Okinawa is a
coral island located strategically in the East China Sea near Japan, China, and
Taiwan. In 1955 and 1956, I was stationed on the Island with the U.S. Army.
Even today, 50 years after my one year of military service on Okinawa, I often think of the island.
How could one year on Okinawa have had such an effect on me?
Okinawa is a coral island is the largest of the Ryukyu chain of islands located in the East China Sea approximately 500 miles south of Japan and the same distances east of mainland China and north of Tawain. The island contains about half the total area of the Ryukyu Islands or about 450 square miles.
The population is presently approximately 1,300,000.
Geological speaking, Okinawa was once joined with mainland China via a land bridge over which prehistoric animals including early man traveled back and forth. However, the island was never physically connected to Japan. Japan had its own separate land bridge to the mainland.
Approximately 500,000 years ago, the oceans rose and the Ryukyu Islands and the land bridge were submerged except for the highest mountains. Eventually, the ocean levels fell. Over the next 400,000 years, the submergence cycle was repeated 3 or 4 times.
Okinawa is in typhoon alley and, regularly, gets smacked with powerful typhoons. In the year I was stationed there, we were hit by three typhoons.
Early in its recorded history, Okinawans, because of their maritime location, became great seafarers and traders and could have become a much stronger nation. However, Okinawa never developed the type of leaders that could have led it to greatness. The island folks were always a very non-aggressive people who just wanted to live in peace.
For centuries, the Okinawans jockied themselves between China and Japan, paying tribute when necessary to maintain their relative independence.
In 1871, Okinawa finally came under the total control of Japan and remained so until World War 2.
The U.S. invaded the island in 1945 and the most savage of the Pacific battles took place. About 200,000 persons, including soldiers of both the U.S. and Japan along with many civilians, were killed in the three-month struggle. The homes & buildings of the island were virtually all destroyed in the fighting.
After the war, the U.S. maintained control of Okinawa and used it for a front line base for operations during the Cold War. This was the mode the island was in when I was stationed there in 1955 & 1956.
Okinawa island has now been returned to Japan but the U.S. maintains a strong military presence there. There are periodic protests about the U.S. presence.
A neat bit of information is that karate apparently originated on the island and Hollywood has made some use of the karate relationship. Okinawa recently received quite a bit of publicity from the three movies, Kill Bill, Kill Bill 2, and Karate Kid 2. All three movies had a martial arts flavor to them.
There is one native snake - the habu - on the island. It is about the size of a Louisiana water moccasin. It is poisonous and has a nasty disposition. One night, as we emerged from a theater on the base into the pitch black darkness, the soldier walking next to me began to jump up and down screaming, "habu!...habu!.....habu! The group of us followed suit in jumping and we continued to jump until someone turned a jeep's headlights onto the scene. We never saw the habu but the soldier who did the yelling had been bitten. (He recovered after receiving medical attention). Yes, we all respected the habu.
My Love of Islands. All my life, I had loved Islands. In Shreveport, Louisiana, where I grew up, there are no real islands. Okay, the Red River would occasionally flood and change course leaving an "island" behind. My friends and I would avidly visit and explore those new islands. But I couldn't fool myself - the new islands weren't real islands and I longed for a real island.
High school and college came and went and, then, it was 1954 and I was drafted into the army. Still, my first year in the army was all continental U.S. - Texas, Virginia, and California - with no islands in sight. Then I received marching orders to go to Okinawa. A real island at last!
Arrival on the Island. We traveled to Okinawa via troop ship. On the day, we arrived, we stood at the ship rail looking toward the island as its lush hills and low-lying mountains came into view. The island also had a lush smell to it. We had been at sea for three weeks and the sight of land was welcome. I had not enjoyed the crowded troopship and looked forward to getting my feet on the ground.
We quickly docked and were loaded into trucks and taken to our duty stations. My year on Okinawa had begun
Military Duty on Okinawa. In 1955, military service on the island was easy duty. For about $5 per month each, we could hire an Okinawan boy to take care of our foot lockers, shine our shoes, etc. Additionally, all K-P and guard duty was performed by the island natives. Drinks at the military clubs were often only 10 cents. We were allowed to use jeeps (within reason) for personal recreation. We all had 8 to 5 type jobs with weekends free.
Talk about easy duty! I should have been paying the army instead of them paying me.
Exploring Okinawa. The easy duty left a lot of time for us to explore the island on the weekends and the group of guys that I hung with eagerly undertook that task. The Army was very good about letting us use Jeeps on the weekends but, a small group of us like-minded soldiers combined our resources and bought a second-hand auto. We had a little more freedom with the auto than the Jeep.
Over the next year, I got to know Okinawa better than my native Shreveport where I had lived for 20 years.
Beautiful Okinawa. As mentioned before, the island was over 60 miles long and 5 miles wide (average). About the size of a U.S. state county. By far, most of the population lived on the southern half of the island. The northern half was mountainous (up to about 3,000 feet high) and lightly populated. A nice two-lane beach highway ringed the island so traveling to the various parts of the island was easy.
The East China Sea and Coral Reefs. Most American young people love the ocean and going to the beaches. The group of guys I hung with were no exception. We made many trips to the beaches. There must to have been been at least 25 linear miles of beaches ideal for swimming, wading, diving or just goofing around.
