JPRI Critique, Vol. XI, No. 6 (November 2004)
Imperial Bird-Droppings: A First-hand Report on the U.S. Military Helicopter Accident in Okinawa
By Darrell Y. Hamamoto

On Friday August 13, 2004, at 2:18 p.m., a CH-53D “Sea Stallion” helicopter out of the United States’s Futenma Marine Corps Air Station crashed onto the grounds of nearby Okinawa International University [Figure 1]. Three helicopter crew members sustained injuries, but largely because the university was not in session due to the summer holiday, no civilians were reported injured. However, debris was scattered over a wide area of this largely residential and small business district that adjoins the U.S. military base. The Okinawa Prefectural Police requested permission from the US military to conduct its own investigation into the accident since it is prohibited from doing so under the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Japan. Lt. Gen. Robert L. Blackman, head of operations in Okinawa, denied this request, and local police authorities and investigators, however, were barred from the crash site by U.S. marines.

Currently on leave from the University of California, Davis, I ride past the crash site daily on the #98 bus en route to the University of the Ryukyus, where I work as a researcher at the Center for American Studies under the direction of the U.S.-trained Professor Yamazato Katsunori. The thrust of my research involves having an on-the-spot look at the U.S. imperial culture spawned in Okinawa Prefecture since the end of World War II, when U.S. Occupation authorities and the central government in Tokyo conspired to sacrifice this chain of southern islands to the needs of the postwar order led by the victorious United States.

Contrary to the grand claims of privileged foreign-born elite academics in the U.S. who have built careers upon the dubious notion of “post-colonialism,” I have found colonialism (albeit not in its “classic” form) to be alive and well in Okinawa. U.S. colonialism is evident in almost every aspect of life in Okinawa, from the Spam that has become a staple of the regional diet to children’s-wear modeled after combat fatigues. It is seen in the large number of local women whose wombs have been colonized and who have then been abandoned by members of the White underclass, Blacks, and Latinos who predominate among the all-volunteer U.S. military. Less obvious are the colonized minds of some Okinawan professors, political office-holders, bureaucrats, and land owners who still believe in the essential goodness of the U.S.-Japan regime.

The Monday following the August helicopter crash, which might have been a major disaster had university students not been on summer vacation, I visited the site to survey the extent of the damage. Evidence of the accident was clearly visible from the busy street that runs by the university. A three-story concrete building appeared to be only moderately damaged, but one entire side was blackened by the heat and smoke generated by the CH-53D after it hit the university grounds [Figure 2]. A tree was burned down to a miserable nub and another stump shows signs of being freshly-cut to make way for heavy equipment used in hauling away the wreckage [Figure 3]. The local police, although excluded by the U.S. military command from the crash site itself, had secured the area outside the university to prevent protestors and onlookers from getting too close a view. About two dozen U.S. marines were milling about a university driveway clogged with military buses, salvage vehicles, and civilian trucks. When it began to rain, these buff young men in their crisp cammies with sleeves uniformly rolled up to show off well-toned biceps ran for shelter -- as if under enemy fire -- to a guard-house usually occupied by an elderly uniformed parking attendant.

I experienced momentary release by raising my arms and saluting the USMC with the one-fingered peace sign. Since I looked like just another Okinawan, the marines appeared shocked by my gesture. The other protesters who had gathered across the street from the university were well-behaved, orderly, and regimented in their actions [Figure 4]. A couple of marines returned my “salute” by waving back as they watched the protesters and assembled news media. Since most of the soldiers at the scene seemed to be in their late teens and or early twenties, for their benefit I made various gestures of youthful disrespect learned from MTV2 and BET music videos. When I called my daughter Gena (visiting Okinawa after two years living near Nagoya) to report on the demonstration, she asked if I had “mooned” the marines. “No, I didn’t drop trou,” I replied. “The local riot police were also out in force.” With helmets, visors, and arm-guards that echo medieval warriors, riot squad members are known sometimes to wield their batons in a most indiscriminate manner.

Just as I was tiring of flipping The American Eagle (“The Bird”) at the U.S. imperial guard, a celebrity politician showed up at the gathering. The giin bajji (Diet member emblem) affixed to his lapel signified that he is a member of the kokkai or national legislative body. Dressed all in white except for the black waist-pack under his jacket, it was none other than the world-famous Okinawan musician and peace activist Kina Shokichi, newly-elected on July 11, 2004, to the House of Councilors. He moved amidst the crowd trailed by his black-suited assistant, speaking to onlookers and constituents [Figure 5]. The main body of protesters, who identified themselves as the “Students’ Self-Governing Association of Okinawa International University,” ignored Kina, who -- despite being a committed peace activist and anti-military voice -- ran for office under the banner of the conservative Democratic Party. Just one month prior to the attack on Iraq ordered by Bush II, Kina was a featured performer at concert in Baghdad that had been staged to avert war.

The site of the crash is only 330 yards from the southern boundary of the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, which lies in the middle of the densely-populated city of Ginowan and consumes 25 percent of the municipality. Witnesses to the accident said they saw the tail rotor and its vertical support fin detach from the Sea Stallion and fall to the ground about 370 yards south of the university before the helicopter itself crashed. Several houses and automobiles in the area were damaged, but there were no injuries reported at the eighteen different locations where debris was found.

The Futenma MCAS features a heavily-used 2,800 meter runway, which is clearly visible from several nearby observation points. According to statistics compiled last year, there were a total of fifty-three days during which more than 200 flights were carried out from the base. With fifty-six helicopters and fifteen fixed-wing aircraft housed at the high-use facility, Ginowan mayor Iha Yoichi had predicted that it was only a matter of time before a disaster such as this would occur. Since the 1972 reversion of Okinawa to Japan from U.S. administrative control, there have been about seventy U.S. military aircraft accidents. Only a few days before the August 2004 crash at Okinawa International University, a U.S. military surveillance plane went down on a remote island near Iwo Jima. Four military flyers but no civilians were killed in that accident.

One month after the helicopter crash, the air and soil at the university was tested for radiation by the Japan Analysis Center. It was suspected that strontium-90 exposure might have occurred as the result of damage to six casings (one of which was burnt and “vaporized”) in a helicopter rotor safety device assembly. According to investigators, no traces of the radioactive isotope were detected, although thorough analysis of the soil had not been completed.

After leaving the demonstration, I spoke with Professor Yamazato to learn his thoughts on this latest of U.S. military-related accidents. Having been born and raised in Okinawa, he regards incidents of this nature as a fact of life on an island whose two major industries are the U.S. military and tourism. “Both the Japanese government and the American government are good at turning accidents like this into something good for them,” Yamazato said. “There will be sincere apologies made all around, but they won’t change anything.”

No doubt specialists for both the United States and Japan are busy at work putting a positive spin on this latest crash. Perhaps they will make more noise about relocating Futenma MCAS operations north to the Henoko area in the city of Nago, Okinawa (despite vigorous resistance by residents). In any case, the U.S. and its junior partner Japan will test-out other scenarios that they hope will placate critics and appear to make political opposition groups both intolerant and politically irrelevant. Perhaps it will take a disaster of major proportions to mobilize the majority of the Okinawan and mainland Japanese populations against the ruinous U.S. military presence. The cause of such a disaster likely will be neither North Korea nor China. Instead, the cataclysm will be the doing of the military guardian of Japan itself: the United States of America. At a time when world attention is focused upon the U.S. military conquest and occupation of Iraq, the situation in Okinawa serves as a reminder of the larger system of American empire that encircles the globe. Indeed, a mere nine days after the accident in Okinawa, six CH-53D Sea Stallions flew (under protest from Ginowan City officials) from Futenma MCAS to join the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in support of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

DARRELL Y. HAMAMOTO is currently on leave from the University of California, Davis, where he is Professor of Asian-American Studies. He is researcher-in-residence at the Center for American Studies at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa. Hamamoto is author of numerous books, articles, and films on media, popular culture, and sexuality. His current research examines U.S. militarist culture in Okinawa and local resistance to occupation through cultural politics and non-governmental organizations.

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