Thursday, May 6, 2021

From Commodore Perry's Black Ships to the Battle of Okinawa

A zoomed in portion of Wilhelm Heine's lithograph "Exercises of Troops in Temple Grounds, Simodo, Japan" on June 8, 1854, showing sailors firing two brass boat howitzers. (Brown University Library)

By Elijah Palmer
HRNM Deputy Director of Education

Blink and you'll miss it. Buried in the grainy footage of 6th Marine Division's fighting on Okinawa in 1945 is a short clip of Brigadier General William Clement, assistant division commander of the 6th Marine Division, placing a bouquet on the grave of a U.S. Navy Sailor. This might not have been too unusual if this footage was taken at the cemeteries that were hastily established on Okinawa that year, with rows of white crosses marking part of the horrendous loss of life from that last great battle of World War II. But in this case, the buried sailor had been dead for nearly a century! 

(National Archives and Records Administration, 428-NPC-13055)

There are three graves visible in the clip, all from sailors who sailed with Commodore Matthew Perry's expedition to Japan. Perry left Hampton Roads in November 1852 and arrived in the Ryukyu Islands by May 26, 1853, coming ashore at Naha, Okinawa. At the time, Okinawa (then called "Loo Choo") was a vassal state to Japan. Perry's fleet (called the "Black Ships" by the Japanese) sailed to Japan shortly after his visit to Okinawa, but would return several times through the protracted events that led to the Kanagawa Treaty on March 31, 1854 that opened Japan's ports. 

A Japanese painting of Perry's fleet (MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)

Some who died during the Perry Expedition were buried in Japan, most famously a Marine Private Williams. But several were interred in Naha, Okinawa at a foreigner cemetery near Tomari Port that had been established sometime in the early 1800s. In fact, part of Perry's treaty with the people of Okinawa mentioned the cemetery specifically. 

A Japanese depiction of the funeral of Pvt. Williams, USMC. Williams' headstone was also drawn on some of Japanese scrolls in the collection of the Naval War College Museum. (MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)

In the video clip above, the first grave that is zoomed in on is of John Barnes, who was a seaman on USS Vandalia. He died on December 31, 1853 at the age of 23. The next tombstone seen in the footage is Hugh Ellis, who was a landsman. That was the lowest rank for a sailor, and meant that he had little to no experience. Ellis was stationed aboard USS Mississippi, and passed away on July 24, 1853, just as the American fleet returned to Okinawa after the first visit to Japan.  A 1905 book titled Loochoo Islands by Charles Leavenworth references the cemetery and the author claims that he has gravestone rubbings of some of the inscriptions. The book also states that Ellis was from Syracuse, New York. The last grave shown in the video is Jesse L. Carter, a sailor aboard USS Macedonian. He died on January 10, 1854. Leavenworth's Loochoo Islands states that Carter was from Rhode Island. 

There were a few other Americans buried in the Tomari International Cemetery from this time era, including Eli Crosby, 2nd assistant engineer aboard USS Susquehanna, who died on January 24, 1854. Two sailors from a separate surveying expedition in late 1854, John Miller and John Williams, both off of USS Vincennes, are also buried there.  Another Navy sailor, noted only as William Board, died in 1854. 

The Marines in 1945 were not the first American military personnel to honor their predecessors, as both Loochoo Islands and the 1903 "Army and Navy Register" reference Sailors from USS Vicksburg (Gunboat No. 11) paying respects and repairing tombstones in an April 1903 visit to Naha. 

A colorized picture of the "Graves of American Sailors" near Naha, from the 1908 book In Togo's Country by Henry Schwartz (University of the Ryukyus Library)

As can be seen in the later part of the video clip, the cemetery suffered heavy damage from the bombardment and bombing of Naha both prior to the invasion as well as during the fighting there in May 1945. As American forces pressed the Japanese defenders in costly fighting, they reached the northern outskirts of Naha by mid-May 1945, and had secured the entire city by the end of May. 

Marines of the 22nd Regiment, 6th Marine Division firing a water-cooled .30-caliber machine gun on the outskirts of Naha, overlooking the Asato Gawa river looking south, on May 12, 1945. Below their position is a large cluster of traditional Okinawan tombs, but they are likely set up near some at the higher elevation as well. They are on the high ground above the Tomari Foreign Cemetery, firing in a south/southeast direction. (U.S. Marine Corps Archives)

This 1945 map (based on a captured Japanese 62nd Infantry map) shows the area of the Tomari cemetery, with the orange arrow pointing to that area. The green arrow points to the the Okinawan tomb area (see picture above) which still exists today, and is visible off the Tomari Port bridge as you drive north. The blue circles indicate minefields. (Map detail courtesy of MacArthur Memorial)

The vast majority of Naha was razed during the fighting at the end of World War II. In 1955, the cemetery was restored and can be visited today
The Tomari International Cemetery today (Naha City Tourism Database)

No comments: