The author's grandfather in Motobu in 1945. Photos by Steph J. Pawelski

The author's grandfather in Motobu in 1945. Photos by Steph J. Pawelski ()

Between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Okinawa, Japan experienced years of continuous rollbacks as many of their islands and territories, controlled by the Japanese Imperial forces, were reclaimed by Allied forces in the west Pacific region. By April 1945, the United States military was finally in Japan and Iwo Jima, part of island chain, was secured. The U.S. was getting closer to Tokyo, the capital of Japan.

Occupying Okinawa, the largest plot of land in this region, would enter the U.S. in the final stages of War World II. This poor chunk of land would provide naval facilities to protect the invasion fleet and air bases that would bring American bombers within 372 miles of Japan, a distance that could defeat the Japanese Empire. The Japanese military became desperate. The Japanese military knew the United States would ultimately win the battle for Okinawa, but their mission was to delay them on the island for as long as possible.

After 82 days of fighting on Okinawa, there was no more hope in the capabilities of the Japanese Imperial Army. The last day to the Battle of Okinawa was June 22, 1945. An American flag was flown over the southern end of the island, both the American and Japanese commanders were dead, the Japanese 32nd Army was wiped out, and U.S. servicemembers were battered. As the defeat of Japan in WWII came, so did many more American service members to ensure Japan would no longer be a threat.

My (maternal) grandfather, Louis Lautenbach, was drafted into the Army near the end of World War II. Very soon after the war, U.S. service members had different experiences with the people in Asia. Grandpop had a positive experience with the Japanese and Okinawan people.

He bought postcards and took many photos of his travels while stationed in Okinawa, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, as well as in the Philippines. He wrote brief descriptions on the back of most photos

Once my family began noticing the passion I had finding and exploring battle-related sites on Okinawa, these black and white photos were sent to me. One picture is of him standing in front of a shrine. On the back, Grandpop wrote, “Sacred Shrine, Motobu, Okinawa – June 1945.”

Side-by-side photos of author's grandfather and son in Motobu.

A surprise nearly 70 years later It was March 2013, our first spring on Okinawa. It was going to be a mommy day with our two children, ages two and four at the time, while my husband did a few things around the house. To my surprise, the "to do" list was completed Saturday morning; it was going to be a fun-filled family day in Motobu!

As we pulled into Ocean Expo Park, our children sound asleep. I was hoping to go back the same way we just came to explore a few culture assets and recognized locations in this area until Hannah and William woke up. However, I was assured that we would stop at these places on the way home and to find something closer to the aquarium.

Jeff and I agreed to explore Bise Village – a quiet and old neighborhood tucked away by farmland and fields, with dirt roads to travel in and out of the village. Large Fukugi trees line the roads and paths. They provide shade from the sun and protection from wind and rain during typhoon season.

After parking in a small dirt lot, we began walking around and bought souvenirs at the village's shell shop. We noticed privately owned restaurants and old stone walls dividing personal pieces of property in a grid-like pattern. The sound of waves echoing through its narrow paths attracted us to the oceanfront property where pieces of sea glass and tropical shells were found.

Even though our children enjoyed discovering a cave on the beach as well as playing in the tidal pools that high tide left behind, they were patiently waiting to leave for the aquarium. I was certain to return to Bise Village. The residences, here, open their village to visitors.

Once everyone was buckled in the car, Jeff began driving to the Ocean Expo Park. Our electronic map said to "make a left," but that road was too narrow to fit the van. We continued driving until coming to a wider road to exit the village on.

By that time, I was flipping through the photos that were already taken that day when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a cement structure representing Okinawan culture. I told Jeff to stop and jumped out of the van before it came to a complete stop. I was experiencing deja vu!

I compared this shrine to two black and white photos of a "sacred shrine (in) Motobu, Okinawa." I finally found the exact spot my late grandfather stood in June 1945!

Before this day, I spent hours driving main roads, dirt roads, and trails, talking to historians at the Motobu History Museum, as well as researching shrines in northern Okinawa. I couldn’t find any information about the shrine in Grandpop’s picture. I questioned the shrine’s current state of existence due to the island's history, weather, and present-day influences. To my surprise, it stood the test of time.

A piece of grandpop Personal pieces of paradise are created when an adventure leaves a person speechless with a feeling never experienced before. Before PCSing from Okinawa in 2019, we visited the Ocean Expo Park and Bise Village regularly. I sat and stared at this 30- by 50-foot piece of land that is a part of the world… and a world of its own. Relaxed feelings of amazement and glee were felt when being at my piece of paradise in the southwest Pacific. This shrine leaves me speechless and certain that Bise Village in Motobu, Okinawa, will forever hold the spot that my grandfather and I have shared, halfway around the world and decades apart.

Since that first time in Bise Village almost a decade ago, we began following my grandfather’s footsteps around the Pacific Theater. He was on mainland Japan, after Okinawa, and visited the Imperial Palace and its hotel in Tokyo. My family and I took a trip to mainland and found the spot where he stood in front of the Imperial Palace. Comparison photos were created which included the postcards that Grandpop and my family both bought of the same location.

The Imperial Hotel, built by Frank Lloyd Wright, has since been moved to Meiji Mura, 215 miles northeast of Tokyo. That family adventure was to there in 2016 and, of course, comparison photos were created.

Unfortunately, our six years on Okinawa quickly came to an end. We moved to Sacramento, California in 2019. That was when I regretted never getting a family photo of Jeff, Hannah, William, and me in front of the shrine in Bise Village. We had to come back before Jeff hit 30 years in the Marine Corps! Luckily for us, Jeff was able to get orders back to Okinawa after three long years of being away from my personal piece of paradise.

During this time on Okinawa, I am hoping to find at least one… maybe two more sites, where my grandfather stood while in Nagoya, Japan, as well as the Philippines!

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