I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Annie Ostler, who allowed me to use her photos in this post. Thank you so much, Annie!
[Content warning: This post details my personal reactions to the Former Japanese Underground Naval Headquarters and addresses some parts of the Battle of Okinawa. As such, it includes written descriptions of war, serious injury, death, and decomposition, and mentions suicide, claustrophobic spaces, and sexual assault.]
I think one of the reasons I love Okinawa is the deep anger and hurt hiding under its bright face. The war shattered the island—the Battle of Okinawa rivals the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in terms of civilian casualties, and Okinawa’s fallout of disease and poverty was just as devastating as Hiroshima’s fallout of ash and black rain. I love to go to Okinawa to snorkel and zip line and lie on the beach, but what really calls me is learning about the Ryukyuan people and coming face-to-face with the everyday reminders of the Second World War that we don’t have in the States, including the Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters.
During the war, both sides knew that Okinawa would prove an excellent foothold for the Allies to invade Japan, so the Japanese wedged themselves into the island’s caves and thick-walled castles and the Americans* prepared a crowbar of flesh and steel to pry them out. In 1944, the Japanese Naval Corps of Engineers hand-dug a series of tunnels into the highest point in Naha city, creating a headquarters for naval operations in the area. This is where the Japanese naval command gave orders, made their last stand, and finally died by their own hands rather than surrender.
The view from the top of the hill is beautiful—the town stretches to the sea, red roofs of traditional Okinawan homes peeking between the white apartment buildings. A monument stands to the Japanese sailors who lost their lives fighting here, and a circular glass-walled structure sits directly atop the hill to protect the entrance.
We were first greeted by pictures of the island during and immediately after the Battle of Okinawa. All the captions were in Japanese, often using words that I’d had no exposure to during my studies so far—orphan, starvation, artillery—but I didn’t need words to get a sense of the battle’s deep impact. The island, now so alive and green, was nothing but blasted dirt and broken buildings in many of the images. Children sat in the street and cried, old women and men sat in their wrecked homes, despondent. Equally arresting were the images of American soldiers feeding and caring for Okinawan children. Although our record on the island is far from spotless, and although we committed our share of atrocities in the months after the war, it’s clear that the Okinawans in general feel grateful that we were far more charitable than they’d been led to believe we would be.
We followed a staircase down into the earth to the site’s visitor center. Down here, display cases protected artifacts from the battle. Some were little trinkets, like a watch or a compass, others were larger, like the massive Japanese flag, red rays cutting through white. Against the far wall was a copy of the final telegram from Admiral Ota to the naval command before he committed suicide. It describes the Okinawan’s loss of property and life, their fear of American barbarism, and the valor with which they fought. The telegram fails to mention that Okinawans were used a human shields and cannon fodder, forced to hold off American tanks with nothing but spears, or that high school girls were forced into service as nurses on the front, 80 percent dying in battle or by suicide. Those who managed to escape the physical fighting were indoctrinated against the surrender to the Americans: they were told that the Americans tortured prisoners and raped women and children to death. The Japanese actively encouraged Okinawans to commit suicide, and so parents killed their children to save them; women jumped off high cliffs into the shallow tearing sea with infants in their arms.
A video of survivor interviews looped in a corner. An old man talked about how he and his friends had taken a grenade from the Japanese toward the end of the battle. They took it out somewhere secluded then sat in a circle and pulled the pin. There was a huge explosion, and when the man woke up, all his friends were dead while he sat injured but very much alive. When the Americans came, he was too injured to run, and so he was captured. As they nursed him back to health, he realized that his friends had died in vain.
Now it was time to see the tunnels themselves. Despite the heat of the day outside, down here it was cold, the walls shining with condensation. The ceiling was perhaps six inches from my head, the walls inches from my shoulders. The stairs were also steep; handrails on both sides of the walls kept me from careening down headfirst. The air seemed to grow heavier as we descended, a musty underground smell rising from the rock. After what felt like three or four stories of descent, we reached the complex itself, tunnels branching from the main staircase. These tunnels were a good deal wider than the entrance had been: although the ceiling was still low, it no longer felt quite so much like I was being pressed, and there was space enough to fit four people shoulder-to-shoulder.We visited the various rooms, most undecorated, pickaxe marks standing in deep, straight rows along the undulating walls of living stone. Signs told us what these various rooms were: staff room, cipher room, medical room. Beds no longer existed in the sleeping quarters, but chinks in the rock showed the beds had been four-high on both walls, just large enough for a person to lay in lengthwise, and just wide enough for bunks on two sides and a narrow corridor in the middle. The rocks were slick with moisture.
