By Joe Boyles
Okinawa is the main island in the Ryukyu group located in the central western Pacific south of Japan. The island is 60 miles long, oriented north to south and pinched together in the middle. While the north end of the island is remote and contains great natural beauty, the southern end is heavily populated. Once I recall landing at the civilian airport at Naha on the southern end of the island and taking nearly two hours on very crowded roads to drive thirty miles north to Kadena Air Base.
In the spring of 1945, the Marines and Army landed on the island to wrest control from the Japanese defenders. This great battle would foretell the difficulty associated with invading the four main Japanese islands to the north. The Americans suffered one-third casualties — 13 thousand dead and 39 thousand wounded. The Japanese Army lost 95 thousand dead and more than one hundred thousand native Okinawans lost their lives in the bloody contest.
The four-star American commander of the operation, General Simon Bolivar Buckner was killed in the battle as was the great correspondent Ernie Pyle. One local veteran told me that he survived the bloody campaigns at Guadalcanal and Peleliu unscathed only to be wounded on Okinawa. Simply put, it was a bloodbath. Things did not bode well for invasion of the home islands. The subsequent use of the atomic bombs in August made invasion moot as the Japanese unconditionally surrendered. American servicemen preparing for the upcoming invasion like Pete Studstill felt they had been reprieved at the eleventh hour – a new lease on life.
In the aftermath of the battle, the island of Okinawa became an American possession and military outpost for all of the services. Major military installations were built on the island to project American military power in the western Pacific and keep the peace that had been won at such great cost.
In 1972, after nearly three decades of American possession, the island reverted to Japanese control. Sensitive chemical and nuclear weapon stockpiles were shipped from the island to other destinations in anticipation of the changeover.
Today, United States servicemen, particularly airmen and marines, are stationed at this strategic outpost. It is ideally located at a mid-point in the western Pacific. Korea, Japan, and Taiwan are all easily accessible. It is particularly important because of the excellent airfields. Kadena located at the island’s narrow waist is a major Air Force installation. In addition to many airmen, nearly 20 thousand Marines are stationed on Okinawa.
For whatever reason, the Marines have been a sore point with local authorities for many years. It seems that most instances of disruption that grab headlines have been at the hands of Marines, so it came as no surprise last week when the Pentagon announced that half the Marines stationed on Okinawa would be relocated in the near future to other Pacific bases. I cannot see how this move will make either us or our allies less secure.
The Pacific threats to peace are a militaristic China and belligerent North Korea. American servicemen are stationed in Guam, Okinawa, Japan, and South Korea to counter the threat. Additionally, we have important allies in Australia, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea who possess their own military capability. We cannot afford to take our eyes off the Western Pacific region.