Most Leathernecks viewed Okinawans merely as more “Japs,” who might look and act somewhat differently from those the Marines had previously encountered but who were still subject to suspicion and definitely not to be trusted. “All they know about Americans is what they get from Tokyo propaganda,” the handouts warned, “so you can expect them to look at you as though you were a combination of Dracula and the Sad Sack— at first, anyway.” What Tokyo was telling the Okinawans , and what was being reinforced by a large majority of the Japanese soldiers Tokyo had sent to their island, was that the Americans were devils, in the most literal and loathsome sense of the term. They were devils whose sole desire was to kill Okinawans in the most brutal , merciless ways possible. They would shoot Okinawan men on sight, but instead of a quick kill , they preferred to leave their victims writhing in agony for as long as possible. They would rape and torture Okinawan women and butcher their children before their eyes . At times, they would pretend to be friendly, but the gifts of candy or other food they offered were always laced with poison.
To emphasize these points, some Japanese soldiers supplied the Okinawans with grenades so that they could blow up themselves and their children before the American devils could subject them to their unquenchable bloodlust. But when U.S. troops began finding grenades hidden on civilians, their first assumption was that the explosive charges were intended to hurt or kill Americans, rather than as instruments of self-destruction. Hence, every confrontation between traumatized natives and wary invaders held the potential for violent tragedy. It may have been somewhat worse in the early going, but what no American could anticipate was the depth, intensity— and obsessive power— of many Okinawans’ fear. It seemed to have a life of its own.
By their very nature, the Okinawans were a peaceful, nonaggressive people, who hadn’t seen armed conflict on their soilin more than 300 years. Then the Americans had come, first to rain fire bombs and high-explosive shells on their cities and towns and later to storm ashore by the tens of thousands, sweeping across the countryside, brandishing their awesome weapons and , it seemed, searching for Okinawans to brutalize and murder.
“The most pitiful things about the Okinawan civilians,” said PFC Gene Sledge of K/ 3/ 5, “were that they were totally bewildered by the shock of our invasion, and they were scared to death of us. Countless times they passed us on the way to the rear with fear, dismay, and confusion on their faces.”
Author George Feifer cites the case of eleven-year-old Shigeko Sonan, eldest daughter of a family in Gushikawa, a village seven miles east of the landing beaches, near the east (Pacific) coast. Although ordered by the Japanese to evacuate before the landing, the family had elected to stay, and Shigeko, her three younger sisters, and their pregnant mother were terrorized by the preinvasion bombs and shells, some of which landed in their village. In school, Shigeko had been taught all about “subhuman Americans who drowned deformed infants and killed healthy but unwanted babies by bashing their heads against a wall,” wrote Feifer in his book, Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb. “She knew about their racist yearning to destroy and depopulate Divine Japan, except for the few attractive women they planned to keep for their insatiable animal lust.” Not surprisingly, Shigeko was petrified with fear when the invaders began marching toward Gushikawa. When an American plane flew overhead, she believed it was shooting directly at her as she took cover. After the girl’s father made his way home from working as an enforced laborer for the Japanese, the family decided to flee with as much food as they could carry and try to reach the northern village where they’d been assigned. But a bombed-out bridge forced them to leave their provisions behind, and they struggled on by foot, traveling only at night.
The family came close to starvation , but when Shigeko and the other children accepted chocolate and K-rations from the Americans, their parents threw the food away, fearing it was poisoned. Eventually , the children’s hunger won out, and they ate some of the food, anyway. Otherwise, they subsisted on boiled grass, tree bark, edible palms, and discarded half-rotten sweet potatoes. As the family fled from one end of the island to the other, some of the huts where they hid were burned by advancing U.S. troops, and Shigeko witnessed the rape of a young woman by two American soldiers. At the scene of a fierce battle, they came upon dozens of blown-apart Japanese corpses. Too weak from hunger to dig deep enough to bury the bodies completely, they collapsed from exhaustion among the corpses, stuffing leaves in their noses in an effort to block out the smell. The family’s plight continued for more than three months and might have lasted longer if Shigeko’s mother hadn’t given birth while seriously ill with malaria. The children were walking skeletons, and, because of her illness, Shigeko’s mother had no milk for the baby. Faced with all this, the girl’s father finally brought his family down from the mountains and surrendered to the Americans. Within a few hours, they were in a detention camp, where they were fed and sprayed with DDT, but the ordeal had been too much for Shigeko’s four-year-old sister , who died a few days later of illness and malnutrition. Surviving family members weren’t allowed to return to their village for ten months after the fighting ended, and when they got there, all their possessions were gone. Despite this, the Sonans were luckier than most Okinawan families. Only one family member had succumbed to their ordeal; none had met violent death at the hands of the American devils , and none had committed suicide.
