The Cave: Bringing Pfc. John Quinn Home
The Cave: Bringing Pfc. John Quinn Home
The last time anyone saw Pfc. John B. Quinn, Jr, a 29th Regiment Marine, he was headed into a cave on the island of Okinawa, some 7,600 miles away from his home in New York. The year was 1945.
After three bloody months of fighting, the Battle of Okinawa was coming to an end. Having survived the worst of it, Quinn and his buddies were anxious to obtain some battlefield souvenirs. It was no secret that miles and miles of man-made caves and subterranean tunnels were woven into the hills and ridgelines that surrounded them – a good portion of the 29th Marine Regiment’s boots on ground time had been spent clearing them out by either convincing Japanese Army holdouts to surrender or taking up arms against those who put up a fight. The caves and tunnels that Quinn and his pals had decided to investigate that day had all been checked and deemed “good to go,” but shortly after Quinn and another Marine disappeared into the darkness, shots rang out… and then silence.
One of the Marines outside the cave dashed inside to find Quinn’s friend, but no sign of Quinn. The Marine quickly pulled his wounded comrade to safety. Another Marine volunteered to go back in and rescue Quinn. No sooner had he entered the cave than more shots rang out… then, again, silence.
Eventually more and more Marines arrived, along with medics and a Japanese interpreter. They spent hours begging whoever was inside to come out. They swore they would be treated kindly and that the U.S. Forces only wanted to recover the bodies of their fellow Marines. But their pleas were only met with silence. No other sound ever came from that gaping maw, and no further Marines were allowed inside. It was deemed much too dangerous.
Finally, after exhausting all options the order was given to demolish the tunnel’s entrance. Charges were set, and in one moment of shock and awe, Pfc. John Quinn, Pfc. John Hartman, and anyone else who might have been hiding inside the subterranean ridgeline complex, were left to history. The cave that had once served as a Japanese Imperial Army field hospital, now existed only as a tomb.
In 1951 investigators with the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) returned to the site with the purpose of bringing the remains of Pfc. Quinn and his buddy home. 19 sets of remains were pulled from the tunnels, but they were all medically determined to be Japanese Soldiers. The forensic evidence surrounding the remains (uniforms, equipment, the contents of pockets) backed up that assertion.
Pfc. John B. Quinn, Jr. was officially declared to be non-recoverable.
Then, in 1993, fate made a play. 2nd Lt. Kerry J. Quinn, a Marine stationed at Camp Butler, Okinawa, happened upon an old dog tag outside of what he describes as an “old World War II cave.” That dog tag read “Pfc. John B. Quinn, Jr.”
“I guess I kept thinking maybe I had some uncle or relative I didn’t know was a Marine from years ago,” said Quinn, the now-retired Maj. Kerry Quinn told a reporter back in 2012 after returning the memento to the lost Private’s surviving family. “Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought I could find who it belonged to.”
Now, 77 years since he was last seen, the story of John Quinn has touched another Marine: retired Master Sgt. Matthew Small. Once an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician for the Marines, Small now serves his country as an Unexploded Ordinance Quality Assurance Representative with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Japan Engineer District. His long, grey beard, steely eyes, and wiry frame make him look like a miner that could have stepped out of any 19th century photograph.
A self-avowed caver and history buff, Small says he learned of the story of his fellow Marine quite by accident.
“I would say [I was] lucky. I know the director at the Okinawa Historical Society, Battle of Okinawa, so I met [with Chris]… touched base with him… and said, hey- I’m here, I love history,” the Engineer explained. “He said there was a mission coming up searching for the remains of a missing U.S. Servicemember. I gave him my name and number and said that I was interested, let me know what I can do, how I can help.”
That’s when fate played its second card.
“A year later, Chris calls me and says, ‘Hey this group called Kuentai-USA is in town,’ Small continued. “They’re doing the mission, they want to meet you.”
Kuentai-USA is a non-profit organization whose goal it is to see every combat casualty left on the battlefield returned home. Born from the Japanese organization Kuentai, it is the brain trust of Usan Kurata, a former Journalist who had a revelation regarding war dead when following up leads on a story.
“I received a tip that ‘tons of human remains’ were left in caves in the Philippines,” Kurata reminisced. “I decided to go to the Philippines and conduct interviews with people. They took me to [piles of] skulls. They had been lying there since the end of [World War II]. They just died there, nobody had recovered them, nobody had disturbed them, they just lay there untouched.”
Eventually 4,370 remains were repatriated from the Philippine jungles and Kurata was transformed from journalist to activist.
“I understand that people fight each other, that’s an [unfortunate] method of diplomacy,” Kurata explains, breaking down his philosophy. “But if they fight then do not leave any dead bodies on the battlefield. If you don’t intend to return them back home, then don’t fight.”
As Kuentai worked to return bodies of Japanese Soldiers who died in the Battle of Saipan, they came across an unexpected discovery: the unmistakable remains of U.S. Servicemembers buried in a mass grave alongside their enemy at the time, the Japanese.
This led to the creation of Kuentai-USA, and the search for Pfc. Quinn.
For those who live in modern Okinawa, most would be forgiven for not knowing there’s a cave that’s holds so much World War II history in the area. After all, the past is a reality that’s woven into the fabric of the small Japanese island. You can’t turn a corner without running into the ghosts of war. There are caves everywhere, so it would come as no surprise that one had yet to give up all of its secrets. Most have not.
