The Okinawa Army Hospital Unit 18803 was organized within the 32nd Imperial Japanese Army forces in Kumamoto in 1944. Although medical activities started in Naha in June of that year, allied aircraft carrier attacks of 10/10 (as they are known to history) destroyed the hospital facilities, which forced a move of the hospital to the Haebaru National Elementary School building. Soon thereafter, under guidance of the 32nd Army’s Engineering Unit, approximately 30 cave tunnels were dug into Aza Kyan and Aza Kanegusuku.
In late March 1945, allied naval bombardment forced the abandonment of all the regular facilities, and the entire operation was moved into the cave system. The hospital was staffed by approximately 350 surgeons, nurses and hospitalmen, who were augmented by 222 female high school students from the First Prefectural Girl’s High School (Himeyuri Gakuto), who trained and served as nursing aids under the guidance of 18 of their teachers. The director of the hospital was Hiroike Bunkichi.
Although initially organized into three departments of Infectious Diseases, Surgery, and Internal Medicine, after allied forces landed on the first of April, 1945, the hospital reorganized all the wards into the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Surgical Departments due to the sharp increase in battle-related injuries requiring emergency intervention.
By the end of May, allied forces had pushed the Japanese far to the south of Okinawa, and the decision was made for all Japanese forces to retreat to the Mabuni area to make a last, protracted stand. The order was sent to the hospital to disband and move all ambulatory patients by foot. Those that could not travel were given potassium cyanide in their milk, and, as the museum’s brochure in English states, “…and compulsion of self-determination was carried out on this occasion.” The Japanese killed all their seriously ill patients, and I’m not sure if this was out of compassion to end their suffering, or simply an act of murder so that they would not fall into US hands where they could provide military intelligence.
A visit to this sit starts in the Haebaru Town Museum, just west and across a ridge from the tunnel’s entrance. This museum houses a terrific reproduction of the hospital bunker complex, and is designed to give visitors a feel of the conditions at the time. It features replicas of bunk beds (which you can try out), and an operating table as well as artifacts from the original tunnel. Realistic replicas of an Imperial Portrait Shrine and a War Dead Memorial bring visitors to the time of Japanese militarization, begun decades prior to the Battle of Okinawa.
I visited the tunnel during what turned out to be a tropical storm, and I’m happy I did. I think it provided a more realistic experience. To get to the tunnel, you walk along the trace of the old footpath that leads to and from the kitchen area and well which supplied the entire tunnel complex. It has been improved with a modern set of stairs, and thankfully so; moving up and over a substantial ridge would have been otherwise a challenge in the driving wind, rain, and slippery mud-soaked surfaces.
Tunnel #20, the only one reinforced enough to be open to the public, is a man-made tunnel completely dug by hand, measuring roughly 70 meters in length (230 feet) and about 1.8 meters in height and width (a smidgen under 5’11”). It was the main tunnel used by the 2nd Surgical Department, where the eastern half of the tunnel accommodated patients; the central “T” intersection with another tunnel was where most surgeries were performed; and where the western half quartered the staff which worked there.
My guide open the doors to the tunnel, and a river of water greeted us as it was freed to seek itself further down the hill. The cave tunnel was much smaller than I expected and that reproduced in the museum, and I found myself having to at least nod my head downwards, otherwise my hardhat would be riding along the tunnel’s ceiling. Lighting was originally provided by candles spaced quite far apart, today the only light comes from the small flashlights provided with your admission fee, and the passage is at once impedingly dank and dark. The tunnel was leaking everywhere, and water pooled in various depressions along the earthen floor. While some areas have been reinforced with modern construction techniques and materials, much of the tunnel remains bare rock.
Most artifacts have been moved down into the town museum, but there are still some left in place, which are pointed out by the guide. All the remains have been removed and reburied. The one thing missing from the actual tunnel is the missing bunk beds which billeted patients. These “beds” were bare wood planking, just over 35 inches in width. Keep in mind our standard twin size bed is 39 inches…and even kids’ narrow beds are generally 36 inches wide! Each patient got a canteen for water, a small dish for food (which consisted only of rice balls, the size of Ping-Pong balls by the end of the war), and a pot in which to relieve themselves. No light, no padding, no sheets, and probably not a lot of hope.
And after leaving the site, that was the overwhelming emotion with which I was left: hopelessness. While Japan did bring the war on themselves, and there is absolutely no doubt that many Japanese regulars were violent and vicious actors playing their parts in a morally-bankrupt Imperial Japan, I stand by my claim that I wish no one’s son (or daughter) die in conditions or place like this. Do me a favor: if you visit, divorce yourself from whatever prejudice you may hold from your own conditioning, education, and exposure to World War II. Remember, at our cores, there is not much that separates us in our shared human condition. Death is death, and loss is loss, no matter. War is tragedy, and immoral by most any definition.
The town of Haebaru opened the 1st Surgery Tunnel #20 in 2007 as an important cultural asset that serves to educate the public about the misery and tragedy of war, and to protect this history for future generations to learn from. The Hospital Tunnel is open from 0900-1700 by reservation only, and is closed on Wednesdays, and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3). Admission is 200 Yen. Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru-cho, Okinawa 901-1113.
The Haebaru Town Museum is open from 0900-1800, and is closed on Wednesdays and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3). Admission is 300 Yen. Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru Town, Okinawa; Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about this topic here: Okinawa’s Sobering Sick-Wards