Kure Maritime Museum: The tragic story of Battleship Yamato


A NOVA episode detailing the story of Battleship Yamato

Ensign Nakatani, of the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II, was the only American aboard the Japanese battleship Yamato when it sank in 1945. As a Nisei, the term for second-generation Americans of Japanese descent, the outbreak of war with the United States in 1941 caught him off-guard as he was studying in Japan. Bilingual and familiar with America, he found himself immediately pressed into service for the Emperor, serving as a translator and codebreaker for the Japanese. Like most Nisei, he was treated with great disdain and suspicion by the ultra-nationalistic Japanese. Nakatani, his communications with his stateside family severed, and was unable to contact his parents or younger brothers. He was alone.

Yamato Scale Model

Yamato Scale Model

Only as he departed from the Japanese city and shipyards of Kure on the Yamato‘s last mission did Nakatani reportedly receive his first and only family contact during the entire War. A single letter, from his mother, written years earlier had meandered through the channels of the International Red Cross, finally finding its way to him in Japan via Switzerland. The letter read, in part, “We are fine. Please put your best effort into your duties. And let’s both pray for peace.”

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, ship model on display WM

But peace was not to come in time for Nakatani. According to Yamato survivor Mitsuru Yoshida’s memoirs in Requiem for Battleship Yamato, Nakatani was inconsolable, knowing he would never live to see his family again. Such tragic stories are solemnly told in the Kure Maritime Museum, more commonly known as the “Yamato Museum,” located in Kure, Japan.

Triple 25mm Anti-Aircraft Mount

Triple 25mm Anti-Aircraft Mount

Yamato under Construction

Yamato under Construction

Yamato (大和) was the lead ship of the Yamato class of Imperial Japanese Navy World War II battleships. During the 1930s, as the Japanese became ultra-nationalist with views to expand their Empire, new designs for heavy fighting ships were begun. The Japanese recognized that they would simply be unable to match the output of U.S. war machine once war broke out, so these massive vessels were designed to engage multiple enemy battleships at the same time, and engage them first with very long-range guns. She and her sister ship, Musashi, were the heaviest and most powerfully armed battleships ever constructed, displacing 72,800 tons and armed with a main battery of nine 18.1 inch main guns, the largest caliber naval artillery ever fitted to a warship, which gave the ships an unmatched range 26 miles. Formidable by any standard, by 1945 her secondary battery comprised six 6.1 inch and twenty-four 5 inch guns. For more close-in defense against aircraft, Yamato carried an astounding 162 anti-aircraft guns of 25mm! Despite this protection, neither ship survived the war.

18 inch Main Battery and Scout Floatplane

18 inch Main Battery and Scout Floatplane

Yamato Underway

Yamato Underway

Laid down in 1937 and formally commissioned a week after Pearl Harbor in 1941, she served as the flagship during the Battle of Midway, a disastrous defeat for Japan in the middle of 1942. After the initiative of the war in the Pacific shifted to the Americans, the battleship remained in the vicinity of the Japanese-held Island and anchorage of Truk for much of 1943-1944, and played little part in any battle of significance. Yamato fired her main guns at American surface ships only once in late 1944 with little effect.

Massive 1:10 Scale Model

Massive 1:10 Scale Model

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, scale model from the stern WM1945 saw the Japanese suffering a crippling loss of fuel oil, raw materials, and general supplies, and in a desperate attempt to slow the Allied advance on the Japanese “home” islands, Yamato was dispatched on a one-way mission to Okinawa with orders to beach herself and fight until destroyed. Allied forces invaded Okinawa on 1 April 1945, and facing American boots on Japan soil proper, the imperial war machine responded in desperation with a mission codenamed “Operation Ten-Go” that would see the suicidal commitment of much of the remaining strength of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Yamato and nine escorts (one cruiser and eight destroyers) would sail to Okinawa and, in concert with kamikaze and Okinawa-based army units, attack the Allied forces assembled on and around Okinawa. Yamato would then be beached to act as an unsinkable gun emplacement and continue to fight until destroyed. In preparation for the mission, Yamato was fully stocked with ammunition, but not enough fuel for a return voyage. Designated the “Surface Special Attack Force,” the ships sortied on the afternoon of April 6th, 1945, the same day the USS Emmons was sunk by kamikazes off Okinawa’s Motobu peninsula (see my blog Wreck of the USS Emmons for more).

