Families, protesters mark anniversary of Battle of Okinawa

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Attendees bow their heads for a moment of silence during Tuesday's annual Irei no Hi ceremony at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park. This year's ceremony drew veterans and dignitaries and commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)
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Attendees bow their heads for a moment of silence during Tuesday's annual Irei no Hi ceremony at Okinawa Peace Memorial Park. This year's ceremony drew veterans and dignitaries and commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. (Matthew M. Burke/Stars and Stripes)

Families, protesters mark anniversary of Battle of Okinawa

by: Matthew M. Burke and Chiyomi Sumida | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: June 24, 2015

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Paul Ogle came to Okinawa looking for closure after a lifetime of pain.

On April 13, 1945, Ogle’s father, also named Paul, was fighting with the U.S. Army’s 96th Infantry Division on Okinawa when he was killed by a Japanese sniper.

Ogle and his soldier son, Darren, were part of a small group of American veterans who came to Okinawa on Tuesday for the Irei no Hi ceremony at the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park. The annual ceremony serves as a remembrance for the 12,520 American servicemembers, 110,000 Japanese troops and 140,000 Okinawan civilians who lost their lives in the 82-day Battle of Okinawa.

This year’s ceremony was somber as usual. But the political bickering between Japanese officials in Okinawa and Tokyo that has plagued the island prefecture found its way onto the park’s hallowed ground.

More than 5,000 people converged on the tiny Okinawan hamlet of Itoman to commemorate the end of a bloody battle, officials said. Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga used more than half of his speech to rail against Tokyo and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for pressing forward with the runway into Oura Bay at Henoko and for discriminating against Okinawa.

The runway will make room for the closure of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, in a densely populated urban area in central Okinawa. The station’s assets will be moved to Camp Schwab.

“The heavy presence of the military has imposed various negative impacts on people’s lives and economic development on Okinawa,” Onaga said during his speech. “I strongly urge the government not to be bound by a fixed idea and stop the relocation work, and review the policy to reduce the military related burden of Okinawa.”

The crowd applauded.

Protesters, intent on blocking the construction of a new U.S. military runway in Okinawa’s north interrupted Abe’s speech, in which he vowed to further alleviate the burden being placed on Okinawans.

Abe’s security team protected him as he made a hasty exit to his car after the ceremony as protesters shouted at him.

For Ogle, none of it mattered. He touched his dad’s name on the black granite memorial wall. He and his son had plans to go to the spot where he was struck down.

“We needed to come and see where my father was,” Ogle said after the ceremony. “I don’t know why, but it was very important to do that.”

“Seventy years later, his family is still looking for him,” Darren Ogle said of the grandfather he never met.

Other family members of the deceased thought the forum was not the place for politics.

“In my opinion, today must be reserved as a day to commemorate the victims of the war and pray for their souls,”  said Isao Nagado, 63.

His mother, Toyo, 86, lost eight members of her family — both parents and five siblings, ages 10 months to 19 years.

Kosuke Tamaki, 88, of Ginowan, was 18 during the battle. He lost an eye and was buried under the bodies of his comrades after being knocked unconscious by an American tank.

“I crawled out and started walking to look for water,” he recalled. “Eventually, I would find a cave where residents were hiding. I was given water and a rice ball. I was lucky because it was only one eyeball that the war took away from me.”

Twins Mike and Marjorie Stevens traveled from England to represent their father, Samual Stevens, at the ceremony. He was on the British ship HMS Indefatigable and braved kamikaze attacks during the battle. The elder Stevens died from cancer years later. The twins said they wanted to call attention to the U.K. servicemembers, because they are often overlooked.

“Two years ago, we decided to come for our father and for the Okinawan people,” Mike Stevens said after placing a red wreath at the U.K. and Northern Ireland memorial tucked away in a back corner of the park. “It’s for all the people who perished. It’s about peace and reconciliation as well, isn’t it?”

burke.matt@stripes.com
sumida.chiyomi@stripes.com