Once I got off the air-conditioned bus, humid air clung to my skin. My T-shirt was moistened with perspiration and drips of sweat poured onto my cheek. The sun beat down upon my head and soon I felt my hair getting hotter. I saw no one on the street, except us; me, my classmates and a teacher. Several tall palm trees were planted along the road and slightly fluttered with a kind breeze. Three or four birds chittered with each other flying high in the blue sky and one cicada chirped alone on one of the palm trees. Down the road about two miles far away, the gorgeous blue ocean sparkled, reflecting the sun. Then, what we saw in front of us was vast sugarcane fields. The gold ears rustled in the mild warm wind from the sea. I felt as if I came to a different country.
It was the summer of my second year of high school. We came to Okinawa on a school trip to learn about war and peace. It was not the first time I came to Okinawa because my father loved to snorkel in Okinawa’s beautiful sea and would often take me there since I was a little kid. I loved Okinawa because I was able to meet cute tropical fish swimming between colorful coral reefs in a transparent sea, and everybody living in this place were so kind and frank as if we already knew each other. Therefore, as usual, I couldn’t stop my heart pumping with fun, expecting to see something special even though we were told to come here to learn history. To be honest, I did not truly realize what we were going to see that time.
After we lined up on the street, grouped with 5 or 6 classmates, several elderly women in their 80s appeared from a narrow path between the sugarcane ears which were taller than them. They slowly walked towards us and greeted us with gentle smiles. They were guides and held helmets for us in their hands. One woman with short gray hair, bent at her back became in charge of our group. She instructed us to put the helmets on and without exchanging few words she returned back through the sugarcane ears with slow but steady steps. We hurried up not to lose her out of our sights. After walking 10 minutes or so, we reached a little hill with a giant tree. Grasses and bushes were growing thickly around the hill and tangled ivies were climbing over the trunk of the majestic tree. Suddenly, a cold breeze touched my face. Surprisingly, there was a hole about 1 meter across with tiny stairs under the tree. Guided by the elderly woman, we were carefully going down the hole in one line.
There I saw a huge cave. It was so large and dark that we couldn’t see the end of it. Our chatting voices echoed a bit but were instantly absorbed into darkness. Having looked up, decades of pointed stalactites grew from the ceiling of rock, and sometimes water ran down its surface and dropped about 15 meters to the ground. The guide told us that this cave continued 260 meters long to the end. I was impressed with how this huge natural cave was shaped by the ebb and flow of the ocean for a long time. However, this cave had another story. Walking deep down the cave, the guide suddenly stopped and started to speak in a low solemn voice. “In 1945, this cave saw hell. Hundreds of people died in this cave.”
Near the end of the World War II, Okinawa experienced a land war, she continued. Tens of thousands of American soldiers landed on the coast with weapons and marched to the city. The middle of Okinawa, Naha, was totally destroyed, so thirty thousand Japanese soldiers and hundreds of thousands of people evacuated from the city to the south, but the rain of shells chased after them and did not allow them all to survive. Some of them were running into this cave and used it as a shelter. The number of people hiding here grew and finally, more than 600 injured Japanese soldiers and hundreds of people were waiting to be rescued with little hope.
At this point, the guide stopped talking at a rapid pace and exhaled with a deep sigh. “I was one of the students group called Himeyuri. We were all 16 or 17-year-old girls working as nurses and ordered to come to this cave and take care of injured soldiers.” She started to talk slowly making sure of her words one by one. “The cave was so unsanitary, and we did not have enough medical equipment. Some soldiers were heavily injured, and their arms and legs began necrotizing. We had to cut them off to stop them from decaying. We carried someone’s arms or legs every day. It was horrible, but we had no choice but to do so. We gradually came to feel nothing.” It seemed that she managed to strain her voice. I noticed her hands were trembling.
In the middle of the cave, the guide instructed us to take each other’s hands. Then she turned off her flashlight. Immediately darkness surrounded me, and I could see nothing at all. A chilly breeze stung my skin. I felt a shiver down my spine. I could hear nothing but the drops falling from the stalactites. Silence pierced my ears. It was only a warm palm that tied me to the reality. If I had let go of my friend’s hand, loneliness and fear must have swallowed me at once. I imagined the feeling of soldiers who died here. I imagined the feeling of people who waited for help they didn’t know if and when it would come. How about those who wanted to live but were abandoned? How about their parents and children? Why am I here right now? Why am I alive? Groaning came from the bottom of the cave. Screaming split the air. The smell of decaying human bodies assailed my nostrils. I heard someone shed tears. I was at a loss for words. I could not stand anymore.
During the war, people in Okinawa believed that brutal American soldiers would do something too cruel and slaughter them all if they were captured. This was the result of the Japanese military education which planted the fear and shame of being left from death in people’s minds. They were delivered hand grenades and told to choose death when they had no way to run. The guide told us that she saw her friends and teachers take their own life in front of her. The memory of the fragment of their bodies and blood spreading in a puddle haunted her and appeared in her dreams over again and again. She said the war deprived her of humanity or any kind of emotions at that time. The only thing left in her mind was emptiness. She felt deep grief about her past and was still suffering from the feeling of guilty that she survived. Having heard her story, I realized that the war has not ended yet. Her memory was alive. As long as the cave exists, the souls of people living here will tell us stories of themselves.
It was not important that who won and who lost. People who were there in 1945 were all victims of the war and had a fate to live with invisible pain their entire life. I thought I had known the history of Okinawa, but I didn’t. The cold loneliness, the fear of darkness and the suffering face of the guide were what I did not know until I came to the cave. This experience made me notice that the truth was not found by looking at the surface. I should have looked at the background of the facts and tried to understand history from the viewpoint of people across all levels of society.
After going out from the cave, I encountered a vast gold sugarcane field again. Now it looked different to me. Swaying ears in the breeze reminded me of the people with fear running away from the rain of bombs. The sparkling blue ocean I could see far away was gradually dyed with bright red blood in my eyes. Then a sudden rush of wind blowing through the sugarcane woke me. The sun was sizzling hot as usual. The birds were singing as if nothing happened. I was just standing there, without saying any word, feeling powerless.