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The Ultimate Travel Guide: War Tour of Okinawa

For the Japanese, Okinawa is the perfect opportunity to escape the rat race and indulge in some relaxation in a tropical haven. The appeal extends to foreigners worldwide who come for the serene nature, the abundant sea life, the sweltering beaches and turquoise oceans. However, there’s much more that lies beneath the surface. Okinawa has a rich and staggering history across many centuries. Not only was the island home to an ancient kingdom memorialised in the form of ruins and a scattering of tombs, but a more recent horrifying past. The island played host to the bloodiest and most ferocious battles of the Pacific War. Okinawa stood as the last remaining obstacle before the Allies could advance to the mainland of Japan. As such, the war on Okinawa was fierce and unrelenting.

Scattered throughout the island are harsh reminders of the war. In modern times they’re the extensive number of American military bases, where the past is represented by monuments and artefacts that remain practically untouched since the end of the war. For some, the opportunity to explore sites that once played a significant role in some of the most devastating moments in human history is an awe-inspiring experience. A unique opportunity to walk in the footsteps of warriors, and touch the same blood-soaked stones as they did.

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Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters

Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters war on okinawa
The corridors of the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters

The many hundreds of meters of interconnected corridors and rooms that served the Japanese Navy played a vital role in the nation’s war effort. The headquarters was constructed to over-watch the strategically important airport and provided a secure location for the Navy’s high-ranking officials to command from. The tunnels were once home to thousands of soldiers, though many would never leave. Up to 4,000 lives were lost here, many of which were by their own hands as the Japanese neared defeat.

One of the most fascinating rooms in the whole complex of tunnels is the main command room. The walls have significant damage in the form of small holes and scuffs. Their significance only becomes clear from the small sign hanging on the wall. This is where on the 13th of June 1945, commander Minoru Oota sent a telegram to his superiors declaring the war on Okinawa had been unsuccessful, though the island’s citizens 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 war on Okinawa to a swift end.

1,000 Man Cave

Visitors to the little island of Ie Shima on the northwest of Okinawa will find little more than a small community of farmers, though the small contingent of US Marines should be an unwelcome reminder of the island’s past. This tiny island was unfortunately home to some of the most fierce battles of the Pacific War. Many of the island’s residents had nowhere to escape the carnage. Their only option was to take shelter in an enormous cave on the southern end of the island.

The enormous cavern known as 1,000 Man Cave became home for the locals on the island for an entire three months as the fighting continued around them. The cave’s residents had to deal with the harshest of conditions. Coral rock walls and the consistent movement of the tides deeper into the cave made for a difficult experience.

Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw ridge war on okinawa
Hacksaw Ridge

Though the entire island of Okinawa is essentially a battleground, some sites hold more significance than others. The Japanese headquarters was stationed just south of Maeda Ridge, otherwise known by the American military as Hacksaw Ridge. The Americans had no choice but to scale the near-vertical limestone cliff to reach the headquarters and ultimately win the battle. Thus, it was the site of one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles of the entire Pacific War.

Many tales originate from this battleground, one of which became the focus of a recent Hollywood adaptation. That’s the story of Desmond Doss, an American soldier and a non-combatant by his religious beliefs. He faced one of the bloodiest battles in history without a weapon in his hand. Despite the clear disadvantage, that didn’t prevent him from saving between 50-100 men from both sides by carrying them to safety.

Reconstructed ruins of Urasoe Castle

Today it’s hard to believe the devastation that took place here. The cliff-edge now has a thick cover of foliage that has grown unhindered since the end of the war. 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. The site functioned as the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom that once ruled the island. Along with a number of tomb complexes, Hacksaw Ridge is positively oozing with historical relevance.

Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Park

Peace Memorial Park war on okinawa
The Peace Memorial Park

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 park’s main attraction is the Peace Memorial Museum, housing several exhibits detailing the build-up to the war, the war itself and its aftermath.

Closer towards the cliff’s edge is the “Cornerstone of Peace“; a collection of gravestones engraved with the names of each victim of the war in Okinawa. They include the names of both military and civilians, with nationalities extending to Koreans, Taiwanese and even Britons. Nearby is also a collection of enormous monuments from each of the 46 prefectures across Japan. Some commanding an enormously large area and excessive grandeur. The perimeter of the park also has a number of cave entrances which the military would use to launch attacks and survey the coast.

Todoroki Cave

todoroki cave war on okinawa

Okinawa has an extraordinary number of cave systems, many having served as headquarters and avenues of attacks by the Japanese military against the invading Americans. The island’s inhabitants would also use them to shelter from the destruction. These days, a few caves have become part of regular tours, turning into another basic user-friendly experience. However, some remain untouched and hidden from the public, providing a completely organic experience.

Todoroki Cave was originally used by sheltering civilians, though as the war came to an end and the defeat of Okinawa neared, the military also began taking shelter. Food and supplies ran short as the excess of people began dying of starvation. Once discovered, the Americans began throwing in grenades and petrol bombs to flush the inhabitants out. The most horrific tale is that of a crying baby being strangled to death from fear it would alert their position.

Coming with a torch is vital to see in the total darkness. Only then will you be able to see the incredible formations and the huge number of stalactites hanging from above. The most fascinating aspect of the cave is the number of shrines which would have been used by the cave’s former inhabitants. It provides a shocking reminder of the role it once played.

Stairway to Todoroki Cave

The cave is well-hidden and completely isolated. Concrete stairs and metal railings lead into a collapsed cavern to a point where the path vanishes. The entrance to the cave is a pitch-black hole about 1/3 the size of a regular door. Visitors must slide in feet first before crawling on hands and knees to enter the cavern. Due to the complete lack of people and safety measures, you should go with a guide, though not necessary.

Observation Post

On the outskirts of Nakagusuku Village, a location once regarded by the ancient Ryukyu Government as a place of worship stands the remains of a Japanese observation post. The point is known as 161.8, referring to its position above sea level. The stone observation post has an open view overlooking central Okinawa and outwards towards the ocean, playing a vital role during the war on Okinawa. It gives another unique outlook on how the war was fought, and the extent of the Japanese military’s defences. The observation post comes equipped with defence trenches and even connects to yet another cave system underneath.

Himeyuri Peace Museum

This museum is a dedication to 240 female students and teachers from the Okinawa Normal School and Okinawa First Girls’ High School that were inducted into the Okinawa Army Field Hospital during the war. The students aged between 17-18 worked in appalling conditions around the clock. Their base was within a cave network which is located just in front of the museum. They were tasked with endlessly caring for the injured and burying of the dead, all while withstanding constant bombardment and gunfire.

On June 18, 1945, the students were dismissed from their position, though their problems were far from over. They had nowhere to escape as the Americans continued their assault on the island. Many were killed in the ensuing battles, while others trapped within the cave were killed by poison gas attacks. Other students decided to end their own lives before having to face the Americans. Of the 240 students and teachers conscripted into the war on Okinawa, 227 died.

Ernie Pyle Monument

On April 16th, 1945, roughly 6,000 men and women lost their lives that took place on Ie Island. Some of those that fought were simply volunteers from the island wishing to defend their homes. One of the victims of the battle was the front-line correspondent, Ernie Pyle. His brutally honest depictions of life on the battlefield and the hardships of the American troops brought him to national recognition. A few minutes away from the island’s main port at his original burial site stands the Ernie Pyle Memorial. Annually the Okinawa American Legion and the stationed Marines hold a memorial service.

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