Finley: Visiting my father’s war
Okinawa, Japan – My father landed on this island 73 years ago, a teen-aged Marine about to join the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater, and the final one of World War II.
Among the Japanese soldiers waiting to greet him was Hikataro Nakamura, a native Okinawan and, like my father, the son of a hill country farmer.
Over the course of 82 days in the muddy spring of 1945, Nakamura and my dad, and the armies around them, tried desperately to destroy one another in a battle that became known as the Typhoon of Steel for its ferocity and the incredible amount of killing power deployed, including the much feared Japanese Kamikaze pilots.
Before the battle ended on June 22, it would consume 241,000 lives, among them 14,000 Americans, ranking it among the top 10 in American history in its lethality. Okinawa, once a tropical paradise of farmers and fishermen, would be shredded. The United States would get a clearer assessment of the cost of invading the Japanese mainland.
And these two enemies, Hikataro Nakamura and my father, PFC John Cecil Finley, would have fought their final fight.
I’m walking across the ground where the Japanese army made its last stand on Okinawa, fighting from caves and tunnels.
Today it is a peace memorial park, with an eternal flame and granite blocks bearing the names of those killed on Okinawa, Japanese and American, soldier and civilian.
My guide is Makoto Nakamura, the nephew of Hikataro.
I’ve come here in hopes of finding the missing puzzle pieces that might help reveal a fuller picture of a man who died while I was still in college, well before I could get to know him as a real person.
As we walk and talk, I find Nakamura and I share much in common. We’re the same age. Along with his uncle, his father also fought in World War II, in China, and survived the torpedoing of a transport ship that sank off the Philippines coast.
“If he hadn’t come up to the top deck for a smoke, I wouldn’t be here today,” Nakamura says.
And if President Harry Truman hadn’t decided to drop the bombs, I might not be, either. My father was on Guam at the time training for the Japan invasion, an operation expected to cost up to a half million American casualties. The fierceness of the fight on Okinawa helped convince Truman that taking the mainland in a ground battle would carry too dear a price.
Nakamura, who brings with him photos of his father as a young soldier, is sketchy about the other details of his service.
“He hardly said anything about it,” Nakamura tells me, through an interpreter. “I wish I would have asked more questions.”
Me too. A frequent refrain of the children of World War II vets is that their fathers, content to close that chapter of their lives, didn’t talk much about their experiences.
Nakamura says his father was traumatized by the war, mourning his lost family members for the rest of his life. My dad was scarred, too. Six months after turning 18 and being drafted off a remote Kentucky tobacco farm, he was crawling through a living hell. Touring these grounds and the attached museum makes vivid exactly how terrifying was the scene he faced.
Growing up, I heard snatches of conversation about Okinawa, and also of my dad’s time in Nagasaki as part of the occupation forces, the latter more pleasant than the former.
When he spoke about the combat part of his service, the stories came out slowly. His squadron used flamethrowers to burn Japanese soldiers out of tunnels. His bazooka team fired shoulder mounted rocket launchers into caves where the enemy was hidden, blowing them to pieces.
During the most intense stretch of the fighting, troops couldn’t be spared to move the captured Japanese fighters behind the lines, so some were shot with their hands tied behind their backs. At night, the U.S. soldiers could hear the screams from their own captured comrades who were being tortured. And everywhere there were bodies of dead civilians, sometimes whole families, caught in the crossfire.
I could tell from his hesitancy that he mostly wanted to forget the things he saw, and did.
The Okinawa Peace Memorial is all about remembering, in hopes of not repeating. The war Japan started was brought painfully home in places like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Tokyo and, especially, Okinawa, where 150,000 civilians, half of the pre-war population, perished.
“We can’t have another war,” says Nakamura. “That’s why I volunteer here. For my family, and for all of Japan, the war was such a traumatic experience. We can’t forget that.”
We talk awhile about how quickly Americans and Japanese put the bitterness and brutality of the war behind them and went to work building an enduring alliance. Necessity became the mother of friendship; the United States saw Japan as an important outpost in its Cold War with China and Russia. The air bases on Okinawa provided a critical line of defense, and still do today, with the threat from North Korea rising.
And although the heavy presence of U.S. troops on this island, which was occupied until 1972, remains an irritant, the people have high regard for Americans, Nakamura says.
“There is no chain of hatred. Okinawans hated the war, but they don’t hate the United States.”
Nor do they blame the U.S. The museum is shockingly frank about Japan’s aggression, and the atrocities its soldiers committed against their kin on Okinawa.
On the hills above the granite blocks, where soldiers once struggled back and forth over inches of ground, the people of Japan have erected a string of memorials to those who died.
They are constructed of materials native to the various Japanese prefectures that donated them, and are poignant in their simplicity, and their significance. Housed here are the remains of 180,000 Japanese killed in the fighting.
It’s a reminder that those sacrificed in the name of evil are mourned by the ones they leave behind just as deeply as are those who died for a righteous cause. You can almost hear these spare, stone sculptures weeping.
I’m particularly moved by the name-filled blocks. The fallen of both armies are honored here; some of the names etched in English, some in Japanese. Nakamura pauses to point out the name of his uncle, who fell in the battle’s waning days.
It occurs to me that some listed on these blocks may have died at my father’s side, and some by his hand.
Nakamura breathes deeply as he takes in the surroundings and notes the spiritual nature of this memorial. “That refreshing feeling is what peace means,” he says.
As we finish our visit, I ask what our dads might think, to see us now, enjoying a pleasant conversation on a drizzly afternoon in this place sanctified by the blood of warriors.
“Talking on behalf of my father, he would have loved to see this day,” my new friend says. “He hated war. This is the only way to stop it.”
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