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Battle of Okinawa Survivor Remembers

By: Ruth Ann Keyso

Date Posted: 1998-02-28

"My father always warned me not to be captured by the Americans during the war," Junko Isa revealed as we sipped root beer at the A & W. Restaurant. "If they catch you, they'll do with you as they please, he used to tell me." Then she paused reflectively. "When I was eventually discovered by the Americans, do you know what they did?" She asked me, not waiting for an answer. "They took me to a field hospital up North where they fixed my ankle and fed me."

Junko Isa is a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa that ravaged the island half a century ago. When the village in which she was living was bombed, she and her family fled South toward Shuri. Along the way they sought shelter in natural caves and abandoned houses, surviving for weeks on imozuku, a mixture of potato starch, water, and sugar. Isa was eventually discovered by US troops while crouching in a water tank with her eleven year-old sister and 10 month-old brother. The other five members of her family, including her mother, father, and grandmother, had been killed in the fighting that devastated the island for 82 days in the spring of 1945.

Profoundly affected by the tragedy that claimed the lives of her loved ones, Isa decided to speak out against war and to encourage young people throughout the country to preserve peace in the future. She spends much of her current time lecturing students in Okinawa and on the mainland about the atrocity that she endured over fifty years ago. Repeatedly reliving the experience is painful, Isa admits, but "it is worth it if young people learn something about the history of the battle and the circumstances under which the islanders struggled."

Junko Isa was fourteen years old when the United States invaded Okinawa on Easter Sunday, Apr. 1, 1945. A young girl, she spent the following three months as a fugitive hurrying from place to place, with her worldly possessions on her back. She and her family rested only occasionally when they happened upon a natural cave or man-made subterranean hideaway. Traveling by night to avoid detection by the enemy, they stumbled silently along dark roads, sometimes not knowing in which direction they were heading.

"As we walked along, we didn't say a word to one another," Isa recalled. "Sometimes my mom would say something like, 'Watch out!' or 'Be quiet,' but we never had a conversation or anything. In fact, she smiled weakly, "I thought I'd forget how to talk because I never had a chance to do so at that time!"

Occasionally an enemy flare illuminated their trail, lighting up the region to reveal ghastly sights.

"I remember glancing over once to see an arm hanging from a tree branch. "Just below that was a decapitated body," Isa san said emotionlessly. "There were body parts absolutely everywhere. I think I became sort of numb to the sight. I never got sick or cried out when I saw such gruesome things," she insisted. Then she chuckled softly in spite of herself. "Despite witnessing all of this," she confessed, "I still believed wholeheartedly in Japan's ability to win that war."

Isa's war wounds, both physical and psychological, are indelible. She walks with a slight limp, the result of a shrapnel wound to her ankle. She is still haunted by ghoulish memories of the battle. She vividly recalls the piles of putrid corpses lining the roads, sickening stench of urine and feces in the caves, the dirt moist with blood and rain, and the unforgettable feel of earth beneath her feet.

Like all Okinawans who survived the battle, Isa endured a litany of hardships. By sharing those experiences with others, she is contributing to history and working to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy.

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