Okinawa, scene of the most intense fighting in the Pacific campaign, is still a land of enormous strategic importance as American Legion National Brett Reistad was told repeatedly by U.S. military officials during his visit to the island last week. A territory of Japan, many of the island’s residents consider themselves distinctly “Okinawan.” Comprising just 0.6 percent of their nation’s total land mass, the tiny prefecture is home to about 75 percent of U.S. military personnel stationed in Japan. And while many Okinawans strongly oppose their local military bases, they also support the strategic U.S.-Japan military alliance.
“This is an area of tremendous importance not just to the United States but to our allies as well,” Reistad said. “Communist China represents a real threat. A free and open Indo-Pacific is essential to maintaining peace and order in the free world. We have a legal obligation by treaty to defend Japan – whether it’s against China, North Korea, Russia or some other entity. I’m not saying that all of our military bases on Okinawa must remain in place with no future adjustments or relocations. But I am saying that The American Legion recognizes the value of our alliance with Japan and our bases in Okinawa represent the backbone of that alliance. I think that is the prevailing view of all the military commanders that I spoke with during my visits with them.”
Reistad also met with Robert Koepcke, the U.S. consul general of Okinawa, on the first day that soil was being poured into Henoko bay, the first step in a lengthy construction process that will eventually relocate a controversial Marine Corps Air Station to a different part of the island.
“Everybody would like Futenma Air Station to move,” Koepcke said. “It is in a very populated area and near a school. The difference of opinion lies between the Okinawa politicians and protestors who want to move it off of Okinawa and those who believe that the Marines still need a presence here. People in densely populated areas don’t want to hear that jet noise is ‘the sound of freedom.’ Despite their differences with Tokyo, many of the people here still support the alliance.”
Koepcke and other officials estimated that it will take at least a decade for Futenma to be completely moved. When that is complete, Marine presence on Okinawa will be reduced to about 10,000. Some of the Marines will be moved to Guam.
Koepcke, who said he consults with local U.S. military commanders on a daily basis, believes Okinawa doesn’t enjoy the reputation it deserves as a rich cultural experience for servicemembers.
“I would love for people back home to get excited about getting orders to Okinawa. Military members bring a lot to their communities and make good neighbors. If we can build into the Okinawan culture that the bases add something into their lives, we can connect with them,” he said.
One strong example of American veterans working to improve the quality of life for the people of Okinawa is the community service performed by American Legion Post 28.
Reistad and his delegation attended a Christmas party that the post hosted for the Okinawa AmerAsian School. Each of the 72 school children in attendance received toys from Santa.
“We’ve been supporting this school for 20 years,” said Ernie Ernest, a past post commander who purchased new computers for students at the school several years ago. “Most of the kids at this school have single parents and need some support. Some of them are discriminated against for being mixed race. (Supporting them) is the right thing to do and we have the funds to support it. It’s our way of bring a little Christmas to people who are not well off.”
American Legion Executive Director Lou Celli informed military commanders that the Legion will help host a “Hiring Our Heroes” job fair at Camp Butler in February. “No military commander wants to see good people leave the service, but I think we all want them to have opportunities and a smooth transition,” he said.
Reistad and the Legion national delegation left Okinawa for Taiwan on Dec. 16. They are scheduled to meet with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Dec. 17 and visit mainland Japan before returning to the United States on Dec. 23.