Written by Dave Page
“Our job was to hold down the arms and legs that would be amputated from soldiers. For pain, the patient was given just a sniff of ether. I held down the arm a doctor was going to cut off and encouraged the patient to endure. That was really frightening. The amputated hand still clutched my hand. The arms and legs were still warm even after being cut off and we would wrap them in rags before hurriedly throwing them into waste containers.”
Upon first hearing these words, you might, quite naturally, believe them to be those of a veteran medic or experienced field surgeons assistant. Unfortunately, this is not the case. These are the words of Shimabukur Tomi, a 17-year-old Japanese schoolgirl who, after only a small amount of very basic training, was forced to work as a medical assistant on the front line during the battle of Okinawa in 1945. Although Shimabukur would go on to survive this horrendous ordeal, approximately 200 other girls, aged between 14 and 19, would not be so lucky, eventually succumbing to disease, injury or simply committing suicide to avoid capture by the Americans.
In today’s episode we will take a closer look into the figurative hell that these young people were forced to endure…
During 1945, the fighting in the Pacific was quickly approaching the main Japanese islands. One of these islands, Okinawa, was of particular interest to the Allied forces as it was believed that it would make a perfect base from which to launch a full-scale land invasion on the rest of Japan.
In order to attempt to prevent this from happening, the Japanese military were prepared to use any available resource at their disposal. To that end, thousands of extra troops were dispatched to Okinawa and, once they arrived, they immediately seized control of the schools. Standard education hours were drastically cut, and the students were instead taught things that would make them useful in the upcoming battle.
Boys were taught such things as bridge repair and the logistics of supply running, and the girls were given a crash course in nursing. These girls would later form The Himeyuri Gakutotai (Himeyuri Student Corps) which was mostly made up of girls from Okinawa First Girls High School and Okinawa Women’s Normal School. These girls were referred to as the Himeyuri which, according to an exhibit in the Himeyuri peace Museum, “was a combination of the two school newspapers’ names and can be translated as “Star” or “Princess Lily”.
When Okinawa first came under attack on the 23rd of March, 222 student nurses and 18 teachers were immediately mobilised and marched through the night to the Okinawa Army Hospital, and It was at this point they realised how drastically they had been misled.
You see, these young girls were under the impression that they would be working in a proper hospital under the flag of the Red Cross with equipment, medicine and sterile operating environments. Many of them had even bought textbooks and writing materials with them as they have been assured that there would be time for them to continue with their schoolwork during downtime. In reality, this could not be further from the truth. As it transpired, the so-called “hospital” was nothing more than a collection of approximately 30 muddy caves. There were no beds to speak of, so severely injured soldiers would be laid out on covered pallets and sanitation was basically non-existent. The following is a brief extract taken from a written account by one of the girls who was lucky enough to survive this experience:
“The stench was unbearable, so it was almost impossible to nurse the wounded or tend to their wounds. I can still hear the cries and shrieks of those soldiers in the throes of death during surgical operations. It was hell itself. We didn’t have enough anaesthetic, so doctors administered it just enough to ease the patient’s tension. One patient begged desperately: “That’s enough! Doctor kill me! Just kill me now!”
As harrowing as this account is, things would only get worse. By the beginning of May, conditions had deteriorated so much that there was not a single patient who was not coated in pus, maggots and lice. By this point, food had become so scarce that starving soldiers would beg doctors to cook and serve recently amputated limbs and, although we could find no evidence of this actually happening, it truly does show just how desperate these people had become. Due to the complete lack of medication, cases of Tetanus and Brain Fever were prevalent. One girl would go on to write that: “completely deranged brain fever patients were really terrible. They would suddenly stand up and start walking, trampling seriously wounded soldiers who were lying in the cave.” Once a patient reached this stage, they would be dragged away by doctors, and nobody would ever see or hear from them again.
Perhaps even more distressing than this were the tetanus patients. These men would develop cramps in their arms and legs before eventually succumbing to lockjaw. According to another first-hand report, “when they reached that point, they could no longer even eat the cream of rice gruel, such patients were taken to a narrow isolation ward enclosed by wooden shutters. They kept their eyes open, and just stared at us as if to implore us to get them out of there”.
Although to leave the cave was to literally walk into a war zone, many of the girls would eagerly volunteer to do so in order to carry messages or retrieve supplies, simply so that they could grab a few minutes break from the indescribable smell and the constant suffering of their patients. Up until this point, there had actually been remarkably few deaths among the students. However, this was about to change.
