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On Okinawa, widely differing lessons of war


MABUNI, Okinawa -- It was 50 years ago that Yoshiko Shimabukuro pleaded with the U.S. soldiers to shoot her in the head immediately instead of raping and torturing her first.

The five soldiers refused her pleas and held her down as one used a knife to slice the leg of her pants, even as she scratched and bit him. Three of the Americans were bare-chested and sunburned red, so that they looked to her like "oni," Japanese folk devils.

Then the man with the knife abruptly stopped cutting her pants at the thigh and poured disinfectant over the bullet wounds in her leg. He was a medic.

"They carried me away on a stretcher," Mrs. Shimabukuro recalled yesterday, laughing at the memory. "By this point, they looked to me like gods." Mrs. Shimabukuro, now 67, is one of the survivors -- on both sides of the bomb bays and flamethrowers -- who this week will draw wildly different lessons from the 50th anniversary of perhaps the greatest land-air-sea battle in history: the battle of Okinawa.

Some 545,000 U.S. troops, backed by 12,000 aircraft and 1,600 ships, stormed Okinawa, an island in the south of Japan, in the last major battle of World War II. The invasion was considerably bigger than the one at D-Day, and it marked the beginning of the planned assault on Japan.

U.S. troops fired 7.5 million shells and almost 30 million bullets at Okinawa over the course of three months, and by the end more than 200,000 people were dead, including a third of Okinawa's civilian population. By most estimates, more people died in Okinawa than in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Hundreds of U.S. veterans are to gather tomorrow along with their one-time Japanese enemies as Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama dedicates a memorial with the names of 235,000 war dead -- including the names in English of the 12,000 Americans killed in the battle, and the names of Okinawans killed elsewhere in the war.

Yet the conclusions that the Okinawans have drawn from their experience is not one that Americans want to hear.

"War makes people crazy," said Choji Kobashigawa, who spent a month during the U.S. invasion hiding in a culvert with his family as a stream flowed by his feet, watching his brother die of sickness and then burying him. "I want to erase war by all means. And for that, I want to see the removal of the American bases."

The United States handed Okinawa back to Japan in 1972, but 20 percent of Okinawa island is still occupied by U.S. military bases. Most Okinawans do not mind the 55,000 Americans, mostly in military families, who live on the island today, but they are upset by the bullets that occasionally go astray and about the live fire over Okinawa Highway 104.

Okinawa, a beautiful sun-dappled island of spectacular beaches and lush jungle whose people are ethnically distinct from other Japanese, seems so traumatized by its experience half a century ago that it wants nothing whatsoever to do with war.

"The Okinawan people do not want to have bases that are related to warfare," said Masahide Ota, the governor of Okinawa. "We want to use all our land in a productive way, not for killing people."

Kikuko Miyagi, 65, a teacher, is one of the many Okinawans who has concluded from her own experience that all sides in all wars are wrong. To an American ear she may sound prone to naive homilies, but it is hard to dismiss what she went through.

As a 15-year-old, she tended the Japanese wounded along with other student nurses in a network of underground caves that protected the army from American bombs and artillery.

The Japanese generals, who eventually committed hara-kiri in their underground cell, did not challenge the U.S. landing, but popped out of tunnels and caves to fight a horrific battle intended to slow down the invaders and give the main Japanese islands more time to prepare their own defenses.

Mrs. Miyagi helped with surgery -- a progressively grimmer experience as the army ran out of anesthetic for amputations -- and scrounged at night for water and food to keep the patients alive.

As the Americans advanced, taking huge losses themselves, Mrs. Miyagi retreated with the Japanese army each night.

The escape ended near the jungle of Mabuni in the south end of Okinawa, where cliffs and the ocean blocked any further retreat. U.S. shelling was constant, and Mrs. Miyagi's group of 18 nurses decided to commit suicide rather than submit to the rape, mutilation and killing that Japanese soldiers had told them they would face if captured by the Americans.

The girls asked for hand grenades and memorized how to use them: pull the pin, bang the grenade on a rock, hold it to your stomach and wait until you are blown to pieces.

Just offshore, an American Navy ship used a loudspeaker to call on people, in Japanese, to save themselves by surrendering and swimming to the ship. This was a trick, Mrs. Miyagi and her friends were sure, and they watched what would happen to one soldier who accepted the offer and swam toward the American ship.

He was shot in the water -- but by a Japanese officer who regarded him as a deserter. Mrs. Miyagi watched the soldier float face down in the reddening sea.

The U.S. troops suddenly arrived, firing their guns. Three of the student nurses fell dead on Mrs. Miyagi, but she was hurt only in the leg. On the other side of a boulder, 10 of the nurses used their grenades to kill themselves.

Mrs. Miyagi wriggled out from beneath the bodies of her friends, still clutching her hand grenade, but she was too numb to use it. An American soldier grabbed it from her a courageous action, since she could have blown him up as well as herself.

Suddenly Mrs. Miyagi found that the Americans, instead of cutting off her nose and ears, were treating her injuries.

Although she survived, Mrs. Miyagi was an exception. Of her corps of 320 student nurses formed from Okinawa's best girls' school, 217 died.

"On the 50th anniversary, we should all learn lessons from the war so that we won't repeat the same mistakes," Mrs. Miyagi said, standing near a memorial to fellow nurses who died. "It's absolutely wrong that young people should die in war."

For Okinawans, who had their own independent kingdom until seized by Japan in 1879, the United States was not the good side in World War II. It was perhaps not as bad as the Japanese Imperial Army, but Okinawa suffered because it was caught between two mighty forces.

The island's plight was personified by an Okinawan woman who in the course of one day was raped in separate incidents by Japanese and American soldiers.

The way in which Okinawans -- and to some extent Japanese in general -- interpret the war may have something to do with the perception that the deaths of family members were a terrible waste, serving no purpose. The lesson the Okinawans draw is of the futility of all war and the noxiousness of all military installations.

But for Americans, the deaths of GIs on distant shores does not seem a waste. For Americans, the assault on Japan was about as just as a just war can get, resulting in freedom for Korea, China, the Philippines and their neighbors from a brutal Japanese military regime that had presided over the deaths of 10 million or 20 million Asians.

Likewise, the U.S. and Japanese governments both argue that the military bases in Okinawa have helped protect Japan and preserve peace in Asia.

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