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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Remembering real Hacksaw Ridge

Fumio Kanda

Jul. 7, 2017

The recent Hollywood blockbuster "Hacksaw Ridge" depicts the Battle of Okinawa, one of the bloodiest and deadliest campaigns of World War II. In that 1945 battle between Japan and the US one-quarter of the islanders lost their lives, in total, more than 200,000 people. A former US Marine living in Okinawa has responded in his own way to the renewed interest in the battle. He has started giving local soldiers and their families tours of the old battleground.

The battle took place at Maeda Escarpment. It is located in the middle of Okinawa.

Many US Marines and their families have been visiting the site every day. They were inspired to come after seeing "Hacksaw Ridge."

The film takes its title from the nickname the US military gave to the Maeda Escarpment.

In April 1945, U.S. Forces landed on Okinawa's main island and advanced south toward the Japanese military's headquarters. The two sides engaged in a horrific battle on this plateau, 150 meters above the sea.

The film is based on the true story of US Army soldier Desmond Doss. Due to his strong religious beliefs, he refused to carry a weapon and served as a medic. During the Battle of Okinawa, it is estimated that he saved 75 wounded soldiers, both American and Japanese.

Former Marine Chris Majewski guides U.S. military personnel based in Okinawa, and their families, to old battle sites.

Majewski was first stationed in Okinawa 24 years ago. While serving there as a marine, he visited some of the battle sites and spoke with retired military officials. He was devastated by the stories he heard. He felt compelled to share the truth about the war's harsh realities with others. So, he retired from the Marine Corps and decided to become a tour guide.

Okinawa hosts 31 U.S. military facilities. One of them is in Urasoe City.

Majewski is also a director of the Battle of Okinawa Museum at the base. On display are items reminding visitors of the war's brutality.

One water canteen is riddled with bullet holes, and a helmet is stained with dried blood.

More than 200,000 people, including residents of Okinawa, were killed in the 1945 battle.

The former Marine wants American people to understand the realities of the war, so they can prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

The film "Hacksaw Ridge" has also had a big impact on the local residents in Urasoe, where the battle took place. Nearly 90 percent of Okinawa's current inhabitants were born after the battle. That means older people have the difficult task of passing on their war memories. But their efforts were recently given a boost.

The local government organized a special screening of "Hacksaw Ridge" for the locals. The film depicts the war from the perspective of an American soldier, but parts of the story are missing, including the viewpoints of the civilians in Urasoe who were also involved in the battle.

People in Urasoe want to understand what happened to their hometown 72 years ago. They believe that the film has provided an opportunity for the civilians to reveal what they experienced during the battle.

"When I was little, my grandparents used to tell me their war stories. War is very harsh," says a student at Urasoe Commercial High School.

"There are more and more young people who have never experienced war," says Urasoe Mayor Tetsuji Matsumoto. "I hope they see this film and understand the tragic and gruesome nature of war. It’s important for those of us born after the war to watch it."

The battle claimed the lives of around a quarter of Okinawa's residents in 1945. 72 years later, one man has finally opened up about his wartime experiences. NHK World’s Fumio Kanda met the man who is shedding light on the other side of Hacksaw Ridge.

Since the film was released in Japan, the number of Japanese visitors to Hacksaw Ridge has shot up. On the weekends, hundreds of people come.

The film motivated one Okinawan man to break the silence he has kept for over 7 decades. He is one of the few civilians who survived the battle.

Jin-ei Ishikawa is now 81 years old. When the battle broke out, he was a 9-year-old boy. He was living with his 14 family members at the base of Hacksaw Ridge.

"It was late in the afternoon. I saw pillars of fire rising from Hacksaw Ridge up to the sky," says Ishikawa. "As I watched, I was afraid I would get caught in the fire, so I fled."

Under heavy attack by US forces, Ishikawa and his family sought refuge inside the family tomb. It was a mere 200 meters from Hacksaw Ridge. Traditional Okinawan tombs are spacious, and many residents used them as shelters. Today, the bullet marks are a reminder of the wounds of war.

"Tanks rolled in, making the earth rumble," says Ishikawa. "It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The air was filled with dust. We were shaking, afraid we would be buried alive. The flamethrowers from the tanks were relentless. It was so hot we couldn’t breathe. Then we thought we’d be buried alive."

The battle on Hacksaw Ridge is said to have been one of the fiercest of the war. Many civilians were caught up in it. Survivors say it was as if all the realms of hell had been rolled into one.

The city of Urasoe was devastated. About half the people died. Moreover, a quarter of the households were entirely wiped out.

Ishikawa and his family feared for their lives. They fled the family tomb and headed south. But not all of them survived.

"I was taking care of my younger brother," recalls Ishikawa. "I remember him cowering right in front of me. Suddenly I was hit by a shell that went through my right shoulder and leg. Then the shell flew into my brother and tore open his belly. He died. When living in a war zone, we experience death on a daily basis. We gradually become numb to it as we lose our humanity. But I suddenly lost my brother, someone who had been at my side every day. There was no trace of him left at all."

Later, Ishikawa was sleeping on his aunt's lap when her head was blown off. His one-year-old sister died from malnutrition. Ishikawa himself was severely injured and had to be carried. When the war finally ended, 6 of the 15 members of the Ishikawa household were dead.

After the war, Ishikawa then had to struggle to survive. Over the following decades, he hardly ever spoke of his experiences.

It was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2 that prompted Ishikawa to break his silence. Ishikawa decided to go to the Peace Monument in the south, a place he had long avoided.

Standing in front of the monument, he spotted a familiar name: Jinkichi Ishikawa. It was the name of the younger brother he had watched die. He decided it was time to speak of the horrors he had witnessed. He felt he had to do so in order to prove that his younger brother had actually lived.

"I felt my brother’s spirit when I visited the peace monument. It made me feel at ease," says Ishikawa. "Until then, I really didn’t want to go there. I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it if I went, but I actually feel better now that I’ve gone."

Among those who listened to Ishikawa's story was a former US Marine and his son.

"Once the US bombers were gone, a storm of naval gunfire rained down on us," Ishikawa told the group.

"My son is the same age as you were," said the former US Marine. "I just can't accept that such a little boy had to flee from bombings for his life. "

"Thank you for listening to me," Ishikawa said.

Ishikawa realized the importance of sharing his stories with people from different generations and countries.

"I think that in order to prevent another war, it’s extremely important for me to tell my story to others," says Ishikawa.

There is a saying in Okinawa, Nuchi-Du-Takara, which means that life is a treasure.

By passing on his stories, Ishikawa hopes people can instill in others a strong desire for peace and a respect for human life.

These stories about the Battle of Okinawa from both the Japanese and American perspective can hopefully give a deeper appreciation for the peace Japan enjoys today.