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50,000-year old footprints, Japanese kamikaze, and the U.S. bombers in Korea
Lee Wha Rang

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[Recently,] major news papers world around reported on the discovery in October 2003, of some 100 detailed 50,000 year-old (Paleolithic) fossilized footprints from Stone Age men on the southern tip of Cheju Island. Paleolithic footprints have been uncovered in Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, Italy, France and Chile but the Jeju discovery is the first in Asia.

Prof. Kim believes that the footprints contain enough information for him to reconstruct the physical features of the Cheju Stone Age people. Modern digital reconstruction technology developed for forensics can be used to draw detailed pictures of our ancestors that inhabited this remote island some 50,000 years ago.

It is believed that the East Sea was once an inland lake surrounded by the Japanese islands, Cheju, the Philippines, and the Asian continent, and Cheju was a mere volcano (Mt. Hanra) in a vast continent where elephants and other Stone Age animals roamed.

On one fine day, Mt. Hanra exploded and spewed out tons of ashes. After a cooling period, humans and other animals returned and treaded on the volcanic ashes, that later solidified into fossils. Polar ice caps began to melt and the sea level rose by several hundred feet creating isolated islands and the East Sea connected to the Pacific Ocean.

The inhabitants of Cheju have developed their own Korean dialect and a strong sense of independence. They have a long tradition of defying the central authority, that has resulted in numerous bloody uprisings. In the 4.3 uprising of 1948, nearly one quarter of the residents was massacred by South Korean security forces led by the US military.

Ironically, it is largely due the fierce 'island' character of the Cheju people that has preserved the priceless legacy of the island. Had it not been for the islanders, the Stone Age footprints would have been lost forever. Given below is the story of how the footprints were nearly lost.

In 1926, the Japanese began to build a military airbase near the site and it was completed in 1930. The field was used to support Japanese troops in Manchuria and China. The field was expanded in 1937. When WWII ended in 1945, it had 2,500 naval aviation troops and 25 planes. Many Kamikaze pilots received training in Kamikaze tactics at this field.

The Altehru field is still in use by local civilian aviators. Some 20 hangars built by the Japanese are still intact even after the ravage of half a century since their construction. In the waning days of WWII, the Japanese navy built fortifications on Cheju to repel the anticipated invasion of the Americans. Some 60,000 troops from Manchuria were moved to the island for the 'last battle'.

The Japanese built numerous tunnels, airfields, roads, pillboxes, shore battery emplacements, and other defensive structures in total disregard of any environmental or archeological due considerations. No one will ever know what priceless archeological artifacts have been destroyed by the Japanese invaders.

On April 3, 1948, the people of Cheju rose in arms against the corrupt and cruel local police under the US military (South Korea was ruled by an US military government from 1945 to 1948). The police force was made of anti-Communist refugees from North Korea and former members of the Japanese police. The US military commanded by Maj. General Dean (who has the dubious distinction of being the top-ranking American POW of the Korean War) relied on these pro-Japanese and terrorists to keep the independent-minded residents of Cheju.

The armed uprising was suppressed by brutal scorched-earth tactics and massive air and naval support of the US military. The old Japanese air field at Altehru became an American airbase for operations against the 'Communist' rebels. By the time it ended in 1954, the six-year uprising left much of the island in smoldering ruins and a sizable fraction of the island population dead. Recently, President Roh Mun-hyun made a public apology to the people of Cheju for the wrongs done to them in the name of "democracy". What priceless archeological legacy of the island had been destroyed by the shelling, burning, and pillaging of the 'bandit' extermination campaigns?

In 1988, the military government of Gen. Jung Du-whan drew up a grand plan to turn Cheju into a strategic bomber base for the Americans. This was the time when the people of the Philippines asked the US military to get out and the US was shopping around for a new base. Gen. Jung thought that if he expanded the Altehru airfields by new runways for US long-range bombers, the Americans may move into Cheju - in lieu of the fact that the US Senate had approved the Cheju as a potential site. The plan involved building two 3,5 km runways and numerous support facilities for American air force, and it would have plowed under the Stone Age relics.

Fortunately, the people of Cheju got wind of Gen. Jung's scheme and organized a mass movement to block Americans moving in. Their struggle against Jing's ,military government began on August 27, 1988, when the Seoul Olympic was in full swing, and ended only when Jung gave in and scratched rthe plan in February 1989. Thus the people of Cheju have saved their precious legacy from certain destruction, for which all Koreans and, indeed, all civilized people of the world should salute the people of Cheju.

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