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Eyewitness Accounts

When a Helicopter Crashes into Okinawan Reality:
A Personal Account

By Kelly Dietz

   At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 13, a CH-53D transport helicopter from the US Marine Corpsf Futenma Air Station crashed in a residential neighborhood in Ginowan City, Okinawa.

   The 26,000-pound helicopter exploded after it crashed into a three-story building just inside the small campus of Okinawa International University, after sending the entire tail assembly, a propeller blade, parts of the fuselage and over 30 smaller pieces of debris into the surrounding urban neighborhood.

   Miraculously, there were no deaths or injuries on the ground, and the three crew members were able to walk, assisted, away from the wreckage. Were it not for the campus being relatively empty due to summer holidays, and the almost unbelievable way the other large parts of the aircraft narrowly missed residents on the ground, this horrifying accident could easily have been catastrophic.

   Ironically, at the time of the crash, mayor of Ginowan Yoichi Iha was holding a public forum to report on his recent trip to Washington D.C., where he traveled to meet directly with US lawmakers to discuss the lack of progress on the 1996 agreement between the US and Japan to close the Futenma airbase.

   I was at the mayorfs forum. It had just gotten underway when the news of the crash came in. In fact, a member of the mayorfs D.C. delegation, a local leader of a neighborhood adjacent to one end of the Futenma runway, had just explained that he told American leaders how Ginowanfs citizens live in constant danger. No one knows when the next accident will occur, hefd told them, but residents live with the knowledge that it will happen, and that it could happen at any time and anywhere.

   Minutes after these comments, the eight or so members of the media covering the forum began running out, one after the other. It was obvious that something serious had happened. The atmosphere in the hall grew tense as we watched staff rush to where the mayor was sitting. At this point, very few of the hundred or so participants were paying attention to a video made especially for US lawmakers being shown on a large screen behind the mayor. But I remember hearing the English narration as I watched the mayor whispering with his staff. A monotone voice listed statistics about Futenma Air Station: how much of the city center the Marine airbase occupied, how many aircraft fly over the city each day, and how many accidents had happened in the last ten or so years.

   After a few anxious minutes, Mayor Iha took the microphone and told us about the crash. I heard a woman half gasp, half choke from behind me. The mayor didnft have many details, only that a helicopter from Futenma Airbase had crashed either in or nearby the campus of OIU--my neighborhood.

   A friend offered me a ride home. We didnft talk. Feelings of dread and anger washed over me. Traffic on Ginowanfs normally crowded Route 330 slowed to a crawl as emergency vehicles maneuvered their way through the main thoroughfare of the city. Realizing that Ifd make it home much faster on foot, I got out mid-way and half walked, half ran the rest of the way. As I got closer to my neighborhood, I could see smoke in the direction of the OIU campus.

   Firefighters were still spraying the wreckage when I arrived at the crash site. It was difficult to see the helicopter through the smoke and jets of foam-like retardant. Emergency vehicles - most of them military - lined both sides of the wide street. People were gathered on balconies and rooftops of apartment buildings around the site. Except for occasional shouts from emergency crews, however, things were strangely quiet on the ground away from the site. This quite wouldnft last. More and more people were arriving, and many of them were angry. The air smelled and tasted like chemicals. This smell would linger in the area for days, raising concerns about air and soil contamination.

   US military personnel were everywhere, the majority of them identifiable by the distinctive camouflage pattern of the Marine Corpsf uniform. I was struck, as I always am, at how incredibly young they all were. Several marines were working quickly to put up bright yellow tape with CRIME SCENE printed on it in English in big block letters. I wondered if any of them sensed the irony of this task.

   Okinawan police were also at the site, but it soon became apparent to me that they were on the outer edges of activity--literally and figuratively. I saw several police stopped by marines as they tried to pass through the outermost line of tape.