The Okinawan beaches were not like the murky, muddy Gulf of Mexico beaches of my native Louisiana which may be the ugliest beaches in the world. Instead they were coral reef beaches and the shallow water over the coral reefs was crystal clear. You could wade out for a great distance - on some beaches for a mile or more.
One day, I decided to wade out to the edge of the reef. The water got a little deeper as I waded and the reef was a little rough on my feet but I kept going. Finally, I reached the edge of the reef and, using my snorkel and goggles set, looked over the edge. I had not expected the reef to have such a sharp drop off As I looked down into the depths of the East China Sea, I could see the water turning green, then darker, and finally the pitch black depths of the ocean could be seen. I quickly retreated back to shallow water. I had no interest in visiting or even looking at that bottomless pit.
The Okinawans bring in a lot of seafood from the ocean. Once at the beach, I saw a young man wading in with a Moray Eel over his shoulder. The eel was almost as big as the man and had the ferocious looking head that the eel is famous for. The young man had apparently waded out and speared the eel. The sight of the ugly, snake-like creature made my friends and I a little more cautious as to where we swam although I understand the Moray Eel seldom attacks humans.
Naha. The capital city of Okinawa is Naha which at the time had a population of a hundred thousand or slightly less. We were stationed at Machinato, about 10 miles from Naha so we constantly prowled the streets of Naha shopping, looking for girls (all Okinawan girls are cute), barroom hopping, etc. You could travel into any part of the city without having to worry about crime or violence. As a matter of fact, compared to U.S. cities, Naha was crime-free. For example, rape was virtually unknown in Naha or on the island until the U.S. servicemen arrived. Unfortunately, things changed somewhat then and the natives were shocked. (Please note that 99.9% of the GIs behaved with honor while on the island)
Oriental music was always being played in the market place. I loved it.
As we walked down the Naha streets, we were always greeted pleasantly by the sales people working in open shops lining the streets. We joked back and forth with them. I recall stopping at a shop which sold board games and was busy looking at a chess set when the attractive young sales girl challenged me to a game of chess. For an hour the game went on and a crowd gathered. I think I finally won but I was amazed that a young Okinawan girl could play chess so well. Several days later, I returned to Naha looking for the shop (and girl) and could not find them. Oh, well! The story of my life!
It was always pleasant visiting Naha.
Military Training on Okinawa. One afternoon a week was set aside for infantry-type training. We always marched out to one of the nearby battlegrounds where the savage 1945 battle took place and carried out maneuvers where thousands of Americans and Japanese (and Okinawan citizens) had fought and died ten years earlier. The evidence of the battles still lay around us - caves, tombs, boulders, & walls that had been hit with flame throwers, & fragments of shells & grenades. Even some fragments of bones lay around. A faint smell of death still lurked there.
Thank God I did not have to participate in the terrible battle on Okinawa. The American soldiers that did were truly America's finest generation. One of my uncles fought there as a marine and used to tell me of the horrific battle.
I liked Okinawa the way it was in 1955 not 1945! Ten years made a lot of difference.
Native Traditions. I regret that I did not get more into the Okinawan culture and traditions while I was there. I certainly had the opportunity. But, I was a young guy interested mainly in having a good time and let the opportunity largely pass.
Okinawan culture has been heavily influenced by those who have dominated them throughout their history - Japan, China, and the U.S. Still, they retain a part of their native culture. But for how long? The Ryukyu Islands are so valuable as bases in the existing geopolitical struggles in the Pacific, that it is doubtful if they will ever be truly left alone.
I was fortunate to be there while they retained at least part of their individual culture.
Working With Okinawans. We worked closely with the local folks who formed our office pool and also did much of the work. They were hard working folks who had a great sense of humor. The girls in the office really had a smile on their face the day my buddies sitting in the back seat of my jeep tied me into the front seat of the jeep while I was driving. I had to sound the horn over and over to try to get one of the girls to come out of the lab and untie me because my buddies were obviously going to leave me tied up all day. But after I begged awhile, one of the girls finally untied me. Her grin was ear to ear.
Leaving Okinawa. When each of us finished our tour of duty and headed back to the states, there were always tears in the eyes of the girls who worked in the army lab with us. They had gotten attached to us also.
When it came my time to leave, I gave each of the girls a small amount of money. That may sound a little flaky to you but that had become the custom, and on Okinawa, you don't break customs.
It was tough climbing on that troop ship to go home. But I had to get on with my life. I couldn't stay on Okinawa forever.
And so, 50 years later, I not only think of Okinawa but sometimes dream of it. In my dreams, I return to Okinawa and find the military laboratory where I worked is still there and some of the guys with whom I served are still there. As I talk to them, the dream dissolves.
But Okinawa does not dissolve. It is still there and doing fine!
1. Germany in World War 2. Causes of World War 2. The great battles that Germany fought in.
2. World War 2 in Pacific. Brief review of World War 2 in the Pacific.
The island of Okinawa was destroyed in World War 2 but it is now a dynamic, revitalized part of Japan.. From what I hear from the readers of this web site, Okinawa is still a great place to visit.
Note: I would appreciate hearing from any U.S. military personnel who served on Okinawa during the 1955-56 period.
Last Updated: 04/17/13