During my visit to my father’s childhood home in Hiroshima last summer, I was entrusted with hundreds of vintage family photos and mementos. I brought them back here stateside, promising my Hiroshima family I would “restore” them.
Well, after a good start, I developed a painful case “tennis elbow” from using the mouse so much during the retouching process. Sadly, it came to a screeching halt sometime in November last year.
But one very, very special item was entrusted with me – my Uncle Suetaro’s war diary.
Although born an American citizen in Seattle with the rest of his siblings, he was writing this war diary as a sergeant in the Japanese Imperial Army.
The last entry was a farewell letter to his Mother.
The photo above had been secreted away behind another photo that was in Uncle Suetaro’s album. He meticulously kept the album up to the time of war. His oldest brother, my Uncle Yutaka, had conscientiously sent him family photos they had taken in Chicago and Los Angeles before imprisonment. Suetaro complimented the photos with his beautiful Japanese calligraphy, written in a silver, whitish ink.
The photo of Uncle Suetaro and my dad shown at the beginning was so very tiny – but there was something Uncle Suetaro loved about it to keep it. I wish I knew what it was.
Uncle Suetaro was killed as a sergeant major of the Japanese Imperial Army on Leyte apparently near a town called “Villaba”. Below is an actual page from a “war diary”, an official report written and published by the US Army. Villaba is located on the western shore of Leyte but not far from Ormoc Bay, which was a killing field for Japanese ships by US aircraft.
His remains were never recovered. In the family grave are his tiny pieces of his fingernails and a lock of hair. It was custom at that time to leave parts of your earthly body with your family as returning was unlikely.
Not much to bury… but it was better than not returning at all.
In a spiritualistic way, he had never left.
This is his farewell letter to his Mother (my Grandmother).
It is clear it was very hurriedly written.
With the help of my cousin Kiyoshi in Hiroshima and my dad, we’ve typed up Uncle Suetaro’s farewell letter – complete with old Japanese characters and translated as best possible into English. When reading this, please remember these are the words as written as a soldier going off to fight the Americans – but he was once a young American boy born in Seattle, WA.
(Note: Green indicates an edit inserted for clarification purposes.)
His farewell send-off is pictured below. Masako-san believes Suetaro wrote the letter around this time. It was at gatherings such as this when a Japanese soldier was given a “good luck” battle flag – the ones that many WWII combat veterans “removed from the battlefield” as souvenirs. There are many cases now where their sons and daughters – or grandchildren – are making efforts to return such flags to the Japanese families.
Bertrand Russell wrote, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”
He is correct.
On a much smaller scale, though, Grandmother Kono was all who was left in that house when war’s end came. Her precious son Suetaro – who she kept from returning to America for the purpose of keeping the Kanemoto name going – was dead. She was now alone. I wonder how she felt.
[Please also see “Mr. Johnson, USMC” if you wish to learn the background of this couple from the Greatest Generation by clicking on the link.]
Well, Marge, you made it indeed… To see your beloved husband Johnnie for Memorial Day.
A heroic US Marine who fought on-board the USS Enterprise in World War II.
And he was but 17 years old when he set sail for the Battle of Midway.
Seventeen. You said he was still in high school when he signed up for the Marines. Unbelievable.
We were met by thousands of American flags being planted by hundreds of Boy Scouts and volunteers. You were so happy to see the red, white and blue saturating the cemetery, bit by bit.
While the Boy Scouts hadn’t made it to your husband’s resting place yet, we had our own little flag… and your beautiful bouquet we were able to pick up along the way. You were so pleased with them but we made it a promise the next bouquet will be the colors of the USMC – scarlett and gold. You knew he would like that. Yes you did.
It was only the Saturday before Memorial Day but you were so elated to see how many people were there already…and we arrived at 10:00 AM! You were worried we wouldn’t be able to find a place to park when someone upstairs opened one up for us.
You were so anxious to visit him that you made it out of my car in record time and walked as quickly as you could!
While you used your stroller to get to the general area of his grave site, we had to leave the stroller and walk the last twenty yards on very saturated ground. You were holding onto my arm so tightly as the muddy earth gave way as we walked. Remember? My shoe sunk into the soil and inch or more.