   A few troops rushed by me carrying cases of water. Small clusters of marines were engaged in animated conversation. Some seemed to be focusing more on the crash itself, gesturing toward the wreckage and occasionally toward the sky. The group closest to me was clearly more interested in the growing crowd of onlookers. I saw one of them point at a man holding a video camera. Another marine walked over to the man and, putting his hat over the lens, pushed the camera down. When a second man with a video camera rushed over and began filming this scene, two marines lunged towards him, shouting, gNo! No cameras!h Both men backed away, but neither made a move to put their cameras away. I then remembered I had tossed my own camera and voice recorder in my bag before I left for the mayorfs presentation. I began to document what I witnessed that afternoon.

   Thinking I could probably get a clear view of the crash site from a rooftop across from the site, I circled back onto a narrow street that runs parallel to the main avenue in front of the campus. The scene here was equally chaotic. I quickly realized that this normally sleepy side street had been in the path of the helicopter.

   A huge propeller blade, at least 25 feet long, was on the pavement in front of me, stretching across the entire width of the street. One end of the rotor blade had crushed a motorcycle. The blade was at an angle to the ground, making it look like a giant knife cutting into the small wreckage. Electrical wires dangled from a corner of the roof directly over the motorcycle, obviously recently connected to a large antenna that now leaned awkwardly against a concrete wall on the opposite side of the street.

   The scene was attracting a good deal of attention among the growing stream of people moving along the side street. Several marines were tying CRIME SCENE tape across the entire width of the street on either side of the rotor blade. A few Okinawan policemen stood off to the side, watching with the rest of us. Once the marines had the barrier in place, the policemen stood alongside the tape with their backs to the propeller, while US military investigators took photographs and examined the blade.

   I continued down the street. Apparently mistaken for a foreign journalist (an assumption I chose not to dispel), I was allowed into a private home on the second floor of a small three-story apartment building to view and photograph the damage caused by falling debris. An unidentified part of the helicopter had crashed through a window facing the main crash site, went through the opposite wall and into the adjoining room, and finally into the back of a TV set. I can only imagine that, whatever it was, the piece of debris must have shot through the house like a missile. Shards of glass and large wooden splinters covered the floors. The young woman who generously let me and others look around was home at the time of the crash. She had just put her six-month old baby down to sleep when her sister-in-law called on her cell phone from the street below and screamed that a helicopter was spinning out of control overhead.

   In the parking lot next to the apartment building, a gaping, jagged V-shaped opening at the top of what otherwise looked like a brand-new concrete block wall was also attracting a lot of attention, as was the shattered window of the car parked in front of the wall.

   Across from the parking lot, a metal archway that once supported thick green vines was hanging, twisted and blocking the entrance to a driveway. The broken vines drooped next to the archway, touching the pavement.

   An eight-foot long piece of fuselage was at the bottom of some steps to an apartment building next door. A marine sat in the middle of the steps drinking water out of a big plastic bottle. Many more marines were hanging up CRIME SCENE tape, forming a wide fence around the piece lying on the ground, in effect blocking the road. A crowd was gathering here, too. A man arrived with a bullhorn and a vertical red banner that read Okinawan Peace Movement Center. I recognized a few other people from the anti-base movement.

   A scuffle broke out when a few marines tried to stop people from moving along the street. gDame! Iya! Dame!h one shouted, using language that one might use when scolding a dog. Another marine copied him, shouting gDame! You canft come through here! Dame!h I winced at their crude Japanese, knowing it would just make things worse. I turned on my voice recorder as the man with the bullhorn began yelling angrily at the marines, gDonft tell us we canft stand here!h Addressing the crowd, he said, gLook at this situation. The US military is occupying our neighborhood! This is a residential neighborhood! Why is the US military here?! This tragedy has happened because of the US militaryfs presence. Helicopter parts are falling on our neighborhoods!h His monologue gave way to the familiar rhythm of responsive protest chanting in Japan, with the crowd repeating after him: gMarines, get out of our neighborhood! US military get out of Okinawa! Close Futenma base now!h Their chanting in Japanese turn into the English refrains, gYankee Go Home! Yankee Go Home! Marines Go Home!h I saw the marine standing closest to me roll his eyes. The others looked at one another. The chanting finally tapered off and the tense moment passed.

