A Soul Lost in a Faraway Jungle – Part 1

e smith
Photo by Eugene Smith, USMC

A mother during World War II could suffer no greater anguish than receiving a telegram that her son was not killed but rather, deemed missing in action.

One irony rests with the fact we were the victors in World War II.  While certainly not in all instances, we have a large percentage of intact battle records – and survivors – to help identify (or locate) remains largely because we were victors.

For us here in the US, roughly 420,000 are deemed as killed in action during World War II.  However, at one time, there were roughly 80,000 classified as missing in action.  There is a second irony here.  As seen in the solemn photograph above, parts of a vibrant yet unidentifiable son were brought to this battlefield cemetery for burial.  In other words, we have his remains; his name, however, is not on the grave marker.  His name is on the list of those missing in action.

The most horrible anguish for a mother, in my opinion, is knowing he could not be found or not knowing where or how he met his end.  Her son physically will be forever alone where he perished, never to be seen again… to be taken back over time into the earth from whence he came.

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Absence of Records

Japan was at the losing end of the war (as was Nazi Germany).  Japan’s major cities were obliterated as were her paper records unless underground or well protected against fire.  To further exacerbate the bleakness of this situation, most combat notes or reports written by Japanese officers at a front never made it back to Japan for the most part, especially if the unit was disseminated.  Further, as a unit became closer to annihilation, Japanese army headquarters would lose all contact.

On the other hand, many of these written reports made it into US hands and used as intelligence against the Japanese themselves; US Army soldiers were under orders to retrieve all such material.  Such documents were taken from those who surrendered or from overrun positions.  The most gruesome was having to remove it from a dead soldier – or what was left of him.

The end result was Japanese headquarters more often than not knew little or nothing of what happened to individual soldiers or sailors – especially when it came to NCOs, or Non-Commissioned Officers.

dog tag
Actual American WWII dog tag recently recovered. From “http://www.powmiaawareness.org”

American military wore dog tags (a set of two) towards war’s end, complete with name, home town and serial number to help with identification.  Japanese NCOs – like my Uncle Suetaro – also wore “ID tags”, called 認識票 (Ninshikihyo).

WWII Luzon Captured Japanese Artifact

Unlike the machine stamped American tags, all of the Japanese tags were stamped by hand with a small chisel and hammer.  Most of all, these NCO tags generally only had their assigned regiment number, possibly a unit number and a serial number.  No name.

Their fates disappeared with the deaths of their units.

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Uncle Suetaro is on the high with Dad standing next to him.  They are in front of my grandparent's barber on King St and Maynard in Seattle.  Circa 1921.  The shop was inside Hotel Fujii (no longer standing).
Uncle Suetaro is on the high chair with Dad standing next to him. They are in front of my grandparent’s barbershop on King St and Maynard in Seattle. Circa 1923. The shop was inside Hotel Fujii (no longer standing).

The Discoveries

The void of not knowing how or exactly where my Uncle Suetaro was killed has plagued me for five years now.  Yes, I was unaware that dad had a younger brother let alone killed as a Japanese soldier until then.

My Hiroshima cousins, Masako, Kiyoshi, Toshiro and Masako’s daughter Izumi, believed Uncle Suetaro met his end near a village called Villaba on Leyte, thirty days before war’s end on July 15, 1945.  This was essentially based on word of mouth.  Any other information had been lost in the seven decades since his tragic death.  (I believe my father knew more specifics about his death having heard it directly from my grandmother and his older sister, Michie, in 1947.  He refuses to talk about it.)

However, in November last year, we renewed interest in a link we found on a Japanese website.  Izumi took the initiative and pursued it.  It led to an actual memorial association started by the approximately 20 survivors of my Uncle’s unit, the 41st Regiment.

Long story short, it turns out there is one man, Mr. Yusuke Ota, who had also taken a huge interest in the Hiroshima-based 41st Regiment.  He was just about to publish a book on the regiment when Izumi made contact with him, with well over 500 pages of data and history he’s uncovered .

41st
Mr. Ota’s book, “The Eternal 41st”.

In addition to buying our family ten copies of his book (in vertically written Japanese, unfortunately), Izumi began a dialogue with the author, Mr. Ota.  Mr. Ota was gracious enough to share his thoughts on our Uncle Suetaro based upon our vintage photos.

The Weapon

After viewing the photos and in his opinion, Uncle Suetaro was part of an anti-tank gun squad manning a Type 94 37mm anti-tank gun based on a German design.  In the early part of our war with Japan, the 37mm was deadly against our antiquated Stuart and early Sherman tank models.

