As World War II was nearing its end, Japan was increasingly becoming desperate because they were on the verge of losing. When the United States forces attacked the vital island of Okinawa that would serve as a staging ground for the eventual invasion of Japan, the bloodiest and most ferocious war ensued and was witnessed not only by the battling forces but also by the civilians living in the area who were drafted into combat. Among them were 222 students and 18 teachers from women’s schools who were deployed into a nursing unit to help the wounded Imperial Japanese Army.
The Battle of Okinawa
The Battle of Okinawa happened from April 1, 1945, until June 22, 1945, and was the last major battle of the second world war. The bloody battle started on Easter Sunday, with the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and about 180,000 US Army and US Marine Corps soldiers sent to the island of Okinawa as a final push against the Japanese forces. The invasion of Okinawa was part of Operation Iceberg, with the goal of invading and occupying Ryuku Island. The Battle of Okinawa would result in the victory of the Allied Forces. However, both sides would suffer from heavy casualties due to the rainy weather, fierce and relentless fighting on land, sea, air, and the kamikaze fighters.
The Japanese forces recruited Okinawans to fight or sometimes act as human shields. During the chaos of the war, it was impossible to distinguish the civilians from the enemy forces, and it was not uncommon for the US forces to fire on civilians either engaging in combat or being used as human shields by Japanese soldiers behind them. Many of the inhabitants died caught up in the fighting or by suicide to avoid capture. By the time the fightings were over on the island, only half of the island’s pre-war population was left. Those who survived the bullets and explosions faced starvation.
Due to their desperate situation, the Japanese sent out about 1,800 schoolboys aged 14 to 17 into the conflict. Most of them became suicide bombers, and only 50% survived the war. Part of the tactics that the Japanese forces used was to spread false information among the Okinawans by telling them about the barbaric and inhumane treatment that they would get once the US soldiers captured them. The fearful residents would often opt to commit suicide instead of suffering at the hands of the “barbaric” US troops. A high number of people committed suicide, with the Japanese troops even providing them with the means to do so. Often in the form of a hand grenade held under the chin after the pin was pulled. A great number also lept from cliffs on the island as well, whole families, men, women, and children.
Himeyuri students, or “Lily Corps,” was just a befitting name for the gentle and caring students and teachers from the Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School and Okinawa Shihan Women’s School. In March 1945, 222 students and 18 teachers from these schools were recruited into the war. They were told that they would be helping in the war effort by working in Red Cross hospitals. They were also assured that the war against the enemy forces would be easily won and that they would be stationed far from the main conflict.
The students even brought their school supplies and uniforms with them, as they were expecting to return to school once they had completed their service with the Japanese. This, sadly, never happened.
Instead of being safely in the rear area, the children were sent to the frontlines, where they served in make-shift field hospitals in the island’s caves. There, they performed primitive surgeries and amputations on wounded soldiers in horrendous conditions. They would sometimes be asked to resupply the frontline forces while the others were tasked to bury the dead, usually at night, to prevent them from being seen and captured by the US soldiers. This was what they had to endure for almost the entire three-month duration of the battle.
By mid-June, Japanese defeat was apparent, and the students at that time were already malnourished but were still working in damp caves where bodies of dead civilians and soldiers were packed. It was then that they were finally allowed to go back home, at least that’s what they were told.
Out of the 222 students, only one survived, and she lived to tell the tale.
Her name was Janice Suetomi. In an article written by Zentoku Foundation, she shared the horrors she experienced in the Battle of Okinawa.
We had to take care of the wounded soldiers and feed them. Soldiers would deliver food–usually rice in buckets. We would make onigiri and feed the soldiers. We ate that too. There was no meat. Once in a while, we were lucky and had vegetables, but very little.
But onigiri(basically a rice ball) with no meat was the least of their concerns while they were in what was deemed “Hell on Earth.” She shared how as the nurses of the wounded soldiers, they had to make use of whatever food and water that had available, as well as the very few bandages that they had to change every two weeks, and how they had to remove maggots from the wounds of these suffering soldiers as part of their job. Anesthesia was not always available too. So, it was part of their jobs as nurses to restrain patients during a painful amputation.
It was June 18 when the students were given a deactivation order at the Army Field Hospital. Despite the heavy bombardment everywhere outside, they were forced to leave the cave and survive for themselves. This was when most of the Himeyuri students died, trying to fend for themselves.
The remaining of their group hid near Cape Kyan, where they found a grenade. They decided that they would just pull the pin and die together because they were told that the US troops would rape and murder them if they were captured. Their teacher, however, Seizen Nakasone, persuaded them not to do it and surrender to the US troops instead.
Suetomi was transported to a camp with 100,000 people crammed in the area. Due to the unsanitary conditions and lack of food, many POWs died from malaria and starvation. While the US certainly planned for and had supplies for its troops, it was not expecting to have to feed, clothe and shelter 100,000 civilians. As for her, she suffered malaria but was nursed back to health by a soldier whom she failed to get the name.
“If I knew his name, I would fly to wherever he is and thank him for saving my life,” she said.