And when we got there, we couldn’t find any water decanters… They were all being used by the hundreds of other mourners…but by some lucky grace, we ran into Vicky… She had bought 1,000 beautiful flags on her own and her niece was placing them neatly all along the columbine. She went out of her way to find one for you!
Your bouquet was so beautiful, Marge. You said quietly Johnnie – your husband of 66-1/2 years – would like them so much. You miss him dearly, don’t you Marge? I miss him…
And like the last time, on Easter Sunday, you talked with him…
You shared with me again of how he left your life…and you were there for him til the very end… and how alone you felt because you are the last one alive from amongst your friends. There is no one else. You said you still look for Johnnie at your assisted senior care center to ask him a question but he doesn’t answer…
We promised to go back in two months, yes?
I will be calling you because he means so much to you… and it means so much to me.
I wish people would understand your love and devotion.
In the 2012 limited release movie, “Memorial Day”, children are playing at their grandparent’s home in a rural setting. It is Memorial Day weekend. A 13 year old boy stumbles across a dusty box in a barn.
The box is his grandfather’s WWII Army footlocker, emblazoned with the unit insignia of his famed unit, the 82nd Airborne. It is filled with “souvenirs” he had brought home from war.
The young grandson probingly asks the grandfather for the stories behind the souvenirs to which he curtly answers no – and bitterly orders the boy to take the footlocker back to where he found it.
“It’s Memorial Day…” says the grandson.
“Damn straight it is,” barks back the grandfather.
The young lad digs in, not wanting to fall short in his quest for answers, and pushes the footlocker even closer to his grandfather.
The grandson then doggedly asks, “What is it I’m supposed to remember?”
In essence, a day to remember, honor and pray for those nameless souls who were KIA (Killed in Action).
To remember those that didn’t return from war. Young boys. Young men.
But as the young boy in the movie asked, “What is it I’m supposed to remember?”
Do YOU have an answer to that boy’s question?
I didn’t…and perhaps still don’t as I was not shot at, bombed or strafed…nor killed.
The only thing I do know is that WWII combat veterans do NOT want to talk about “it”.
And that’s our problem, I feel. Because these combat vets are unable to share with us the horror they lived through 70 years ago, it helps diffuse the essence of Memorial Day.
They are unable to share for their own sanity’s sake.
As WWII combat survivors (a.k.a., now collectively known as “vets”) would bravely crack open their bottled abominations to talk about “it” with me, I will venture to blurt that possibly – just possibly – they feel unbearable guilt and shame for what they saw…or did…or did NOT do… but that they survived to talk about “it”.
But their buddies didn’t.
(Note: World War II is the focus of this story. WWII was a cataclysm of never to be matched magnitude again. There was wanton destruction of entire cities and civilians. Inflicting casualties on the enemy was expected and accepted by the majority. This is not to downplay Korea, Viet Nam or our current war on terrorism. There are different rules of engagement now with much different social expectations by the “good guys”.)
Perhaps you will let me take a chance with trying to bring to light some of the “it” things you may or may not know… If you can at least read about the combat experience, perhaps it will help YOU appreciate Memorial Day even more… and of those that are not with us today.
I’ve collected these personal observations, comments and facts from talking with several bona fide WWII combat vets and just plain reading. Nothing scientific, of course.
So here goes:
Nearing death, as grievously wounded young men take their last gasps, the most often said word was, “Mama”.
Under fire, many would curl up into a fetal position shaking uncontrollably while their buddies would somehow raise their weapons to shoot back… only to get showered with their blood and brains as a enemy round obliterated his buddy’s head. It is not about cowardice. It is FEAR.
About 25% of them peed in their pants. About 10% shit in their pants. (Old Man Jack did both…and he was not ashamed to say so. Ergo, his quote from Two Old Men and a Father’s Day Anguish: “If you got killed with shit in your pants, you got buried with shit in your pants.”)
Another 25% of these brave young boys and men were so scared or were so repulsed at the gore, e.g., at seeing liquified brains spewing from a shattered skull, they vomited.