A partially restored Type 94 37mm anti-tank gun.  It was already obsolete by the time the US entered the war.  From http://www.tomboy205.cocolog-nifty.com

The photos below were taken in Japan and were scanned from my Hiroshima Grandmother Kono’s photo album.  I believe Uncle Suetaro gave them to her:

c-10-91a
Our family assumes the soldiers pictured were from Uncle Suetaro’s 41st Regiment. A 37mm anti-tank gun is behind them. On the backside, Uncle wrote “石手川ニテ、昭和18六月二十三日”, or “taken at Ishite River, June 23, 1943”. Ishite River is in the current Ehime Prefecture of Japan.
c-10-90
On the back side, Uncle Suetaro wrote, “温泉郡浅海村” or “Onsengun Asanamimura” as the location for this training exercise in Japan. We cannot tell if he is pictured. It is now part of the Ehime Prefecture. Dated August 19, 1943.

The 37mm anti-tank gun was manned by eleven men and was equipped with either wooden or steel wheels.  It could be broken down into four main parts so that it could be hauled by four mules or carried if need be.  It weighed about 220 pounds.  But it is easier said than done – imagine you are in a hilly jungle during the monsoons or in a swamp… and you’re hungry, thirsty or even wounded.

It was low profile, a typical Japanese design, meant to be fired in combat while prone or squatting.  It had a straight sight and a well supplied and trained team could fire a round every two seconds.  They were deployed, if possible, in groups of four guns.

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Combat

We believe, through Mr. Ota’s book, that Uncle Suetaro’s 41st Regiment was stationed in Pyongyang, Korea in early May, 1944. (Edit: 2/7/2015)

By this time, Japan’s control over the Philippines had begun to deteriorate.  The Allies were knocking on their doorstep.  The Imperial Japanese Navy was to lose tremendous naval assets in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in just a few weeks.  Filipino guerrillas were also attacking Japanese infrastructure from within.  The Japanese military believed that General MacArthur would begin his attacks and assault Mindanao in short order.

In response to that conclusion, The Japanese army reorganized and placed the infamous General Tomoyuki Yamashita in charge of the newly restructured 14th Area Army.  My uncle’s unit, the 41st Regiment, was then attached to the 14th Area Army.

By the end of May, Uncle Suetaro and his 41st Regiment were on Leyte.

He was on his journey to his death.

To be continued in Part 2.  Please click here.

52 thoughts on “A Soul Lost in a Faraway Jungle – Part 1”

  1. It is difficult to imagine what members of your family endured as Americans in Japan and Japanese in America in time of war. Your blog does honor to those people who found their way through that maze, sometimes dying in the effort, but always dealing head on with the vicissitudes their circumstances put them in. I salute them and their humanity. Theirs is a compelling, poignant story, one that needs to be known.

    1. Thank you, weggieboy, for your kind thoughts and insights. Indeed, a number of American-born Niseis that ended up staying in Japan because of Pearl Harbor were ridiculed/bullied as well.

  2. Koji I don’t know if I should say I am “happy” that you are writing more about this, but I think you know what I mean. I am so sorry for all that your (and other) family went through during this war. And that it still haunts so many. I can’t wait to read part II. You are doing such honor to your family.

  3. Koji-san, Watashi no yūjin

    We are all on a journey to our death. We know not the time or place, but we know that death in inevitable. In war, it is even likely, and yet no one I ever knew thought that he might perish in an upcoming action. The fact is that most combat soldiers survive, even if not intact —for even those never wounded take with them through the rest of their lives the horrific memories of what they saw, what the felt, and what the smelled. War is a tragedy —for the things it makes men do in the actual conflict, and for what it does to our humanity. As you have so eloquently stated in these posts, more than Uncle Suetaro suffered the effects of this brutal conflict. Mothers do not bring their children into the world so that they should suffer on the field of battle, but even though they suffer from sending their children away, and pray for their children, they must accept the possibility of never seeing them again. Moreover, siblings suffer —and cousins and sweethearts left behind; it is a lifetime of suffering, as we can sense in your writing.

    It is tragic to see a family broken up in the way you have described. You may recall that I wrote about my friend Ted, who suffered a similar experience. It is so very much like the American Civil War, where brothers fought against one another, where fathers opposed their sons, when cousins faced off against one another across a bloody meadow. God gave us such a beautiful planet to live on, and we humans seem to muck it up every chance we get.

    I look forward to the continuation of your story.

    Semper Fi

    1. Sir, thank you very much for such wonderful thoughts and insight. Yes, of course, I remember “Ted”. And like the Civil War, World War II is disappearing from the American classroom. And when they do touch upon it, the message is wrong. While researching his path, I have come to notice strongly how my grandmother was always smiling in her earlier pictures… but the post-war pain in her soul becomes clear in the photos my father took of her in 1947/48. I don’t know if it is ever possible to be prepared as a mother for such an outcome.

      Thank you again for taking the time to read…

  4. A sad and painful story, but one that needs telling. We tend to forget that there were people who lost family members they loved when those people are on the losing side. There were so very many on both sides who were lost, not just died, lost to those who loved them.