   A uniformed officer of Japanfs Self Defense Forces stood off to one side, just outside the yellow tape. Frankly, he looked lost, as if he had no idea what his role might be at such a scene. A man yelled at him, Yamato ni kaere! - Go back to Japan! - using the ethnically laden term that distinguishes gmainlandh Japan from Okinawa.

   I left the scene and headed back in the direction of the rotor blade. A private water tank located next to a house had been struck by debris. People were taking turns walking alongside the house to look at the stream of water shooting out of a hole near the tankfs base. I took my turn. I suddenly felt as if Ifd joined a pilgrimage to witness the destruction.

   A door in the home next to the tank had a hole in it the size of a fist. I heard a woman standing nearby say that a piece of metal had been found just inside the door. Lying in the driveway near the same house was a foot-long piece of cool blue metal with black rubber running down one side. It looked like it might be from the frame around the helicopter window. A small strip of CRIME SCENE tape encircled the debris. A young marine private stood in front of it. Despite the seriousness of the situation and the sober look on his face, to me the marine looked like he was playing a game, guarding a prize other players were after.

   A friend of mine Ifd bumped into a few minutes earlier pointed out a group of military personnel standing just beyond the water tank. They were all carrying gas masks. My friend asked me to ask the marine guarding the window frame prize why they had gas masks. The marine said he didnft know, but he thought that the group was an emergency response team and so the masks were just a part of their regular gear. He added that if gas masks were necessary, we would all be told. My friend didnft believe him. Everyone seemed to be on edge.

   I asked the marine whether he had heard anything about the cause of the crash. He said he didnft even know what kind of gheloh had crashed, adding that he isnft based on Futenma. He told me he had been called in with others from his unit on Camp Foster, located just a half-mile north of Futenma airbase. The marine had been ordered to go down this side street and help with gsecurity.h He was polite. And so damn young.

   Hearing a commotion from down the street, I continued on to where the rotor blade still blocked the road. The twenty or so Okinawans standing outside the yellow tape were clearly growing agitated as a small military pickup truck backed up to the huge piece of metal. About ten marines lifted the blade and, putting one end in the truck and supporting the other end, took it away. Within a minute, the yellow tape, the rotor blade and the marines were gone. It was as if the crowd had gathered to look at the mangled body of the motorcycle.

   Several people around me began talking about whether the US military had the right to take such an important piece of evidence away from the area before Okinawan police had done their own investigation, especially since the helicopter hadnft come down on the base. This led to a more heated discussion about the way the military seemed to be taking control of everything around the main crash site and throughout the neighborhood. After all, one man asked, wasnft this Okinawa? I would hear different versions of this question again and again that afternoon and in the days following.

   My friend told me hefd heard that a large part of the helicopter and other debris had fallen at a nearby community center. He asked me if I wanted to come with him and two others to take photos. Traffic was still unusually heavy as we made our way through back streets to the Ganeko community center. When we arrived, two police officers were standing at the edge of the parking lot, next to a strip of the ubiquitous yellow tape. As we walked toward the officers, I saw three marines standing on the other side of the tape, mid-way down a sloping grassy path that led into a shallow ravine. About 30 yards below us, two men in khaki overalls were examining a massive piece of metal jutting out of the tall grass. We realized it was the entire tail rotor assembly. It was the size of a car, though I would learn later that it is roughly three times heavier. Unbelievably, like the other large parts of the aircraft, the tail of the aircraft had fallen in one of the few open spaces in the area, only narrowly missing the community center and surrounding apartment buildings.

