CONTRIBUTED BY MICHELE LEHANE
Dug into a hillside outside of Naha city is one of the islands most somber reminders of the bloody Battle of Okinawa. In 1944, the Japanese Navy Corps of Engineers dug a 450 meter tunnel complex to serve as an underground headquarters. Towards the end of the battle, as things began to get hopeless, the commanding officer and 175 of his staff committed suicide in the tunnels. In 1970, most of the tunnels were restored and opened up for the public.
At my husband’s request, the family took a trip to what is now called The Former Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters. Knowing the grim history, I was a little hesitant to spend my Saturday (and take my children) to a place that essentially became a tomb for General Minoru Ota and his men. In the end, I’m really glad we did.
The first striking thing about our trip was the view! The entrance is at the top of a hill and there is a wooden platform that gets you an even better look around. It could definitely compete for one of the best views in Okinawa. There is also a beautiful memorial monument set up near the entrance.
Inside the Headquarters there is a museum as well as the tunnels themselves. The museum has a complete translation of the message left by Admiral Ota just before he killed himself. I definitely recommend spending the time to read this. In this message, General Ota details the sacrifice of the Okinawan people and asks that they be given “special consideration” by the Japanese government.
After the museum, head down the 30 meters or so of stairs to the tunnels. Walking through the corridors, it really strikes you how much intense work was put into digging out these tunnels and caves considering it was all done by hand. You can distinctly see the marks left by the pick axes.
Not all of the Headquarters has been restored, but you can walk through about 300 meters of the original 450 meters. Among the rooms, there is the Commanding Officer’s room where General Ota left his final message and a staff room where you can clearly see the holes in the walls left by the shrapnel from a hand grenade when someone committed suicide.
We did this trip with a 7 year old and a two year old and I was surprised by how well they both did. My youngest loved exploring the “big caves” and my oldest was pretty interested in reading the signs (most have English translations) and seeing the photographs lining many of the walls. I was a little concerned how my daughter would react to the “shrapnel” room but she somberly took it all in. While there are ramps that will take you up to the entrance at the top of the hill and an elevator down to the museum/tunnels, I would NOT recommend taking a stroller in. There are about a hundred stairs down to the actual tunnels and stairs that lead to many of the room. The corridors also got pretty narrow in some spots.
There is a small souvenir shop and restrooms at the tunnel exit.
Hours: The park is open year round from 8:30 in the morning to 5 at night.
Directions: Finding the Navy Underground Headquarters is a little dicey. We took the 58 south heading from Kadena towards Naha. We took a left onto rte. 7 where there was a sign and followed that up the road until we saw another sign telling us to turn left. At the end of this road there is a T intersection with a parking garage in front of you. We turned left, followed the road uphill and around a small bend to a parking lot at the bottom of some stairs. Parking here was free but the lot was small and could get crowded during the busier times of year. There were a handful of handicap spots up the road and closer to the entrance.