A Marine Story
by Jim Acker
NOTE: I am sending this story to various Marine publications, hoping to achieve two things.
One is get some funding for an expedition to New Britain Island and two, help the Japanese
in their quest to return personal items to families and museums in Japan from the Pacific campaigns.
My cousin was in the 5th Marine division on Iwo Jima. Being a former Marine myself, I was always attracted to Leslie at family reunions, hopefully hearing stories about the most famous battle the Marines ever fought.
Leslie landed on D Day (Feb. 19th). It was his first and only combat. When he landed, the Japanese had commenced shelling the beach area. Leslie was terrified and his struggle up the first sandy terrace was like a nightmare. He found a line of prone Marines and fell in line among them. After a couple of minutes he collected his wits and tried to talk with them. They were all dead. He sprinted again until he found the front and his unit. 1/27. His descriptions of the horror on the beach were always with him.
Figure 1 – The beach on day one
Figure 2 - The beach area on day two with Mt. Saribachi in the background
After the fight for Mt. Saribachi was over, Leslie's company was given the job of guarding the main ammo dump. A couple of days after that a Japanese "Garbage Can" mortar hit the dump and that was the end of Leslie's good job. He was sent to the front.
In an advance to take a ridge, Leslie's squad were all wounded or killed. He said they jumped into a 500 pound bomb crater to escape enemy mortar fire. The Japs were buried around the rim of the crater and rolled grenades among them. Leslie was the only one to get out.
March 1st, his company along with the rest of the 1/27, was placed in reserve as their efficiency was down to 50%. Leslie took a book from a dead enemy soldier's pocket and kept it a souvenir. He gave me the book a few years ago along with some Japanese bayonets. The book was in the old Chinese type script and was obviously a book of patriotic songs, poems and a calendar. There were also two pages of handwritten notes in the back of the book. Inside the front cover were two symbols I guessed were the soldier's name.
Figure 3 - Leslie signed his name inside the cover. Puddle of ink was typical of the fountain pens of that period
Recently I read a book about Iwo Jima and in the back was a plea by a Captain Tsunezo Wachi, president of the Japanese Iwo Jima survivor's association for the return of body parts collected by the Americans supposedly to turn skulls into ash trays. I wrote Captain Wachi a letter expressing my doubts about the skulls into ashtrays story, however, I sent the scanned page of the inside cover of my cousin's book. I received a delightful letter from the captain's daughter, Ms Rosa Ogawa a few weeks later stating that her father had died in 1990 and that she was carrying on his correspondence. She stated that if I would send the book, perhaps she could locate the soldier's family. Failing that, she would place it in the Iwo Jima Museum.
Two months after writing the letter to Captain Wachi, I received the front page of a Japanese newspaper. The picture in the article shows the soldier's widow receiving the book in a moving ceremony. It occurred during Bon, our equivalent of All Saints Week. She said that Rokuji Yoneda's spirit had returned home and that this was as good as receiving his ashes. She was going to place the book in his empty tomb. Rokuji had a daughter who was 16 years old when he was killed. She also attended the ceremony as did her second husband who took on the Yoneda name when they married.
The Japanese place strong value on bringing their MIAs home. They have archeology teams working on Iwo and have recovered 8500 remains so far with another 11,000 to go. They only found 58 remains in 2003. As the newspaper article stated, however. It is rare that an artifact can be traced to a specific soldier.
I think my cousin would be happy that the book has brought some closure to a dead soldier's family. He always spoke highly of the Japanese soldier and marveled at their endurance. He went into one of the concrete bunkers he unit had finally silenced. He said the dead were stacked like cordwood. Apparently when a soldier was killed, he body would be stacked and another take his place. The pill boxes were connected by tunnels so using flame throwers only temporarily silenced the bunker. He said that the Japanese snipers would bury themselves in the sand in a manner that could only be detected by the lay of the fallen Marines.
My cousin considered himself very fortunate to have survived alive and intact. He said he saw a Marine heading for the rear holding a stump where an arm had been blown off. The Marine was grinning from ear to ear because he was alive and going home. He spoke of the ground so hot from volcanic activity that he would lay his tightly folded blanket and his pack in his foxhole and lay on top of them to try to sleep. He would have to keep changing sides because of the heat. He was only 5; 9" and 18 years old. He spoke of the Japanese his unit was facing as being 6 feet tall and fierce fighters. Perhaps this was Rokuji Yoneda's outfit which was the Shimane Infantry, 109th Division, and 21st Regiment, Charging Company. The Charging Company fought the Marines March 1st - 3rd of 1945. Of 80 men, 2 survived those three days. The handwritten notes in the back of the book were their marching song as follows:
Song for the Infantry 21st Regiment
For the name of Shimane 21st Regiment,
We 3000 soldiers stationed are proud
To follow the trails of our honorable forerunners,
Our heroic hail sweeps over the vast sea
Hear the trumpet over the castle,
Lo and behold the colors in Pyang Yangi!
The castle is all for to welcome us.
The armors of 21st Regiment have none of fear.
Sound of guns roar in North China
It echoes all over the wide continent.
Enemy runs scattered away,
We march forward in wilderness
The august virtue is bountiful in our way ahead.
We brave soldiers fight against the stout Slavs in Manchuria.
We charge even shedding blood
To the last soldier of our 21st regiment.
Beholding the colors up in the sky
Memories visualize the honored bravery,
Our sprits are enlightened with the Imperial mission.
We 21st regiment is only march forward as a core.
(Translation by Rosa Ogawa)
Figure 4 - Patriotic Calendar
The 1/27 was kept in reserve for about 5 days, reorganized, replacements added, and then put back into the line March 6th. March 17th they were finally pulled off the line and were down to 40% efficiency. Leslie was company runner for “A” company until he was himself wounded about March 12th. The 27th regiment was evacuated March 23rd, a little over a month after D Day. They were subjected to intense combat for about 23 days; however, there was no completely safe area on the island. The unit was returned to Hawaii for R & R. Leslie looked up my father who was working for the Civil Service in Honolulu at the time. The men in my father’s unit treated Leslie like the hero that he was. All of the men on Iwo were heroes, both Japanese and Americans. Leslie fully expected to play a part in the invasion of the Japanese home islands. After Iwo Jima, few expected to live. By the time the Japanese surrendered In August, the 5th Marine division had been filled out with replacements. Leslie was sent to China for a year, Japan for a few months and finally home.
Japan next to the United Kingdom and perhaps Australia is our strongest ally. The return of relics from their equivalent of the Alamo means very much to them. During the Korean conflict, Iwo Jima was still under American control and occupation. Souvenir hunters would roam through the tunnels and caves. It was during this period that many relics and skulls were taken. It would be a generous gesture for as much of these items to be returned. I can't stress enough the lengths they go to honor and bring home their dead. I have researched a located the crash two Marines on New Britain Island (July 3, 1944), but unless I can bring positive proof that they are still there, our remains recovery team will not go. http://www.pacificwrecks.com/people/mia/missing/becker.html .
Figure 5 - Inside cover with soldier's name
Figure 6 - Ceremony for the return