OKINAWA, Japan --
Treading where their grandfathers could have been 67 years ago, the Marines stood atop a hill overlooking the sweeping Okinawan landscape. The air had a tinge of semblance to times past, but now from mountaintop to coastline a busy infrastructure buzzed; great change from the war-torn fields of yesteryear.
Marines with the Command Element of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked on a day-long Battle of Okinawa tour throughout the southern part of the island, Apr. 17. From the highest peak in the area to below the city surface, the Marines were taken back more than half a century to the Corps’ days in World War II.
“World War II is what a lot of people come up with when they think of times that defined the Marine Corps,” said Lance Cpl. Kinley Ray, a radio operator with CE, 31st MEU. “Not only are we getting the information about the battle for Okinawa, but we’re also going to those places and seeing exactly where these Marine units were. It’s a lot better than just reading up on the history.”
The tour, held by Marine Corps Community Services, first took the Marines to Kakazu Ridge, which proved in the spring of 1945 to be one of the bloodiest spots on Okinawa for U.S. Army and Marine Corps forces. The Marines were able to view bullet-pocked walls, deteriorating Japanese pill boxes and an entrance to the deadly Shuri lines, the Japanese’s dug-in network of heavily fortified positions.
Following a tour of the Battle of Okinawa museum aboard Camp Kinser, the tour headed further south to the Japanese Naval Underground Headquarters where Imperial Navy Vice Admiral Minoru Ota, the commander of Japanese Naval forces on Okinawa, lived and operated out of during the battle. The Marines walked through the dank coral and limestone tunnels where a whirlwind of activity took place plotting defensive strategies against the oncoming American forces.
“This tour is so unique in that we’re getting hands-on experiences and perspectives of the past enemy and where they were,” said Sgt. John Schiffer, assistant team leader with CE, 31st MEU. “To be able to be inside a tunnel or bunker of the enemy exactly where they stood realizing they might not make it out alive adds a certain thrill to the tour.”
To wrap up the battle tour, the Marines stopped at the Peace Prayer Park in the southernmost tip of the island where memorial walls are filled with the names of all Americans, allied, Japanese and Okinawans who died in the battle. Adjacent to the wall is the memorial hall, showcasing a timeline of photographs and artifacts of the battle.
During the tour, Chris Majewski, the guide, delivered information and stories about the battle with precision and fervor that allowed the participants to envision the divisions of Marines landing on the beaches and advancing up the hills into Japanese defenses.
“If you’re going to be in the military but not know your history, you’re going to fall short,” said Majewski. “You can watch [HBO miniseries] “The Pacific” all day long, but to actually go to the sites and get boots-on-the-ground experiences, it makes you better appreciate what our side went through.”
While it was a day away from the office, it was not a day away from work. Covering two months of bloody battle in one day, the Marines who participated in the tour left with a better understanding of what has brought them to be stationed on Okinawa.
The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and remains the nation’s force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region.