Photo/IllutrationThe Ourasaki internment camp in the Henoko district of Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, in a picture taken by the U.S. military in July 1945 (Provided by the Okinawa Prefectural Archives)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

NAGO, Okinawa Prefecture--Kazuko Yamakawa grows more saddened and embittered each time she sees TV reports on the contentious project to build a new U.S. military base in this city’s Henoko district.

To the 89-year-old, Henoko is a symbol of her personal ordeal and the undignified deaths many islanders, including her own mother, Maka, were subjected to after they narrowly survived the 1945 Battle of Okinawa.

Thousands of islanders were forced to relocate to Henoko, where the U.S. military set up an internment camp for displaced Okinawans. She and her mother were among them.

Maka and countless others were buried in Henoko, now home to the U.S. Marines' Camp Schwab, after they died following weeks of enduring the abysmal conditions at the camp, with little food and water.

“Henoko, where many Okinawans suffered wretched deaths, is the equivalent of the Cornerstone of Peace for me,” she said, referring to the emblematic monument in Itoman in the prefecture that was dedicated to all the war dead in the three-month conflict. “I find it unbearable that another U.S. base is being constructed at such a place.”

Reclamation work is expected to start soon for the construction of new, partially offshore runways. The facility is aimed to take over the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, also in the prefecture, based on the 1996 agreement between Tokyo and Washington. The project has been stalled due to vehement local opposition.

Yamakawa said she was able to recover her mother's remains before the area was made off-limits to inhabitants due to the construction of Camp Schwab there, which began around 1956.

But she does not know the whereabouts of the remains of other internees who were buried in Henoko.

“I wonder what had happened to the rest of the remains,” said Yamakawa, who lives in the prefectural capital of Naha.

When the U.S. invasion into Okinawa’s main island began in April 1945, Yamakawa and her mother, who are from Motobu, a town just north of Nago, fled to the mountains.

But they were captured by U.S. troops in late June, around the time Japanese defenders’ organized fighting ended, to be sent to the internment camp in Henoko, dubbed the Ourasaki camp.

U.S. military archives, quoted in the prefecture’s official records of the Okinawan history, put the number of internees at the Ourasaki camp at 22,470 as of late August 1945.

“It was a camp in name only,” Yamakawa recalled. “It was situated on a barren hill where not even a single tree was left,” she said.

As many as 40 people were squeezed into a single barrack.

With little food rations, detainees had to battle severe hunger and malnutrition.

Starving detainees nibbled all the soft grasses in sight as soon as they came up. Seaweeds, which washed ashore on the beach of Henoko every morning, were usually gone by dawn as they also frantically scoured for them.

Water from a brook running in the camp was too dirty to drink.

The result was the spread of malaria and other diseases, which took numerous lives of detainees.

Maka, who had a kidney problem, died about three weeks after their capture, on July 16. Her last words were, “I am sleepy.”

The following day, Yamakawa buried her body in the ground beneath a cliff along the coast of Oura Bay in Henoko. She managed to secure a plot for the burial, although the area was already crammed with row after row of mounds where detainees had been buried. She said she could dig only to a depth of about 1 meter as many other bodies waited for burial.

“All I could do was ‘dispose’ of her body, rather than give her a proper burial,” she said, wiping away her tears. “I could not even afford to cry back then. I felt so miserable and anxious.”

Yamakawa put a narrow stone about 1 meter in length on her mother’s burial site so that she could identify the location later.

As soon as she learned that her father, Seiken, was alive at another internment camp, she headed there. They were separated from each other in the confusion of fleeing from U.S. troops.

But he died only a few days after the father and daughter were reunited.

About two years after the war ended with Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Yamakawa and her brothers, who had been repatriated from battlefields, traveled to Henoko to recover their mother's remains.

It proved a daunting task, however, to find the spot. The ground beneath the cliff was overrun with overgrown grass. It took them a whole day to locate the stone.

Yamakawa’s last visit to Henoko was 10 or so years ago, when she gazed at it from a distance.

The U.S. military embarked on the construction of bases in succession soon after their invasion by seizing land and forcing out residents who used to live there.

They also built dozens of internment camps to relocate displaced islanders.

The Ourasaki camp was aimed primarily at residents of Motobu and the nearby villages of Nakijin and Ie, according to official records on the history of Nago.

The records described the camp as “being filled with burial mounds.”

But a thorough investigation into the remains there has yet to be undertaken by the central and prefectural governments more than 70 years after the end of World War II.

Takamatsu Gushiken, a volunteer surveyor who heads a local civic group, Gamafuya, which campaigns for the recovery of human remains from the battle, said, “There are possibilities that many of the internees’ remains are still preserved in what used to be the Ourasaki camp as the area became inaccessible after the U.S. base was built there.”

Gushiken has repeatedly requested both the Japanese and U.S. governments to conduct an extensive survey at Camp Schwab, but to no avail.

In June 2016, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare carried out the first-ever inspection of the Ourasaki site. But the visual survey did not turn up any tangible results. No probe has been undertaken since.

The prefectural government has been soliciting survivors’ testimonies for the possible recovery.

But there is little time left. The central government is poised to start the reclamation work as early as autumn, although it has been postponed, for the time being.

Gushiken and those who are concerned about the remains fear that the landfill project could destroy burial sites, leaving them lost forever.

“Is it not outrageous to reclaim Henoko without ever launching an exhaustive investigation?” he said.