The whole island is a botanical garden, you might think, but the huge footprint of urban and suburban development dominates a large portion of the landscape. The Southeast Botanical Gardens provides a secluded habitat for flora from Okinawa and the rest of the Pacific.
We set out earlier in the morning, but even then, the humidity at the gardens was sweltering. I took an idea from the local Okinawans and walked around with a small towel around my neck to dab the frequent sweat that trickled down my forehead. The air was fresh and the whole scene was green with a lively saturation to it. Near an arching bridge, we stopped to buy fish food and throw the pellets in the pond. Ravenous Coy fish quickly appeared to devour every last bit of food. The final area we went through was a pond completely covered with water-resistant lillies, with long stalks and funny looking brown bulbs on top.
Several weeks prior I described how we found this somewhat isolated beach on Ikei Island, a small island connected to Okinawa by a bridge. Now that we knew where it was, several of the guys from Flightline and I we prepared and packed up our snorkeling gear. The last time I was here, it was late in the evening during the fading sunlight. We left early and it afforded us ample opportunity to explore the underwater landscape stretching out from the rocky beach. Past thick seaweed fields were 10 to 20 foot deep coral environments, brimming with fish. Stanley and Medlicott didn’t come out of the water for about 3 hours straight, they were so involved in trying to catch fish with their spearguns. Stanley actually caught several colorful fish, his first and only other catch was months ago. Russell laid on the beach the entire time and despite my warnings, put only tanning oil on his lighter skin. We all laughed when his thighs looked like a lobster the next day at work.
View of the beach once you make your way through the jungle path
Walking to a spot to drop our gear
Thick tropical growth that hides the beach
Clinger searches for unique shells, (note the extremely short tan Navy diver shorts)
Stanley cleaning and gutting his catch of the day
The vibrantly colored fish that met the wrong end of the speargun
Ah, getting back to my Spanish heritage with bullfights. Medlicott and I had heard or read about the bullfights and decided to see what the spectacle had to offer. We picked up a couple of our guys and went north along the Pacific side to Uruma city, where the bull ring lies. This was no Spanish-esque bullfight though. No matadors here. Bullfighting on Okinawa literally means bulls dueling each other. This is still PG rated for the kids, though, since it’s more of a shoving match for dominance. The bulls horns are dulled and they do not charge at their competition, they simply lock horns and push against the other with their heads until one gives up. The winning bovine is presented with an extra large bottle of Orion beer (like champagne at a race). Each bull is supported by a team, that is best thought of as a pit crew is to a race car; they all wear matching clothes and tend to the animal like one would a race-prepared vehicle.
I enjoyed it, despite the fact that during two of the three matched we caught, no fight occurred when the second bull chickened out shortly upon entering the ring. I also like the experience of being some of the very few Americans there. I appreciate immersing myself in what the locals do.
Just a few short miles north of Futenma is Araha beach. It’s convenient, but the swimming area is microscopic, due to roping it off for jellyfish. And Araha beach is even closer to another base, Camp Foster, so on some occasions it can be more than half Americans, which is OK unless you want to get away from that kind of thing on the weekends, like myself and most other guys from my shop. Also, with the swimming area so small and typically crowded with children, I wonder how many people are peeing in there?
I did try this amazing Thai green curry at a local beach restaurant/bar that was nearby.
So, the last remaining CH-46 squadron here, HMM-262, the Flying Tigers, was slated to turn into an Osprey squadron not long after our arrival, and one morning in mid-August a large gaggle of the ungainly-looking helicopters flew in. I expected the Ospreys sooner or later, but what shocked me was the squadron that the aircraft and people came from.
I quickly recognized the lion’s head emblazoned on the tail fins and the “Y Z” tail code, and written on the fuselages was VMM-363. It was kind of like a swift kick in the nuts to my psyche, seeing these aircraft I’m not very fond of with my old unit’s designation. Not that it’s the same as my 363, HMH-363, since it turned into a unit with completely different people and aircraft in a different location, but sucked nonetheless. Of course, I also received the expected jokes from some of the other more senior guys here since they knew I was a Red Lion, and I had recently put a Red Lion patch on the front of my cranial. “I didn’t know you were a V-22 guy” was probably the most common one I heard the first few days, among some others.
Of course they won’t stay as 363 and once the 262 redesignation takes place, these Ospreys will be marked as VMM-262, with all the other Flying Tigers logos and such.
As the only two shops that seem to have people interested in having any fun, Airframes and Flightline, with a few others included, got together and had a little barbecue party at the Army-owned Torii beach.
What’s not to love about burgers, volleyball, and beer, all within mere yards of the ocean and a short swim away from areas to snorkel at. The many sets of volleyball were of course complete with the usual shit-talking and minor sports injuries. The funniest part is when everyone starts to lose count of the points and I realize I hear the same score three times in a row after points were scored, or one team mysteriously loses or gains several.
The sky threatened rain for most of the day, but fortunately it cleared up somewhat to offer an unrestricted view of the rich sunset.
