KADENA AIR BASE, Japan --
The tunnel was dark and damp. Gray, concrete walls lined the old bunker. Blotches of green were scattered on various walls, splattered marks where grenades had exploded. Japanese was written on the walls in the commander’s room, preserved by a thin sheet of Plexiglas. Every footstep taken in the musty old cave was, at one time, a place where a soldier laid their head to sleep or others laid down to die. It’s hard to imagine the tragedy of war. It’s hard to imagine until you see traces of it.
War stories fade through time and sometimes people cannot find the words to describe their life during those times, but the hope is, maybe the world surrounding us can.
The former Naval Japanese Underground Headquarters in Okinawa, Japan, served as a shelter and hospital against American bombardment in 1945, the last major battle of World War II. The tunnels were dug by hand, using hoes and picks and hardened by posts and concrete. After the war, they were left untouched until 1970, when, according to the Naval Japanese Underground museum, roughly 450 meters of the underground headquarters were made available to the public.
Staff Sgt. Michael Ostrom, a Colorado National Guardsman, visited the museum earlier this summer, while on a temporary duty assignment at Kadena Air Base. He is the third generation of Ostroms on assignment at Okinawa’s military base. The museum helped him understand the environment surrounding the war and gave him insight about the experiences his grandfather might have had in World War II, experiences he would never talk about.
“He never spoke about the war,” said Ostrom. “He was a very polite and respectful person. He was kind and it was more than apparent that during the war he had to do things that he was not comfortable with, and he carried it with him.”
Ostrom said he saw how close the tunnels were to his grandfather's location in Okinawa and imagined the constant attacks he more than likely endured.
Ostrom’s father, John “Kodiak” Ostrom, a retired Marine Corp F-18 Hornet pilot, once served in Okinawa and his grandfather, Donald Ostrom, assigned to the Army Corp of engineers, was part of a follow-on crew, arriving days after the invasion of Buckner Bay in June of 1945. Ostrom's grandfather fought the war, while rebuilding the Japanese runways the Army Air Corps desperately needed for the invasion of Japan.
“Kadena Air Base was one of the more critical points to take control of, ensuring progress was being made into mainland Japan,” said Ostrom.
Ostrom, an aircrew flight equipment technician for the 140th Wing, is now working on those same runways built by his grandfather.
“When I first got to Okinawa, it felt really weird,” said Ostrom. “It’s a very sobering experience for me to look out and think about being here on TDY, doing our part to exercise and train with F-15 teams to get better at what we do, while they're getting better at what they do. It’s a peace time mission. My grandfather was here for World War II. That’s definitely a different situation.”
Okinawa has transformed since World War II. Where there was once hostility and animosity, there’s peace and collaboration.
“I’ve seen a tremendous positive change from when my grandfather, and even my dad, were here. If my grandpa were alive today, I think he would talk about how different his experience in Okinawa was and he would hope that I wouldn't ever have to go through the same thing. He would have a lot of interest in seeing how far the military has come, what the mission is now. He would be interested to know how things have changed,” said Ostrom.