In the Tunnels: The Last Days of Admiral Ota in the Battle of Okinawa
Rear Admiral Minoru Ota as a child no doubt had heard the story of how the Mongolian Armada tried to conquer Japan in 1274. But from the mouth of Goddess Amaterasu, the Divine Winds, the Kamikaze, destroyed the Mongol fleets under command of Kublai Kahn. Would the Goddess appear and thwart the Americans now at their shores?
It was June 6, 1945, and from the commanding officers’ room, Ota headed out into the tunnels through the flickering incandescent lights. At least the generators were still working as the mountain shook above him from the exploding artillery. In the main hallway, he checked the men to make sure they were still performing their duties. He boasted their morale by telling them how reinforcements would soon arrive. No one was coming though. They were alone.
When I arrived at the top of the hill where Ota once stood situated near Naha, the capital of Okinawa, it started raining. A circular building stood at the top, mostly gray with an external wall made of clear glass surrounding the whole structure. It was the Visitor Center to the Former Underground Japanese Navy Headquarters. And it was here that Ota made his final stand against the Americans in the Battle of Okinawa.
It was much different back then in June 1945 when Ota climbed the 105 steps up to the entrance of the tunnels and surveyed the land to confirm the truth that the U.S. army had overtaken Oroku Airfield. Offshore in the distance, he saw the American armada and their great cannons pointed in his direction. Shells continued raining down from the sky while underneath, in underground tunnels dug by hand, over 4000 men, under command of Ota, were frantically trying to ward off the enemy.
Ota thought of the sacrifices the people of Okinawa offered. Village girls of no more than 14 years of age from local villages had devoted themselves to nursing and cooking for the soldiers as well as volunteering to carry ammunition up to the front line. Some even took up arms and joined in to attack the enemy. Although no one dared say it, it was the beginning of the end.
His men were huddled along the sides of the tunnels barely wide enough to accommodate the two lines of injured soldiers on either side: Some of them sat quietly lost in their own thoughts, others ranted to themselves about their family back home on the mainland. Bits of stone and dust fell from the ceiling as the shaking intensified from the artillery fire. Women tended to the men with ladles of water.
Ota recalled some families who had come to him before the shelling intensified, sensing that the Americans would soon be in their village.
“Please, take our daughter,” one father said. “We are afraid that when the Americans land and we are killed, they will take her and do what they will with her.” Ota looked at the father and the weeping girl. They looked sick and malnourished, their clothing tattered and soiled.
When he sent them away, Ota realized that Tokyo would have to know the sacrifice the people of Okinawa had made to the war effort. After he finished making his rounds along the 450 meters of tunnel, Ota went directly to the communications room to send off his last telegram.
I entered the lobby of the Visitor Center and saw the displays of uniforms of all ranks along with pickaxes and shovels brown with rust that the soldiers used to dig out the tunnels. At the top of the stairs that led down to the tunnels, a strong draft seemed to be pushing me from behind.
Attached to the wall were strings of 1000 origami cranes in tints of pink, yellow, and green flew about, blown wildly about. The walls and steps were smooth and a metal handrail descended steeply. The modern lighting brightened the stone to a glistening yellow hue. It was quiet except for my footsteps that echoed off the walls.
Ota addressed a telegram, message number 062016, to Vice Admiral. He began by first apologizing that it was he and not the Prefectural Governor himself who was updating the conditions of the people of Okinawa. Ota still felt a need to follow proper military procedure, but he also felt a sense of responsibility to the civilians.
“Due to our negligence,” he wrote “these innocent people have lost their homes and property to enemy assault. Every man has been conscripted to defend while women, children, and elders are forced into hiding in the small underground shelters, which are not tactically significant or are exposed to shelling, air raids, and wind and rain.”
He went on to write about the sacrifices the people made without complaint and wishing only to serve as loyal Japanese. “We have forced the people to evacuate the residential areas and those without transportation trudge on in the dark and rain, without complaining, and all the while searching for food.”
In the last line of the telegram, Ota made his final appeal to his commanding officer to “give the Okinawan people special consideration from this day forward.”
As I walked through the complex labyrinth of rooms and hallways located 30 meters underground, I noticed that there were no views to the outside world, no bunkers armed with means to shoot back out into the sea. There were only two entrances into these tunnels. And as there were no barrack rooms, most of the rank-and-file soldiers it seemed had to rest alongside the tunnels themselves. It was here along the base of the roughened corridors where they waited for their orders to be sent back up to die their honorable deaths.
But what about the alternative? They were told that the Americans would torture them, skin them alive and let them rot in the cave, making them plea for their own lives even, a death unworthy of any respectable soldier.
A week after sending his last telegram, Ota gave the final orders to the senior staff under his command and moved on to other business.
In the staff officers' room, no bigger than a shed, I saw a wooden table surrounded by three chairs. The ceiling and the far wall were chipped sporadically here and there. I ran my fingers across the surface of the wall and over the chipped sections, some of which were deep enough to fit my finger up to the first joint. There seemed to be a logical pattern to the location of the holes as if it was following a pre-planned trajectory.
From their belts, the officers each took a grenade, a standard issue type 97 shaped as a pineapple, pulled the pin, and placed it close to their chests. Four seconds later when the grenades exploded, the shrapnel first tore through their bodies and then ricocheted into the walls behind them in an upward projection with enough momentum to be wedged inside the granite wall itself.
As I ascended the stairs, the 105 steps, back up to the surface, I read that over two million shells were used by the Americans and that over 188,000 Japanese had died in the Battle of Okinawa. An average of 4.72 shells for every Okinawan. The largest number of casualties in the Pacific War took place here, with almost 200,000 dead, both American and Japanese, soldiers and civilians, young and old, men and women.
On June 13, 1945, Minoru Ota sat with six of the most senior officers in the Commanding Officers’ Room. Painted on the wall just above him were his favorite music lyrics written in black stylized Japanese characters: “To die for the Emperor is the purpose I was born for.” For his part in the war, Ota was told he would get his reward in paradise. One day, perhaps, the story of his display of honor and discipline would be told to the next generation.
Outside, the rain had stopped and the sun was just peaking out from the clouds. The chime from the nearby elementary school marked the end of the school day. In the parking lot, there were a few buses and cars, unlike other tourist sites on the island, often congested with traffic of tourists hailing from all parts of Japan. As I was just pulling out from the parking lot, students from the school were being let out, shouting and running down the street to their homes.
“The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!” The warning from one of the sentries who saw the encroaching army clambering up the hill, near the tunnel entrances. It was time. Ota took his pistol from his belt, stood up and straightened his jacket. The other six officers did the same.
“Banzai, Banzai, Banzai!” Ota shouted, as he put the pistol to the side of his head and pulled the trigger.
English translation of the last telegram sent by Minoru Ota
Former Japanese Navy Headquarters (photos)