On the 25th of May, 55 days after the battle for Okinawa began, the order came to evacuate the hospital and the hospital staff, along with anybody who still stood a reasonable chance of surviving. The inhabitants of the cave dutifully packed up and began to retreat to the south. All those who were deemed unfit to travel were either issued with hand grenades with which to commit suicide or told that trucks would be sent to collect them shortly. All of the soldiers that were told this particular lie were provided with milk to drink whilst they waited. The milk had been heavily laced with cyanide.
As the allied forces continued to advance, the Himeyuri would take up residence in new caves in southern Okinawa where they would continue to do their best for the often mutilated and dying soldiers in their care. According to one exhibit, again from the peace museum, morale was so low that “The patients took out their frustration and anger on the student nurses, berating their performance as caregivers and suggesting the teenage girls were cowards for hiding in the hospital caves instead of being out fighting.”
Nevertheless, these incredible young people would continue in their duties until the 18th of June when, completely without warning, they received the following message:
“Your devotion until today is well appreciated. From now on go your own way.”
That was it. The Himeyuri core had been disbanded and, as far as the military were concerned, they were no longer under their protection. These young girls who had done everything in their power to take care of their country’s fighting men were driven from the admittedly scant safety of the caves and forced to take their chances on the battlefield.
Whatever the reasoning behind this atrocious betrayal, for one group of Himeyuri it was already too late. According to Morishita Ruri:
“Someone said they heard footsteps outside, and everyone fell silent. There were about 100 people in the cave, 50 of them Himeyuri and the rest a mix of medical personnel, patients and soldiers. Students huddled around the sick to muffle the sound of their coughing. A Signal Corps soldier set up a machine gun in the cave, ready to open fire as soon as the enemy approached. A voice called down in Japanese, ‘Are there any civilians in this cave? Any soldiers? If you are in the cave, come out! Otherwise, we’ll blast the cave! ‘. The machine gunner never got a chance to fight back. White Phosphorous grenades were thrown into the cave. When they exploded the space filled with white smoke and people began choking to death.” She would go on to say that “A soldier yelled to urinate into a rag and cover their mouths with it” and she believes that this advice is the only thing that saved her life. Believing that she was going to die, all that she could do was listen to classmate’s cry and scream, calling out for their mothers, their friends, for water.
So, what happened to the remaining students? Well, they truly were left to fend for themselves. Surrender was not an option for a truly loyal subject of the Japanese emperor and this rule was rigidly adhered to. We found one source that tells of a Japanese soldier who, when told to surrender by the American forces, raised his hands and began to emerge from hiding. However, before he could take more than a dozen steps, he was shot in the back by a fellow soldier. The girls were also told that should they surrender or be captured, they would be subjected to brutal rape and torture before being executed by the Americans. Unsurprisingly, this led to many of them electing to take their own lives.
On top of this, there are several accounts of soldiers driving the girls away when they attempted to seek refuge in military controlled caves. Thankfully, not everybody had so quickly forgotten the service of the Himeyuri. Another survivor spoke about how her and three of her friends were taken to relative safety by two passing soldiers:
“Two soldiers happened to pass by. We told them we were looking for refuge and asked if they would take us to a cave. When we got there An Okinawan man and a boy, about 14 or 15, apparently his son, were sitting at the entrance of the cave. Suddenly, one of the soldiers started shouting at the father and son. Brandishing his sword at them, he shouted ‘Anyone who does not obey military orders I will cut him down’. In other words, he was trying to drive them out of the cave to make room for us.” Although she and her friends tried to prevent this from happening, the two civilians had already fled.
Another group consisting of 11 students and one teacher were not so fortunate. They fled along the shoreline as loudspeakers aboard American ships constantly broadcast messages telling them to surrender. Eventually, they would take refuge in a cave where they would later be discovered by an American soldier who opened fire on them. In order to prevent his students from being captured, the teacher would gather them all together and set off a grenade which would kill him and nine of the girls.
Although positive experiences with American soldiers are very difficult to find, we did find one account from a Himeyuri girl in which she describes a soldier giving her water and cleaning her wounds before taking her to a place of safety even though she tried to fight him repeatedly. These desperate actions really do drive home just how committed these girls were to the idea of fighting to the end and never surrendering. Even though the battle would end on the 22nd of June, many of the Himeyuri refused to believe that the Japanese had surrendered and several of them were found still hiding in caves months later.
In total, 136 conscripted Himeyuri girls and teachers were killed in the battle for Okinawa and photographs of most of them can be found at the Himeyuri Peace Museum located on the former site of one of the medical hospital caves. These photos stand as a silent memorial to all those brave students whose lives were so tragically cut short during the battle of Okinawa.