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Students Help Okinawan History Come Alive in UC Santa Cruz Exhibit

During the time Army Captain Charles Gail wandered Okinawa with his box camera in 1952, his intention was artistic. But his slice-of-life photos — along with his detailed notes about each scene — serve as precious documentation of a way of life that’s gone now.

So when UC Santa Cruz was offered a trove of photos that Gail took while stationed on Okinawa, History Professor Alan Christy jumped on it. Then, he took 15 students on a couple of international field trips to the island, to research and write history themselves.

“By working with me on the research,” he says, “they’ll learn how history is done.”

Much of Okinawa’s historical record destroyed

The epic battle on Okinawa, depicted in this 1945 newsreel, was devastating. About 90,000 soldiers were killed on both sides. More than 110,000 Okinawans died.

After World War II, the US military moved in and established several bases, whether the Okinawans wanted them or not. Civilian photography was restricted. Christy explains, “WWII in Okinawa was immensely destructive of the heritage landscape: archives, images, not to mention, of course, people.”

As part of Christy’s project, UC Santa Cruz students were asked to seek out the exact places where Gail shot his photos, and found some of the people he photographed are still alive, or at least remembered by people alive today.

“Crowds would gather around the photo — all the old folk, particularly, because these are photos from 70 years ago — and argue about where this photo was or wasn’t,” Christy says.

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