Beneath the Battle of Okinawa

With the 65th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa upon us, Jon Mitchell traces the life of a U.S. serviceman who dedicated himself to keeping alive the memory of some of its victims

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In 1966, Dave Davenport was a mystery to his fellow U.S. Air Force clerks on Okinawa. Whereas they would dress up in their finest threads and make for the clubs of Koza in their free time, Davenport would don the oldest clothes he owned and jump on a local bus heading into the middle of nowhere.

When he returned from these unexplained trips, he wouldn’t be lipstick-stained or smelling of perfume. Instead, he’d be covered in mud and carrying dirt-covered objects he’d hide safely out of sight in his locker.

Needless to say, word soon spread that there was something different about Davenport — something that was possibly a little peculiar. But if his colleagues had known more about his background, they might not have considered his behavior so strange after all.

Born in South Carolina in 1944, he grew up immersed in history. At his doorstep lay Fort Sumter, the flash point that ignited the American Civil War in April 1861, when Confederate forces fired on its Union garrison. Nearby were the military bases of Charleston and Parris Island — home to veterans of more recent campaigns in France, Germany and the Pacific.

As a young boy, Davenport spent hours at his local library, poring over accounts of these battles, impatient for the day when he’d be able to explore the scenes of fighting for himself.

At the age of 21, Davenport got the opportunity to do just that when, as a member of the U.S. Air Force, he learned he was to be posted to one of the very battlefields about which he’d read so avidly — Okinawa.

Back in June 1942, in the epic, mid-Pacific Battle of Midway, the fighting force that was the Imperial Japanese Navy had effectively been eliminated. After that, with their overwhelming command of the air, Allied troops led by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps “island-hopped” from Guadalcanal to Guam to Iwo Jima as they drew ever closer to Japan’s home islands.

Finally, in the spring of 1945, the ultimate showdown took place on Okinawa, a small island that, as the last stepping stone before Japan proper, was to witness some of the most ferocious fighting of World War II.

During some 82 days of slaughter after the U.S. assault began on April 1, more than 12,000 American and 110,000 Japanese troops lost their lives, together with 145,000 Okinawan civilians — almost a quarter of the island’s population — before all organized resistance was overcome by June 22.

One of the factors that contributed to these ghastly statistics was the extent to which the killing took place underground. In the leadup to the U.S. attack, the Japanese military had commandeered the island’s naturally occurring coral caves and extended them into a vast network of well-defended tunnels that would force their foes to fight tooth and nail for every meter of progress. Accounts of this underground struggle captured Davenport’s imagination, but as he prepared for his deployment to Okinawa, he wondered how much the island had changed since the end of the war and what he’d find when he arrived there.

“On his first bus trip off the base, Davenport discovered that one of the biggest differences (from what he’d read in his history books) was the names of the terrain,” explained Davenport’s longtime friend Chris Majewski. “During the Battle of Okinawa, the Americans had labeled the landscape with names such as Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon Hill. But now in peacetime, these meant nothing. So Davenport decided to jump off the bus near the biggest hill he could see — the unmistakable, serrated slope that U.S. soldiers had dubbed Hacksaw Ridge.”

As Davenport hiked up the overgrown hill, he was approached by a group of Okinawan farmers. Any concerns that the local people would be angered by his intention to dig into their painful history were forgotten as they good-naturedly helped Davenport to align his dated maps and pointed out the locations of unmarked tunnels. Then, before sending him on his way, they warned him to be careful of the habu pit vipers.

During that initial exploration of Hacksaw Ridge, Davenport discovered a number of caves. Some were blocked by rubble or packed with garbage, while others had been restored to their prewar function as typhoon shelters. When Davenport investigated the more remote caves, however, he found himself inside the Aladdin’s grottoes he’d dreamed of as a young boy.

“Many of those caves hadn’t really been explored since the end of the war,” Majewski said, explaining that such explorations were quite legitimate on public land. “Davenport found Japanese army bayonets and rifles, gas masks and helmets. There was American equipment, too — all mixed up in the heat of battle.” After filling his rucksack with such relics, Davenport filled his pockets — and then headed back to base.

