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Elegy in Okinawa

by Doug Struck, Washington Post, 20 July 2000

Yoshinaka Yamamoto crouched in the island underbrush and trained his binoculars on the incoming ships. The 23-year-old lieutenant, already battle-hardened and twice wounded in China, knew the suffering promised by the huge Allied armada poised to attack Okinawa on that April dawn 55 years ago.

The artillery barrage and bombers already had left much of the 454-square-mile Japanese island blackened and smoldering. Still, Yamamoto was confident that in bayonet-to-bayonet combat, the Japanese might prevail. What he saw through his binoculars rocked him.

"For the first time in my life, I saw ships coming out of ships. They would get to shallow water, and start to move on their own," he said of the American amphibious landing craft. "I had never thought of that idea. I was stunned. I said, my god, what kind of enemy do we face?"

Tomorrow, when Bill Clinton is scheduled to visit the solemn peace memorial on Okinawa commemorating a battle that helped end World War II, he will be the first U.S. president to visit a war memorial in Japan. He will walk among shoulder-high granite slabs inscribed with the names of the people — on both sides — who lost their lives in the fearful Battle of Okinawa.

The slabs list 14,006 American fatalities, 82 other Allied personnel, and 75,219 Japanese soldiers. But the complete horror of the battle is often suggested by the legends of mass suicides and of kamikaze bombers attacking our fleet. The number of Okinawans, most of them civilians, who died: 148,289.

For most of the world, Clinton's visit is just another ceremony marking just another bloody page in the history books. But for those who lived through that battle, the ceremony at the Okinawa Memorial Peace Park will bring back personal memories of a time so horrendous as to defy memory. And, they say, the world would do well to heed those lessons.

The young Lt. Yamamoto noticed something else as he watched the American soldiers stream ashore. They were eating as they attacked. Through his binoculars he clearly saw their jaws moving up and down.

"We didn't know about chewing gum."

The nervous, gum-chewing Americans moved ashore with surprising ease. It was their last respite. Outgunned, the Japanese army planned a trap to lure the attackers inland and ambush from the sides. They carried out the plan, but at fearsome cost. The American artillery was so dense, it shredded the countryside and filled the air with flying metal, making movement during daylight impossible.

"The bombs were like rain," Yamamoto recalled. As he led a nighttime expedition to reinforce a Japanese artillery unit, they were caught by the merciless dawn and its escort of explosives.

"The shells came in and the men simply vanished. The land, and the trees, and the men simply disappeared, as though they were extinguished," he said. Of 800 in the relief force, 350 survived; of the 51 men in Yamamoto's unit, 43 were killed that day.

"We were told if anyone was wounded in the stomach, there was no hope. They would die. I remember a soldier who was wounded in the stomach, and another soldier wanted to bring him back. The wounded man blew himself up with a grenade, but the guy who tried to rescue him was killed as well."

Death was often not left to chance, but to perceived honor. In late April, Yamamoto was among troops fighting a grudging retreat by the Sixth Marines. He watched one of his soldiers strap 20 pounds of explosives on his back and throw himself under the tracks of an attacking tank.

The Japanese dug themselves into caves and foxholes. But there was little safety; one shell peppered Yamamoto in his hole, leaving him wounded in 15 places, his left hand a bloodied pulp. He tied his arm with a tourniquet. He had a grim choice: If the wound did not claim him, gangrene could set in within a day.

"I knew I would die. So at 6 p.m., I got out of the hole. I took my sword and cut off my arm. There was an old pine tree there, and I put my left arm on the tree and cut it with my right. I had bandaged it so tight, I felt nothing. I remember the date--April 29, the Emperor's birthday."

He made his way south, eventually to a network of caves for the wounded. But as the situation worsened, the wounded men were given cyanide or told to use their grenades on themselves. Instead, a nurse put Yamamoto on her back and fled. Of those 3,000 wounded soldiers, only two survived, he said.

Yamamoto found a group of other soldiers and retreated to a cave on the southern cliffs. It was June 28. Finally, too weak to go on, the soldiers surrendered. They emerged with white flags from the cave on Aug. 29, 1945 — two weeks after Japan's surrender had officially ended the war.

He was married, had a son, and now has three grandchildren. Five years ago, after careers in textiles and education, he decided to attend the opening of the Peace Memorial, where he met some American soldiers.

"There was a big, macho American guy there, who asked me to step outside. I thought he might hit me. But his right hand was artificial. He said, 'Touch my left leg.' It was artificial, too. He said, 'Maybe it was you who did it.' We both started to cry."

Neal McCallum didn't have to go. He was only 17 in 1944, and his four older brothers were serving in the war. One was killed. But McCallum volunteered for the Marines 10 days after his birthday. He was trained as a mortarman.

On Easter Sunday 1945, when McCallum was 18 years and 20 days old, they landed on Okinawa at Green Beach, scared and ready. "You didn't expect to get killed. You expected the other guy to get killed," he said.

