Okinawa, Japan --
When Keith Zimmerman died, no one wanted his photos. It was not for three generations that I stumbled upon them at a family party. A service member myself -- a United States Marine -- now stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where Keith, my mom’s great-uncle and godfather, had been 75 years before.
To flip through the pages of Keith’s scrapbook is to take a violent emotional journey through World War II in the Pacific. Keith documented his experience as a photographer in the United States Navy with no filter. Black and white photographs of coy Hawaiian hula dancers are only a page-turn away from a Fijian man holding severed human heads. American servicemen pose next to Pacific-island locals in loincloths, they climb coconut trees, fish off of makeshift piers and struggle to recover American planes. The women in his photos are frozen in time just as he saw them -- some topless, smiling or staring with a look of skepticism, and some dead, their skulls crushed, their limbs sprawled out, their dresses covered in blood.
The scrapbook has few captions to explain what it displays, but a note next to one image gave me pause. “To give you an idea of what a bat looks like.” That note alone meant that Keith had not made the scrapbook for himself, but to aid him in someday answering all the questions it begs.
But when I started looking for those answers, I found that he hadn’t shared much at all.
When I called Keith’s son, Kayle, to ask about his dad’s experience or to explain some of the photos, he could tell me nothing.
“I never asked about the war,” he said.
Keith’s niece, Nova Ann, said the same.
“We never asked, and I don’t think he would have wanted to talk about it. I think it would’ve brought up memories that he’d have rather forgotten.”
But there were aspects of Keith’s life which indicate that, try as he might, he did not forget the war.
When family history failed to help piece together Keith’s service, I turned to crowdsourcing. I posted the photos to a Facebook group called “Everything Okinawa” and let the internet have its way.
People tagged their friends asking, “Doesn’t this look like that park you took me to?” and “Isn’t this by your house?” Okinawans translated some of the text and web-historians linked me to websites where I found some of the service records for Keith’s ship, the USS Tangier.
The Tangier was a seaplane tender whose primary mission was to recover downed American planes and their pilots from the ocean. After the tragedy at Pearl Harbor, which Keith photographed from a plane, my great-great uncle and the ship were sent to deliver Marines and supplies to Wake Island. When Wake Island was surrendered, the Tangier was diverted to Midway to disembark the men and equipment of Marine Fighting Squadron 221 and to take on civilian evacuees.
Keith’s photos match the text I found online; his captions on one page read, “Civilians coming aboard at Midway” and “Disembarking at Pearl Harbor civilians we brought from Midway right after Dec. 7 attack.”
The years 1942 through 1944 were spent bouncing between Hawaii and various Pacific islands including Fiji, the Philippines, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea. Precisely when and where the ship and Keith were located were not possible to say from the records I found.
It is only from his sparse captions that I could tell for certain that they were in Okinawa at all. One caption reads, “Leaving for Okinawa” and another is a photo of a sign for Nakagusuku Castle Park.
I can’t say exactly when Keith arrived or left Okinawa, but history tells us that on April 1, 1945, U.S. Marines made an amphibious assault on the island. This battle, also known as Operation Iceberg, was the bloodiest battle of World War II. When Okinawa was declared secured on June 21, 1945, the death toll among U.S. service members was more than 12,000. Approximately 90,000 Japanese combatants and 150,000 Okinawan civilians also died during the battle.
Living in Okinawa today, it’s hard to imagine that we were ever enemies at war. At every turn along my quest to retrace Keith’s steps, Okinawans appeared to help me. I struggled through Google Translate with people at Awase Bijuru to understand its significance and a woman walked nearly a mile in the wrong direction to help me locate a shrine. She had no idea why I wanted to find it, but when she couldn’t explain how to get there in words, she didn’t hesitate to walk me there herself. The places that Keith’s photos show abandoned, overgrown and scarred by war are today well-kept and overrun with American and Japanese tourists alike.
When I first found a place that Keith had been and held his photo to the structure in front of me, I was overwhelmed. To look through the lens of my camera and to know that Keith had done the same thing, I couldn’t help but wonder if he would have ever guessed that the daughter of his beloved great-niece, the little girl he held in 1994, would be here. I wondered if this is what he wanted people to feel when they opened his scrapbook -- for us to know what he had seen and why he had seen it; so that someday the generations after him might enjoy them in peace.
There is no question that the cost of war for Keith’s family, my family, was high. But after chasing his ghost across Okinawa and finding only well-kept ruins in its place, I take solace in knowing that their sacrifices were not for naught. It is for them that I laugh with Okinawans as we struggle through language barriers and trek down winding trails to find the places my ancestors had been.
Distance is a fact of serving in Okinawa. We are far from home, our families, and our support networks. But in spite of that distance, we are infinitely closer to history. Recreating Keith’s photos brought me closer to the island, its people and the significance of my own identity as a photographer and a United States Marine.
My great-great-uncle watched, first-hand, the battles that inspired me to join the Corps. He witnessed history, and he successfully captured it in film so that we can all see for ourselves the true cost of war. But Keith failed to capture the cost that war had on him, and part of that cost is that his own story was largely lost. So while my quest for answers left me with more questions than anything, it taught me the true importance of storytelling to finish the 1,000 words left unspoken by even the most telling of photographs.