-long trip on the island was spent touring as many different locations related to the war as I could find.
Underground Navy Headquarters
A familiar niggle I have when visiting attractions that have been there for many years is finding they’ve been through a significant amount of restoration. One could make the argument that its not even the same. There’s nothing more authentic than seeing an attraction exactly the way it was, without a single detail changed. This was my experience in the Underground Navy Headquarters.
The tunnels played a vital role in the Japanese war effort. As American forces concentrated on the Southern tip of the island, the headquarters was constructed to over-watch the strategically important airport. It consists of many hundred of meters of interconnected corridors and rooms that served the Japanese Navy. This is also where the Navy’s high ranking officials would command their war effort. There is no better evidence of the war in Okinawa than here.
Its spine-tingling being able to walk in the footsteps of countless soldiers that called this place home. Stepping on stones once bathed in the blood of the men that fought and died in these very tunnels. Even more eerie knowing the significant amount of lives that were lost here. A considerable amount of sailors committed suicide as it became clear that the war in Okinawa was nearing defeat. Up to 4,000 men died within these walls.
Without doubt the most fascinating room throughout the whole complex of tunnels was the main command room. On first impressions you notice the significant damage across the walls in the form of small holes and scuffs. It was difficult to recognise the significance of these markings if it wasn’t for a small sign hanging on the wall. This is where on the 13th of June 1945, commander Minoru Oota sent a telegram to his superiors on how the efforts of the Okinawan people had been unsuccessful, though they should be commended for their bravery. Shortly after, commander Oota committed suicide by detonating a grenade in his hands, which riddled the surrounding walls with shrapnel. That brought the battle of Okinawa to a swift end.
The entire island of Okinawa can be considered a battleground, though some sites hold much more significance than others. Even few have remained practically the same ever since the war. Before arriving, some prior research was in order to find some of the best sites worth visiting on the island. What better way than by watching a Hollywood movie based on the war in Okinawa? The events that took place at Hacksaw Ridge were significant enough to warrant a movie of the same title.
The Japanese headquarters was stationed just south of Maeda Ridge, otherwise known by the American military as Hacksaw Ridge. In order to reach the headquarters, the Americans had no choice but to scale the near-vertical limestone cliff face to win the battle. Thus, it was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the entire Pacific War. It became an fierce unrelenting battle, taking a significant number of life from both sides.
The movie Hacksaw Ridge, was based around the most fascinating story to come out of this ferocious battle. It followed the story of an American soldier called Desmond Doss, a non-combatant by his religious beliefs. That meant he faced one of the bloodiest battles in history without a weapon in his hand. Despite the clear disadvantage, that didn’t stop him from saving between 50-100 men on both sides by carrying them to safety. One of the many heroes to come from the war in Okinawa.
Today it’s hard to believe of the devastation that took place here. The cliff-edge these days has a thick cover of foliage that has been allowed to grow unhindered ever since the war. What was once a blood-stained battleground today is nothing more than a relaxing picnic area over-looking the rest of the island.
Amazingly the devastation of the war is not the only historical relevance the area has. Just to the left of the ridge stand the reconstructed ruins of Urasoe Castle. This site functioned as the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom that commanded the island. Along with a number of essentially untouched tomb complexes, Hacksaw ridge is positively oozing with historical relevance.
Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Park
The last stop on my war tour of Okinawa, became the perfect end to this melancholic journey of history. The Peace Memorial Park is a site with a collection of memorials to the ravages of the war in Okinawa. A stark reminder as to why such a disaster should never occur again. The main attraction to the park is the Peace Memorial Museum, home to several exhibits detailing the build-up to the war, the war itself and its aftermath. However, spending more money on the island didn’t interest me, so I gave this one a miss.
Closer towards the cliffs edge is the “Cornerstone of Peace“, a collection of grave stones engraved with the names of the victims of the war. Include the names of both military and civilians, it was surprising to learn the extent of victims of the war. Nationalities that included Koreans, Taiwanese and even Britons.
Nearby is also a collection of enormous monuments as a dedication from each of the 46 prefectures across Japan. Some commanding an enormously large area and excessive grandeur.
As much as this experience should have been my time to appreciate the end of the war, the fascinating intrigue of it was too much to resist. At the end of the long row of monuments, a walkway led across the edge of the cliff for a view over the ocean. I spotted a sign pointing towards a staircase leading down the cliff-face labelled something along the lines of “army headquarters”. It led to the mouth of a cave which would have been used by the military to launch surprise attacks and observe the horizons of the oceans for approaching enemies. Sadly, the entrance had a double-gate and sturdy padlock. Even if I wanted to sneak in for a look, it couldn’t be done. What a shame.
However, I got a taste of adventure, and a determination to find something I could explore. If there was one cave opening here used by the military, there had to be several others scattered around the area. All these cave systems are connected, often having a number of entrances/openings. I just had to find them.
I continued down the staircase through the thick shrubbery as the sound of the ocean waves became stronger. I came to a little collection of monuments next to a few stone steps leading beneath some boulders. Beneath they seemed to have had some work done, with the addition of some concrete supports. An opening beneath the boulder led deeper into the abyss. I’m confident it could lead into a much deeper into a cave system, though many years shut the opening for good. Neither did I want to delve deeper into an incredibly tight opening without knowing if it was possible.
That wouldn’t be the last cave I would find that day. Continuing along the coastline and leaving the grounds of the park far behind, I was searching for an unmarked path. I had already researched different cave systems to visit, which is where I found Todorki Cave. On the same site (Dark Tourism) I also found out about a lesser cave around the vicinity of the park. I was about to find it.
At the end of the path, a small cave opening hid behind a single monument. Compared to Todoroki, the inside of the cave was much smaller in size, though it had an equally creepy vibe. The cave was filled with a collection of trash bags, some full of simple medical supplies such as sterile wipes. It was bizarre to say the least. Who had been here? As I exited the cave, nearby I spotted a bunch of clothes hanging on a make-shift washing line and a shifting body. I might have entered someones home. I took my leave and escaped before I had a confrontation.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.