We wandered further and found the Signal Room, where Admiral Ota had sent his final telegram, and then the commanding officer’s room. A far cry from the seeping stone walls of the men’s quarters, here were sturdy chairs neatly placed around a sturdy table, a vase of fresh flowers like a beam of sunshine in the middle, walls covered with wood and plaster to give the impression of a normal room. A channel was cut into the floor to catch and drain away moisture, the only unusual feature. The two entrances were blocked by gates, and on one wall was writing covered by a piece of Plexiglas: Ota’s death poem, smeared and grimy but mostly legible. “Born as a man, nothing fulfills my life more than to die in the name of the Emperor.”
We came to another room covered in plaster, but here the walls were pocked with holes and chips curving around the room in a thick, drunken line. A tiny placard in the middle of the snaking line explained: “Wall riddled with a hand-grenade when committed suicide.” It seemed impossible. Don’t grenades explode in every direction? Where were the holes in the ceiling and floor? Shouldn’t there be a mass of blood in the room, too caked to scrub off? Shouldn’t there be more chaos? I asked my brother, a munitions systemsl tech in the Air Force, and he shook his head. “No, actually grenades are very rough tools. The explosion will kill most close up, but there’s no predicting where the shrapnel will go. They have a wide killing field, but there’s no telling precisely where that’ll be.”
“But then how can you kill so many people with them?”
“Like I said, some of it is the explosion—the pressure wave will get a lot of people. But even that doesn’t necessarily guarantee you’ll get everyone in an area, especially if you have crappy grenades. Sometimes then you’ll get really badly hurt but you won’t die.”The old man’s story came back to me, of surviving a suicide grenade. I’d thought his story was a fluke, but now that seemed less likely. I looked at the walls again and the reality of it this place began to sink in as my answers fell into place. Grenades don’t always kill with impunity. The mass of blood that had certainly been here had been cleaned up. The chaos had been put to order. A sign told me that after the war, these tunnels sat abandoned for a decade before anyone came to clean it up, and when they did come, 2400 bodies were pulled out of this pit. I couldn’t help but imagine that carnage that had met them when they entered, how grisly a task it must have been to remove decades-old bodies from a wet, stinking hole in the ground, carrying them up those steep steps.
We continued on our way, but this place had stopped being a historical relic when I saw that wall; this was a real place where real, truly alive people had really fought and struggled. Real young men with real lives—mothers, fathers, siblings, names, birthdays, inside jokes and personal tragedies—had really eaten and slept here, really fought and really died. We passed another shallow room cut in the stone, sign proclaiming that this was thought to be the medical lab as a huge number of bodies were found here. And now I realized that at least some of those young men had probably not died right away—instead, they lay suffering in a wet, stinking, filthy pit, unable to escape, eventually succumbing to a painful, gangrenous death, their bodies melting into those of their friends, until the lot of them were taken into the air again and buried together, their bones beyond recognition.
The air got too thin. We found our way outside, where the rain poured down, drenching everything. Loren ran up the side of the hill to bring the car around for us and I huddled at the mouth of the exit to keep the rain off. Ahead, neon-colored cartoony shiisa held up a bench, a cherry red vending machine sold a rainbow of drinks, a white flag whipped in the wind, advertising ice cream in bubble letters. But I wasn’t ready for these things, and I turned my head.
* Only American troops landed at Okinawa, but the British deserve mention for helping suppress Japanese air activity around the Sakishima Islands during the Battle of Okinawa.
Address: 236 Aza-Tomigusuku, Tomigusuku, Okinawa
Price: 420 yen for adults and 210 yen for kids 5-14.
- The visitor center is barrier-free, and apparently even the tunnels are wheelchair accessible if you request help in advance. (I believe museum employees can help get you in through the back, which opens to street level.)
- We spent about two hours here, which allowed us to read every display and explore the tunnels completely. Because it’s such a quick visit, you can easily wrap the Underground HQ in with an exploration of the southern part of the island, which is full of monuments and museums related to World War II, including the Himeyuri Peace Museum and the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum and the surrounding park.