Kobe – In early 1946, U.S. Navy Commander Henry S. Bennett, a member of the Medical Corps who served with the U.S. Marines during the Battle of Okinawa, said: “Without doubt, our military operations in the Okinawa Gunto have caused far greater disruption, destruction and casualties than any previous violent historical episode in the archipelago, and cannot be regarded by people as anything but a calamitous disaster.”
This assessment was not an off-the-cuff remark but was included in the first detailed analysis of the battle appearing in the U.S. military’s most prestigious journal, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. Born and raised in Tottori, Bennett, who later became an internationally known anatomist and cell biologist, was particularly sensitive to the needs of civilians, making a number of recommendations about the military occupation of the island upon his return to the United States.
Because it led to so many unnecessary noncombatant deaths, the Battle of Okinawa should have been the last example of senseless slaughter of civilians in world history. Of course, it wasn’t — such tragedies continue today, daily, around the globe.
I recently led a group of young Japanese people, including a woman from Okinawa Prefecture, in a simulation to “refight” the Battle of Okinawa, this time, with the protection of civilians as the main priority of the defending Japanese forces (and as a significant factor in U.S. planning).
In particular, I was hoping to explore if it were possible for more civilians to have been spared from experiencing the battle, rather than being trapped amid the fighting, either willingly (as many sought protection by Japanese forces) or involuntarily, dying as a result of sickness, disease or malnutrition, or lost at sea during the initial evacuations.
The exact number of civilian deaths remains unknown 75 years after the battle began on April 1, 1945, but it is believed to be well more than 120,000, including nearly 30,000 locals conscripted into military service. (The Cornerstone of Peace in Okinawa has more than 149,000 names inscribed, but this includes those whose deaths do not directly relate to the battle itself.)
I think this question merits holding this year, on the 75th anniversary of the battle and the end of World War II in general, an international conference co-sponsored by Okinawa Prefecture and other interested parties, such as universities, lawyers’ groups and nonprofit, nongovernment and international organizations on the laws of war, to think about the way the impact on civilians could have been lessened then and afterward.
The short answer is yes, indeed, the impact could have been greatly reduced. Specifically, the northern half of Okinawa, which has little strategic or military value above the Motobu Peninsula, should have been declared a noncombatant area, an “open city,” which meant that defenders would not try to defend it, thus negating the need for invading forces to bomb defenders or otherwise inflict harm or damage on the local population and environs.
Generally a mountainous area, northern Okinawa (otherwise known as Yanbaru) could not support any large military facilities and thus was not particularly valuable to Japanese forces or American ones.
It could support a civilian population, however, especially if the civilians through a mass — but carefully planned and executed with Okinawa Prefecture authorities — exodus were also evacuated with food and other supplies, tents and building materials to make additional structures.
Upon completion of the resettlement, the Imperial Japanese Army would have completely withdrawn its forces and any weapons from the area. The government of Japan could then have announced publicly and through the International Red Cross its actions to make the north a noncombatant zone and called upon the U.S. and its allies not to attack there. The U.S. 10th Army, in charge of Operation Iceberg, would have thus been obligated to respect the sanctity of the area.
Imperial Japanese Army efforts along these lines to resettle residents would have created a win-win situation, allowing freedom of action for the military to further prepare its defenses in the south and absolute safety for the civilians in the north. It would have been good for the invading U.S. forces as well, as they could concentrate their efforts on combat purposes, without having to worry about the protection, feeding and care of captured civilians in the conflict zone. Instead, everyone lost out, especially the civilians.
Indeed, there are well-known reports where civilians were urged to commit suicide rather than face capture and where civilians were shot or otherwise executed as spies, for speaking the local dialect or for attempting to surrender. The veracity of these reports and their scale has been challenged, but it is clear that a large number of unfortunate tragedies did occur, which could have been avoided for the most part with the above preplanned evacuation north.
Another area where the Japanese government failed is in the evacuations of civilians, especially children, from Okinawa. Not only was the government late in urging the appointed governor of Okinawa Prefecture, Shuki Izumi, to evacuate 100,000 civilians, it failed to supply the means to adequately do it. Indeed, several of the ships in the convoys included military vessels, giving the impression they were possibly transporting personnel and other items needed for the war effort. The government should have made it an entirely civilian effort, utilizing the Red Cross, and making its actions known to the world and transparent. Its failure to do this led to several tragedies, including the death of 780 schoolchildren as a result of the sinking of the Tsushima Maru in late August 1944.
Poor cooperation between Gov. Izumi, who was responsible for the civilian population, and the military was another factor in lack of preparations. Izumi sought to get away from Okinawa as much as possible, spending approximately one-third of his 18-month term away from the island. He departed for good a few months before the battle, with little that his successor could do afterward.
Many other issues — sexual and other violence against captured civilians, the protection of cultural assets, the handling of prisoners and remains, the question of land seized during and after the battle — are also issues that could and should be discussed at a future conference, but more than anything, continued efforts need to be made to reduce the potential death of noncombatants in war now.
This may be the true lesson of the Battle of Okinawa.
Robert D. Eldridge, whose father served in a medical unit of the 10th Army during the Battle of Okinawa, is the author of “The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem.”