Tag Archives: battle of midway

A Soul Lost in a Faraway Jungle – Part 1


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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.

Mr. Johnson, USMC – Part II


Yes, Mr. Johnson was in for it.

The carnage he was to experience would be absent even from the worst possible nightmare a nineteen year old boy can possibly have dreamed.

Violence no young boy of 19 should have to endure.

He would have two lives after he stepped into that Marine Corps recruiting station: one of reality during the day and of a nightmare he would never awaken from at night.

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I took them to breakfast for a belated 66th wedding anniversary and 88th birthdays. It’s softened as that’s how Marge wanted it.  Seal Beach, CA. August 14, 2011.

I was not close to Mr. Johnson as I was to Old Man Jack; perhaps it was because for the first five years after I moved into this patriotic Naval neighborhood, he and his good wife Marge traveled about the US in their motorhome.  They were gone for perhaps six to eight months out of the year.  Man, did they enjoy seeing the US of A.  After all, he fought for her.

He stayed indoors most of the time when at home while Marge would walkabout during the warm summer nights with her wine and chat with neighbors and me.  She enjoyed her Chablis very much.  Slowly, her legs would give way to age.  Mr. Johnson’s, too.

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In the early part of 1942, Mr. Johnson found himself on a little boat out in the middle of the Pacific – the Big E.

The USS Enterprise.

CV-6.

She was one of only three operational carriers in the Pacific.  The Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown.

The Battle for Midway

He was on his way to the Battle of Midway (Mr. Johnson did not tell me that.  Old Man Jack did.).  June of 1942.

A tremendous gamble of scarce naval assets and young men by Admiral Nimitz.

PFC Doreston “Johnnie” Johnson manned her anti-aircraft batteries as a US Marine.

Thousands of young lives were lost during the most critical sea battle – on both sides.  But the critical gamble paid off for the US.  The Japanese Imperial Navy lost four carriers.  They would never recover.

But we lost the Yorktown.  A tremendous loss for the United States…but the tide of war changed.

The USS Yorktown on fire at the crucial Battle of Midway. She would later be sunk.

Miraculously, the Enterprise escaped damage.

And as far as I understand, so did the young boy from Basile, Louisiana, Mr. Johnson.

At least physically.

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Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands Campaign

His next trial would be Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaign.

It would be an insult to to all the brave men that were there if I were to even try and express in writing what brutal sea combat was like.

I was not there.  But every young man there thought – every second – that there was a bomb coming at him.  Constantly.

Like hearing shrapnel from near bomb misses ricocheting off the batteries – or striking flesh.  The deafening, unending thundering of “whump-whump-whump” from AA batteries.  The yelling.  The sound of a mortally wounded enemy plane crashing into the water nearby with a likewise young pilot.  The screams of wounded or dying boys.

This is taken from a naval summary: “After a month of rest and overhaul, Enterprise sailed on 15 July for the South Pacific where she joined TF 61 to support the amphibious landings in the Solomon Islands on 8 August. For the next 2 weeks, the carrier and her planes guarded seaborne communication lines southwest of the Solomons. On 24 August a strong Japanese force was sighted some 200 miles north of Guadalcanal and TF 61 sent planes to the attack. An enemy light carrier was sent to the bottom and the Japanese troops intended for Guadalcanal were forced back. Enterprise suffered most heavily of the United States ships, 3 direct hits and 4 near misses killed 74, wounded 95, and inflicted serious damage on the carrier. But well-trained damage control parties, and quick, hard work patched her up so that she was able to return to Hawaii under her own power.”

“Repaired at Pearl Harbor from 10 September to 16 October, Enterprise departed once more for the South Pacific where with Hornet, she formed TF 61. On 26 October, Enterprise scout planes located a Japanese carrier force and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Island was underway. Enterprise aircraft struck carriers, battleships, and cruisers during the struggle, while the “Big E” herself underwent intensive attack. Hit twice by bombs, Enterprise lost 44 killed and had 75 wounded. Despite serious damage, she continued in action and took on board a large number of planes from Hornet when that carrier had to be abandoned. Though the American losses of a carrier and a destroyer were more severe than the Japanese loss of one light cruiser, the battle gained priceless time to reinforce Guadalcanal against the next enemy onslaught.

Regardless of who is correct – and we’ll never know for obvious reasons – Enterprise gunners shot down more planes at Eastern Solomons in 15 minutes and at Santa Cruz in 25 minutes than did the vast majority of all battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers throughout the entire war.

She was the last operating carrier in the Pacific.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the violence of World War II, perhaps these photos will give you an idea.

Try – just try – to imagine you are on that ship…  Nineteen years old.  The Japanese planes are shooting at you and dropping bombs on you.  Dead and wounded boys are everywhere.  Fires are raging…  The ship is listing…and through all this, you must continue to man your anti-aircraft guns…  Protecting the ship and the lives of your fellow Americans.

A Japanese bomb explodes on the USS Enterprise
One of the direct bomb hits.  All the young men in this area (Gun Group 3) were killed. Many could not be found.
The USS Enterprise under attack. A near miss but men were killed or wounded by the shrapnel.
The USS Enterprise on fire. August 24, 1942. Mr. Johnson was on her.
A Val bomber on fire goes past the radar mast on the USS Enterprise. Perhaps one of Mr. Johnson’s rounds hit it.
Damaged hull from one of the near misses.
More hull damage from bomb shrapnel.
The USS Enterprise listing from battle damage.
Burning Japanese planes seen from the deck of the Enterprise. That’s how close they were. Up close and very personal.  Aug. 24, 1942.
Burial service at sea for 44 of the men after the battle at Santa Cruz. Oct 27 1942

Remember these young boys.  I always will.

Mr. Johnson was one of them.

Mr. Johnson was one of those wounded.

Twice.

And I have proof of his valor and guts on board as a US Marine.

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More to come in Part III.