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.
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.
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).
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.