The room is haunted, of that there is no question. The ghosts, most fuzzy and out of focus, manifest in black and white, gazing outward from the dark recesses of their vault like wallflowers often do, in silence, inanimate and expressing little emotion.
But unlike most paranormal activity that is ultimately debunked, the apparitions of the young girls of the “Lily Corps” are real: striking black and white portraits of all those who died line this gloomy chamber. With each victim is the circumstance of their demise. Visitors can’t help but read about such horrific endings. How their jaws were blown off and they bled out. Or how they were horribly burned by flamethrower, or napalmed in their caves, or how they used hand grenades to kill themselves. It is inconceivable to imagine such fates for these young mostly 15 or 16 year olds given the very promise of youth found indelibly inscribed on each of their faces. And these phantoms, covering three walls of this dark, mournful space, all stare towards the deep recesses of a life-sized diorama of the Himeyuri “Cave of Virgins,” where there were only three survivors out of the nine soldiers, 28 doctors and nurses, eight civilians and 51 student nurses which hunkered down there.
Each of these girls has a story to tell; all we have to do is listen. So many of these young ladies needlessly and tragically either committed suicide or were overcome by the more disgusting realities of war.
The Himeyuri students (ひめゆり学徒隊, Himeyuri Gakutotai), sometimes called “Lily Corps,” was a group of 222 students and 18 teachers of the Okinawa Daiichi Women’s High School and Okinawa Shihan Women’s School formed into a nursing unit for the Imperial Japanese Army during the Battle of Okinawa. Daughters of Okinawa’s privileged class, most hoped to become teachers. But instead they were mobilized by the Japanese army on March 23, 1945, an act which sealed their untimely, unfortunate fates. The name of their unit is derived from one of the schools anthems, “Star Lily” or “Princess Lily,” depending on the source of translation.
At the outset of their mobilization, their spirits were high. After decades of political and militaristic indoctrination in the Imperial Japanese culture of the time, the Okinawans held some notion of nationalism for the Emperor and Empire of the Rising Sun that had plunged the Eastern Hemisphere of the world into brutal conflict starting in the 1930s. In fact, many of the Himeyuri students thought that the Japanese Army would defeat the Allies in a matter of days, and accordingly, brought school books and supplies to ensure their expected graduation later that spring. While the girls (and their teachers) had little military training, hours of nursing indoctrination had replaced subjects such as English, and physical education shifted from learning traditional dances to marching in step over the preceding year.
The Himeyuri Peace Monument and Museum offers a unique and moving window into the lives, struggles and sacrifices of this group of girls, aged 14 to 19 years old, recruited and pressed into service. The museum chronicles the lives, studies, and trials faced by these girls. Caught in the crossfire of raging battles and rampant disease, roughly 200 lost their lives, most in the dark, dank caves which served as shelters, hospitals and fighting positions (often all at the same time) in the southern reaches of Okinawa Island. After visiting, in a very real sense, these young women put faces to all the innocent victims who suffer while fighting someone else’s war, regardless of time or place….
“News of their mobilization to [an] Army Field Hospital had led the students to believe that they would conduct their medical duties in safe wards flying Red Cross flags,” a museum display states. “The reality was that they were thrown into the hellish war front full of oncoming shells and bullets.” During the nearly 3-month-long battle, the Himeyuri students served all along the serpentine front lines performing surgery and other difficult duties. For the duration, most lived deep within improvised and impoverished cave hospitals filled with countless gravely injured and dead soldiers.
The Japanese military, who then held the Okinawans with some measure of disdain, mobilized a huge number of civilians to compensate for their falling ranks. They conscripted Okinawa’s children and elderly for menial labor, where they too were often directly exposed to fatal combat conditions despite their supposed non-combatant nature. To the Okinawans’ credit, they served the Japanese military well and with honor, despite their forced colonization and open discrimination by Japan proper. Okinawa, seen more as a backwards place populated by an unworthy people rather than an integral part of Japan, was largely sacrificed by the Japanese leadership while executing their pointless war of attrition. In that sense, the Japanese military treated Okinawans as outsiders and deemed their safety or needs as blatantly insignificant. Quite surprisingly, many Okinawans continued to enthusiastically assist the Japanese, exactly in the hopes that they would finally and fairly be recognized and in turn treated as true Japanese.
To the Japanese leadership, however, there was no illusion to their sure defeat. After six weeks of fighting on Okinawa, being pushed back further and further south, an “order of dissolution” was issued to the Lily Corps on June 18, 1945. Up until that time, only 19 of the students had been killed, but in the following week after being simply told to “go home,” approximately 80% of the girls and their teachers perished. Survivors committed suicide in various ways because of fears of systematic rape by US soldiers, throwing themselves off cliffs, or killing themselves with hand grenades or cyanide poison given them by Japanese soldiers and even their Doctors.