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, scout float-plane on the Battleship Yamato WM

The Yamato’s task force, however, was spotted by an American sub as it sailed south of Kyushu, and on April 7th, 1945, she was sunk by American carrier-based aircraft with the loss of vast majority of her crew.

Crews of these exposed gun positions suffered greatly.

Crews of these exposed gun positions suffered greatly.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, Japanese standard on the bow WMThe Allies had been decoding Japanese radio traffic for some time, and were well aware of Japan’s intent. Further, numerous American submarines spotted the Special Attack Force as it sailed south, but were unable to attack due to the ships’ high speed evasive maneuvering. They were, however, able to radio position, course and speed to the American fleet waiting to the south. With these reports, the Allied forces around Okinawa began to brace for the Special Attack Force’s assault by placing six battleships, seven cruisers and twenty-one destroyers on alert to intercept Yamato if aircraft-carrier based planes were unable to stop the group from reaching vulnerable Allied transports and landing craft.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, admiring the ship's model WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, armed Japanese Zero WMYamato’s crew was at general quarters and ready for action as dawn broke over cloudy skies on April 7th, 1945, only a day out of port. The first Allied scout aircraft made contact with Battleship Yamato at 8:23am, catching glimpses of their bright wakes playing peek-a-boo through the clouds. The group of ships was then shadowed by the America aircraft for the next few hours as the Allied Fleet Carriers readied their aircraft for strikes. At around 10:00am that morning, Yamato held radar contact with the first wave of Allied attack planes, American F6F Hellcat fighters which were sent to sweep the skies over the battleship clear of Japanese aircraft. The Yamato and her escorts, however, were sent without air cover.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, bow on Yamato scale model WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, 13mm aircraft machine gun WMAt about 12:30pm, a large raiding force of 280 bomber and torpedo aircraft arrived to stop the Yamato’s advance. As the Yamato increased speed to 24 knots and her destroyers closed to provide anti-aircraft fire, the Allied attack started at 12:37pm. The Yamato initially remained unscathed, throwing up an almost impenetrable wall of large and small-caliber defensive fires. But at 12:41pm, time quickly ran out for the proud ship. Two bombs obliterated two of her triple 25 mm anti-aircraft mounts and blew a hole in her deck, where fires started and raged. A third bomb exploded in quick succession, destroying her radar room and more of her secondary battery. Within minutes, two more bombs struck the battleship’s port side, causing significant damage to the ship’s main battery guns.

The Museum also has a beautiful Japanese Zero

The Museum also has a beautiful Japanese Zero

Yamato under Attack

Yamato under Attack

As the dive bombers attacked from almost directly overhead, the torpedo bombers started their attack runs at near sea level height. Splitting the ship’s defensive fire, already greatly reduced by exploding bombs, four torpedoes ran home and struck Yamato, damaging this ship’s boilers, engines and steering gear. The attacking swarm spent, the aerial assault ended as quickly as it started at around 12:47pm. In ten short minutes, explosion after explosion left the battleship listing 5–6° to port and on fire, her top speed significantly reduced, and with most of her unprotected 25mm anti-aircraft crews killed or wounded.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, battleship scale model 3 WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, ship model WMThe ship was now easy to find, a thick plume of black smoke beckoning other approaching waves of aircraft. Suffering reduced maneuverability and sharply curtailed anti-aircraft capability, the second wave of Allied planes found a much easier target. Starting at just before 1:00pm, the Americans again swarmed the battleship, attacking simultaneously from above and on level from all directions. Three or four torpedoes found their marks, their massive explosions furthered reducing steam to the ship’s engines and dramatically increasing flooding. Yamato was now listing perilously 15–18° to port, but the ship’s crew was able to counterflood and reduce the list to 10°. Although the ship had so far absorbed a massive amount of punishment, she was still in no real danger of sinking.

