Guest Post by Tim Qiu, Instagram handle @asianhistoryaddict
During the second world war, the Imperial Japanese military inflicted horror, grief, and mass destruction against its adversaries across the Pacific theatre. However, what is less well known are the atrocities it committed against its own people and other innocent civilians.
With the military situation growing increasingly dire in 1944, Japanese propagandists intensified their efforts to dehumanize their enemies. British, Australian, and American troops were often portrayed as rapists and sadists, and were even accused of, “running over male captives with Jeeps and raping female captives before brutally torturing them to death.” There were more rumors of harsh treatment for Japanese prisoners of war, including live mutilation and cannibalism.
Propaganda combined with rumor caused many civilians caught between Japanese and American forces to either hide with Japanese soldiers or take their own lives - along with those of their loved ones. This was to avoid the shame and disgrace of being captured or avoid the assumed brutality and torture at the hands of Allied forces.
One important example of this behavior was seen on the island of Saipan. Women, many with children in their arms, leapt from cliffs by the hundreds off the infamous Suicide and Banzai Cliffs to evade capture. Fathers slit their children’s throats before tossing them into the sea to be washed away. Mothers drowned themselves and their children, hoping to see them in the afterlife. It is estimated that between 800 to 1,000 civilians died by suicide during the month-long battle of Saipan.
5/9/1945- Okinawa, Japan: Eleven Okinawa civilians who were huddled in this hillside cave were rescued when a passing Marine patrol heard a baby crying. After being assured that no harm would come to them, they emerged from their hideout and here a leatherneck lends a hand to a mother and baby. Source: US Marine Corps Records
As the last major battle of World War Two in the Pacific theatre, Okinawa was no exception to the death and devastation inflicted during the Allied island-hopping campaign. There, Japanese soldiers disguised as civilians tried infiltrating American lines to wage guerilla warfare, sowing distrust among American sentries towards misplaced refugees seeking shelter from the killing.
Those who decided to hide in caves and dugouts with Japanese soldiers met grim fates. They were often either obliterated by unaware American troops with “blowtorch and corkscrew” (military slang for a standard method of clearing suspected Japanese bunkers using high-explosives and incendiary weapons) or died in forced Banzai charges, armed only with sharpened bamboo sticks and other medieval-style weaponry. Japanese soldiers also used Okinawans as human shields, threatening death if they did not obey their instructions, but in doing so who were killed nevertheless. Traps were set by the Japanese to lure American soldiers into danger. In one case, a wounded civilian lying on a doorstep waved the Americans away because of an explosive tripwire. The Americans safely disarmed the bomb and rescued the woman.
Unfortunately, the bloodshed on Okinawa did not end there. Countless civilians were caught in the crossfire while trying to take refuge, with many misidentified as enemy soldiers. Streams and rivers were filled with bodies while muddy roads and shell craters often contained dismembered corpses swarming with flies. During heavy fighting, US Marine Howard Terry recalled accidently killing an unarmed boy holding a surrender leaflet that he thought was a Japanese soldier. It was dark and his reflexes had taken over. This event haunted him well after the war ended. By the end of the battle on Okinawa, between 120 to 140 thousand civilian lives were lost, or nearly 30 percent of the local population at the time.
Wounded Japanese soldier emerging from cave to surrender to U.S. Marines; smoke (likely phosphorus) visible near cave. Official Caption: "Rome. 7/25/45--No suicide for him--A U.S. Marine (L) signals his companions to hold their fire as a wounded Japanese soldier emerges from his cave on Okinawa to surrender. Other Japanese in the cave gave up soon after. Source: WWII National Museum Digital Archives
To this day, there is an ongoing disagreement between Okinawa's local government and Japan's national government over the role of the Japanese military in civilian mass suicides during the battle. One nation’s military actions resulted in the immeasurable suffering of innocent civilians, yet it is important for the survivors, their descendants, and for us to remember the horror, acknowledge it and not try to erase it, or the memories of the innocents who unnecessarily lost so much in the Pacific theatre of war.
Book- Bloody Okinawa: The Last Great Battle of World War II by Joseph Wheelan (chapter 14), author of many other historical books focusing on the Pacific War.