Janice Suetomi still remembers the stench of dead soldiers piled up in the cave where she and others hid from the Allied forces during World War II.
“It was a horrible smell,” she said through a translator.
After 64 years of living in silence, 80-year-old Suetomi recounted her tale of survival Monday night at the Jikoen Hongwanji temple in Kalihi as part of the Ukwanshin Kabudan Ryukyu Performing Arts Group’s presentation of the atrocities committed at the Battle of Okinawa. “It’s not something I want to remember,” she said, “but it needs to be remembered and talked about.”
A documentary, called Testimonies of the Battles of Okinawa began the event by summarizing the atrocities that occurred in the Pacific theater from March through June 1945, which, because of the sheer amount of warfare and death, has been called the “Typhoon of Steel.”
It was on these tiny scattered islands that the Allied forces launched their greatest amphibious assault in the Pacific and commenced their last pitched battle of the war. And, according to the film, it was where the Japanese emperor fortified the island for what he knew would be, at best, a pyrrhic victory.
Suetomi, who is slight yet energetic, recalled her time as one of the Himeyuri, a group of teenaged high school students from northern Okinawa who served as nurses during the battle. She had been living in a dormitory, and the Japanese government told the students to say goodbye to their principal and teachers. “The only thing we were told to bring were pictures of our families,” she said. About 300 of them were shipped to help care for the wounded, even though none of them had any training.
The ensuing 82 days of unrelenting carnage was recalled with a keen attention to detail by the octogenarian. Suetomi remembered how she and the other Himeyuri had to bandage the soldiers whose wounds were covered with maggots. They helped them use the bathroom, fetched water, and cooked food outside the camps, which was very dangerous. In “Testimonies of the Battles of Okinawa,” survivors recalled seeing students’ faces riddled with bullet holes and others who were burnt alive from napalm blasts.
“The stench of corpses cannot be removed from your memory,” said Jamie Oshiro, an Okinawan history enthusiast who helped Suetomi share her story. “You could hear the maggots munching on the bodies. It’s the worst nightmare you can imagine.”
While the barbarity of the Allied attacks are well-known, there are still many underreported accounts of Japanese cruelty toward the Okinawans. The documentary cited widespread cases of rape and instances of soldiers using civilians as human shields. Suetomi also remembers soldiers feeding civilians milk that some say was laced with cyanide so they would have fewer people to feed.
Another memory stands out. As the Allied forces took the upper hand in securing the island, the Japanese army and many of the civilians retreated to caves. The American-led infantry drew dangerously close to their hideout, and, at a critical moment, a baby began to cry. A soldier shoved a cloth into his mouth. He stopped breathing and died.
Most notorious among atrocities were the Japanese orders for the Okinawans to commit suicide rather than be captured. “They were told they must die for the emperor,” Jamie Oshiro said. “They were brainwashed.” According to the documentary, the Japanese threatened that the Americans would rape and torture them and bring shame to their families and country. Many Okinawans were given two grenades: one to throw at the enemy and the other to blow themselves up.
One day Suetomi and other Himeyuri heard the sounds of soldiers and other civilians setting grenades upon themselves. Her group had decided to to do the same—until one woman talked the others out of it. “I was lucky I had a good teacher around that day,” Suetomi said. “He said, ‘You can die anytime, but to spend time with your family is more valuable.’” Instead, they surrendered to the Allied forces.
For those who were taken prisoner, the Japanese threats of impending rape and torture by the enemy were unfounded. The Americans fed them rice, allowed them time to shower, and provided fresh changes of clothes, which was a godsend, given that their ragged garbs were infested with lice. Suetomi was then taken back to her home province and reunited with her family.
Of the 300 Himeyuri sent to the battlefields, only a third survived. Many were killed by American forces during the three months of nonstop mortar and gunfire. Others committed suicide. The civilian loss of life at the Battle of Okinawa numbered well over 100,000, exceeding the number of immediate deaths that followed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
But now a different battle continues—one over the history books. “Only now is the Japanese government considering revising their textbooks,” Oshiro said, noting that the government has never formally acknowledged its role in the proliferation of the murder-suicides. “Now it’s your job to tell people what really happened,” she told the audience.
Suetomi says she did not come forward after all these years to stir up hatred toward the Japanese. “It needs to be said and it needs to be told so that it does not happen again,” she said. “I work for peace and understanding. That’s what I’m committed to here.”