On March 8, 1965, the first U.S. combat troops landed in Da Nang, South Vietnam. Their arrival significantly escalated American intervention in the war which, by its end a decade later, left more than 1 million dead and countless others suffering from the legacy of post-traumatic stress disorder, unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange.
As the world remembers the 50th anniversary of this landing, it is often forgotten from where those initial troops were dispatched: Okinawa.
Okinawa was the Pentagon’s prime launchpad for the conflict, and the war in Southeast Asia wrought massive changes on the lives of its 900,000 residents. Many of the island’s current problems date back to this era and, if the history of the Vietnam War on Okinawa continues to be ignored, the island’s wounds — in many ways as raw as those in southeast Asia and the U.S. — will continue to fester long into the future.
Between 1945 and 1972, Okinawa was under American governance or, as former U.S. Ambassador to Tokyo Edwin Reischauer stated in 1969, the island was “a colony of 1 million Japanese.” Few U.S. officials have referred so bluntly to the island’s geopolitical status, and yet his assessment was entirely accurate. On Okinawa, the U.S. authorities kept tight control on the media, they denied passports to those deemed critical of Washington, and Okinawans had no power to elect the person who governed them — the U.S. high commissioner.
With the island protected by neither the constitutions of the U.S. or Japan, the Pentagon exploited this limbo by stockpiling an unprecedented arsenal of chemical weapons and atomic warheads there during the 1950s and 1960s, and building more than 80 installations, which convinced many residents that Okinawa didn’t just have bases — the entire island was a base.
The Pentagon had used Okinawa to stage the 1950-53 Korean War but it was during the Vietnam War that its military buildup truly bore fruit. Following the 1965 dispatch of those initial troops — including members of the 3rd Marine Division — to Da Nang, over the following years, hundreds of thousands more Americans transited through Okinawa; tragically many of those killed in action also passed back through the island, which hosted some of the U.S. military’s mortuary services.
Kadena Air Base served as the Pentagon’s key transport hub. During the war, it racked up 1 million flights, making it one of the busiest airports on the planet. Starting in 1968, B-52 bombers also took off from the base to bomb targets in Southeast Asia.
The military port in Okinawa’s capital, Naha, processed 75 percent of all supplies for the conflict, including fuel, food and ammunition. Moreover, the port handled surplus and damaged materiel from the war zone. A section of nearby Makiminato Service Area, for example, was nicknamed “The Bone Yard,” owing to the piles of jeeps and trucks — many covered in blood and bullet holes — that had arrived for repair from Vietnam.
So vital was the island for the Pentagon that the commander of U.S. Pacific Forces in 1965 declared, “Without Okinawa, we couldn’t continue fighting the Vietnam war.”
The Pentagon’s massive war machine required an enormous workforce and during the Vietnam War, approximately 50,000 Okinawans were employed by the U.S. military.
In 2013, Okinawa Times published a book titled “Kichi de Hataraku” (“Working on the Bases”) that featured interviews with 83 of these former workers. What comes across most poignantly in many of these accounts is how deeply embedded Okinawans were in the war effort. At ammunition depots, they packed explosives and processed faulty munitions; at Makiminato, they helped to print Vietnamese propaganda material for the U.S. Army’s 7th Psychological Operations Group. In the Northern Training Area, Okinawans were hired for $1 a day to act the enemy in war games played out in mock Vietnamese villages. Okinawans were also sent to South Vietnam to drive buses within U.S. bases; others worked — and were killed — aboard American ships transporting supplies in the waters of Vietnam.
Due to Okinawa’s gray-zone status, base workers tasked with hazardous tasks were not safeguarded by American or Japanese labor regulations. These employees handled toxic chemicals without special training, protective equipment or warnings of the dangers. As a result, recent surveys conducted by victim support groups and base worker unions show that hundreds fell ill from exposure to substances such as insecticides, hexavalent chromium and asbestos.
Okinawa’s economic situation was bleak during the Vietnam War, and therefore many residents appreciated base jobs that were relatively stable and well-paid. For many Okinawans, however, such labor was accompanied by a sense of complicity in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians. This distress was magnified by memories of the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, in which almost a third of the island’s civilian population had been slaughtered.
No one better captures Okinawans’ complex emotions to the Vietnam War than photographer Bunyo Ishikawa. Born in Naha in 1938, Ishikawa photographed the war between 1965 and 1968, and his images of the conflict — for example, a soldier with an M-60 machine gun lying in a field of grass reading a book — are some of the most famous in Japan today.
Ishikawa’s affinity with his subjects shines through in many of these images of young Americans.
“Because these U.S. soldiers had been stationed on Okinawa, I felt a connection with them,” Ishikawa says. “In Vietnam, we used to talk about Okinawa’s neighborhoods and the bars where we drank. We had a lot in common.”
So strong was Ishikawa’s feelings for the U.S. servicemen that he traveled to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington after the conflict to search for the names of those he’d photographed among the granite lists of the dead.
During the war, many Okinawans shared Ishikawa’s compassion toward U.S. troops. Despite residents’ anger with the Pentagon for burdening their island with so many bases, many people befriended — and married — service members. In particular, there was solidarity for those who had been involuntarily conscripted and African-Americans who, many Okinawans felt, suffered discrimination from the U.S. authorities that mirrored their own.
Equally as powerful as Ishikawa’s images of combat in Vietnam are those that he took on Okinawa during the war. He photographed the shot-up trucks returned via Naha Port, war games in the Northern Training Area and fresh recruits preparing to go to Vietnam.
“Seeing U.S. troops heading to war gave me very complicated feelings,” Ishikawa says. “On the one hand, I didn’t want them to go and kill Vietnamese people but, at the same time, I wanted them to come back safely to Okinawa.”
When some of these soldiers did return, however, they brought the violence of the war back with them.
One of Ishikawa’s most powerful images is titled “Otto ga Korosareta” (“My Husband was Killed”), which shows the widow of a taxi driver murdered by a U.S. soldier in October 1971.
Between 1965 and 1975, at least 17 Okinawans were killed by Americans, and many more were robbed, raped or assaulted. Most at risk were those whose work brought them into daily contact with U.S. service members — maids, taxi drivers and bar workers.
In addition to such violence, Okinawans bore the brunt of military accidents, including hit-and-runs and aircraft crashes. In June 1965, for instance, a trailer dropped by parachute from a plane over Yomitan crushed an 11-year-old girl to death. In November 1967, a 4-year-old girl was run over and killed by a military crane.
Due to such dangers, many Okinawans threw their support behind the reversion movement, which sought to return their island to Japanese rule of law. They hoped that Japan’s pacifist Constitution would reduce the number of U.S. bases on Okinawa and curtail their usage for the conflict in Southeast Asia.
On mainland Japan — as on Okinawa — the majority of people were against the war. Surveys revealed overwhelming opposition to the conflict and, in the late 1960s, millions of mainlanders participated in demonstrations to express their anger at the conflict. Beheiren, the umbrella movement of loosely-affiliated anti-war groups, included such well-known luminaries as artist Taro Okamoto and novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who today remains active in the anti-nuclear movement.
Douglas Lummis, a former U.S. marine, became involved in the anti-war movement in Tokyo in the late 1960s. Lummis says Beheiren attracted attention because of the help it afforded U.S. deserters.
“Beheiren used to hand out fliers near the U.S. bases around Tokyo and Kanagawa encouraging GIs to desert,” Lummis recalls. “When they did, regular Japanese families helped to hide them or Beheiren checked them into love hotels — one of the few places the police couldn’t search. After a while, Beheiren put the deserters on the underground railroad, first traveling by ferry to Hokkaido and then across the USSR to Sweden.”
In 1971, Lummis traveled to Okinawa, where he helped to interpret during meetings between members of the Okinawan base worker unions and GI black power groups.
“The war crystallized many people’s feelings against the United States,” Lummis says.
