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A Soul Lost from WWII Comes Home – Part 2

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My 81 year old cousin Masako is the first to offer “gassho” to our fallen Uncle Suetaro. She is the last one alive to truly remember him aside from my father (96).

Leyte Pilgrimage – Day One

As we made our descent into Leyte’s Tacloban Airport, I vacated my port-side preferred aisle seat and moved towards the window then buckled in.  Visibly condensed, chilled and misted air flowed out of the specialized air conditioning system above us, very necessary in the Southwest Pacific.  Our final approach was north to south.

The tarmac filled my window and thought to myself, My god.  We are actually going to land on the island where my uncle was killed.  It is finally happening.  Our plane touched down at 4:40 pm.

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Touchdown. Tacloban, Leyte.

I wonder what my cousin Masako felt at that very same instant.  Besides my 96 year old father, she is the last person on this earth that truly remembers Uncle Suetaro.¹  I had been imagining many things of my uncle’s resting place.  I solemnly realized that I had been grieving over what we know happened to him as well as how my father silently grieved for decades… but now, I feared about what we may discover about what truly happened to Uncle Suetaro.  His suffering.  His death.

I slung my orange backpack weighed down with my cameras and lenses over my shoulder then exited from the rear of the air conditioned jet.  It would be six days before I would once again sit in such air conditioned luxury.  The impact of the tropical heat and humidity was immediate on this southern California body.  I began to perspire faster than Hillary could tell a lie.  It reminded me of the climate inside the house when I lived with my last ex – ugly.

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A smiling Masako after retrieving her luggage at the uncultivated Tacloban Airport. I wonder what she felt deep inside at that moment.
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Also accompanying us was Ms. S. Teraoka; she is carrying wooden boards on which is charcoal ink calligraphy written by her temple’s reverend. Her uncle was a lieutenant who also killed on Leyte.
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Mr. B. Kagimoto, a news reporter from RCC Broadcasting Co. in Hiroshima, was also part of our little pilgrimage.

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After being greeted by Akehira and Calimera, husband and wife owners of the limo service, we quickly exited the heat and humidity into two cooled vans.

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Calimera and Akehira, Leyte residents. Their home was also significantly damaged by Typhoon Yolanda. No one was exempt.

Along the way to our hotel, we made our first stop: White Beach.  Code named White Beach (see below) by the American invasion forces, it lays just south of the airport.  There were two Imperial Japanese Army pillboxes left pretty intact for historical purposes.

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White Beach on October 20, 1944. Source: Leyte, Return to the Philippines by M. Hamlin Cannon.

On A-Day, the US Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment assaulted White Beach.

Per Cannon’s book, “…Both squadrons landed on schedule, with only slight opposition, and immediately began to execute their assignments. The 2d Squadron, within fifteen minutes after landing, knocked out two pillboxes on the beach, killing eight Japanese in one and five in the other.”

These are those two pillboxes.

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One of the two Japanese pillboxes taken out by the US Army’s  7th Cavalry on October 20, 1944.
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(R to L) Mr. Ota, Tomiko, Masako, Namie and Akehira gaze upon a pillbox at White Beach.
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I took Masako down to see the interior. The mosquitoes were very happy in there, awaiting tasty humans like me.
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Masako determinedly climbing back up the stairs after looking inside the pillbox.
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A gleeful Masako, Izumi and Tomiko resting upon the remnants of the second pillbox. I didn’t have the heart to inform Masako either five or eight Japanese soldiers died inside that pillbox via rifle fire, hand grenade or flame thrower as the exterior was intact.

Day Two to follow.

That’s when the crying really begins.

Part 3 is here.

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NOTES

  1.  The only other person with active memories of Uncle Suetaro was the reverend of the Buddhist temple adjacent to our Hiroshima home.  I talked with him three years ago when he was about 90 years old but with a sharp as a tack memory.  He passed away last year per Masako.

19 thoughts on “A Soul Lost from WWII Comes Home – Part 2”

  1. Even though I have never been in the pillbox, I can only imagine how cold it must feel at times and more importantly, I’m sure one could hear the sounds echo within still, the shouting and the sounds of gunfire, what an incredible place.

  2. Please don’t wait too long to conclude this story! 🙂 What an incredible pilgrimage, Koji. I’m moved already to think of what you have learned and I am very impressed. Your journey illustrates that no matter how many years pass, if a family is torn apart by war and violence, it doesn’t just become a footnote in history; it is a family story and it needs resolution. I do hope you found some peace within all those tears. I’m eager to read on!

    1. Thank you, Debra, as always. What made the memorial services so emotional is that while Uncle Suetaro was killed in war, none of us really knew OF him except for Masako. It finally hit everyone that there were millions like him on all sides… and that while they gave their lives, very few even know they had lived. That is what got us.

    1. I hope so, sir. I hope so. While Wayne came back albeit scarred for the rest of his life, there were millions like my Uncle who fought for what they believed in and died. Even so, what made it painfully clear for our little family group was that while he gave his life, only Masako really knew of him… That is what was so sad.

  3. Koji I can only try to imagine what you and your family must be feeling. Though I try, I know that I can’t possibly feel what you do. I wish your father knew and understood what you did. Where you went. I know from your writings how he loved his brother and how his life must have been so impacted. I am so grateful on your behalf that you had this opportunity and are now sharing it with us.

      1. He’s not forgotten now Koji. You’ve made sure of that. Think of all of the people who read about him, see his face, wonder about his youthful thoughts, worries and fears. Hope that his end was not as bad as what we imagine, though we know it wasn’t good. But now, he has people around the world who ‘know’ him.

  4. I feel you are paving the way for me, and others like me, to take these journeys of remembrance for our relatives. Even though we may not have known them personally. You also have made me realise that it is important to be with other people for such a pilgrimage. Thank you.

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