Ok­i­nawans still haunted by hor­ror of war 70 years on


Seventy years af­ter the Bat­tle of Ok­i­nawa, Yoshiko Shimabukuro still has ter­ri­fy­ing night­mares of watch­ing friends and Ja­panese sol­diers die as they hid in caves to es­cape fierce Amer­i­can shelling.

One of 222 fe­male stu­dents mo­bi­lized as a bat­tle­field nurs­ing unit for the Im­pe­rial Army in March 1945, she also suf­fers deep pangs of guilt for sur­viv­ing the war while many of her class­mates per­ished in the hell holes that served as mil­i­tary hos­pi­tals on the is­land’s south­ern tip.

“We only had ba­sic train­ing in how to put on ban­dages, but the wounded sol­diers they brought in were be­yond help,” Shimabukuro told AFP ahead of a cer­e­mony Tues­day to mark the 70th an­niver­sary of the end of the bat­tle.

“They had legs ripped off, their in­testines were fall­ing out, faces miss­ing. We sim­ply had no idea what to do. I was 17. We all thought we would be back at school in a week.”

Fewer than half of the girls known as the “himeyuri stu­dents” — an amal­gam of the names of the two schools they came from — sur­vived the 82-day bat­tle, which wiped out a quar­ter of the sub­trop­i­cal is­land’s pop­u­la­tion.

Many died af­ter be­ing or­dered by Ja­panese sol­diers to leave their caves in a hail of bul­lets as the en­emy closed in. Oth­ers plunged off cliffs or blew them­selves up with grenades rather than sur­ren­der.

“We wanted to stay in the caves and die to­gether but the Ja­panese sol­diers sent us away,” said Shimabukuro, fight­ing back tears. “Peo­ple were quickly killed or badly in­jured. But we couldn’t take the in­jured with us, we had to leave them.

“I still have dreams where I see my dead friends and I wake up scream­ing. It breaks my heart that I lived and my friends died, with­out me know­ing how, when or where.”

Rit­ual Sui­cide

The bat­tle claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Ok­i­nawan civil­ians and 80,000 Ja­panese troops, whose grim re­sis­tance only ended af­ter Lt. Gen. Mit­suru Ushi­jima, the se­nior of­fi­cer on the is­land, com­mit- ted rit­ual sui­cide on a cliff.

Al­most ev­ery fam­ily in Ok­i­nawa suf­fered at least one ca­su­alty as the U.S. bom­bard­ment — by land, sea and air — re­duced the nor­mally lush, green land­scape to a scorched waste­land.

More than 12,000 Amer­i­can troops also per­ished dur­ing the worst blood­shed of the Pa­cific War, in what many feared at the time was a fore­taste of the bat­tle they would have to fight for the Ja­panese main­land.

That bat­tle never came, thanks in part to the atomic bomb­ing of Hiro- shima and Na­gasaki. Ok­i­nawa was the only part of Ja­pan in which fight­ing took place in World War II.

Shimabukuro lost her two el­der sib­lings and was al­most robbed of her san­ity in the filthy un­der­ground hos­pi­tals, where sol­diers had limbs am­pu­tated with lit­tle or no anes­thetic and begged doc­tors to kill them.

Some troops be­came de­ranged and grew vi­o­lent as tox­ins in­fected wounds that were crawl­ing with mag­gots, ac­cord­ing to Shimabukuro.

“They were taken to the back of the cave and put in iso­la­tion,” she whis­pered. “We weren’t al­lowed to go back there. The con­stant scream­ing was dread­ful.”

Af­ter the June 18 or­der to dis­band the himeyuri unit, Shimabukuro her­self al­most died from se­ri­ous in­fec­tion be­fore be­ing res­cued by a U.S. soldier.

“We were told any women cap­tured would be raped and burned alive,” she said. “I would have killed my­self if I’d had a grenade, but he gen­tly nursed my wounds and took me to hos­pi­tal.”

Zenichi Yoshimine, who was wait- ing to be­gin ele­men­tary school when war broke out, said Ok­i­nawans — long dis­crim­i­nated against by main­lan­ders — had been hood­winked by Ja­panese pro­pa­ganda.

“We were taught Ja­pan was God’s coun­try and couldn’t lose the war,” he said, over­look­ing the spot in Itoman dubbed “sui­cide cliff” by Amer­i­can troops.

“We be­lieved the Amer­i­cans were devils, that they were sav­ages and if they cap­tured us they would cut our ears and noses off, gouge out our eye­balls and run over us in their tanks.”

‘Mice in a trap’

Yoshimine told how tens of thou­sands flee­ing the ad­vanc­ing U.S. troops poured onto clifftops, send­ing hun­dreds top­pling onto the rocks be­low as they were strafed by en­emy fire.

“There was lit­er­ally nowhere left to run,” he said. “We were caught like mice in a trap. Very soon there were so many bod­ies we were trip­ping over them.”

Re­sent­ment over the war still runs deep in Ok­i­nawa, a for­merly in­de­pen­dent king­dom an­nexed by Ja­pan in the 19th cen­tury.

With thou­sands of Amer­i­can troops still sta­tioned on the is­land — a legacy of a long U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion — ten­sions run high, and the planned re­lo­ca­tion of a con­tro­ver­sial U.S. air base, which some lo­cals want moved off Ok­i­nawa in­stead, has trig­gered an­gry protests in re­cent months.

That has co­in­cided with a push by the na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment to give the mil­i­tary greater scope for ac­tion — some­thing op­po­nents say runs counter to the hal­lowed paci­fism en­shrined in Ja­pan’s con­sti­tu­tion.

Shimabukuro fears that Ok­i­nawa, which re­turned to Ja­panese rule in 1972, could be­come a bat­tle ground once again.

“I’ll never for­give Ja­pan for what hap­pened,” said the 87-year-old, now the di­rec­tor of a mu­seum ded­i­cated to the nurs­ing corps.

“And now we have peace, Ja­pan is try­ing to change the con­sti­tu­tion and turn it­self into a coun­try that can wage war again,” she added. “And that would drag this poor is­land back into the fir­ing line.”


(Above) A mother and her son wipe down the mon­u­ment com­mem­o­rat­ing those who died in the bat­tle of Ok­i­nawa dur­ing World War II at the Peace Me­mo­rial Park in Itoman, Ja­pan’s south­ern in­lands pre­fec­ture Ok­i­nawa, Satur­day, June 20. (Right) Yoshiko Shimabukuro, sur­vivor among some 222 stu­dents and 18 teach­ers of the “Himeyuri stu­dents corps” bat­tle­field nurs­ing unit formed for the Ja­panese Im­pe­rial Army, looks at ex­hib­ited pho­to­graphs of fallen mem­bers of the unit at the Himeyuri Peace Mu­seum in Itoman, Ok­i­nawa pre­fec­ture, Fri­day, June 19.

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