Cranes in Nagasaki, Orchids on Okinawa
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
Konnishiwa (hello in Japanese) and Hafa Adai (a native greeting in the Mariana Islands),
I am writing this post on the 75th Anniversary of D Day in the Pacific. On June 15, 1944, the US Marines landed on Saipan in the Mariana Islands in Operation Forager, the campaign to capture the island. On the following day (D Day + 1), my father landed there with the US Army's 27th Infantry Division. He was wounded in this fierce battle and awarded a Purple Heart Medal. He also fought in the Battle of Okinawa in April of 1945.
To honor my father's memory and service and to mark this important anniversary, I visited these battle sites earlier this month, along with several cities in mainland Japan, including Nagasaki. I braced myself before going, realizing that it would be a very emotional journey. My first breakdown occurred in Nagasaki following a visit to the atomic bomb museum. The museum displays in graphic detail the horrors inflicted by "Fat Man," the bomb dropped on August 9, 1945. An estimated 39,000-80,000 people died, roughly 1/2 of them on the first day of the bombing. A large group of Japanese middle school students were touring the museum at the same time we were, and their presence added to the well of grief I felt building inside as we viewed photos of school children killed in the bombing.
Later back at the hotel, I collapsed on the bed and sobbed, just overwhelmed by the sadness of it all. The museum contains thousands of colorful origami cranes, symbols of peace made by people all over the world. These beautiful creations inspired by nature offer hope and consolation in the midst of this dark record of history.
We ventured on to the beautiful island of Saipan, visiting the American Memorial Park, the Suicide Cliffs and the beach where my father landed with his division. We took a 12 minute flight from Saipan to the neighboring island of Tinian where we drove the rental car on Runway Able. This was the runway from which the B-29 bomber, Bockscar, took off carrying Fat Man to Nagasaki. We also saw the bomb pits where the atomic weapons were kept. This airfield on Tinian was once the busiest in the world but now has a ghost-like, abandoned look and feel.
My second emotional breakdown occurred on Okinawa at the Cornerstone of Peace Memorial that lists the names of the 240,734 people killed in the the Battle of Okinawa - Operation Iceberg (April - June of 1945). It was one of the bloodiest battles of WWII and one in which the civilian casualties outnumbered the enlisted ones. Over 100,000 Japanese died in this battle and 50,000 Allied soldiers. It was unbearably hot and humid the day we stood looking at the names of the dead and considering the miracle that my father's name was not one of them. I couldn't imagine how hot the soldiers must have been wearing their helmets, fatigues and carrying their gear while not knowing which breath would be their last. After being on Okinawa myself, I'll never again say that my father "survived" the war. While he was spared physical death on the battlefield, he carried the deep scars and emotional wounds to his death in 2012 at the age of 91.
It was important to see Okinawa after Nagasaki. It makes clear the argument that a ground war in mainland Japan would likely have resulted in over a million US soldier deaths and even more Japanese casualties. Once again, it was nature that offered up her healing power for me in the midst of my sadness on Okinawa. My husband ably drove the rental car (on the left this time!) to the north end of the island where we visited the incredibly beautiful Tropical Dream Center. This stunningly gorgeous botanical garden contains over 2,000 orchid plants along with many other tropical and subtropical flowers and fruits. The care that goes into the upkeep of this paradise is commendable and inspiring. The flowers spoke their love and hope to me. Orchids have spent thousands of years perfecting their beauty and seductiveness. They draw you into their folds where you are reminded of the sweetness of life in spite of all the failures of humanity.
My father was a great lover of nature, and I had a sense that he was with me on this journey. I sensed his presence and my mother's in the flowers and especially in the face of my son who was able to join us for a part of the trip. He stood on the same beach where his grandfather (whom he called "Papaw") waded ashore 75 years ago. In being there together, it felt as if we were healing ancestral wounds, and none of this would have happened without my amazing husband who carefully planned every detail of this important pilgrimage and expertly guided us from start to finish. As my father often said of my husband, "There's not another one like him!"
And so, we carry on bringing our history into the future with us:
"We don't live after such experiences as war, but rather in their aftermath, wherein the past is always present, is with us, but we go on toward our future, and it goes with us."
~Carolyn Forche Blaney