Okinawa nurse recalls WWII's darkest hour

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Kiku Nakayama takes students to a bunker where her classmates died in Itoman. “In our backpacks, we always kept cubes of brown sugar to stay alive, and grenades to die,” she told them. Photos by Yuki Kataoka
Kiku Nakayama takes students to a bunker where her classmates died in Itoman. “In our backpacks, we always kept cubes of brown sugar to stay alive, and grenades to die,” she told them. Photos by Yuki Kataoka

Okinawa nurse recalls WWII's darkest hour

by: Yuki Kataoka | .
The Japan News/Yomiuri | .
published: June 12, 2015

ITOMAN – “I thought I’d be better off dead, but I was too scared to use a grenade,” recalled 86-year-old Kiku Nakayama, her voice echoing throughout a gama, Okinawa dialect for natural cave, in Itoman, a city in the southern part of Okinawa Island.

During the last years of World War II, Nakayama was a member of Shiraume Gakuto-tai, a female nursing unit that tended to sick and injured soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. The unit comprised 56 students of the then Okinawa prefectural Dai-ni Koto Jogakko, a girls high school. Twenty-two of the women were killed in the fierce fighting.

For the past two decades, Nakayama has passed on her firsthand account of the war to subsequent generations. On the day I visited, she was talking to members of the nonprofit International Volunteer University Student Association. The students had come to the bunker in Itoman to excavate remains of those who died in the war.

“In this bunker, six of my classmates killed themselves by drinking poison,” Nakayama said. “Nearby, four people were killed by flamethrowers and other U.S. weapons.”

The students listened intently to the former nurse as she calmly recounted these harrowing experiences. It was the third occasion on which they had worked to recover remains of the war dead in Okinawa Prefecture.

One of the students was Momoe Sano, a 19-year-old sophomore at Toyo University whose great-grandfather died in the Battle of Okinawa. “We have no direct experience of war, so all we can do is to be accurately informed and convey the facts,” said Sano, wiping away sweat with her muddy hands.

Observing remains that the students had found, Nakayama said in a choked voice, “I’m sorry we kept you waiting so long.”

“It’s my mission to keep sharing my experiences with others as long as my health allows,” she said before leaving the bunker, walking with the aid of a cane.

Nakayama was 16 when she left the battlefield at the end of World War II. Seventy years have passed since then, and there is very little time left to hear the stories of those who experienced the war firsthand and carry on their wishes.

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