Guest Post by Tim Qiu, Instagram handle @asianhistoryaddict
Imperial Japan during World War 2 brought horror, grief, and mass destruction to their opponents wherever they marched. Still, fewer know of the atrocities they committed against their people and other innocent civilians.
With the situation growing dire in 1944, Japanese propaganda intensively scaled up their effort to dehumanize their enemies; British, Australian, and American troops were portrayed as rapists and sadists.
The message even went as far as to accuse them of “running over male captives with Jeeps after being tortured and raping female captives before also brutally torturing them to death.”
There were more rumors of the harsh treatment of Japanese POWs, including live mutilation (vivisection) and cannibalism.
This resonated within many battleground natives to either hide with the Japanese soldiers (more on that later) or take away their own lives along with their loved ones in the name of the “greater good.”
One important example of this behavior was observed on the island of Saipan. Women, children in hand, leaped off cliffs by the hundreds off the infamous Suicide and Banzai Cliffs to evade capture. Hundreds- even thousands could be seen lying at the bottom. Fathers slit their children’s throats before tossing them to be washed away by the sea; mothers drowned themselves and their children, hoping to see them in the afterlife.
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
An estimated 800-1,000 civilians died by suicide during the month-long battle of Saipan.
Okinawa was no exception; the last major battle of the Second World War brought with it death and devastation to everyone and everything involved.
There, Japanese soldiers disguised as civilians tried infiltrating American lines to wage guerilla warfare, sowing distrust in American sentries towards misplaced refugees seeking shelter from the killing.
Those who chose to hide with Japanese soldiers in caves and dugouts met grim fates. They were often either obliterated by unaware American troops with “blowtorch and corkscrew” (a military slang representing the use of demolitions and incendiary weapons to clear out suspected Japanese positions) or died in forced Banzai charges, and they were armed with only sharpened bamboo sticks and other medieval-style weaponry.
Japanese soldiers also used the local Okinawans as human shields, threatening death if they didn’t follow their instructions (which also led to death).
Traps were set up by the Japanese to lure Americans into danger. There was one case where a wounded civilian lying on a doorstep waved the Americans away, for there was a tripwire that would trigger an explosion once contact was made. The Americans safely disarmed the bomb and rescued the woman.
Unfortunately, the carnage didn’t end there. Countless civilians were caught in the crossfire while trying to take refuge, some misidentified as enemy soldiers.
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
Entire streams and rivers were filled with bodies and their maggot occupants. Muddy roads and shell craters often contained a dismembered corpse swarming with flies.
In the midst of the heavy fighting, US Marine Howard Terry recalled having instinctively killed an unarmed boy with a surrender leaflet he thought was a Japanese soldier, not seeing very well in the dark. This event came to haunt him well after the war was over.
The butcher’s bill of Okinawa cost 120,000-140,0000 civilian lives by the end of the battle, 30% of the local population at the time.
A nation’s foolish actions resulted in the immeasurable suffering of one too many, but yet it still avoids and denies the truth even today. The Japanese government has tried countless times to manipulate the truth, but let this be a Memento Mori of the innocents who unnecessarily lost so much in the Pacific theatre of this war.
It is important to remember the horrid, not erase it.
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.