Long delayed (it has been 2 months, not going to get into details) our squadrons first CH-53E flight occurred. I could only help out testing the planes from the ground so this was my first taste of soaring past the island from above. Only a couple photographs were taken since I was preoccupied with getting ‘back in the saddle’ as far as flying was concerned. These were taken not over Okinawa itself, but near one of the small outlying islands.
Despite my title for this entry, there are no pictures of dancers nor did we see any. Our intention was to see them, anyway.
Every year in August, 10,000 dancers march down Kokusai street in the capitol city of Naha performing the traditional Okinawan dance known as Eisa. We missed the first half since instead of parking and walking to Kokusai street, we parked farther away just so we could get the ‘experience’ of riding the monorail in Naha. Once we entered the crowded foot traffic on Kokusai street, it was seemingly intermission, so we decided to eat and have a beer. At some point during our meal, the rest of the dancers entertained onlookers while my group obliviously chowed down. I think I heard some large drum beats from my seat, but I guess I found the ice cold Orion beer more interesting at the time.
Upon leaving, it was still more crowded than normal, but the parade had disappeared down the street. We decided to just do our typical wandering around as we did 6 or 7 weeks before when we toured Kokusai street the first time.
After learning about a patch-making store that almost every Marine aviation unit has used during their time on Okinawa, I knew there had to be some nice old patches from HMH-363. Most of the Crew Chiefs and Mechanics that taught me when I was a boot in 363 had deployed to Oki with the squadron once or twice, and fellow Kaneohe Bay 53D squadrons 362 and 463 had been there several times. In fact the store, called Tiger Embroidery, is apparently the “go to” place for all military units (American, Japanese, and other foreign nations) to make ‘det’ patches. They keep stacks of previously printed patches as what I assume were extras. Some patches were pretty old; I noticed one 363 patch referencing being on Okinawa in 1991 when Desert Storm was taking place elsewhere, I refrained from buying it though. I did not, however, refrain from buying all the other HMH-363 and CH-53D patches I could find. For me, it was like being a kid in a candy store.
Here are some of the patches I found, and if any old 363 people want me to pick up a patch for them send me an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Flightline shop on the move
The “color bird” of HMM-262, the Flying Tigers
Sgt Armstrong, H-1 Mechanic
Tail and Rotor Head
Avionicsman working under Cobra
A “Phrog” and a “Shitter”
This was supposed to work out much better… I was trying to ‘hold’ the CH-53 in my hands like a platter
Stanley supporting a CH-46 by his index finger
Not having a destination in mind and my desire to explore led me to drive with Jones and Stanley onto some of the Okinawan islands that are located close enough to the main island that they are connected by a bridge. In contrast to most of our previous journeys, we traversed the eastern (Pacific) side of Okinawa instead of the western (East China Sea) half. One area we stopped at near the island-connecting bridge had this amazing feature where the water was only ankle deep for literally a mile out from shore. It was definitely different to be so far from shore and still standing with the ocean not even touching my thighs.
After navigating narrow, unknown roads, we came to the final tip of Ikei island and could go no further. Fortunately, we saw some parked cars and a few people mulling about in scuba gear; a beach had to be within walking distance. Past a sign that advised American service members to go no further, we happened upon a lightly used beach that was shallow out to 100 meters. In other words, perfect for snorkeling. We found no name for this spot, and due to the difficult nature of locating it and the secludedness, we proclaimed it “secret beach”.
Stopping near the bridges to the nearby islands
Shallow water stretched out as far as I could see
Stanley doing…. Stanley things
Visually impaired dog, Ikei Island
Pathway through jungle to “secret beach”
Warning signs don’t turn me around, they encourage me to go further
Coral shelves, “secret beach”, Ikei Island
Well, after a long and arduous process of rebuilding the aircraft after being transported halfway around the world our unit finally had two helicopters turn-up for check flights on the same day. The anticipation of all the maintenance personnel was palpable, especially after weeks of busting our knuckles fixing CH-53’s that had not flown or moved since we arrived.
Troubleshooting an engine
Watching from the shade
Crew Chief, SSgt Jones, ready to turn-up
Umbrella vending machine
A group of girls wanted to have their picture taken, so naturally they were pounced upon by a dozen Japanese guys with cameras. I just wanted to be a witness to the hilarity.
A Banana Spider. Obviously not the scientific name for these arachnids that I see everywhere in dense jungle growth. This one pictured is actually on the smaller side. I’ve seen a few with a leg span equal to that of my hand with fingers outstretched. Once I almost walked headfirst into one (they blend in easier than you think), and they get kind of territorial and pissed-off, facing you and standing on their back 4 legs with the front 4 up and toward you. As big and mean as they seem, I would still take a Banana spider over a Camel Spider any day.
I only wanted to take a photo of the stone monument; the duck had other ideas and began his slow charge toward me. And why is his head half red, like a Turkey??
Habu Cats. Okinawa is full of stray, mangy cats. We started calling them ‘Habu’ cats within a week of our arrival. Habu really means the Okinawan viper snake, but dozens of things on the Marine bases are called ‘Habu-something’, like the Habu Pit (Staff NCO/Officers Club) and the Habu Trail (running path around the Futenma air base). The name stuck.
Gee….thanks Brad Pitt
View from Kadena Marina facing the Kerama Islands