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In interviews, historians and Okinawans said that some Okinawan women who were raped gave birth to biracial children, many of whom were killed at birth. More often, however, rape victims obtained abortions from village midwives.

The first published account in English of the discovery of the remains of the three marines appeared in The Pacific Stars and Stripes in 1998 shortly after the remains were retrieved. In the article, an Okinawan man who would not give his name said that as a child growing up after the war in Katsuyama, the remote mountain village where the remains were found, he heard village elders talk of an incident involving the American marines.

In separate interviews with The New York Times, elderly Okinawans who also grew up in the village, said that after the United States won the battle, three armed marines would come to Katsuyama every weekend and force the village men to take them to their women, who were then carried off to the hills and raped.

The marines were so confident, the villagers said, that they would sometimes come to Katsuyama without weapons. One day, the villagers, with the help of two armed Japanese soldiers who were hiding in the jungle, ambushed three marines in a dark narrow mountain pass near a river, they said. The Japanese soldiers shot at the marines from the bushes and several dozen villagers beat them to death with sticks and stones.

''I didn't see the actual killing because I was hiding in the mountains above, but I heard five or six gunshots and then a lot of footsteps and commotion,'' said Shinsei Higa, a 71-year-old retired teacher, who was 16 at the time. ''By late afternoon, we came down from the mountains and then everyone knew what had happened.''

Fearing that other Americans would come looking for the marines, the villagers dumped the bodies in a hillside cave, which has a 50-foot drop just inside the mouth, and they vowed never to speak of the incident to outsiders, the Okinawans said.

Kijun Kishimoto, an 84-year-old retired school principal who grew up in Katsuyama, said that he was away from the village when the killings took place but that he learned of the incident from his brother and niece.

''People were very afraid that if the Americans found out what happened there would be retaliation, so they decided to keep it a secret to protect those involved,'' Mr. Kishimoto said.

Okinawans who lived in Katsuyama said the three marines who harassed their village were ''black Americans'' and that one was ''as large as a sumo wrestler.'' The cave, which is on a steep slope above a valley along a narrow river is known to local residents in Japanese as ''kurombo gama,'' which means Cave of the Negroes.

United States military officials said that based on dental records, the remains recovered in the cave were positively identified as those of the three missing marines, all of whom were black. They were Pfc. James D. Robinson of Savannah, Ga., Pfc. John M. Smith of Cincinnati, and Pvt. Isaac Stokes of Chicago. The Stars and Stripes article said that a guilty conscience led the Okinawan man to contact Setsuko Inafuku, a tour guide for Kadena United States Air Base in Okinawa, who had been involved in retrieving the remains of Okinawan and Japanese soldiers.

Ms. Inafuku said in an interview that she and the Okinawan man began searching for the cave in June 1997 but had no luck finding it until a typhoon struck the island in August and knocked over a tree that hid the entrance to the cave. In September the police were notified but they agreed not to remove the remains for several months so that the person who had led to the discovery could remain anonymous.

Marine Corps officials said that the United States military did not plan to conduct a criminal investigation since the remains were discovered outside a military installation and were under the jurisdiction of the Okinawa Prefectural Police. The prefectural police has said that it has no plans to investigate because the statute of limitations on such a case expired after 15 years.

Photos: Kijun Kishimoto, an 84-year-old retired school principal who grew up in Katsuyama, said he was told that villagers killed the marines. (Calvin Sims/The New York Times); In 1998 the police, acting on a tip, discovered what proved to be the bones of three marines missing since 1945 in this cave north of Nago. (Kenichi Tagawa/Yomiuri Shimbun via Associated Press) Map of Japan shows location of Katsuyama: Women in Katsuyama were said to have been raped by Americans.