Monday March 13, 2017

Bones in the playground: B.C. man describes going to school on Hacksaw Ridge after WW II

On the slope of a hill on Okinawa, Japan, on June 8, 1945, a machine-gun crew takes on Japanese forces.

On the slope of a hill on Okinawa, Japan, on June 8, 1945, a machine-gun crew takes on Japanese forces. (Keystone/Getty Images)

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In an era when most school children spent their recess playing catch or hopscotch, Gary Bennett and his classmates would pick up human bones, shell casings and — in one case — a live hand grenade.

The Victoria pastor spent his childhood in Japan, where his parents worked as missionaries. From 1959 to 1964, he attended Okinawa Christian School on a patch of land dubbed Hacksaw Ridge. Some of the fiercest fighting of the Second World War took place there, and it was recently featured in a Hollywood film of the same name. 

Schoolhouse

Gary Bennett, who now lives in Victoria, stands at the door of Okinawa Christian School. (Gary Bennett)

"We knew that this had been a battlefield, and there were, indeed, more than just bones. There were actually pieces of uniforms. Even we'd find, every once in a while, a chunk of a helmet or a machine gun part or bullet casings, and not too far beneath the surface of the ground of the playground," Bennett, 62, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

During the Battle of Okinawa, Allied forces fought to secure strategically vital air bases on the small island on Japan's southern tip. Between April 1 to June 22, 1945, more than 12,000 U.S. soldiers and 70,000 Japanese soldiers were killed in the fighting.

The battle was devastating for the Okinawa population. Between 100,000 and 150,000 civilians were killed —  some caught in the crossfire and others as part of mass suicides

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Circa 1955, Okinawa women collect the remains of soldiers killed in southern Okinawa during the Second World War. (Keystone/Getty Images)

"I knew a lot of people had died there and we saw the evidence of that," Bennett said. 

"You know, I look back on it now and it seems really odd that it wasn't all cleaned up. But, the only way I can explain it is there was so much bloodshed and destruction that they just left it there and covered it over." 

School picture

When B.C.'s Gary Bennett was a child going to school in Okinawa, he and his friends used to scavenge the schoolyard for bones. (Gary Bennett )

Teachers, he said, were well aware of the history of the area — which at that time was still fresh in many people's memories. 

"We were told, you know, don't be picking up anything. But, there was certainly evidences of the war all around us." 

Gary now

Gary Bennett, 62, is now a pastor at the Victoria First Church of the Nazarene. (Gary Bennett)

Teachers' warnings didn't stop curious youngsters from exploring. 

Bennett remembers the time a young girl found a live grenade on the playground. Nobody was harmed. But it prompted a search of the school grounds by U.S. military police, who found a second grenade, he said. 

Bennett moved away from Okinawa when he was 10 years old and never returned. He left Japan when he graduated from high school. 

With the release of the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge — about pacifist U.S. combat medic Desmond Doss —  the memories of his school days came flooding back.

"As a boy, I remember thinking, this is weird and this is spooky. But, honestly, I didn't really draw the full impact of it until I saw that movie," he said.

The Okinawa Christian School International is still open, though it has since moved to a bigger location. It did not immediately respond to a request from As It Happens for comment. Bennett, meanwhile, is thinking of visiting Okinawa again.

"There certainly is a yearning there, and I'd like to take my family and sort of retrace some of the steps of my childhood," he said.