The Museum also holds many other Traces of War like this midget submarine

The Museum also holds many other Traces of War like this midget submarine

Yamato Hit by a Bomb

Yamato Hit by a Bomb

Still a third attack wave was launched and struck beginning at about 1:40pm that afternoon. At least four bombs hit the ship’s superstructure and caused heavy casualties among Yamato’s remaining 25 mm anti-aircraft gun crews. More serious though were four more torpedo impacts, resulting in flooding that was almost uncontrollable. With the auxiliary steering room now completely flooded, the ship lost all maneuverability and became stuck in a starboard turn. Yet the ship and her crew fought on.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, heavy caliber deck guns B&W WM

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter 5 WMThe fires and flooding began to take their tool, and by about 2pm that afternoon, the ship could only make 10 knots through the water with a steadily increasing list. Fires forward near the ship’s main battery raged out of control, and alarms were sounding about temperatures in the ship’s magazine. At 2:02pm, the order was given to abandon ship since the crew was unable to flood the vital and dangerous ammunition storage areas to keep them from exploding.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, crew and idle guns WM

Yamato Explodes

Yamato Explodes

The final assault began at 2:05pm. Torpedo bombers once again scored more hits. The battleship continued her inexorable roll to port, losing all power 2:20pm. Three minutes later, Yamato capsized, and as she rolled, one of the two bow magazines detonated in a tremendous explosion, resulting in a mushroom cloud almost four miles high that was seen for hundreds of miles. Yamato sank rapidly, quickly killing over 3,000 of her crew. Only 269 sailors survived the onslaught, while the Allies lost only ten aircraft and twelve airmen in the attack.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, breech of a heavy naval gun WM

Kure 2015, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Museum, Akishio SS-579 crewmember volunteer WMKure 2015, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Kure Museum, Akishio SS-579 submarine made by Mitsubishi WMIn 2005, the “Yamato Museum” was opened near the site of the former Kure shipyards where the battleships were built. The centerpiece of the museum, occupying a large section of the first floor, is an almost 90 foot long model of Yamato at an amazing 1:10 scale. For naval historians and those interested in learning about how such engineering genius and manufacturing acumen could result in such tragic circumstances, this museum is a must-see. Although a small fee is charged, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Kure Museum, located right across the street, is totally free. The two museums complement each other in dramatic fashion, and make for a wonderful day of discovering Japanese Traces of War.

The JMSDF Museum right across the street! It's free.

The JMSDF Museum right across the street! It’s free.

When you do visit, please take a moment or two to contemplate and honor Nakatani’s fate. Born in a different time, place, and circumstance, we all could have suffered the same, as many do today.

Kure 2015, Kure Maritime (Yamato) Museum, enjoying the Yamato museum together

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/supership/producer.html

WWII Photos used licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Traces of War: The Voices of Fukuro-machi Elementary School


“This peace museum is located in a preserved section of Fukuro-machi Elementary School’s west building, an A-Bombed building. Its precious exhibits – notably messages scrawled on walls communicating the whereabouts of survivors – starkly convey the situation at the school when it served as a relief station immediately following the bombing.”  ~ Museum Placard

The preserved section of the original school, surrounded by the new.

The Preserved Section of the Original, Surrounded by the New.

August 6, 1945 began with a beautiful sunrise for Hiroshima’s many sleepy residents. Air raid alarms, warning of enemy planes and potential attack, had sounded on and off throughout the previous night, forcing much of the city to hide in shelters again and again. There was little time for sleep.

The threat of bombing subsided as the bright morning sun rose in the east, and the “all-clear” signal was finally given at 7:31 A.M. Those in air raid shelters and evacuation areas started to make their way home, some even going directly to work or their mobilization sites.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum, exploring the preserved messages from the past WM

Hiroshima was in the process of preparing itself against the massive fire-bombing that her sister cities had suffered. In the city center, various large-scale building demolition projects were underway, designed to create firebreaks and provide escape routes. Work for most started at about 8:00 A.M., and this day was no different.

Except for the blast that leveled the city which occurred just 15 minutes later….

