United States forces landed on Aguni Island, about 40 miles west of Naha in Okinawa, that Saturday morning. They had seized Iheya Island the day before.
These landings were part of the third phase of the overall battle. Their purpose was in securing the outer islands and establishing radar warning stations against kamikaze attacks on the assembled US fleet.
The landing on Aguni went unopposed. Nevertheless, dozens of islanders were killed in the process.
Although the island lacked military installations and actual defensive fortifications, the US Navy pummeled the island with an early morning bombardment. Then they landed the 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division.
In the resulting carnage, some 60 islanders were needlessly slaughtered. No Japanese troops were killed because none were there. No US troops died in the unopposed landing or subsequent operations, although a couple were injured.
There were few deaths in the larger scheme of things. But when we rationalize like this we lose whatever humanity we have left.
What Could Have Been
I have long wondered if the operation could have been done differently so that innocent non-combatants far removed from the final two weeks of organized fighting on the main island of Okinawa could have been spared. The answer is, of course, "yes."
The execution of the operation was clearly overkill. It happened 78 years ago and what happened cannot be changed. But we can hopefully apply the lessons learned for the future so that the human costs of war can be reduced or eliminated.
It remains unclear why US forces attacked with such a large force. (Local reports put the number of the operation at 40,000).
The US military began bombing Aguni in the second half of March 1945. However, it had done reconnaissance since at least the previous fall with aerial attacks on Naha. They would have seen the lack of military installations then. Or certainly, they would have noticed in the run-up to the battle in March. And if not by then, during the battle that spring of 1945.
United States intelligence moreover would have presumably interviewed captured soldiers and civilians alike for information about the outer islands before undertaking an operation.
Perhaps, if they had really done that, US planners would have known that the handfuls of artillery-like pieces were fake. They were set up jointly by a veterans group and civil defense group following heated debate after submarines were spotted around the island. Simply, they were made of island pine tree trunks jutting out.
Maybe, too, they would have known that the island was completely cut off from Okinawa proper. No food or supplies had arrived due to the start of the battle. Instead of fighting, the US could have dropped leaflets or sent radio messages to encourage their immediate surrender before the landings.
The first aerial attack on Aguni took place around 7 AM on March 23. It killed 13 residents — one from Nishi (West) hamlet, three from Higashi (East) hamlet, and nine from Hama hamlet, where the port is. (The main target was probably the island's ferry boat, Yokyu Maru, which happened to be away at Kume Island at the time of the attack.)
That day, graduation ceremonies had to be canceled at the local school. The following week, another attack took place destroying an agricultural building. On April 1, the local school itself was burned to the ground. The next day on April 2, the village boat was finally sunk, putting a finishing touch on their isolation.
As the Battle of Okinawa raged on, the aerial attacks on Aguni ended. And villagers, many of whom suffered from malnutrition, returned from their hideouts in the caves back to their homes. Suddenly, however, on the morning of June 9, the US Navy began a massive barrage. This was followed by the landing of many tanks and personnel of the 1st Battalion of the 8th US Marines.
Fifty-six residents from Hama hamlet were killed during these sudden attacks and in the landings. Furthermore, another five (2 from Nishi, 1 from Higashi, and 2 from Hama hamlet) were mistaken for military personnel. among them were a fisheries official and an agricultural student in his school uniform. They were shot when they tried to run away. There was at least one rape, but the perpetrator was immediately caught and presumably disciplined.
Troops then set residences of the islanders on fire. Thirty-nine huts were entirely destroyed. Another 202 were partially damaged because they were deemed "dirty" and "primitive." Moreover, the residents had difficulty rebuilding later due to the lack of trees on the island.
After landing and securing the area, US troops initially moved the residents they encountered to Higashikubo, behind the school. Later they were moved on to the 12th Hama district. Videos of civilians emerging from their hiding places show many of them absolutely terrified about their fate. Some believed they would be killed, while others called for non-resistance in the hope they would be spared.
Memorializing the Victims
All of the nearly 2800 islanders were ordered transported to the northern part of Okinawa where a camp had been made. Then, on July 1, that order was rescinded. Instead, the residents were relocated to the North and South districts of their island.
In addition, there was a serious shortage of food and water. This was a problem, especially during the summer months. Crop planting and farming, on which the island was highly dependent, had been disrupted as a result of the initial aerial attacks and subsequent military landings. Normal trade was impossible. Pigs, cows, and horses had to be killed for their meat.
In the meantime, organized fighting on Okinawa proper ended on June 23. Japan itself announced on August 15 that it had accepted the Allied terms of surrender in the Potsdam Declaration. A surrender ceremony was held on September 2 in Tokyo and September 7 in Okinawa.
The US military left Mayor Suekichi Tatsukichi, from Hama hamlet, in charge of the island, after first holding him in captivity for a week to interrogate him. And thirty neighborhood leaders were also selected. Residents were allowed to return to their homes on October 23, and on November 5, the US command left. Finally, they were followed by the remaining US troops on February 15, 1946, after they had set up radar facilities there.
A newly refurbished memorial to those lost in the battle and past conflicts from the island sits quietly above the port serving the island's current 658 nominal residents and occasional visitors.
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Author: Robert D Eldridge
Eldridge is the author of "The Origins of the Bilateral Okinawa Problem" (Routledge, 2001) and the former political advisor to the Marine Corps in Japan.