One Marine told me he was to silently kill a Japanese sentry using a makeshift garotte only to find the sentry had fallen asleep face up. He couldn’t use the garotte as the enemy’s helmet was in the sand and the enemy could let out a scream if he used his Kabar. At the appointed minute, my friend had no choice but to jump on the sleeping soldier and grip his Adam’s apple with all his might… to keep him from yelling, too. He knew the enemy died when his body went limp and urinated. My friend did, too. He said he thinks he gripped the enemy’s throat for over two minutes. His hands couldn’t stop shaking. It was his first hand-to-hand kill.
After hearing sounds at night, frightened soldiers or Marines would unleash a violent and impenetrable barrage of carbine and machine gun fire. When they reconnoitered at day break, they discovered they had mistakenly slaughtered unarmed men, women and children. They would vomit then, too. (I can’t imagine what went on in their souls for the rest of their lives.)
Sometime in 1943, Army psychiatrists took a survey of “frontline” troops. Less than 1% said they wanted to go back into battle (I understand this was exclusive of the more higher trained units like the Rangers or Airborne). Almost NONE of the Silver Star recipients wanted to go back. But they did.
Army psychiatrists found that 60 days was the limit for being on the front lines…before a soldier would crack. Old Man Jack was out on the front for just about a year for his first deployment on “those stinkin’ islands”.
A Nisei 442nd vet told me just the sound of the Nazi MG42 machine gun would make them shit in their pants. It could fire up to 1,500 rounds a minute and chew through tree trunks behind which they were seeking cover. Sometimes, a buddy’s top half would be separated from the bottom half by the MG42…and they saw it happen.
Another Nisei vet told me they were on patrol when they came under a barrage. As he and a buddy dove into a shell hole for cover, his buddy’s arm went into a rotting, foul mass of a decomposing German’s remains.
Human souvenir hunting was rampant – and most extreme in the Pacific Theater. Correspondents documented in their reports that a number of Allied military “boiled” Japanese skulls or left them out for the ants to eat away most of the flesh, then kept them. Sailors would leave a skull in a net trawling behind their ship to cleanse them of flesh. For some, the skulls were too large or awkward so they would keep ears or noses. (In fact, Customs had issues with these skulls when a military man would bring them back to the US after discharge.) And as Old Man Jack witnessed in “Old Man Jack-isms #4“, some would collect gold teeth.
In a battle report, several very young Marines cut off the heads from Japanese corpses, impaled them onto stakes and pointed the faces at the enemy across the way to taunt them. When their commanding officer ordered them to take the severed heads down, they replied something to the effect of if we eat like animals, fight like animals and look like animals, we are going to act like animals.
Old Man Jack mentioned something he called “squeakers”. He didn’t elaborate on it too much but it’s when fear becomes so overpowering, men would get dry mouth or start gagging… a problem if you were an officer trying to give orders under fire to keep men alive. They would “squeak”.
“Take a very, very ripe tomato. Throw it with all your might against a weathered cedar plank fence. Listen to the sound of the impact. That’s what it sounds like when a bullet hits your buddy.” A Nisei vet told me that.
These next images, to be politically correct in today’s world, will be very upsetting to some so a warning to you… But these must be seen to help comprehend why many combat veterans don’t want to talk about “it” and therefore, the difficulty in helping us answer, “What am I supposed to remember?”:
Perhaps some of the other “it” they saw involved civilians.
So why these gruesome photos of carnage and violent death?
Are they REALLY necessary for you to see?
I believe so… and the preceding photos were relatively tame to be quite honest. There are much more gruesome ones in private collections. Old Man Jack had a collection but I only got a glimpse of ONE picture early in our relationship and it was of a severed Japanese head. He never brought the photos out again.
But it’s important that Americans today understand “it” went to the hundreds of thousands of now silent US military graves… and “it” also remains tightly bottled up in the few surviving combat vets from WWII.
They have a right to keep “it” bottled up. Vacuum sealed. To keep their sanity although they relive and suffer horribly through “it” each night.
Thousands of graves on a “stinkin’ island”… all killed in action.
To remember those killed.
But without seeing, understanding or accepting the horrible demise these young fighting men encountered ending their short lives, the true meaning of Memorial Day is lost.