The Gutted School as a Aid and Rescue Station

The Gutted School as a Aid and Rescue Station

The Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum (袋町小学校平和資料館) is located in Hiroshima, just across the river from the city’s more famed Peace Memorial Park. At the time of the bombing, it was one of the closest schools to the bomb’s hypocenter – only the Honkawa was closer (see Honkawa Peace Museum for more on that school). Exposed to the massive effects of the blast, heat rays, and radiation only 460 meters from ground zero, about 160 students and teachers at the school were killed while the school was heavily damaged. Three students miraculously survived, having been by chance in a sheltered part of the basement at the time of the bombing. Luckily for the community, most of the school’s pupils had previously been evacuated to the surrounding countryside.

Message in a Bottle

Message in a Bottle

The western wing, the one where the present-day museum is housed, was completed in 1937, and its three stories were made of reinforced concrete and included a completed basement and flush toilets, all quite modern for the time in Japan. Most of the school had collapsed and burned to ashes, being mostly made of wood. But because the newer, reinforced concrete western wing of the school survived the blast, the day after, August 7, 1945, the gutted hulk of the school became a first aid station.

Dr. Ota, a Female Eye Doctor, does what she can....

Dr. Ota, a Female Eye Doctor, does what she can….

“For a treatment table, we put desks together. When we peeled the long bandages from the patients’ wounds, their pain was excruciating. We got those who were relatively healthy to slowly pull their own bandages off, but we had to do it for the more seriously wounded. The procedure was so difficult and painful it make many scream and cry. We applied ointment to their faces and cut the gauze to the size of their heads. Then we cut holes with scissors for their eyes, nose and mouth. Where there were signs of festering, we applied mercurochrome.” ~ Masayuki Okita

Museum Displays

Museum Displays

There were, however, only two nurses and doctors available to treat the wounded and dying, and almost no medicines. Finally, on August 20, 1945, a regional medical team moved in, and by this time, the school had become a key base of operations for relief activities throughout the city. The school’s role in rescuing and treating survivors was significant.

Voices from the Past Echo across the Generations

Voices from the Past Echo across the Generations

“Our examination rooms was a tiny space under the stairs. The classrooms had all become hospital “wards.” On the second floor were the hygiene section and general affairs. I don’t have accurate numbers for patients treated, but it was probably around 350. Most of those were badly burned over their entire bodies. We could hardly stand to look at them. The wounded were everywhere, completely filling the classroom floors. They had other wounds as well. ~ Dr. Hagi Ota

A Plaster Cut-Out showing the Negative of the Original

A Plaster Cut-Out showing the Negative of the Original

But what really makes this place uniquely sobering is that the schools soot-covered walls and charred blackboards had, at the time, became message boards for those in desperate search of their loved ones. In this regard, not only is the building a direct surviving relic of the atomic explosion, its walls today still carry the loud and tragic voices of the past. As a place of refuge, people began to leave messages on the burned walls using pieces of chalk which were scattered on the floor.  Contemplating the undecipherable characters as the lone visitors to the museum on a late weekday afternoon, I swear I could hear the cries and pleas of their authors….

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings and rememberance WM

“Patients had survived 12 days since the bombing and had received what treatment was available. They had regained some emotional composure. Very few were crying or screaming, but they were suffering quietly with terrible pain and anxiety. Many were on the brink of death. This much had not changed.” ~ Masayuki Okita

The Walls in 1945 and Today

The Walls in 1945 and Today

With each passing day after Hiroshima was leveled, more and more people frantically searched for missing children, spouses, siblings, coworkers and friends. Most were hoping to find someone alive, but all were hoping at least to recover remains to bring home, which in most cases was simply no possible since people were reduced to ash, swept downriver, burnt beyond recognition, or otherwise disposed of by rescue teams. But still those left behind held out hope. And they continued to scrawl messages on the walls of the school in the hopes of reuniting with the missing, be they alive or dead.

