MITO, IBARAKI PREF. – Fumiko Nashiro, 87, vividly remembers the leader of the nurse corps she belonged to during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa telling members “not to die but return to your parents and tell the misery of war to future generations.”
Seventy years on since the end of the war, Nashiro believes she was saved by that leader and is resolved to continue conveying Okinawa’s nuchi du takara (life is a treasure) message to young people.
In 1945, the last year of the Pacific War, Nashiro was 18 and a fourth-year student at Sekitoku Women’s High School in Okinawa.
When 25 fourth-year students were formed into the Fuji Gakutotai nursing unit for the Imperial Japanese Army in March 1945, she willingly joined “for the sake of our country,” she recalls.
Some 500 high school girls in Okinawa were mobilized in nine nursing units. Many of those students were killed in the fighting between U.S. forces and the Japanese army. And there were also many who committed suicide — made to believe they would be raped if captured by American soldiers.
About 190 of the 500 perished on the southern part of the main island of Okinawa. But only three died in Nashiro’s unit, and she attributes that to their leader’s message.
Nashiro says her unit was mobilized, after very brief training, to work at a field hospital in a bunker in Tomigusu on Okinawa Island. The hospital was filled with soldiers suffering from tetanus, typhoid and other diseases.
While assignments given to the students included carrying away cans of bodily waste from patients for disposal, they saw maggot-infested wounds and heard the screams of fever-wracked soldiers, who sometimes died without anyone knowing.
One day a bomb exploded near the entry to the bunker, blowing Nashiro to the ground. Though she survived, she has been deaf in her right ear even since.
With the war situation deteriorating day by day, the unit retreated to a bunker in Itoman on the southernmost part of the island. The bombardment continued and Nashiro wished to be hit directly so she would die without suffering. The students were no longer able to care for the wounded brought to the bunker.
Although gas shells were frequently thrown into the bunker, the students endured by putting wet towels over their faces, she recalls.
Amid all-out attacks by U.S. forces, the Japanese army issued orders that Fuji Gakutotai and the other nursing units be dissolved in the closing days of the Battle of Okinawa, which raged from March through June 1945. The Fuji unit leader kept members in the bunker until the attack subsided before telling them to disband.
The leader, an army physician, turned down the unit members’ requests for hand grenades to commit suicide. After confirming that the members had safely left the bunker, he killed himself with cyanide.
Nashiro lost her parents, grandfather, an older sister and a younger sister in the Battle of Okinawa. The younger sister joined a nursing unit called Himeyuri Gakutotai, most of whose 222 members died either during attacks or in mass suicides.
Nashiro still regrets that she rejected her mother’s plea to come home, instead of joining the nurse corps.