Corporal Don Dencker of the 96th Infantry Division’s 382nd Regiment, Second Battalion, had paused in the drive east across the island when he confronted his first civilians. As Dencker and his buddy, PFC Ernie Zimmer, were setting up their mortar and dining on K-rations, they noticed an Okinawan woman come out of a cave on a nearby hill. She glanced down at the two GIs for a moment, then quickly ducked back inside. Dencker hadn’t seen even one Japanese soldier, either dead or alive, since coming ashore, but he decided the cave warranted investigation. With Zimmer covering him, he drew his .45 and approached to within about fifty feet of the entrance. “De-tay-ko-ee!” Dencker yelled. The strange-sounding phrase meant “come out” in Japanese and was among three or four potentially useful expressions included in the GIs’ preinvasion orientation. Dencker waited. When nothing happened, he eased closer to the cave and yelled again: “De-tay-ko-ee!” This time , seven figures slowly emerged— three women, two children, and two old men— and stood staring at Dencker in obvious terror. When he motioned them forward, they took a few halting steps toward him, then stopped. The women sobbed and whispered nervously to each other. “Move! Move!” Dencker shouted, advancing to within a few feet of the group and pointing to the path that led down the hillside. The Okinawans still stood there immobilized by fright until one old man stepped forward . He pointed to the pistol in Dencker’s hand, then to his own head, repeating the gesture several times until its meaning became distressingly clear: He was asking— actually pleading— for Dencker to shoot him in the head. Dencker refused, of course, and after several more minutes, he managed to coax the group down from the hill and into the company’s defensive perimeter. When two MPs showed up a short time later and led the civilians away to one of the detention centers hurriedly being set up in rear areas , Dencker felt a surge of relief. For the time being, he thought , the war was over for these Okinawans, and they’d been spared— in part, at least, from themselves and their own anguished fears. But as Dencker and his comrades would later see with their own eyes, thousands of other innocent noncombatants would be denied this little group’s good fortune. Within the next few days, they would come across the bodies of dozens of civilians who had died of self-inflicted wounds.
CORPORAL DAN LAWLER of K/ 3/ 5’ s machine-gun section had never seen kids refuse to eat candy— not until now. But the little Okinawan boy, who looked about seven years old and had ventured out of a cave with his younger sister, was adamant about it. When Lawler held out a K-ration chocolate bar to the boy, he shook his head so hard that Lawler was afraid it would fall off his skinny shoulders. “They were the cutest damn kids you ever saw,” Lawler recalled more than sixty years later. “Neither one of them appeared to be injured, but they were both so scared they were shaking, and their clothes were streaked with dried blood.” Lawler continued to hold the chocolate bar out toward them, smiling and awkwardly repeating a phrase that he thought meant, “Don’t be afraid. Come on out, and we’ll give you some food.” The boy shook his head again, his eyes wide with fright. “The kid thinks the candy’s poisoned,” said Lawler’s assistant gunner. “The Japs’ve told these people if they ask us for anything we’ll kill ’em. Maybe if you took a bite of the candy yourself, the kid might change his mind.” Lawler shrugged and bit off a corner of the bar. He chewed it up and swallowed it, then licked his lips. “See, it’s good,” he coaxed. “Come on, try it.” The boy took a couple of steps forward with his sister peeking out from behind him, then he hesitated and shrank back. Lawler broke the other corner off the bar and ate it, too, with elaborate expressions of enjoyment . “Umm, that’s really delicious! You’d better come on and get it before I eat it all.” The kids couldn’t stand it any longer. The boy sidled up to Lawler, took what was left of the bar, broke off a piece for his sister, then gobbled down the rest. He managed a small smile as he turned and shouted something toward the cave. Then a whole group of Okinawans crept out into the daylight, smiling, bowing, and moving in slow motion with their eyes glued to Lawler and the other Marines. There were eight of them in all—two other children, two women, and two ancient, virtually toothless men. “We gave them all some candy,” Lawler recalled, “but they still refused to touch it unless one of us ate some of it first. You could tell they didn’t trust us as far as they could throw us.”
