WWII's Baby Nurses: Remembering the Himeyuri Students

The haunting portraits of the Himeyuri students displayed at the Himeyuri Peace Museum.
Source: Yahoo! Japan
"Whenever I saw dead bodies on the ground, I thought I wanted to die before the others so they could bury me. My fear was to be the last one on Earth." 
   --Hideko Yoshimura, Himeyuri survivor (Japan Times, 2007)
Although they attended high school in Japan over 70 years ago, the girls of Okinawa Daiichi Women's High School and Okinawa Shihan Women's High School were, in essence, like any other high school girls you'd find in any place at any time. They giggle with their friends, shared secrets, played sports, and studied hard as they worked toward graduation. But unlike many other high school girls, the young women from the two high schools were mad to grow up quickly during the chaos of the last days of World War II. Shooting and basic nursing care lessons progressively took precedence over math and Japanese classes. Eventually, they traded their school uniforms and classrooms for nursing outfits and crude cave clinics. By the end of the Battle of Okinawa, 12,000 American soldiers, 200,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians, and 136 Japanese schoolgirl nurses perished. 

The Iwamakura Monument on which is inscribed
a poem dedicated to the fallen girls written by
Mr. Seizen Nakasone, one of the Himeyuri teachers.
It was erected on April 7, 1946.
Even in the chaos of war, how could those girls have imagined losing their lives in cave bombings? What raced through the minds of those who held grenades to blow themselves up in order to avoid capture? What were the last thoughts of those who leapt off the capes at the southernmost tip of Okinawa island toward an imminent death in the beautiful turquoise ocean? 

And what of the survivors who had no choice but to leave their friends to die and live on with indelible memories of crude surgeries and the smell of death? 

The Himeyuri Peace Museum may not answer these questions for you, but after your visit, you will feel the pain of the Himeyuri or "Lily Corps" girls. You will feel their heartache and the echos of their unfulfilled wishes caused by tragic, untimely deaths. 

Himeyuri was the name given to the military nursing unit formed by 222 students and 18 teachers from the two women's high schools. After training as part of the curriculum in 1944, the girls were sent to the front lines on March 23, 1945 to assist the Imperial Japanese Army. 

Top: The Himeyuri Cenotaph, which was constructed in 1957 and rebuild in 2009. It lists the names of the girls lost during
the Battle of Okinawa.
Below: Ihara Third Surgical Cave, the site where 42 Himeyuri girls perished during a raid on June 19, 1945.
Their remains are entombed behind the cenotaph. 
Before entering the museum, visitors walk though a beautiful garden which includes the site of the Ihara Third Surgical Cave, the actual site where 80 people where killed, 42 of which were Himeyuri students. Chilling and melancholic—yet startling beautiful—the area is certainly a tangible reminder of the cost of war. 

It's also the site where visitors might begin to feel like one of the Himeyuri girls. Out in the gorgeous sunshine, visitors walk into the dimly lit museum. The moody lighting is reminiscent of a cave. 

Opened in 1989, the Himeyuri Peace Museum takes about an hour to digest, and is split into four parts beginning with a general introduction to the girls' lives before the war and the aftermath of the terrible conflict. 

Part 1: Youth of Himeyuri
"We grew up during wartime and received and education whose goal was to nurture people willing to die for the country and for the Emperor. And we believed that Japan was fighting a holy war that was to bring happiness to all Asian people." 
                                             --Hideko Yoshimura, Himeyuri survivor (Japan Times, 2007)
Himeyuri students' personal items.
Source: magazine.japan-jtrip.com
Extremist indoctrination aside, the Himeyuri girls lived normal lives before the Battle of Okinawa. They read comic books and joked with friends between classes. Several items owned by the girls are on display in this section of the museum from combs to diaries. The personal nature of the items further helps readers see the girls as actual people rather than memories.

Part 2: Battlefield of Himeyuri

This section makes it apparent that the girls struggled with coming to grips with reality and their fate. They were tasked by the Japanese Army to perform tasks no human should have to complete in 50-60 sad, unsanitary cave clinics. 

And yet some girls brought their school uniforms and textbooks with them. They still held onto the fading hope of studying and graduating from high school. 

Part 3: Dissolution Instruction and the Wandering of Death

On June 18, 1945, Himeyuri was ordered to disband. The girls were left on their own to fight to live or meet an early death. Many girls fled the caves and were killed by bombs. Others choose suicide to avoid capture and rape by American soldiers (the girls had heard rumors about this). 

Part 4: Requiem

Students examining the testimonies of surviving Himeyuri students in front of the backdrop of the portraits of the dead.
Source: archinet.jp
"I thought it was a matter of time before we were killed. But I decided to live my limit, and stumbled on."
                                             --Hideko Yoshimura, Himeyuri survivor (Japan Times, 2007)
With the pictures of the deceased Himeyuri girls on the walls, visitors are invited to read testimonies from the survivors printed in large books (English and Japanese are available). I read a few pages, then couldn't take anymore. 

When you exit the museum, there is another garden, which gives visitors a perfect area to think and reflect. By the time I left, I was in near tears while the other visitors appeared stoic. Maybe I'm more emotional than the average person, but it was an extremely heart wrenching exhibit. 

This is a must visit for anyone who comes to Okinawa. When it comes to WWII history, it's easy to recall Hitler or the infamous kamikaze fighters. However, like the "Lily Corps" girls, there were many brave souls on both sides of the conflict. They deserved to be remembered.

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