IHARA, Okinawa — Ruri Miyara and 50 classmates huddled in the moist darkness, afraid their coughing would give them away.
The Americans had arrived. A soldier near the mouth of the cave was shouting in Japanese, pleading for whoever was inside to come out, please come out. The cave was dangerous, he said over and over, because it was about to blow up.
Then came the explosion, the blur of blood and limbs, the mangled bodies lying on top of each other. And then, the question that has haunted Miyara for the last five decades: Why was she still alive when so many others had died?
Miyara, 68, is one of only three living survivors of the "Cave of the Virgins," an episode in one of the most harrowing chapters of World War II.
Today, she and about 100 other Okinawan women, who were pressed by the Japanese army into service as nurses during the last great battle of the war, approach the 50th anniversary of Okinawa's surrender with no visible bitterness toward those long-ago invaders.
"We do not hate the Americans," she said. "We were given wrong information by the Japanese about Americans and their motives."
Miyara is a diminutive woman with a sweet disposition, seemingly unmarked by the horrors she lived through.
Her story begins in the years preceding World War II, when Japan was at war in China and Southeast Asia. Japanese schoolchildren were increasingly indoctrinated with militarism, emperor worship and their nation's supremacy.
By 1940 on Okinawa, a possession of Japan since the island's annexation in 1879, only children with strong nationalist fervor were admitted into post-elementary schools. These included the 1st Prefectural Girls' High School and the Women's Normal School, both located on the same campus near the capital of Naha and known collectively as the Himeyuri (Star Lily) Student Corps, a name taken from their school song.
By the time the Americans invaded Okinawa on April 1, 1945, the girls had received intensive nursing training and had been assigned to the Haebaru Army Hospital as assistant nurses. As U.S. forces pressed ever closer and the toll of wounded and dying mounted ever higher, the hospital was relocated to a series of caves and tunnels on the southern part of the island.
Inside these dark caverns, filled with suffering and filth and the stench of the living and the dead, the nightmare unfolded for the Star Lily girls.
The survivors tell harrowing stories of maggot-infested wounds, limb amputations performed without anesthesia, the shrieks of dying soldiers and the waits for shelling to stop so that the nurse assistants could dump fly-blown corpses into bomb craters.
"Tetanus patients couldn't speak, so they begged for water by gesture, clasping their hands as if they were praying," said survivor Haru Tokuyama, who was then 19. "The best I could do was squeeze water into their mouths through their locked teeth from a piece of water-soaked gauze."
But the worst was yet to come.
Before committing hara-kiri in the face of imminent capture, shortly after midnight on June 22, commanding Gen. Mitsuru Ushijima issued a final order to "fight to the last man and die for the eternal cause of justice and righteousness."
Ushijima had made no attempt to negotiate with the Americans for protection of noncombatants. Thus, the schoolgirl patriots of the Himeyuri Corps were abandoned to what one survivor later called "a raging typhoon of steel."
The invaders, who had no way of knowing who was inside a cave, always gave its occupants a chance to surrender. But the Japanese military occupants rarely gave up, even when the caves contained field hospitals and schoolgirl nurses.
"The soldiers they were taking care of refused to let them answer, or told them the Americans would eat them and rape them," said Rob Oechsle, a U.S. soldier in the 1970s who stayed in Okinawa and became an authority on its culture and history. "The girls were scared and didn't answer, so the Americans let loose with their explosives and just obliterated everything."
Inside Ruri Miyara's Third Surgery Cave were nine soldiers, 28 doctors and nurses, eight civilians and 51 schoolgirls.
"Many of us had gotten very weak and feverish and many of us coughed," Miyara recalled. " 'Don't cough. The enemy will hear it,' the soldiers warned us. So whenever one of us was about to cough, we would signal each other and huddle together around her to let her cough."
Then came the warning from the mouth of the cave, and the explosion.
"In a fuzzy consciousness, I told myself I couldn't possibly die in a place like this," said Miyara. "Nobody would know where I died and how I died, and nobody would tell my parents. How could I die in a place like this? If I was going to die anyway, I said to myself as I crawled around in the cave, it had to be after I had breathed as much fresh air and drunk as much water as I wanted under the bright sun."
Today, the cave is the focal point of the Himeyuri Monument, where bodies of some 200 students found in various caves after the fighting ended have been entombed.
The monument and the adjacent Himeyuri Peace Museum are among the most visited war sites on Okinawa.
In a large, darkened room called the Requiem, rows of individual class photographs of the dead line the walls as if in preparation for some somber class reunion. Most of the faces are smiling.
The last chamber in the museum is an empty room, set aside for visitors to reflect on what they have seen. On a recent day, a young Japanese woman sat hunched over on a bench, seemingly lost in thought. Tears were streaming down her face.
Seizen Nakasone, the museum curator, says that most of the students were killed during the short period between the day organized resistance ended and the time the battle was over.
"If only they could have survived a few more days," she said.