   Just as we were about to leave, eight Okinawan police officers arrived at the center. I watched as the three marines, all privates, quickly moved to block their way as the officers attempted to go under the CRIME SCENE tape. I cringed again when I heard one of the marines use the crude expression dame before he said, gNo one is allowed past this point.h The police officers looked at one another. One of them told the marines, first in Japanese and then in broken English, that they were officials from the Investigation Division of the Okinawa Prefecture Police Headquarters. The marine shook his head and said again, gNo one is allowed past this point.h Another turned away and began walking to where the tail rotor lay. A couple of the officials looked angry, but the rest appeared resigned and ready to leave.

   It was both startling and embarrassing to watch these young US marines, who couldnft have been more than 18 or 19 years old, assume such an arrogant posture and tell these much older, high-ranking Okinawan officials that they were not even allowed near the wreckage of the tail assembly. The US military enjoys wide-ranging jurisdictional privileges in Okinawa under its so-called gStatus of Forces Agreementh with the Japanese government, which sets out the legal position of US military forces in relation to local law and civilian authorities, but even I was quite sure that these marines did not have the right to do what they were doing. Like their colleagues Ifd seen earlier, however, it was apparent that these young GIs felt utterly sure of their authority to take control of the area. I wondered if they could really be so well-versed in the intricacies of the SOFA after such an obviously short time on Okinawa. Their certainty was clearly rooted in something more than an obscure legal agreement. The US militaryfs 27-year long occupation of Okinawa ended officially decades ago, yet I felt, as I often do here, as though its legacy was play out before my eyes.

   My friends, themselves in their sixties, began chastising the police officials for backing down so easily. gThis is not a US military base, this is our city! Get in there and see what has happened to our neighborhood,h one told them. gWHO are you protecting, them or us?h another asked angrily. The official again told the marines that they were from the prefectural headquarters and wanted to view the helicopter debris. After several minutes and a huddle, the marine whofd spoken earlier asked the officials for proof that they were police. Communication nearly broke down at this point. The police officer turned to the group and said he thought the marine wanted to see identification. One of my friends offered my translation services. I confirmed that, yes, the marines were asking to see some kind of police identification. I was suddenly struck at how, in the chaos of the afternoon, Okinawan officials as well as frightened and angry Okinawan residents were expected to either speak English or remain in the dark about what was happening in their neighborhood because the US military had made no effort to ensure that Japanese-speaking military personnel were placed in the areas it sought to control.

   In the end, the investigative team was allowed to view the tail rotor assembly from a short distance. If it were not for our presence and my friendsf persistent and blunt questioning, however, I doubt very much that the Okinawan officials would have continued to push for access to the site. It was then that I realized the goccupation mentalityh I sensed in the marinesf attitude and actions was, to some extent, reflected in the actions of the police. Indeed, the officials seemed to be as sure as the young GIs of the US militaryfs power to assume control over people and spaces throughout Okinawa.

   The crash still dominates local television and print news. Much of the focus is on the US militaryfs actions immediately after the crash and in the days since. Video images of marines yelling at and using force against residents and police, along with residentsf accounts of soldiers confiscating film and entering private property without permission, bolster the calls for a formal investigation into the militaryfs actions.

   A major source of escalating anger, and indeed fear, is the lack of access that local authorities have had to the main crash site. The Marines still occupied the campus. Okinawan police and fire departments were not allowed access to the main crash site for two full days, and then were only allowed to view the wreckage and surrounding damage from a distance. More recent images of young marines standing guard within the campus, sitting around in groups under tents and even playing cards merely add to residentsf frustration. 

   In addition to the delayed and restricted access, an official request by Okinawan authorities to conduct an investigation of the crash site was formally refused by the US military. Footage showing US military personnel in full-body protective gear removing a large object from the wreckage wrapped in a thick covering, and subsequent footage of the military taking away top soil from the site, have heightened concerns and fueled speculation about a potential cover-up by the military about what the helicopter may have been transporting.

