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Himeyuri No To - Remembering the Tragedies of War

By: Jena Maddalino

Date Posted: 2000-06-23

"For those who died and for those who survived." - Himeyuri Alumnae

This Friday, June 23rd, Okinawa Prefecture will honor those who died during the Battle of Okinawa. This annual commemoration, "Irei no hi", as it is called in Japanese, marks the end of the Battle of Okinawa, which lasted for more than 90 days and claimed the lives of more than 200,000 Japanese and Americans, 120,000 of which were Okinawans.

In May of 1945, one of the most tragic events of the battle occurred on Okinawa, claiming the lives of 219 students and teachers. When it was clear that the American forces would soon invade Okinawa, the Japanese forces excellerated the training of young girls from high schools in the prefecture, so that the Japanese would have an ample supply of nurses on the field. When the U.S. forces landed on Okinawa in 1945, the Japanese forces dispatched the young student nurse corps to the battlefield. Even though some of the girls were as young as 14, the Japanese army insisted that they fight for their country.

On March 23rd, 1945, 219 students and 18 teachers of the Okinawa Women's Normal school and the First Prefecturel Girl's High School joined the ranks of the medical units of the Haebaru Army Field Hospital. Additionally, 79 students and 3 teachers were attached to medical units in other areas on the island.

The field hosptial in Haebaru was soon forced to retreat south, and the medical unit was forced underground. Traveling 15 kilometers, the makeshift hospital was moved to Itoman and a series of caves served as the medical unit's surgery, internal medicine and infectious disease wards. With incredible courage and faith in their cause, the girls and their teachers carried out their duties as nurses, tending to the wounded and risking their lives to find food for the Japanese soldiers.

"The youngest of the [medical] ranks were in charge of finding food for the soldiers. They had to exit the cave, amist bombing, in order to cook the food, which was usually just rice. Enough rice was carried each day so that every person received a ping-pong ball size supply," recalled Fumiko Higa, one of the student survivors who now serves as a guide at the museum.

The conditions inside the cave were equally as dangerous and many soldiers carried dysentary, tetanus and their wounds were crawling with maggots, according to the accounts of the survivors.

At he end of May, the Japanese forces disbanded the nurse corps while heavy fighting ensued on the Kyan Peninsula at he southermost tip of the island. The nurses were defenseless, as they were not allowed to surrender. Many were given hand grenades to use if the U.S. forces got to close as it was seen better a choice to commit suicide rather than be captured. The end result led to the deaths of 219 students and teachers.

Years later, their story is still told, as their black and white pictures hang on the walls of the Himeyuri Museum. Etched forever in the memories of those who survived, the museum was built to educate the younger generation about the true tragedy of war and so that the innocent and brave students would not be forgotten. Together with the pictures, are accounts of what the girls witnessed, as well as what they went through as they awaited their deaths in the caves.Video tapes edited from footage shot by American cameramen during the battle are also on display.

Irei no hi will be celebrated this year with ceremonies for the U.S. Military and American communities as well as the Okinawan people, at the Peace Memorial Park, in Itoman city. The first memorial ceremony will be conducted in honor of the American casualties who died in the battle. A service will be held at 10:45 and will include remarks and a wreath presentation. The main ceremony will begin at 11:50 am and both Lieutenant General Earl B. Hailston and United States Consul General Robert S. Luke will be present to pay their respects to the victims.

The Peace Memorial Park and the Himeyuri no to are located in Itoman City, off of Hwy 331. Traveling south on Hwy 58, just past Naha airport, take 331 towards Itoman and follow the signs to the park.

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