Quinn’s particular cave is hidden down a dirt road, past rows of traditional red ala-gawara roof tiled houses, through a field, and down an overgrown path. Soon enough the landscape closes in and the world is transformed from rural to jungle. And then, there it is: a medium-sized hole gaping out of a rock ridge, surrounded by vines and ferns. It seemingly breathes cold air, cutting through the humidity that keeps the moss a vibrant shade of green. Butterflies and more exotic insects swim through the ocean-tinged air.
Peering down into the darkness, Matthew Small cautions, “Dog tags are not irrefutable proof that there’s a body there.”
Kuentai-USA and their all-volunteer team, including Matthew, have 1 week to try and uncover whatever secrets they can find under the ground. Although several expeditions through the years have produced various human remains from the cave, they have a theory why Pfc. Quinn has yet to be found. They believe that the detonation that sealed the cave in 1945 also caused the cave’s roof to collapse concealing anything that was on the floor, including human bodies. After all, the cave was man-made and hand-dug out of the dense clay and dirt that layers the island.
To prove that theory, they’re digging down. Teams of volunteers are chunking through clay and soil compacted from decades of time and trampling. Some people pick and hoe, others sift, and still others sort. It isn’t long until they find bones – bones lying, by their estimation, where Quinn might have fallen as he turned the corner of the cave.
Still, this is no proof that the bone fragment belongs to John Quinn.
“It’s said that about 300 Japanese [Soldiers] were [inside] by the time [this cave] was sealed because it was being used as a field hospital,” Yukari Akatsuka explains, wiping the sweat and silt from her eyes. “When a Japanese mission team came in the 70’s and did some recovery, I heard they recovered about 100 [bodies], so there are more Japanese [remains] left. But according to testimony [from those who were here at the time], the Marines who went into the cave turned left and got shot. And that big bone,” she said, pointing to a large bone fragment laying nearby on a stone, “that big bone was found exactly there. It could be Japanese… it could be American. We don’t know. So we’ll have to do a [DNA] test.”
It’s going to be hard to find irrefutable proof that anything found could be that of Quinn. After all, his dog tag has already been returned and his uniform would have deteriorated to the point of scrap after so much time. DNA is their only hope. But there still may be something hidden by time that points to remains belonging to an American. And so, they continue to dig.
“The tunnel continues about 50 meters this way,” Small acts as a tour guide, having quickly gotten a sense of the area. “Down here is a room that was probably their bathroom. Here,” he says gesturing to a long straightway on the right side of the tunnel, “is where I believe they would have put the beds for the hospital.”
Sure enough, in that very spot, searchers start finding old World War II era medicine bottles buried in the dirt. They unearth Japanese Army uniform buttons, part of a boot, and even ampoules, hermetically sealed small, rounded glass containers that still held medicine inside, most likely morphine.
Dirt is moved from one side of the hall to another. The mountain of sifted materials slowly grows, snaking its way down the tunnel.
Eventually, 1 meter below the cave floor, they hit ceramic tiles. Traditional red Okinawan ala-gawara roof tiles repurposed as flooring, hidden from sight for nearly 8 decades.
And that’s not all they find: bullets, grenades, and the leavings of other military artifacts, ravaged by exposure, yet still partially recognizable in their decrepit state, begin to pile up. There are Japanese military issue rice bowls, fully intact, that served someone their last meal.
Japanese hanko, or name stamps are revealed. These family seals are still precious in Japan today. They carry the promissory weight of a signature, ID, and passport all rolled into one. Completely legally binding, they would have been precious to the Japanese Soldiers that carried them. Found among the remains are three baring the family names of, “Ueda,” “Mitsushima,” and “Masuda.”
They even find the remains of a vintage Omega wristwatch. Omega was a main supplier of watches to the Allied Powers during World War II.
Then came coins. Volunteers gathered around, peering at the Japanese currency, brushing off dirt, trying to discern a date. Japanese coin design hasn’t changed much since the war, so the date is the key in discerning age. Finally, with a little cleaning, one could barely make out that these were coins from the 1980’s… they could have fallen out of anyone’s pocket in the last 30 years. No historical significance.
But then farther down near the bottom, something else round, much larger than the earlier coins. Heavier, too. 1… 2… 3… 4… 5 in total. Most, too corroded to determine exactly what they were, coins for sure, but beyond that, a mystery. Only, the last coin… you could barely make out the outline of a bird in flight, its wings shaped in a distinctive “V.” The face of the coin revealed a sight that left the group speechless. There was Lady Liberty standing proudly, facing to the right. The words “LIBERTY” and “IN GOD WE TRUST” stamped into the silver. And at the bottom, a date: 1925. These were “standing liberty” quarters - coins that would have still been in circulation when the cave was closed but would have been a pocket change rarity by the time it was opened again all those years later.
Is this proof that the bones found in this area belong to that of long-lost Marine Pfc. John Quinn? Only science can answer that question.
Hopefully the remains collected, more than 11 bags in total, will still be in good enough condition to give up their secrets. Certainly, most are Japanese. But others, carefully separated from the rest, may prove to be Pfc. Quinn or Pfc. Hartman. Circumstances seem to point that way, but in the delicate work of repatriation, one cannot jump to conclusions, one must let DNA be the final judge.
Still, Engineer Matthew Small hopes the remains found are those of his missing Marine. He plans to go one step further than simply being there for the recovery. “If these are his remains, I would love to be there… I hope I’m there when they are delivered to [Quinn’s]” he says, “And I can meet [his family] face-to-face.”
Pfc. John D. Quinn, Jr. has already waited 77 years to travel back those 7,600 miles from Okinawa back to New York to be with his family again. Hopefully, thanks to one U.S. Army Corps of Engineer team member and Kuentai-USA, he won’t have to wait much longer.
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