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Sunday, June 13, 2010

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At ease: The author sits beside a Japanese machine-gun slit in southern Okinawa that bullet holes in the rock testify as the scene of deadly combat in 1945. JON MITCHELL

Beneath the Battle of Okinawa

With the 65th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Okinawa upon us, Jon Mitchell traces the life of a U.S. serviceman who dedicated himself to keeping alive the memory of some of its victims

In 1966, Dave Davenport was a mystery to his fellow U.S. Air Force clerks on Okinawa. Whereas they would dress up in their finest threads and make for the clubs of Koza in their free time, Davenport would don the oldest clothes he owned and jump on a local bus heading into the middle of nowhere.

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Lives gone by: Japanese soldiers' and civilians' possessions found by the Tunnel Rats, and now on display at the museum on Camp Kinser. JON MITCHELL

When he returned from these unexplained trips, he wouldn't be lipstick-stained or smelling of perfume. Instead, he'd be covered in mud and carrying dirt-covered objects he'd hide safely out of sight in his locker.

Needless to say, word soon spread that there was something different about Davenport — something that was possibly a little peculiar. But if his colleagues had known more about his background, they might not have considered his behavior so strange after all.

Born in South Carolina in 1944, he grew up immersed in history. At his doorstep lay Fort Sumter, the flash point that ignited the American Civil War in April 1861, when Confederate forces fired on its Union garrison. Nearby were the military bases of Charleston and Parris Island — home to veterans of more recent campaigns in France, Germany and the Pacific.

As a young boy, Davenport spent hours at his local library, poring over accounts of these battles, impatient for the day when he'd be able to explore the scenes of fighting for himself.

At the age of 21, Davenport got the opportunity to do just that when, as a member of the U.S. Air Force, he learned he was to be posted to one of the very battlefields about which he'd read so avidly — Okinawa.

Back in June 1942, in the epic, mid-Pacific Battle of Midway, the fighting force that was the Imperial Japanese Navy had effectively been eliminated. After that, with their overwhelming command of the air, Allied troops led by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps "island-hopped" from Guadalcanal to Guam to Iwo Jima as they drew ever closer to Japan's home islands.

Finally, in the spring of 1945, the ultimate showdown took place on Okinawa, a small island that, as the last stepping stone before Japan proper, was to witness some of the most ferocious fighting of World War II.

During some 82 days of slaughter after the U.S. assault began on April 1, more than 12,000 American and 110,000 Japanese troops lost their lives, together with 145,000 Okinawan civilians — almost a quarter of the island's population — before all organized resistance was overcome by June 22.

One of the factors that contributed to these ghastly statistics was the extent to which the killing took place underground. In the leadup to the U.S. attack, the Japanese military had commandeered the island's naturally occurring coral caves and extended them into a vast network of well-defended tunnels that would force their foes to fight tooth and nail for every meter of progress. Accounts of this underground struggle captured Davenport's imagination, but as he prepared for his deployment to Okinawa, he wondered how much the island had changed since the end of the war and what he'd find when he arrived there.

"On his first bus trip off the base, Davenport discovered that one of the biggest differences (from what he'd read in his history books) was the names of the terrain," explained Davenport's longtime friend Chris Majewski. "During the Battle of Okinawa, the Americans had labeled the landscape with names such as Sugar Loaf and Half-Moon Hill. But now in peacetime, these meant nothing. So Davenport decided to jump off the bus near the biggest hill he could see — the unmistakable, serrated slope that U.S. soldiers had dubbed Hacksaw Ridge."

As Davenport hiked up the overgrown hill, he was approached by a group of Okinawan farmers. Any concerns that the local people would be angered by his intention to dig into their painful history were forgotten as they good-naturedly helped Davenport to align his dated maps and pointed out the locations of unmarked tunnels. Then, before sending him on his way, they warned him to be careful of the habu pit vipers.

During that initial exploration of Hacksaw Ridge, Davenport discovered a number of caves. Some were blocked by rubble or packed with garbage, while others had been restored to their prewar function as typhoon shelters. When Davenport investigated the more remote caves, however, he found himself inside the Aladdin's grottoes he'd dreamed of as a young boy.

"Many of those caves hadn't really been explored since the end of the war," Majewski said, explaining that such explorations were quite legitimate on public land. "Davenport found Japanese army bayonets and rifles, gas masks and helmets. There was American equipment, too — all mixed up in the heat of battle." After filling his rucksack with such relics, Davenport filled his pockets — and then headed back to base.

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On a mission: Former U.S. Air Force clerk Dave Davenport began exploring the tunnels and caves that riddle Okinawa after he was posted there in the mid-1960s. At first he was only interested in finding relics of the awful 1945 battle, but he then became determined to set up a museum dedicated to those who died in the fighting — not only Americans, but Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians, too. CHRIS MAJEWSKI

Throughout 1966, armed with American veterans' accounts of the Battle of Okinawa, Davenport tracked down dozens of caves, ranging in size from single chambers to passages more than 100 meters long. It was not long before other clerks learned the truth of Davenport's mysterious expeditions, and some of them asked if they could join him on his trips into the hills.

As a loose-knit group of explorers evolved over the next few months, they called themselves the "Tunnel Rats" after the American soldiers who were scouting the underground complexes in Vietnam at the time. "Davenport even designed a badge for them," said Majewski, pointing to a picture of a torn-eared rat smoking a cigarette.

The mascot suited Davenport and his friends well. With their grimy clothes and battered metal-detectors, they traveled all over Okinawa, scouring the hillsides for tunnels and caves. Often they returned empty-handed — the site of an engagement that had cost thousands of lives was now a housing project, or they hiked through dense jungle only to realize their destination had been obliterated by a landslide. But it was the chance discoveries that kept them going.

Robert Avery, a U.S. Army G.I. on the island in the 1960s, recalls the time he was walking along the floor of a valley when he glimpsed a small opening near the crest of a cliff. After climbing to the top and rappelling into the hole, he found that he was standing in a Japanese sniper's nest — along with the remains of its former occupant.

Discoveries such as these were undoubtedly a source of excitement for the Tunnel Rats, but they also highlight a more harrowing side to their explorations.

In the late 1960s, it was not uncommon for them to find the skeletons of Japanese soldiers in the caves they searched. "The Tunnel Rats didn't really know what to do with the bones," explained Majewski. "There was no real system in place at that time."

Compounding their confusion was the very real worry that if they reported human remains to the authorities, then they'd take the bones away without attempting to search the surrounding area for any identification tags or documents.

So in the days when most American servicemen's Japanese ability was limited to ordering beer and haggling over souvenirs, Davenport set about teaching himself how to read kanji. Majewski showed me a picture of a brass disk the size and color of a slightly enlarged ¥10 coin. "The Tunnel Rats often found these Imperial Japanese Army dog tags among the bones. The three columns of writing (engraved on the tag) correspond to the soldier's unit, his company, and the man himself."


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