As Ushijima’s army deteriorated into small groups, desperate soldiers sought any means to elude advancing U.S. forces. Many attempted to slip past American lines by posing as civilians and mingling with women and children. “Near Itoman, we set up trip wires across the road that would set off flares if anybody hit one of them,” recalled Lieutenant Colonel Spencer Berger, commanding the Second Battalion, Seventh Marines. “That night, a mass of people— about 150 of them— came along and set off our flares. Many of them appeared to be women in kimonos, but then our guys noticed that some of them were also wearing boots.” Berger hesitated only a few seconds before ordering his troops to open fire. Almost every member of the group was killed —including more than forty kimono-clad Japanese soldiers.
Between June 1 and June 23, when the battle for Okinawa would officially end, American land and naval artillery eclipsed their earlier bombardments by pouring nearly 7 million rounds into the compressed southern area where the refugees crowded among the remnants of Ushijima’s army. Dead and dying civilians littered the roads and roadsides as dazed orphans and maimed adults dragged past, some crawling on hands and knees, with no concept of where they were going. To Tokuyu Higashionna, an Okinawan schoolteacher who crossed the area while trying to reach the town of Kyan on the southern coast, the scenes of mothers carrying dead children and living children lying on the corpses of dead mothers defied description. It was, he said, “Utter horror… dead everywhere … everywhere!…literally hell.” Every tragedy seems to have its elements of irony. The irony of this one was that, if the Okinawans had only done as they were instructed by either the Japanese or the Americans, the vast majority of civilian deaths could have been avoided. The Chinen Peninsula, which juts into the Pacific Ocean about four miles southeast of the town of Yonabaru, and where the civilians had been ordered to go by the 32nd Army, was almost totally untouched by the fighting. Likewise, if the noncombatants had assembled on the west coast highway and avoided Japanese troops, as the American leaflets urged , they also would have found safe haven, along with sufficient food and water, in the detention camps. As it was, however, close to 15,000 civilians are believed to have died during the retreat from Shuri alone— about the same toll suffered by Japanese troops— and those who survived then found themselves in a grinding trap between the armies from which there was no escape.
Evidence suggests that extremely few Okinawan civilians were actually “gung-ho” enough to stage deliberate attacks against Marines or GIs. But the thousands who leaped to their deaths from high cliffs, slashed their children’s throats, or blew themselves to bits with Japanese-provided hand grenades to avoid American brutality are ample proof that the Americans’ distrust was returned a hundredfold. Some sources contend, however, that the majority of Okinawans didn’t commit suicide but became victims of disease, starvation, Japanese atrocities, and indiscriminate American bombing and shelling. “[ T] he greater number of civilians slaughtered on Okinawa… more often died in days or weeks rather than minutes,” wrote historian George Feifer, “with that much more time to witness the agony of their families.” Meanwhile, some of the same Japanese soldiers in whom the Okinawans had placed infinite trust became the natives’ worst enemies. As the soldiers grew more desperate for food, water, and temporarily safe shelter, they systematically slaughtered men, women, and children who got in their way. Numerous eyewitness accounts tell of Japanese soldiers murdering crying children in cold blood for fear their cries would attract Americans to the soldiers’ hiding places. Military deaths on both sides of the battle totaled just under 120,000— at least 20,000 fewer than the number of noncombatants who died during the same period, according to official estimates. Virtually every Okinawan lost family members to the battle . About one of every three civilians living on the island in the spring of 1945 was killed. As the Japanese 32nd Army was collapsing and during the final mop-up by American forces, approximately 80,000 Okinawan civilians surrendered to GIs and Marines. Up to half of these were wounded, and many might well have died without the food, medical care, and other assistance they received at U.S . refugee centers.
Sloan, Bill (2007-10-23). The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945–The Last Epic Struggle of World War II (pp. 310-311). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.