Recently, a photograph of the dead body of Pulitzer Prize winning, World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle was re-discovered. He’s shown lying on rocky ground. He looks as if he’s asleep, but he isn’t. I’m too young to actually remember Ernie Pyle, but seeing the photo brought memories of Ie Shima, the coral atoll on which he died, rushing back.
Many years ago I lived on Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of islands called Ryukyu. Ie Shima was a tiny bit of rock off the coast of Okinawa. Ferry boats ran daily between Okinawa and Ie Shima, a popular day trip for picnics.
One day, my husband and I took the ferry over to Ie Shima to “climb” the mountain with the other tourists. Actually this consisted more of hiking through slight elevation and rocky terrain than climbing. That day, the ferry was filled with Okinawans, Japanese, and us, the only two Americans in the bunch. That never bothered us though. I was often the only “yankee” in my rambles and adventures.
There was a lot of talking and laughing by everyone. The ferry docked and we all jumped ashore. Picnics were set up, and we all set out to climb Ie Shima which looked then pretty much as it looked in the April 1946 photograph that sparked this story.
At the foot of the well-marked path was a very small plaque. In English, it said that this was the place where War Correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed in World War II. That was it. No politically incorrect statement about his being felled by a sniper’s .30 caliber round through his left temple. Nothing about the pitched battle for Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands that lasted three of the bloodiest months of the war.
Despite the conscious effort to not point fingers or talk about the Japanese and the Americans who had been enemies a few decades ago, the war was ever present on Okinawa. When I was there, you couldn’t go anywhere without butting up against a reminder of the painful past.
Concrete bunkers that had housed the kamikaze planes lay in weeds at the end of one of the runways at Kadena Air Base. The local museums had displays of huge photographs of the rubble and destruction all over the island. They had written accounts from Okinawan people who fled in terror because they believed Americans were nine feet tall, had horns, and demon eyes.
I adored my Okinawan neighbors and the merchants I dealt with. I learned Japanese because I wanted to communicate with them. I dined in their homes and played with their children and gossiped with the other okusans, or wives, in the late afternoon in the street.
A large portion of the population in Okinawa profited from the American bases, but that didn’t mean the older generation had forgiven and forgotten. I well remember the day I was window shopping on the main street in Koza when this ancient Okinawa lady wearing a faded kimono and wooden geta (clogs) walked up to me and spit on me.
I was more surprised than upset as I wiped spittle from my arm. The mamasan who owned the shop rushed out, speaking too fast for me to catch what she said to the woman. The old woman looked defiantly at her and me then in a fierce tone, she replied before slowly walking away.
The shop owner apologized by shrugging and saying simply, “She remembers the war.”
I could understand that and accept it without rancor.
Unfortunately, too many people remember too many wars.
Today, I remember. The old woman. The island of Ie Shima. The humble marker for a great writer who told the story of a war and the men who fought it.