The Himeyuri Monument was built on April 7, 1946, in memory of those from the Okinawan schools who so needlessly and carelessly died. Many survivors of the Lily Corps helped build the facility, and in fact continue to volunteer there today. There are still Himeyuri students alive, but all are now well into their 80s. Sadly, they won’t be with us much longer to offer their firsthand, emotional testimonies to the more horrific nature of war.
Located adjacent to the monument, the Himeyuri Peace Museum compliments the site as a befitting memorial. It was modeled after one of the main school buildings in which many of the girls had once studied. The museum is spread across five different rooms, all which display in chronological order photos, personal mementos, and school documents from well before the battle, moving through the girls’ time spent at the Haebaru Army Field Hospital (read about my visit there here), and finally the circumstance of their demise.
During our visit, we witnessed one of the Himeyuri survivors giving a special talk at a mock-up of the Haebaru’s field hospital. Although we couldn’t understand a word, her animated gesturing coupled with the rhythmic tenor and inflection of her testament helped breathe life into a facility which seems so centered on death and loss. “It was dark and humid and unsanitary. There was no adequate treatment of the wounded; their condition was indescribably bad. All the wounded soldiers were infested with maggots, especially their mouths and ears, and it was our [student nurses] job to remove the maggots from their wounds.” Many of the nursing aids assisted in restraining unanesthesized patients during amputation, and would end their shifts by having to bury the rejected, mangled flesh.
But there are also uncomfortably comical recollections. One survivor recounts her capture: “We were hiding between rocks on a cliff when the enemy found us and started pouring gasoline from above to set it afire. With no other choice but be burned, we climbed the cliff and saw American soldiers pointing their guns at us. It was the first time in my life that I saw blue eyes.”
In retrospect, even the Japanese in charge of their futile defense of Okinawa realized their culpability. Masahide Ota, a high-ranking Japanese Army Officer who survived the battle, claimed, “…had the [Japanese] military regarded non-combatants as coming under their protection, evacuations [of Okinawan civilians] would have been unnecessary and the collective self-killings that took place in the Kerama Islands, Ie-jima, Yomitan, and Mabuni would never have been carried out. In reality, non-combatants were far from being protected by the military. Instead, they found themselves in a situation where they were attacked by tigers at the front gate (the enemy troops) and wolves at the back gate (their own troops).” Similarly, Admiral Ota (no relation), the ranking Japanese Navy Officer on Okinawa, made the suffering and conduct of the Okinawans patently clear in his final telegram to his superiors before he himself committed ritual suicide (read my blog about the Japanese Naval Underground). He pleaded that the Okinawans be not just remembered for their unwavering support even in the face of their grave mistreatment, but that Japan as a nation must see to Okinawa’s future prosperity.
During the 83-day engagement that has come to be called Okinawa’s “Typhoon of Steel, more than 220,000 people were murdered, including a full third of Okinawa’s civilian population (read my blog concerning the nature of the Battle of Okinawa). Himeyuri survivors eagerly volunteer as they feel it’s their “…duty to tell people of the reality of war, the brutality and stupidity of war. It is our duty to speak for our friends who fell in the war and to repose their souls.”
Although literally over 1000,000 Okinawans died here in 1945, it is the deaths of around 200 teenage girls that have captured hearts and speak volumes. The Lily Corps will always reflect the faces of daughters, sisters, and friends, all of whom hold happy hopes and destined dreams of the future. The Himeyuri students will always remind us of the preciousness of life, that no one should be mistreated, cast away, and killed as if they were inconsequentially expendable. “Collateral damage,” the sterile and unknowing cliché under which civilian deaths are so easily categorized and brushed aside in our modern times, falls so very short of capturing the true impact of conflict in terms of aggregate human suffering and loss. Memorials are often about numbers in literal sense, or display innumerable names displayed for public contemplation. The Himeyuri Peace Monument and Museum, however, offers a haunting humanization of the true reality of war: pain, suffering, loss and tragedy.
The girls continue their static stare in my mind’s eye, an uncomfortable confrontation which makes me yearn for peace. I am happy and relieved to be divorced from my role in the US Military, now free to do what I can to repose not just these girls, but for everyone, everywhere, who suffered a violent, untimely end in a needless war.
Himeyuri Peace Monument & Museum
Address: 671-1 Aza Ihara, Itoman city, Okinawa
Hours: 9:00 AM – 5:30 PM
Admission: Adult 350 yen, High School 200 yen, Elementary 100 yen