• U.S.

OKINAWA: Forgotten Island

6 minute read

On Okinawa, where more than four years ago U.S. arms won a famous and a costly victory (80,000 dead & wounded), General Douglas MacArthur’s Pacific command has carried on a postwar occupation without much notice from the outside world. TIME Correspondent Frank Gibney toured the all-but-forgotten island, cabled:

The rice and sweet potato fields of Okinawa creep over the slate volcanic soil, covering the shell holes and the bloodstained caves where two great armies fought for eleven weeks. Weeds cover the charred foundations of what once were neat stone houses. Near by rise clusters of lean-tos made of cloth, battered boards and castoff American corrugated iron.

For the past four years, poor, typhoon-swept Okinawa has dangled at what bitter Army men call “the logistical end of the line,” and some of its commanders have been lax and inefficient. More than 15,000 U.S. troops, whose morale and discipline have probably been worse than that of any U.S. force in the world, have policed 600,000 natives who live in hopeless poverty. When a typhoon (dubbed “Gloria” by meteorologists) swept the island last summer and caused widespread damage, the Army finally investigated the situation. The island’s command was shaken up. Major General William W. Eagles, commander of ground forces, was replaced by breezy Major General Josef R. Sheetz, a convivial hustler who had done an able military government job in Korea. Air Force troops on Okinawa are commanded by grey, quiet-spoken Major General Alvin C. (“Ack-Ack”) Kincaid, whose slightly absent-minded philosopher’s air belies his hardheaded attention to discipline and morale. Since the change of command, Okinawa’s scandalous decline has been arrested. But Sheetz and Kincaid still have a tough situation on their hands.

Plight of the Occupation. Most American occupation families live in run-down Quonset communities that look like hobo camps. A few officers are quartered in small concrete houses (built with materials brought in from the U.S., at a cost of $40,000 apiece). The rest of Okinawa’s garrison live in hovels. Complained one young officer: “You get tired after a while of nailing the same piece of tin onto your house, watching it blow off in the typhoon, and then nailing it back.” It will take an estimated three years of building, and at least $75 million, before the Okinawa garrison will have adequate housing. (Congress has so far appropriated $58 million.)

Sheetz and Kincaid are faced with other morale hazards. Recreational facilities consisted of a few broken-down movie shacks and football fields. Okinawa had become a dumping ground for Army misfits and rejects from more comfortable posts. In the six months ending last September, U.S. soldiers committed an appalling number of crimes—29 murders, 18 rape cases, 16 robberies, 33 assaults.

Sheetz promptly set up classes to improve conduct. “You are ambassadors without portfolio of the U.S. Government,” he sternly told officers &men.

Plight of the Occupied. Okinawans are an easygoing people whose hard life is mixed with simple pleasures like their village bullfights (see cut). They like the Americans, openly want their island to become a U.S. dependency. Long a subject people, they were exploited for more than 60 years by Japanese occupying troops and businessmen, who despised them as country cousins. When the U.S. invaders gave them food and emergency shelter, Okinawans were amazed and grateful.

Though it classified them as “a liberated people,” the U.S. has sometimes treated Okinawans less generously in occupation than the Japanese did. The battle of Okinawa completely wrecked the island’s simple farming and fishing economy: in a matter of minutes, U.S. bulldozers smashed the terraced fields which Okinawans had painstakingly laid out for more than a century. Since war’s end Okinawans have subsisted on a U.S. dole. Many islanders have no clothes except U.S. Army castoff shirts and dungarees. Okinawans may trade with the outside world only through military government, which means virtually not at all. The result has been a brisk smuggling exchange with Formosa. But even as smugglers, Okinawans are out of luck: they have little to barter except bits & pieces of equipment stolen from U.S. installations.

In the windowless teachers’ room of the Nadke High School (during the war the headquarters of the U.S. 96th Division), old, bushy-haired Principal Matsugoro Shimabukuro sighed: “The students here are too puzzled to have any fixed hopes. Why bother to graduate from high school if the only job you can get is working on a labor gang for the American Air Force?”

Symbol on a Hill. General Sheetz and his staff, who are now engaged in the first organized effort in four years to cope with Okinawa’s problems, are recruiting a force of 60 to 80 planners to act as a kind of junior SCAP for Okinawa. At Naha, where in May 1945 U.S. forces encountered some of the invasion’s stiffest Japanese resistance, U.S. engineers are busy with plans to rebuild the battered port, talk of a new one capable of taking the Pacific’s biggest ships. On the broad runways of Naha airport, rows of new F-80s and F-61s gleam in the sun, while some of the sleek jets whoosh overhead. In the makeshift hangars, mechanics work tirelessly to repair typhoon damages. American soldiers and airmen have begun to regain faith in themselves and in their mission.

A reflection of their faith is warming Okinawa’s people. On a hill above the southern Okinawa plain lie the ruins of Shuri castle; all that remains of the ancient home of Okinawa’s rulers is an iron drinking fountain shaped like a dragon with gaping jaws out of which pours a clear stream of water into a quiet pool. Just above the old castle site stand five new, wooden, tile-roofed buildings. It is the new Ryukyus University, Okinawa’s first, which the military government’s Education & Information Office has finally managed to open. It has a student and faculty body of 90; cases of books from the U.S are pouring into its neat library. Tall, straight-featured, 21-year-old Yasukane Agarie, the library’s temporary custodian, smiled: “This university makes us all happy and hopeful.”

General Sheetz believes that the U.S. has far more than strategic interests on Okinawa: it carries, he says, “the moral responsibility of a Christian people to others.” Sheetz, Kincaid and their staff are facing up to that responsibility; they are determined not to let Okinawa down.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com