Throughout 1966, armed with American veterans’ accounts of the Battle of Okinawa, Davenport tracked down dozens of caves, ranging in size from single chambers to passages more than 100 meters long. It was not long before other clerks learned the truth of Davenport’s mysterious expeditions, and some of them asked if they could join him on his trips into the hills.

As a loose-knit group of explorers evolved over the next few months, they called themselves the “Tunnel Rats” after the American soldiers who were scouting the underground complexes in Vietnam at the time. “Davenport even designed a badge for them,” said Majewski, pointing to a picture of a torn-eared rat smoking a cigarette.

The mascot suited Davenport and his friends well. With their grimy clothes and battered metal-detectors, they traveled all over Okinawa, scouring the hillsides for tunnels and caves. Often they returned empty-handed — the site of an engagement that had cost thousands of lives was now a housing project, or they hiked through dense jungle only to realize their destination had been obliterated by a landslide. But it was the chance discoveries that kept them going.

Robert Avery, a U.S. Army G.I. on the island in the 1960s, recalls the time he was walking along the floor of a valley when he glimpsed a small opening near the crest of a cliff. After climbing to the top and rappelling into the hole, he found that he was standing in a Japanese sniper’s nest — along with the remains of its former occupant.

Discoveries such as these were undoubtedly a source of excitement for the Tunnel Rats, but they also highlight a more harrowing side to their explorations.

In the late 1960s, it was not uncommon for them to find the skeletons of Japanese soldiers in the caves they searched. “The Tunnel Rats didn’t really know what to do with the bones,” explained Majewski. “There was no real system in place at that time.”

Compounding their confusion was the very real worry that if they reported human remains to the authorities, then they’d take the bones away without attempting to search the surrounding area for any identification tags or documents.

So in the days when most American servicemen’s Japanese ability was limited to ordering beer and haggling over souvenirs, Davenport set about teaching himself how to read kanji. Majewski showed me a picture of a brass disk the size and color of a slightly enlarged ¥10 coin. “The Tunnel Rats often found these Imperial Japanese Army dog tags among the bones. The three columns of writing (engraved on the tag) correspond to the soldier’s unit, his company, and the man himself.”

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Whenever Davenport unearthed the remains of Japanese soldiers, he always made certain to search for these tags and record the writing on them. That way, after he’d reported the bones to the authorities, he or they could notify any surviving relatives.

It was this streak of sheer humanity that fueled Davenport’s desire to find new caves. Whereas some of the Tunnel Rats would sell their relics or swap them for more modern trophies from the war in Vietnam, Davenport was determined to keep his finds on the island.

“In the early 1970s, Davenport started to formulate a plan,” Majewski said. “He wanted to set up a museum dedicated to those who’d died in the Battle of Okinawa — not only to remember America’s losses, but also the Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians who’d been killed.”

When Davenport shared his idea with his superiors in the military, they gave it a lukewarm reception. The United States was in the midst of a humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam and, with Okinawa’s return to Japan looming (in 1972), the future of some U.S. bases on the island was in doubt. Davenport’s prospects of establishing a museum appeared unlikely.

By the 1980s, however, Davenport’s expertise at identifying lost soldiers had gained him attention from a very different quarter.

Among Japanese war veterans, his many years of documenting human remains was earning him a reputation as an explorer with a conscience. When the Konkokyo Buddhist Mission traveled from Tokyo to Okinawa in 1985 to search for bones, they turned to Davenport to help guide them. That one project alone would result in the discovery and identification of the remains of more than 60 Imperial army soldiers. Davenport was present when they were laid to rest at the prefecture’s memorial park for those who’d died during the battle — the Cornerstone of Peace.

Among those who expressed their thanks to Davenport for his assistance was Kimiko Ushijima, the widow of the Japanese general who’d been in command of the Imperial forces on the island, and who committed ritual suicide in the final hours of the battle.

Despite Davenport’s undisputed compassion, one discovery would challenge his resolve. While searching a cave in Yamashiro village in southern Okinawa, he dug up a set of dog tags along with scraps of uniform. After taking the discs home and cleaning off the encrusted dirt, he came to a startling realization: Among them, he was holding the tag of Col. Mitsugi Sakurai, one of the highest-ranking Imperial soldiers to die in the Battle of Okinawa.