   As if all this were not enough, the marine base resumed flights over Ginowan just three days after the crash. With the burned out remains of the helicopter still on the ground and the US militaryfs own investigation into the cause of the crash ongoing, the military justified its resumption of helicopter flights by citing "operational necessity."

   When it did begin to clear the site yesterday, the military cut down all the trees and shrubbery around the wreckage and, using a crane and a flatbed truck, transported what was left of the aircraft to Futenma base\all without first informing university officials, local leaders or local emergency services.

   Not surprisingly, large and small protests continue daily, most of them at the two main entrances to Futenma base. Plans for a
massive rally are already underway. With the mayor of Ginowan city at the forefront, many political leaders continue to condemn the crash – emphasizing that it was not an accident as much as it was a predictable outcome – and the US militaryfs response. Following the unanimous adoption of a resolution by the Ginowan City Council calling for immediate and unconditional closure of Futenma, city and town councils around Okinawa Island passed similar resolutions one after the other.

   Media coverage of the accident outside Okinawa and the Japanese governmentfs response have also fueled the anger among Okinawans. High drama within the Tokyo Giants baseball franchise and the medal count of Japanfs Olympic team apparently left no room for NHK to report the fiery crash of a US military helicopter in a crowded Okinawan neighborhood on the evening of the 13th. And yet, a mere emergency landing of a US military helicopter within Yokota airbase in Yokohama the following day topped NHKfs headlines. National newspapers emphasized the fact that there were no injuries on the ground, giving the strong impression that it was just an unfortunate incident. Japanese would much prefer to cling to their romance with Okinawa as Japanfs tropical playground. Across the Pacific, the lack of coverage in the US news reveals that American attention to US wars does not extend to the day-to-day violence and rights abuses that are part and parcel of supposedly glegitimateh US military occupation.

   Prime Minister Koizumi refused to meet with the governor of Okinawa because he was on his summer holiday. Japanfs Foreign Minister has suggested that the militaryfs actions do not violate the principles of the SOFA. Prefecture-wide calls for the immediate and unconditional closure of Futenma Air Station, moreover, reflect heightened frustration with the Japanese governmentfs dogged support of the US militaryfs desire to build a new airbase within Okinawa to gcompensateh for the closure of Futenma.

   What few Americans (and surprisingly few Japanese) realize is that 75% of all US forces in Japan are located in Okinawa, a mere 0.6% of Japanfs territory. In addition to 38 bases, the military also controls 29 sea zones and 20 air spaces here. Equally few know that the disproportionate presence of the US military on Okinawa – and the US militaryfs ability to stay here – rests on a history of discrimination by Japan of these islands and people, known collectively as the Ryukyu Kingdom until formally colonized by Japan in 1879.

   When the US and Japanese governments agreed to close 40-year old Futenma - an arrangement they hailed as an altruistic move to greduce the burden of the bases on Okinawansh in the wake of the 1995 gang rape of a 12-year old girl by three US servicemen - the two governments tied its closure to the construction of a new, state-of-the-art offshore airbase atop a coral reef in Henoko Bay in Nago City.

   A recent poll shows 84% of Okinawans support the immediate and unconditional closure of Futenma and fully 94% oppose the construction of the new base at Henoko or anywhere else in Okinawa. A majority of Nago residents voted against the new military base in a 1997 citizensf referendum. A group of Henoko residents, most in their 70s and 80s, have maintained an encampment at the proposed site for the last eight years, since it became clear that the Japanese government and US military were going to ignore the results of the referendum. Opposition has intensified since April 19th of this year, as thousands have participated in the encampment, so far successfully preventing the Japanese governmentfs initial drilling of the seabed. The elders inspiring the Henoko movement, most of them women with an average age of 78, have vowed to give their lives to prevent the construction of yet another US military base on Okinawa.

Kelly Dietz is a visiting researcher at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan


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