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Okinawa, Japan
Lat: 26°30′N 127°56′E
The Battle of Okinawa, fought April-June 1945, lasted some eighty-two days. By most standards, it was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War with massive losses of men and machinery on both sides. And no wonder; this was the final battleground of that terrible war, the last island taken in the US march across the Pacific. Many speculate it was the reason our government elected to drop the atomic bombs rather than risk an invasion of Japan’s Home Islands; so desperate were they to avoid a more protracted and much bloodier conflict than Okinawa.

We explored the island in the capable and informed hands of Chris Majewski, former US Marine, and our local fixer, Tamio Ota. Chris manages the Battle of Okinawa Exhibit at Camp Kinser (http://bit.ly/NJqb7b) and has been poking around in combat tunnels of the island for years in search of lost artifacts for the museum. Tamio grew up on the island hearing stories from friends and family of the “Typhoon of Steel,” as the Battle of Okinawa would be nicknamed.

Thanks to Tamio, we were able to access a tunnel system and a cave in the company of native Okinawans who were young teens at the time of the battle. Hisa Tsuhako was conscripted with two hundred and twenty-one other local high school girls as nurses’ aides to serve in the hospital tunnels treating injured Japanese soldiers. It was a dreadful experience for her, one she had never explained on-camera before. She was the subject of our first shoot-day and was scheduled to meet us early in the morning at the tunnel’s entrance. But she was uncharacteristically late so Tamio and I decided to walk down the road to see if she’d misunderstood our location. Sure enough—and to my utter surprise--we found this lovely, petite, eighty-two year old woman sitting happily on the ground in the shade of a beech tree. She wore a proper, beige dress and heeled shoes. Hisa greeted us, smiling warmly, and climbed spryly to her feet before I had a chance to lend a hand (she didn’t need it.) We quickly proceeded back to the tunnel with Hisa graciously apologizing for the misunderstanding.

Okinawans are known to be among the happiest, healthiest people on the planet, an enviable condition chalked up to good diet and exercise (the secret revealed!). But you don’t realize how remarkable this is until an elderly person leads you through the darkness of a war tunnel without the least sense of sorrow or self-pity, not to mention soreness in the joints. Okinawans, apparently, just get on with things. A few days later, Zenichi Yoshimine led me into a huge cave, pointing out how stinking, dead bodies were floating in the underground river where he huddled with his parents for a month with desperate Japanese soldiers at the entrance ready to machine-gun any Okinawan who dared to leave. For a month. Okinawans from WWII are living tributes to the indomitable human spirit.

Please watch the clips here to see both of these remarkable people discussing their first-hand experiences and how war is truly hell and should be avoided at all costs.

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