Thirteenth in a series
Hideko Yoshimura was 19 and in high school in Okinawa when she was drafted as a student nurse in March 1945. She had no doubt that serving her country was the right thing to do.
Today, Yoshimura, a survivor of the Himeyuri Student Nurse Corps who witnessed the bloody Battle of Okinawa, strongly believes it was the education system that misled Japan into waging the war.
“We grew up during wartime and received an education whose goal was to nurture people willing to die for the country and for the Emperor. And we believed that Japan was fighting a holy war that was to bring happiness to all Asian people,” the 82-year-old Yoshimura said. “But there is no such thing as a noble war. What we experienced in Okinawa was madness, and it was miserable beyond description.”
Yoshimura was one of 222 female high school students mobilized for the Himeyuri Student Nurse Corps late that March as the battle began. Led by 18 teachers, the students aged 15 to 19 from two schools comprised the largest nursing unit of its kind in Okinawa.
During the battle, involving the biggest amphibious assault against Japan in World War II, about 200,000 lives were lost, including 120,000 civilians, or roughly one-third of the local population, as well as 15,000 American soldiers. Among the Himeyuri unit, 123 students and 13 teachers were killed.
The Imperial army began training the local high school girls in late 1944. Yoshimura and other students were taught at the Haebaru Field Army Hospital how to administer injections and other rudimentary nursing care.
When they were officially mobilized on March 23, 1945, Okinawa was already under heavy attack. Yoshimura recalls the thunderous U.S. naval bombardment as they left their dormitory for good and headed south to the Haebaru hospital.
The hospital units were located in 50 to 60 caves.
Yoshimura and another student were assigned to one that housed about 30 patients. Many had suffered hideous wounds, including loss of limbs. Some had also developed mental disorders. Only two were able to walk unassisted.
After April 1, when U.S. troops began landing, the caves were constantly crammed with wounded soldiers. In an unsanitary environment with few supplies, Yoshimura tended them any way she could, providing what little food and water they could get. Some students had to hold soldiers’ arms and legs as they were amputated.
Yoshimura and her friends barely had time to rest. Yoshimura remembers how most wounds were infested by maggots, and how she had to remove them from under bandages soaked with blood and pus.
Removing corpses from the cave was part of their work as well.
Yoshimura and a colleague put the bodies on a wooden shutter used as a stretcher and brought them to a hilly burial area. Under constant artillery attack, they usually had to hurriedly dig holes, put the bodies in and sprinkle salt to purify them, she said.
At the burial site, Yoshimura would see hair, hands and feet of other bodies sticking out of the ground. Still, she thought it was better than not being buried at all, which was the case with many civilians.
“Whenever I saw dead bodies on the ground, I thought I wanted to die before the others so they could bury me. My fear was to be the last one on Earth,” she said.
The three-month battle raged to its inevitable result. In late May, the Haebaru hospital was relocated farther south as the invasion force advanced. Yoshimura and the other Himeyuri nurses were ordered to join the retreat.
Yoshimura later learned that medical corpsmen gave milk laced with cyanide to 2,000 to 3,000 wounded soldiers left behind.
“The war wasn’t just opposing forces killing each other; it also forced people to kill their own because they were a hindrance,” she said.
On the evening of June 17, Yoshimura was napping in their new cave when she was suddenly awakened by the cries and screams of friends calling for their mothers and teachers. The cave had been hit by an artillery shell. Yoshimura got up to find many patients dead and friends severely wounded.
Miraculously, she was not injured. She was, however, covered with blood from women who cooked for the soldiers who were resting on the bunk above her.
The next day, the Himeyuri unit was disbanded and the students were told they were on their own.
“Everyone was crying,” Yoshimura recalled. “We worked hard to save the lives of the soldiers, believing that our country would win, so we were mortified to learn we had lost and were thrown into the battlefield.”
The nurses had no choice but to leave the caves in small groups because an attack could come at any time. In a group of 12 nurses and a male teacher, Yoshimura, like other civilians and soldiers, fled farther south.
“I thought it was only a matter of time before we were killed. But I decided to live to my limit, and stumbled on.”
As it turned out, the Himeyuri nurses suffered most of their casualties after they were sent out from the caves, Yoshimura said.
During their flight, she heard the U.S. warships calling on the Okinawans to surrender. Leaflets stated that the battle was over and it was wiser for them to surrender and help the country rebuild.
A week later, the group was hiding near Cape Kyan, on the southern tip of Okinawa, when they were surrounded by U.S. troops.
“We decided to kill ourselves with a hand grenade, because being taken prisoner was a disgrace not just to ourselves but to our families,” Yoshimura said. They had been told that captured women would be raped and murdered.
As they were about to pull the pin, however, their teacher, Seizen Nakasone, stopped them. He went to communicate with the Americans, who urged them to surrender so they could get water and food. Nakasone wanted to save his students.
“Our teacher told us that we could die anytime we choose to, but it wasn’t the time yet. He told us that if something was wrong, he would give a signal for us to jump off the cliff we were near,” Yoshimura said.
She left the grenade behind when they surrendered, but she was reluctant to give up and considered killing herself. But when she looked down the cliff, she thought that if she jumped, it wouldn’t be fatal.
About 50 people, including the students, had surrendered. After they were gathered in one spot, a Japanese soldier disguised as a woman suddenly committed suicide with a grenade. In the tense atmosphere, the captors ordered all male prisoners to take off their shirts.
At that point, Yoshimura noticed a little boy beside a U.S. soldier. He was crying for his father as he tugged on the soldier’s trousers. Yoshimura was frightened for the boy’s life as she thought the soldier would shoot him.
Instead, she saw the soldier smile at the boy and sang softly, “don’t cry baby, don’t cry baby.” Believing that Americans were demons, Yoshimura was shocked to see they, too, were human.
As a survivor, Yoshimura, who now lives in Kanagawa Prefecture, has a strong sense of mission and shares her experiences in schools and public gatherings.
“We received education that hid the truth from us, and so we didn’t know the truth. That prevented us from making the right decisions,” she said. “What we experienced should not happen again, and I want the young people today to see through to the truth.”
Reflecting on how talk of revising the Constitution, including Article 9, which renounces war, has died down since Shinzo Abe quit as prime minister in September, Yoshimura also stressed the importance of choosing politicians carefully.
“Politics influence education, so it’s very important for adults to exercise their voting rights and choose politicians who will establish a government that cherishes peace,” she said. “Even if I make efforts to convey my experiences, my power is limited. But politicians have the power to make the public’s life happy or tragic.”
In this series, we interview witnesses of Japan’s march to war and its crushing defeat who wish to pass on their experiences to younger generations.