Messages Recovered from Time

Messages Recovered from Time

“One of the strangest by common sights was patients with maggots in their facial burns. The maggots crawled from their eyelids onto their eyeballs. There were tragic scenes of childbirth. Every day, many patients died. The playground became a crematory. The ashes were placed into wooden boxes. If their names were known, they were written on pieces of paper and posted on the wall above the box. When people would come looking for relatives and found their names, we would give them some of the ashes from the box with that name on it….” ~ Atomic Bomb Survivor

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuromachi Elementary School Peace Museum, stairwell message from the past 2 WM

Those messages, however, were lost to time when the building was repaired, having been plastered or painted over. In March 1999, when plans were being explored for preserving a section of the original building as an atomic bombing peace memorial, messages beneath plaster and paint were discovered. It seems that although plaster absorbed both chalk and soot alone, when chalk is placed on top of soot, only the chalk is absorbed, leaving behind in effect a “negative” of the original message. This find launched a full-scale investigation of the entire west building, which recovered many more messages. These desperate and often sad messages from the past became the central element of the now-altered plans for a moving peace museum.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings and rememberance 2 WM

Some of those original messages left by survivors who scribbled in chalk on the soot-blackened walls of the school can still be seen today in the museum which opened in a preserved section of the school in 2002 (the rest of the building has been replaced with modern construction). The photo overlays of the messages seen today on the walls of the museum were taken in October 1945, about two months after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Cutouts in the existing wall’s plaster reveal portions of the messages still preserved underneath. In the basement are doors and windows on display that were damaged in the blast of August 6th.

Origami Peace Offerings

Origami Peace Offerings

The museum provides very good English translations of Japanese placards. There are numerous survivor testimonials, many focused on the role of the school as an aid station in the days and weeks following the bombing. The museum here is modern and well-appointed offering multi-media presentations, much more so than that found at Honkawa.

Preserved Portions

Preserved Portions

But while this peace museum is informative and moving, the museum structure itself well isolated from the school still active on the site. What is missing here is hope in the form of life always finds a way, the most precious facet of our shared human existence that is so readily apparent at Honkawa museum with the sights and sounds its happy school children hurrying about.

Hiroshima 2015, Fukuro-machi Elementary School Peace Museum, peace offerings WM

Still, this site offers a much more personal focus on the tragedy and human suffering resulting from the city’s atomic bombing. Rather than talk in generic numbers that are almost unimaginable, many first-hand accounts are offered to help those visiting contemplate and understand such horrors. Much like a visit to Honkawa, a brief stop here is really every bit as important as visiting the crowded park and museum just a few blocks away.

Always Choose Peace

Always Choose Peace

For More Information:

Address: 〒730-0036 6-36 Fukuro-machi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima City

Phone: 082-541-5345 Hours: 09:00 – 17:00, closed Dec. 28 – Jan. 4

Admission: FREE!

Web: http://www.fukuromachi-e.edu.city.hiroshima.jp/shiryoukan-index.htm

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Fukuromachi-Elementary-School-Peace-Museum/111874765496586

Okinawan Traces of War: Lily Corps, The Himeyuri Schoolgirls


Haunting Apparitions

Haunting Apparitions

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.

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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.

The Cave of Virgins at the Himeyuri Monument

The Cave of Virgins at the Himeyuri Monument

 

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.

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Survivors Today

Survivors Today

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.

Prewar Group Photo and a Cave of their Demise

Prewar Group Photo and a Cave of their Demise

Indoctrination:  Bowing to an Alter of a portrait of the Emperor of Japan.

Indoctrination: Bowing to an Alter of a portrait of the Emperor of Japan.

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.

Beautiful Tickets

Beautiful Tickets

Carry provisions to the hospitals.

Carry provisions to the hospitals.

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….

Remembering the past...Educating for the future....

Remembering the past…Educating for the future….

“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.

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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.

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Origami Cranes

Origami Cranes

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

The Himeyuri Monument

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.

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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.

Girls making rice balls at the Haebaru Field Hospital

Girls making rice balls at the Haebaru Field Hospital

HimeyuriDuring 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.

Mockup of a Haebaru Army Field Hospital Tunnel

Mockup of a Haebaru Army Field Hospital Tunnel

0But 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.”

Admiral Minoru Ota

Admiral Minoru Ota

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.

Okinawa 2014, Navy Underground, the agony of the Okinawan People

7f3d9_himeyuriDuring 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.”

okinawa-himeyuri-museumAlthough 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.

Offerings of Peace

Offerings of Peace

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.

In Happier Times

In Happier Times

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

Web:   www.okinawastory.jp/en/view/portal/0110987100/