“For a long time, Davenport had nightmares about what to do with that dog tag,” Majewski said. “The discovery was very important and the temptation to keep it was huge.”

As usual, though, Davenport’s morality won out. He tracked down the colonel’s surviving kin and told them of his find. Majewski accompanied Davenport when he met the Sakurai family at Okinawa’s Naha Airport. They drove to Yamashiro village, then helped the elderly relatives to trek through the jungle to the cave where Davenport had found the dog tag.

“They were very calm,” Majewski recalled. “They lit sticks of incense and said prayers for their fallen father. Even though they’d known he was dead all these years, they’d never known where or how he’d died. It seemed to me like they’d found some closure to what had happened to their father.”

In 1989, Davenport retired from the U.S. Air Force, but he did not quit the Tunnel Rats. Combining his love of exploration with a belief that history should be experienced hands-on, he became a tour guide.

Davenport led newly arrived American servicemen and their families through some of the more accessible caves, and taught them about the history of the war so they could better understand the island on which they were stationed. In his free time, he and the Tunnel Rats continued to explore caves in more inaccessible areas. Together, they helped to identify the remains of another 100 Japanese soldiers and, of particular pride, the remains of a U.S. Marine whose bones and dog tag they uncovered in a heavily damaged cave.

As well as these sobering reminders of war, the Tunnel Rats discovered more felicitous relics.

Beneath the ruins of Tamagusuku Castle in southern Okinawa, they unearthed an entire suit of samurai armor. Elsewhere, they found a piece of 2,000-year old Chinese currency — evidence of Okinawa’s ancient trade with the continent and, in itself, a priceless antique. These discoveries came at a time when Davenport’s personal finances were precarious, but he immediately donated the finds to Okinawa’s prefectural museum.

“Davenport was passionate about history,” Majewski explained. “Sometimes he sold postwar soda bottles to Japanese collectors for $10 or $15. But he always tried to keep hold of the relics from the Battle of Okinawa. He still hadn’t given up his dream of establishing a museum.”

In the early 1990s, with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa fast approaching and hundreds of American veterans planning to visit the island over which they’d fought and lost friends and comrades, Davenport petitioned the military once again.

This time, they finally gave in to his persistence and allotted him some space on Camp Kinser for his collection. Davenport wasted no time in setting up the Battle of Okinawa Historical Museum.

Alongside display cases filled with rusted pistols and bayonets, he arranged more human memories — a mortar still seared with the palm print of the soldier who’d last aimed it, shattered spectacles and broken sake cups, fountain pens and plastic soap dishes warped askew by bomb blasts. Working round the clock, Davenport finished the museum in time for the June 1995 influx of former U.S. servicemen.

Some of those visitors recorded their feelings in the museum’s guest books. “A great display,” wrote one. “Very informative,” said another. And a third: “I’m glad that someone still cares about what we went through here 50 years ago.”

For Davenport, comments such as those more than compensated for all the hours he’d spent crawling through snake- and centipede-infested tunnels.

Even after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, he refused to give up searching for new tunnels and, right up until the final months of his life, he continued to dig for relics.

Then, when Davenport passed away in November 2006, he was interred in a grave in the north of the island — at a site close to some of the caves that he’d dedicated so much of his life to exploring.

Majewski took over his late friend’s post as director of the museum. According to him, its mission is more important now than ever.

“People are forgetting about the Battle of Okinawa. The tunnels are being covered over by shopping malls, and children’s only knowledge of war is through video games.”

To illustrate his point, Majewski held up a Japanese canteen and rattled the shrapnel still within.

“When people come here, each relic shows them what war is like. When people die, they don’t come back. When you shoot someone in real life, the body doesn’t dissolve into pixels. We need to keep these memories alive as a warning for future generations.”

It is obvious that Majewski shares the keen intelligence and passion of his predecessor, and as he carefully places the canteen back in its display case, it seems clear that the future of the museum is in safe hands.

The Battle of Okinawa Historical Display is located on Camp Kinser, Okinawa. Tours of the museum and the island’s tunnels can be arranged by contacting Chris Majewski at iceberg0445@aol.com