NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Eiki Ishikawa was terrified of the heavy U.S. artillery fire whenever he went out to dig for potatoes during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945.
Then in ninth grade, Ishikawa was one of the male students aged 14 to 19 who were mobilized by the Imperial Japanese Army as members of the Tekketsu Kinnotai (Iron and Blood Imperial Corps) after U.S. forces landed on Okinawa Island on April 1, 1945. He was assigned to a kitchen detail.
On the night of April 12, the detail had its first casualties. Two students were killed by a shell that hit the unit’s two-story wooden dormitory in Naha. Looking at their bodies, Ishikawa thought: “We will all be like them sooner or later.”
Faced with the U.S. bombardment, the Imperial Japanese Army retreated to the southern part of the island.
“I thought of nothing but whether I could survive each day,” said Ishikawa, now 85, adding that he never conjured up images of his family. “I could do no more than protect myself.”
Students and teachers only had salted cabbage and sugar cane to ease their hunger, and had to drink dirty water from the ground. Without extra clothes, lice became another problem.
Shelling continued day and night except for about an hour at lunchtime, and people slept in sitting positions in packed underground bunkers at night.
“I wished for three things before falling asleep — to drink a glass of clean water before death, to spread out on a tatami mat to sleep, and to die painlessly,” Ishikawa said.
Hiding under a tree in Mabuni, in the town of Itoman, in the far south of the island where the last intense fighting occurred in the Battle of Okinawa, Ishikawa saw U.S. soldiers capture Japanese civilians and servicemen. He then threw aside two grenades, including one with which he was supposed to commit suicide, and surrendered.
A total of 1,464 students were drafted into the Tekketsu Kinnotai and other corps, and an estimated 816 of them were killed in the Battle of Okinawa.
“When war occurs, a city with a military base becomes a victim,” Ishikawa said.
With Okinawa hosting more than 70 percent of the U.S. military bases in Japan, Ishikawa is resolved to continue telling young people about his experiences during the war for as long as he is able.