Dan Buettner, Expedition Leader: The tiny island of Ie Jima sits just ten miles off the coast of Okinawa. We heard of the story of 104-year-old Kamata Arashino, a woman who survived a miraculous ordeal. We boarded a boat to go get her story.
There's young people laughing, taking photos, wearing hip modern clothing. It's hard to believe that just a half century ago, people were landing on this island for a very different reason.
(Newsreel) The admiral of the Pacific fleet, headquarters in Guam is about to set out for the conquest of Okinawa. Fourteen hundred ships get underway and the invasion forces aboard cast worry aside for the moment and beat a tune out on the old squeezebox while Ernie Pyle watches a fast stepping jitterbugger cut a rug for the biggest invasion fleet ever assembled in the Pacific.
Dan: That was over 60 years ago. Our invasion is of a gentler nature. The legacy of World War II lives on and the people who remember it best congregate in this place every day. We found Kamata right away and immediately started asking questions about the war. Our translator had to shout the questions into her ear.
I saw her seven months ago. She's in a lot better shape right now. We showed up, she was folding towels and she was animated as we asked her about herself. She didn't want to talk about the war. She said, "I'm happy now!"
Ie Jima was a difficult place to live before the war. People survived largely on sweet potatoes and fish. But they had strong families and communities. All that came to an end abruptly on April 17th, 1945.
In 1945, 130 villagers hid in this cave to avoid American shelling. Among them were the centenarian Kamata and her three kids. The Japanese had provided bombs for them to commit mass suicide in case American's caught them. They told the villagers that if Americans do indeed capture them, a horrible death awaits.
Kamata didn't want to talk about the war, but her son, Shigeichi Arashino was willing. He described the American battle ships shelling the island from off shore, about American solders with machine guns. He also told us about how Japanese soldiers gave villagers a bomb the size of this box to be used to blow themselves up in case they were captured.
Shigeichi took us inside and told us about that fateful day in 1945. About how 130 villagers survived off of this miso soup and water. And about how other caves began blowing off their bombs, signaling that mass suicides were taking place across the island.
He took us to the back of the cave and pointed to the spot that Shigeichi and his mother and two siblings stayed. And the he told us about when the bomb was detonated.
A hundred and ten people died this day but Shigeichi and his family miraculously survived. U.S. troops captured and cared for the survivors. They fed them rations, which introduced a whole new diet to these people.
(Newsreel) Very few prisoners have been taken on Okinawa, but here's one who disbelieved the tales of cruel treatment dished out by his superiors, and induced hundreds of his comrades to surrender, having talked with them over a loud speaker.
Dan: We're here on a joint American-Japanese project to explore the mysteries of longevity, but just 60 years ago had we been at this very place, we might have been pointing guns at each other. It's sad and amazing that things could change so.
And it sure makes me hope that it never happens again.
Expedition leader's note: The team would like to thank the Okinawa Film Office for its help in arranging the meeting with the Arashino family.