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Typhoon of Steel: Civilian deaths climbed as Japan forces also retreated south (Pt. 5)

After being discovered by U.S. Marines, a woman comes out of a cave cradling a baby, on April 4, 1945. (Photo courtesy of the Okinawa Prefectural Archives)

NAHA -- The Battle of Okinawa not only had heavy military casualties on the Japanese side, but also led to the deaths of one in four island residents in the region. When the Japanese Imperial Army retreated south, civilians who had earlier fled in the same direction were caught in the crossfire with nowhere to run.

    Question: It is estimated that roughly 94,000 civilian residents died in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, toward the close of the Pacific War. Why were there so many civilian casualties?

    Answer: In July 1944, it was decided that the residents of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture) would evacuate from the islands. According to Okinawa prefectural records, the biggest evacuations were carried out up to March 1945, with some 73,000 people traveling to the Japanese mainland, and a little over 10,000 to Taiwan.

    Still, the population of Okinawa Prefecture was approximately 600,000 at the time. Many Okinawans chose to remain on the islands. In August 1944, the cargo ship Tsushima Maru was used as a civilian evacuation vessel headed for the mainland. However, it was tragically sunk by a U.S. submarine, taking the lives of some 1,500 children.

    When the U.S. made landing on April 1, 1945, on the central part of the main island of Okinawa, civilian evacuation was still nowhere near completion. American forces then divided the island between north and south, and many civilians had no choice but to flee south.

    In late May, when U.S. forces closed in on the Japan's 32nd Imperial Army, it refused to surrender. Instead, it abandoned its fortified headquarters under Shuri Castle, now located in the city of Naha, and began to retreat south -- in the same direction as civilians trying to escape the conflict.

    What followed turned the southern part of the island into a gruesome battlefield where both military and ordinary residents got mixed up in the conflict. Both soldiers and civilians became the target of indiscriminate U.S attacks.

    Okinawans who had hidden in natural caves on the island called "gama" were often thrown out by the retreating Imperial Japanese military. Having lost any place to escape from the violence, many residents became casualties of the bitter fighting.

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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