It is not truly about the combat vets alive today or who passed away since war’s end… but they sure the hell are part of it. Those alive mightily grip a key to their secrets – preventing your entry into their private internal hell.
I will remember this when I visit the graves of Old Man Jack and Mr. Johnson this Memorial Day and will think of their fallen comrades.
And I will thank them and their unnamed buddies when I enjoy my barbequed hamburger this Memorial Day weekend and a cigar.
They died for me.
So I could enjoy my hamburger and cigar.
And I shall
A final, short tribute to those resting in graves today:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Miraculously, the Enterprise escaped damage.
And as far as I understand, so did the young boy from Basile, Louisiana, Mr. Johnson.
At least physically.
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.
Remember these young boys. I always will.
Mr. Johnson was one of them.
Mr. Johnson was one of those wounded.
And I have proof of his valor and guts on board as a US Marine.
World War II Military Intelligence techniques are still important and in use today – but for entirely different reasons.
During the war in the Pacific, US military personnel were forbidden to keep notes or diaries in the event they were captured. Nothing more disillusioning to be captured or killed, then have the enemy read about the ammo dump you just left from. Especially for your buddies still stationed there.
On the other hand, Japanese soldiers were allowed to keep notes or diaries. Apparently, the Japanese military saw the diaries similar to “water cooler gossip” at the office.
That was their downfall as Americans like my father translated such documents. The Military Intelligence Service. It was from these diaries that the Allies first began to see that the enemy were not the samurai of lore.
They had gripes of their commander – even by name. They complained of starving, no ammunition, no water. They also had uncensored letters from home – their families were starving, sick or had no home left for the soldier to come back to.
A mortar crewman wrote of how terrified they were to launch a mortar shell at the Marines as for every round they fired, the Marines would send ten back their way.
The MIS did their job faithfully back then on those hell hole islands. Their job was to help kill the enemy.
Today, albeit in a roundabout way, MIS veterans like my father are still doing their job.
Last week, a representative of the “Japanese American Veterans Association (JAVA.org)” contacted me again to enlist the help of my father. As mentioned in an earlier short story, Dad was a “kibei“, or an American of Japanese descent who got schooling in Japan. He was fluent. More so, he still is fluent in reading the pre-war Japanese writing. There really aren’t that many left with this ability. Dad is 93.
Unfortunately, Dad had a bad fall the day the request came in. He fell flat on his face and shattered his glasses in the process.
Apparently, a gentleman had in his family’s possession a captured Japanese flag. Presumably, someone in his family brought it back as a souvenir. Of course, if an Allied soldier brought one home, it may have been removed from a corpse. In the best case scenario, it was taken from a prisoner. You just didn’t find them laying around on the battlefield.
According to the request, the owner of the flag stated he wanted to return it if possible to the family. Not an easy task – even for “I Dream of Jeannie”. These flags were created at the farewell party of a soldier who was going to be dispatched to the war and certain death. There is usually the name of the person for whom the flag was presented. If you are lucky, the flag may have a city or town written. I’m sure my Uncle Suetaro received one.
Even for Dad, the complicating factor is not knowing how to read a Japanese character. It is HOW it was written. These were all signed by brush and charcoal ink. The ink lasts forever since it is carbon. But have you ever tried reading signatures? Try your hand at this one:
You get the picture.
Anyways, Dad – and while his glasses were shattered in the fall – was able to say the person for which the flag was signed was likely for a Mr. Tokio Miyake. Unfortunately, there was no true town or city named specifically. Nevertheless, we were able to make out what appears to be “Kurayoshi Mayor”, or the mayor of “Kurayoshi”.
Last night, I did a little reserch and almost unbelievably did find a town named Kurayoshi. I tracked down the town’s website and sent a blind email (in my broken Japanese) to the mayor’s office and asked if there was a mayor named “Furuya” during the war.
While my Dad did not participate in the hostilities, his Nisei unit did their job and greatly shortened the war according to General MacArthur. The Nisei’s job was a true secret weapon.
Hopefully, this no longer secret weapon can serve some peacetime good and bring two families to peace.
Oh. That was Johnny Depp’s signature. Thought you ladies may like that.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family