GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Okinawa residents with telephoto lenses watch the first Air Force F-22 Raptor jets deployed to Kadena Air Base from an observation platform located just across the flight line. The platform is crowded with people anytime there are flight operations. CLICK FOR LARGE
American presence has dominated Okinawa since key WWII battle
KADENA, Okinawa » It's hard to miss the massive U.S. footprint on what was once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom located 940 miles southwest of Tokyo in the East China Sea.
U.S. military bases occupy more than 18 percent of the land on the main island of the Okinawa. Okinawa Prefecture is comprised of 160 islands with a population of 1.3 million.
Along Okinawan Prefectural Highway 74, which runs parallel to Kadena Air Base, the largest U.S. Air Force facility in the Far East, Okinawans can watch the latest U.S. jet fighters take off and land.
From the third-floor observation deck of Michi no Eki Kadena, a complex of souvenir shops, restaurants and markets, Okinawans recently casually photographed F-22A Raptor jet fighters on their first four-month deployment to Japan as they streaked into the skies using one of the base's two runways. These warbirds, which have stealth capabilities, are what some Japanese would like to purchase from the United States to counter threats from North Korea and China.
Kadena is just one of 37 U.S. facilities on this semitropical island. It spreads across the towns of Kadena, Chatan and Okinawa city in the central part of Okinawa's main island.
More than six decades ago, Okinawa was the scene of one of the last major Pacific battles. It was the start of a long, tumultuous relationship with the U.S. government.
In April 1945, the battle for Okinawa raged for three months, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Pacific. When it ended, more than 200,000 people died here -- 12,520 Americans, 94,136 Japanese soldiers, and 94,000 Okinawan civilians, or about one-quarter of the prewar population. There are memorials all over this island, reminders of the bloody conflict.
In Itoman, on the southern part of the main island, the Himeyuri memorial honors the deaths of young student nurses who were killed by American shells and bullets. A small cave is preserved as a memorial to nearly 100 who committed suicide shortly after the Americans landed in 1945.
Under a military realignment plan announced last year, 8,300 Marines from Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Courtney, Camp Hansen, Camp Zukeran and Makiminato Service Area -- and 9,000 of their dependents -- will be transferred from Okinawa to Guam. The Japanese government has agreed to pay the United States more than $6 billion of the estimated $10.3 billion needed to build or upgrade existing facilities and infrastructures on Guam.