At least 3,000 civilians died in 1945 and 1946 in camps set up by the U.S. military in Okinawa, according to a survey shedding light on their little-known plight in the facilities.
It was known that many Okinawans died in these camps during and after the war, but the Okinawa Prefectural Government says the exact number is a mystery due to a lack of official documents.
The survey — in which questionnaires were sent to all 41 municipal offices in the prefecture — found that the main causes of death were starvation and malaria, as the camps were in unsanitary surroundings and little food was provided. The survey results were released Saturday.
During the war, once U.S. troops occupied some areas of Okinawa, they set up camps in which they detained local people. Such camps were created in 16 occupied areas, and the number of people in them reached as high as 300,000, exceeding the capacity for the U.S. military to handle them.
“It was a grass field with nothing else,” Muneo Uema, 84, recalled of the camp where he was taken in a U.S. military truck around June 1945, when he was 14 years old.
About 100,000 people lived in three camps set up in areas that now comprise the city of Nago, and Uema was taken to one of them, where the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab is now located.
“Tents arrived a few days after (his arrival),” Uema said. “People died from malaria almost every day.”
Another person who experienced the camps, 81-year-old Saeko Akamine, recalled the poor sanitary conditions.
“We had to wait in a long line just to get one onigiri rice ball, distributed each day under the scorching sun. . . . Small kids always had diarrhea,” Akamine said.
U.S. troops landed on the main island of Okinawa in April 1945, and an intense land battle followed. Some 200,000 Japanese and Americans died, including roughly 94,000 civilians — a quarter of Okinawa’s population.
Organized fighting by the Japanese military ended in late June 1945 with the suicide of Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima, who commanded all Japanese forces in the southern portion of the island. Forces in Okinawa officially signed a surrender agreement on Sept. 7.
Conditions in the civilian camps became critical that month, according to a U.S. Navy document. The lack of food and medical care was also noted in other U.S. documents.
The U.S. began releasing civilians from the camps in October 1945, following Japan’s Aug. 15 surrender, but the camps are known to have existed at least until June 1946.
Of the 41 municipal offices in Okinawa Prefecture, only eight know how many people from their municipalities died in the camps, the survey found.
Kenichiro Miyazato, 74, said, “Too many people died, so the bodies of a number of people had to be buried in a single mass grave in the cemetery of the Kushi camp,” which was one of the three camps in Nago.
Miyazato, a former worker in Nago City Hall, remembers little about the camp he spent time in at the age of 4. He has been collecting testimony from people who were formerly interned in the camps to convey to future generations the conditions faced by Okinawa citizens.
“There are records from municipal offices on camps, but I cannot say that sufficient research has been done,” said Shinobu Yoshihama, a professor at Okinawa International University who chairs a prefectural government panel on compiling Okinawa’s history.
“I feel that more people (than have been confirmed) died” in such camps, he added. “The study to find out the number of deaths could create a foothold to examine a different aspect of the Battle of Okinawa.”