    1. Very poignant words but so very true. I do not believe there is one family who was not touched by this world war…even the natives who had lived on those islands were affected.

      1. I think it has something to do with how history is taught. It shows battle lines and tells troop strength, but there is never much, if any, mention of the human cost. I appreciate having the view point of someone involved on the other side, the thoughts of someone caught in the middle who is watching everything familiar in upheaval. I realize that there is the victor, the vanquished and those caught between them in every conflict, but for all three there are the individuals, the effects on the lives of those individuals and their families. My father was in the U. S. Army, Corps of Engineers in North Africa and Italy, he didn’t talk about his war experiences (I wish he had and that he would’ve allowed me to write those things down).

  5. When I read the history of your family I am often reminded of the comparison to our civil war where brother fought against brother…I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for your father knowing his own brother was in the Japanese army. Although it is a sad story I am thankful you are sharing your family’s story but doing so you are keeping your uncle your aunt and everyone else alive. It is indeed a story that must be told.

    1. Thank you, Patty. I have been trying to translate Japanese records and frankly, it is taking much longer than I anticipated. But your thoughts are genuine about the Civil War. But just like the Civil War, World War II is disappearing from our classrooms. Even when it is mentioned, the message is wrong, in my opinion… My dad? I have learned so much in the past few weeks about what happened to my uncle that I can understand why he refuses to talk about it – or remember it.

  6. I’m so thankful for your writing. It touches me…I feel privileged to have the opportunity to read your words. There is great power in your clean, streamlined style. Quite a gift to the rest of us. As always, I’m looking forward to your next post.

  7. Stories like this are so sad, and I feel sad for you too. Thank-you for sharing your story with us on Flickr. I have been involved with my family and all the forgotten names of those I never knew. It is important to keep records and try to find information for those we leave behind.

  8. I didn’t realize that your quest to find out more about your uncle started only five years ago! It’s amazing how much family history you have been able to piece together given the complexities of language and how much information was not recorded. I do have to completely agree with you that for a mother to not have answers about the last hours of a child’s life, where they fell and died, and where they remain, is an impossible grief. I’m going to find a way to get caught up on all your posts and see what you’ve learned. This is really powerful!

    1. Sadly, it is true about my learning of my dad’s side of the family. My mother did a great job of brainwashing me, I’m afraid. Not until my Little Cake Boss pulled out a shoebox from dad’s closet did I even know his Hiroshima relatives survived the atomic bombing. I had been led to believe they were all killed. And indeed, my eyes well up when a mother or wife – now very old – receive his mortal remains or artifacts today.

  9. Such a powerful and sobering chronicle! I am again inspired to continue my research into my own father’s service in Occupied Japan. My father was a Provost Marshall with 41st Infantry Division in Australia, New Guinea, Philippines and eventually Japan. He commanded the first troops to enter and occupy Hiroshima after the atomic bombing. In talking about the war, he had great respect for survivors of that horrific event and the Japanese people as a whole (except their leadership during the war). I would dearly love to visit Hiroshima someday (soon I hope). Glad I found your blog and photos! I only wish I had half of the information you have been able to gather about your family! Here is a link to some info on my father… http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/ghbarrows.htm

    1. I am sorry to hear your father has passed. He had a very exciting life and posts during his career.

      Frankly, there should be quite a bit of information you should be able to dig up on the internet. As his son, you can get some info from the DOD as you know by completing a form online. However, many files were simply destroyed in the depository file. All the DOD sent back to me on my father was an extremely poor quality microfiche of his Seaparation papers. Fold3.com may also have some info… If you need guidance, please feel free to ask. Genealogists will also be able to help as would the Army War College, perhaps. Good luck and thank you for your good comment, sir.

  10. Hey Koj! Last week we were downtown in a waiting room for two hours and I somehow ended up on this post (and another one in the series) and it was so riveting. I really like your smooth way of presenting tough material – with opinions, factoids, and emotion…
    and the dog tags with no specific name is so interesting – and I still have chills thinking of the image of the recent dog tag (in the other post) that was all bettered and worn. So cool.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read such long stories, Yvette. I began these stories for my stateside relatives but it would seem not many are that interested. 😦

  11. This was very interesting and very well done. There is a VFW post in Alma, WI that has a 75mm Japanese howitzer on display. It was taken by the US 32nd ID, a NG unit from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan I believe. Thanks for writing on the Pacific War-not that much out there.

  12. Very interesting post. My mother in law was Japanese and came to the UK in the 1950s after meeting my father-in-law while he was with the Royal Navy in Korea. Her family didn’t like this and had little contact with her after that so we effectively have a quarter of our family history missing. It is interesting to read about the war from the Japanese side.

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