Although the majority of mainland Japanese opposed the war, unlike on Okinawa, the conflict did not directly affect their lives. As political scientist Michio Royama explained in his famous analogy, “Vietnam was a big fire, but it was a fire on the other side of the river.”
In contrast, the Japanese government tacitly backed the war — in 1965, Prime Minister Eisaku Sato declared his “moral support” for the conflict — and Japanese corporations, who provided base-building materials and supplies for U.S. troops, pocketed around $1 billion a year from the fighting.
Against this backdrop, as the Vietnam War raged from the ’60s into the ’70s, the government entered into negotiations with the U.S. for the return of Okinawa. At the time, Tokyo pledged to island residents that reversion would take place under hondo nami — that is, the number of U.S. bases on Okinawa would be reduced to a similar level as the mainland.
Okinawa finally reverted to Japanese control on May 15, 1972, and it wasn’t long before Okinawans realized the government had failed to keep its promise.
“Although reversion looked like a favor by the U.S., it was actually a great deal for the Pentagon — it could keep using the bases without needing to pay for them,” says Manabu Sato, a professor of political science at Okinawa International University. “From that time, Japanese taxpayers footed the bill but the U.S. could continue to use them for the war with impunity.”
Today, many Okinawans feel they are suffering the consequences of that Vietnam War-era betrayal. The island still hosts more than half of U.S. forces in Japan but their economic contribution to the island has plummeted from more than 20 percent during the war to, according to official prefectural estimates, less than 5 percent. While curfews and cultural awareness training have dramatically reduced the number of military crimes committed against residents (2014, for example, saw the lowest number of reported crimes since reversion), last year Okinawans were given a frightening reminder of the Vietnam War when barrels containing suspected military defoliants were uncovered from land that had previously been part of Kadena Air Base.
These ongoing problems might explain why the Pentagon’s website to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War — vietnamwar50th.com — contains zero references to Okinawa. Likewise a request for comment to Okinawa’s director of public affairs at Marine Corps Installations Pacific resulted in a stock response that made no mention of the island.
Such reluctance to recognize the role of Okinawa in the Vietnam War is best understood by a visit to two of the installations central to Pentagon war efforts: the Northern Training Area, where Okinawans were paid for their participation in war games, and Camp Schwab, former storage site for nuclear warheads and, according to a number of seriously ill U.S. veterans, Agent Orange.
Despite overwhelming public opposition, today there are plans to expand both bases.
Alongside the Northern Training Area, local residents have been demonstrating for the past eight years against the construction of Pentagon helipads that, they argue, will threaten the safety of their community. Near Camp Schwab, meanwhile, Okinawans have been engaged in an 18-year struggle against a new U.S. base. This base plan was initially conceived by Washington in 1965, but was shelved due to the cost; the proposal has since been resurrected as a megabase complete with twin 1,800-meter runways and a deep-sea port — all built atop one of the country’s sole-surviving coral reefs.
Unlike the previous bases used in the Vietnam War, these new projects are being constructed by Tokyo with Japanese tax money — further proof, according to many Okinawans, that the hondo nami promise of reversion was indeed betrayed.
Many opposing these new bases can today recall firsthand how Okinawa was used during the Vietnam War, and they vow not to let their island be exploited in such a way again.
“If the new base is built, it will be used for future wars,” Ishikawa says. “Nothing has really changed since the Vietnam War — Okinawa is still being used by the U.S. military.”
Former marine Lummis, now a resident of Okinawa, believes it is vital today more than ever to remember the lessons of the war.
“Many young people don’t even know there was a war in Vietnam and those that do remember haven’t grasped that the U.S. lost that war — and almost every war since,” Lummis says. “The Japanese government insists that Japan should stick with the U.S. for its defense, but we need to rethink what power really is.”
Jon Mitchell is the author of the 2014 book about U.S. military defoliants on Okinawa, “Tsuiseki: Okinawa no Karehazai” (“Chasing Agent Orange on Okinawa”).
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