The surprisingly easy landing soon turned nightmarish as the troops moved inland and were caught in cross-fire. One night, as McCallum huddled 15 feet from a bloated corpse, pinned down by artillery, "I remember thinking that there had to be a better way to settle disputes than this."

Outside Naha, he and the troops worked to lay final claim to a blood-soaked hill called Sugarloaf--a place taken and lost nearly a dozen times by each side. Sugarloaf was an intimate battle, one of men throwing grenades at other men a few yards away.

"At nighttime, we would strap a box of grenades on our back, and haul them up the hill" to the men dug in at the front.

"I remember seeing Marines stacked three deep, wrapped in ponchos, their blood dried, legs contorted. It was really demoralizing," he said. "At the end, we were fighting for the United States, sure, but we were really fighting for each other. We were fighting just to stay alive, and we would do anything to stay alive."

On June 19, their 49th day on Okinawan soil, the Marines took Sugarloaf Hill for the last time. McCallum was among them. Victorious, they waited for another regiment to arrive. When the reinforcements came, McCallum turned to leave, and a Japanese shell exploded nearby, sending steel whistling through his right calf.

"A corpsman put morphine into me, so I was feeling pretty good. I remember I was just worried about all my souvenirs. But the corpsman ran everybody else off and I never got them back." McCallum was airlifted to Guam — his first airplane ride — and then Hawaii, San Francisco and finally Portsmouth, Va., to recuperate. The pain is with him still.

Chiyo Kamieda was 16 when bombs destroyed her school and the airport where she and the other schoolgirls were digging antiaircraft emplacements in the 100-degree weather. An officer ordered her to a cave to help care for wounded soldiers.

"When I first arrived at the entrance of the cave, there was the awful smell of urine, and blood and rotting flesh. I vomited, but I became accustomed to the smell."

"When the wounded first came in," she said, "they had the strength to drink. But they would gradually lose strength even to sip water."

"At first I was thinking, when will the Japanese military come to rescue us? . . . I think it was June when I heard the officers talking for the first time about who would take care of their families after they were dead.

"I was told if we were captured we would be cruelly treated by the Americans, and I firmly believed that. I begged for a grenade and they finally gave me one. I put it in my medical kit. I wanted to die when the time came. It was an honor to die for your country. Everyone said, never be a prisoner. Everyone thought that way."

As the end neared, an officer told her to leave the cave and join her parents. One night, the American troops were less than 100 yards away, setting fire to houses. Kamieda said, "I cannot go further. This is the place to die. I opened my medical kit to find my grenade, but it wasn't there. My mother said, your father took it away. I shouted at him, but all he would say is that life is a treasure. By throwing out my grenade, he saved my life."

But not his own. On the morning of June 20, Kamieda and her father edged out of a shallow cave to look for water. Kamieda heard a single gunshot and saw her father fall. She looked up and saw the rifleman as he ran away. He was Japanese.

"I would like to believe that he did this shooting by mistake," she reflects.

Her inner conflict is shared by many Okinawans. Al-though their island had been part of Japan since 1879, the locals were suspect in the eyes of some Japanese soldiers. A half-century later, the bitter feeling of treachery lingers.

"Now it was only me and my mother," Kamieda said. They hid in a large grave vault with several wounded soldiers. At nightfall, gunfire was all around, and they heard Americans speaking Japanese ordering them to surrender. Finally, someone threw a bomb into the vault.

Amazingly, she awoke hugging her mother, both alive. Around her, the soldiers had died. The two women stumbled from the grave into the bright sunlight, to what they were sure would be their death.

I crawled to the feet of a huge American. He had no shirt on. He had a full beard, and was sunburned all over. It was exactly the image of the red devil we Japanese had feared. But he turned out to be a gentle red devil.

"He offered me his canteen. I was so thirsty, but I thought it was poison," she said. "I said, in English: 'No, thank you.' But he understood my thoughts. He drank from it first, and then I willingly drank, and so did my mother."

Kamieda, now 71, taught in a Tokyo high school after the war. Often she would be asked to talk about her experiences, and those of her classmates, many of whom leaped from cliffs to their deaths at the battle's end, not far from the Peace Memorial and the site of President Clinton's speech. Of 300 in her school, 98 survived.

"I usually avoided talking about it," she said. "But in 1995, I started working with some Okinawan and Japanese high school students who gathered for peace. I looked in their faces and had to tell the truth."

"Every day my leg has ached," McCallum said. "I can live with it, though. I can accept it. It was a small price to pay to survive." Now 73, he went on to serve as a U.S. Customs agent for 20 years in Florida. He sailed solo across the Atlantic, and four more times with a crewmate. He worked in the Soviet Union for a few years.

He goes to the annual reunion of the Sixth Division Marines, but until this month he had never returned to Okinawa.

"Okinawa has always been a kind of dark corner in my mind. I never really wanted to go," he said as he stopped in Tokyo en route to Okinawa. "I'm not expecting much. I'm going to go to Sugarloaf. I know there are buildings and development there. I'll probably spend 30 minutes there, and that will clear my mind.

"But 55 years later, I'm still saying the same thing I did there," he said. "We need a better way to settle things."

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