Posted by: slartibartifast | March 18, 2010

War story

My father was one of the World War II U.S. Marines who landed on Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, in the second wave of beach assault craft (BTW, if you want to ever read about what hell–on–earth was like pick up a good historical account of Iwo Jima. This is one, of three, that I have read but there are several other good ones as well). Some time on the second or third day on Iwo Jima (February 20 or 21) my father was walking along with other men in his squad, near the base of Mt. Suribachi, when a Japanese soldier popped out of a hole dug into the loose volcanic ash (the Marines called them “spider holes”) immediately in front of my father. He yelled and lunged at my father with the bayonet on his rifle. My father shot him and he fell dead at his feet. He died bravely and quickly.

The Marines were under orders to search bodies for documents of any kind in case they might be of any strategic value in the battle for the island. My father removed a photo from the pocket of this young Japanese soldier, of him in uniform, and turned it in to the Intelligence officers for inspection. They examined it and decided it had no strategic value. My father asked for the photo back and the officer gave it to him.

On the back of the photo are the words (in my father’s handwriting) “Taken on Iwo Jima.” There is also a stamp from the Intelligence officer stating that it had been inspected. There are also the Japanese characters hand written (removed from this posted photo to respect the family’s privacy), but I don’t know the origin of them. I had them translated to give me the name by a Japanese language professor at the university I worked at.

My father kept this photo with him his entire adult life, until he gave it to me in 1992. As he told me this story he started and stopped many times and had to wipe tears from his eyes and face several times. He told me that he had nightmares about shooting this young Japanese soldier every night for several years after the incident, even after he returned to the U.S. after the war. He said that after four or five years the nightmares became less frequent, but that he still had them every few weeks or months up until he died, at age 68, in 1993.

My father was, in some ways, not a very good man. In his young life he was an alcoholic, a frequent liar, had a terrible temper, and was a violent man much of the time. He and my mother divorced when I was about 8 years old and I only saw him every few years for the rest of his life. Near the end of his life he visited me and told me the story behind the photo of this young Japanese soldier. It helped me to understand some of the bad experiences and demons in his life that occurred during WW II, which I believe made him, at least in part, the kind of man he was.

I don’t know why my father never did anything with this photo during his life, whether out of guilt or fear or hatred or what. When he gave it to me he didn’t even say that he wanted me to do anything with it either. So for sixteen years I kept it and looked at it and contemplated what to do with it.

Back in May of 2008 I contacted the Japanese Consulate in Portland, Oregon, USA, to see if I could return the photo of this young Japanese soldier to any surviving family members. A little over a year later they contacted me and told me that they had located some family members in Japan and that they would like the photo back and to know the details of how and where he died.

So, I wrote a letter detailing the circumstances (mostly the same version as here) and returned both the letter and the photo to the Consulate so that they could give it back to the family. I would have liked to receive some correspondence back from the family, but haven’t at this time.

My hope in posting this story here is to give people unfamiliar with war and the long lasting effects of actions taken during those extreme times a sense of what may stay with you for a very long time- maybe forever.

As a postscript I would like to add- I occasionally call up an image in my mind, when I think of those events from so long ago, of my father and this young Japanese soldier, both about 20 years old, sitting on a black sand beach, NOT in uniform, laughing and telling each other funny stories from their long, full, lives. And every time I do…my eyes well up with tears. If there is any kind of a just afterlife, that is what they are doing right now…in peace…hopefully forever.



  1. Poignant story…I don’t have any direct connection with War. My father had polio when he was young and so didn’t serve in the military. My oldest brother served in the Navy during the Korean Police Action and the closest he got to conflict was on an attack cargo ship that delivered men and equipment to the combat zone. Another brother served in the Air Force and achieved the rank of private about three times due to disciplinary insufficiencies. He never left the country. My youngest older brother served in the Navy during the Vietnam Conflict, also on a ship far from any direct military action. I had a couple of high school classmates who were killed there, and a couple who served in support operations in Thailand. My only foray into uniformed service was in the Cub Scouts….it didn’t take.

    I can only imagine (and I know that is a feeble comparison) the horrors of war. A movie I saw almost 40 years ago, I thought was probably the most vivid account of the aftermath of combat—Dalton Trumbo’s ‘Johnny Got His Gun’. I can still see some of the images presented on screen. Chilling!

    I hope the sad tale you related is indeed at a peaceful conclusion. I’m sure the Japanese family was gratified by your act of kindness.


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