Photo/IllutrationThe cenotaph in memory of 20 residents of Kumejima island in Okinawa Prefecture arbitrarily killed by Japanese soldiers stands against the backdrop of mountains where the killers hid out. (Takufumi Yoshida)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KUMEJIMA, Okinawa Prefecture--Soshu Kiyumura's eyes fill with tears as he recalls the moment he stumbled on the headless and charred bodies of three neighbors.

It was the summer of 1945, and Kiyumura was 16 years old.

Japanese troops had summarily executed the man whom Kiyumura looked up to like an elder brother, having accused him of collaborating with U.S. forces.

During those violent few months, Japanese soldiers massacred 20 residents of Kumejima island, including infants, on groundless charges of assisting U.S. forces in the war effort.

Meiyu Nakandakari's only "crime" was to try to save the island from a U.S. naval bombardment, as well as the lives of the islanders, ahead of U.S. forces coming ashore. His wife and 1-year-old son were also put to death.

The Battle of Okinawa, a ferocious encounter that resulted in horrific civilian and military casualties, had just ended, and U.S. forces were taking no chances as they moved to mopping up operations on outlying islands, where they feared they could still encounter die-hard resistance.

“Why did the Japanese forces have to kill them?” asked Kiyumura, referring to his friend, who was 25, and the man's family.

“The charred bodies had no heads. The soldiers must had taken them away as evidence to prove they actually had killed them,” said Kiyumura, now 88, who is still living on the island some 100 kilometers west of the prefectural capital of Naha.

Even after Japan's surrender in August 1945, the soldiers did not stop killing islanders. That finally happened Sept. 7, when all of them surrendered.

U.S. forces landed on Kumejima on June 26, 1945, three days after the end of the Battle of Okinawa.

Outlying islands took a pounding in the sustained artillery barrages during the battle, but Kumejima was mostly spared.

THWARTING U.S. ATTACK

Nakandakari served in the Imperial Japanese Navy during the war, was caught and held by U.S. forces on the main Okinawa island. While he was in custody, he learned that U.S. forces were gearing up to mount an offensive against Kumejima.

He explained to his captors that only a few dozen Japanese soldiers, all members of the navy’s communications corps, were stationed on the island. Given that he hailed from Kumejima, Nakandakari volunteered to go there to urge the residents to surrender. In doing so, he became the guide for 966 U.S. troops who went ashore.

Nakandakari’s words, as recorded in a diary kept by the head of a local agricultural organization, found their way into a volume of the “Okinawa Kenshi” (History of Okinawa Prefecture) series compiled by the Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education and published in 1974: “The U.S. forces planned to conduct naval bombardment operations against Kumejima, using three warships before staging a landing on the island. But I explained to the forces that the island was totally defenseless and persuaded them to halt the attack.”

This is why Nakandakari is regarded as Kumejima island's savior, although it cost him his life.

After the U.S. troops landed, the Japanese military contingent hid out in the mountains. The soldiers became obsessed with the notion that some islanders had collaborated with the U.S. forces, and were therefore spies who deserved to be executed. Children of suspected "collaborators" were not spared, either.

Nakandakari was targeted because he had called out to fellow islanders that the “U.S. forces will not kill residents.”

On Aug. 15, 1945, Kumejima islanders heard the “gyokuon-hoso,” the radio broadcast of Emperor Hirohito announcing Japan’s surrender. The U.S. Army aired the broadcast by radio at a local elementary school.

Kiyumura still vividly recalls islanders disgorging from underground air raid shelters after the announcement and U.S. solders walking along fields tended by farmers. Tensions between the islanders and the U.S. soldiers were nonexistent.

The Japanese navy’s communication corps was still in hiding. Whether they were aware the war was over is not known.

After his release from U.S. custody, Nakandakari laid low with his wife and infant son several kilometers away from his ancestral home. But they were discovered by Japanese troops on Aug. 18.

All three were bayoneted to death. The soldiers then set the house on fire.

FAMILY OF 7 SLAUGHTERED

Two days afterward, another atrocity occurred. The soldiers killed Noboru Tanigawa, an ethnic Korean resident, his wife, who hailed from the main Okinawa island, and their five children.

“Tanigawa and his family were deemed to be U.S. spies because they received food from the U.S. troops,” said Eisho Yona, 88, a neighbor of Tanigawa at that time.

“There was also prejudice against Koreans,” Yona recalled.

Yona buried Tanigawa’s youngest child, just an infant, in a pine forest.

Looking back on the incident, Yona cannot contain his resentment: “Did they really need to kill even a baby?”

His impression of the Japanese soldiers has remained unchanged all these years: “Cowards who killed Kumejima islanders without even trying to put up a fight against the U.S. troops."

The islanders continued to live in fear until Sept. 7, 1945, when the Japanese soldiers in hiding finally surrendered to U.S. forces at the urging of a superior.

“The obsessive assumption that Japan couldn’t be defeated and the nature of the Japanese military, in which the authority of superiors was absolute, resulted in the massacre,” said Yumiko Shimabukuro, 78, who studied the island's bloody history and wrote a book titled “The war in Kumejima island” that was published in 2010.

Shimabakuro said all her family members, herself included, were on a “kill list” drawn up by the Japanese soldiers.

HORRORS OF MILITARY BRAINWASHING

Fast-forward to March 1972, when Okinawa was on the cusp of reverting to Japanese sovereignty. The commander who had given the order to slaughter the islanders was unrepentant in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

“We killed the Kumejima islanders either on direct or indirect spying charges,” he said.

“If people say I should reflect on my actions, I would do so. But things happened during wartime,” he went on. “I was a soldier and I did it with the growth and decay of Japan in mind.”

Isamu Sakuda, 59, who works as a “guide for peace” in Kumejima, blames the wartime military mentality for the atrocities.

“(Their warped thinking) did not derive from their individual personalities. That is precisely the horror of military brainwashing," Sakuda said.

He said the incident must not be forgotten in calling for it to "be handed down from generation to generation.”

According to the book on the history of Okinawa Prefecture published in 2017, the soldiers also killed an islander on June 27 who had been unlucky enough to be caught by the U.S. forces and then released to deliver a summons to the Japanese soldiers to surrender. The man worked for the local post office, but the soldiers regarded him as being a cat's paw of U.S. forces.

Two days after that, nine residents, including a ward mayor, were slain. Their homes were also burned. On Aug. 18, the all three members of Nakandakari family were massacred.

It is said that the "kill list" drawn up by the soldiers targeted 40 other islanders comprised of nine households.

A black-colored cenotaph as tall as an adult stands in sugar cane fields about a 10-minute drive from Kumejima Airport.

Its inscription reads, ”Cenotaph of bitter grief: Residents and Koreans in Kumejima island massacred by the military of the emperor.”