In my child’s mind, I picture seppuku, ritual suicide by sword, an image later colored by reading Mishima in my college Japanese lit class. I see a faceless soldier on his knees. I see little else, no cave wall nor jungle terrain, no humidity nor heat, no sun nor moon. He is a sentence in a book I can’t read; he is the sound of pride in my mother’s voice.
In graduate school, I begin asking questions. I Google his name. I buy and study a book about his last battle on the island of Biak, New Guinea. The book is self-published by the author, the verity of details murky. Some likely facts: he is the leader of approximately 11,000 Japanese soldiers occupying the island, valuable for its airfields (a refueling stop on the flight between warring countries). The Japanese general has recently restrategized in the Pacific-- reduced its defense perimeter and essentially abandoned its troops in New Guinea.
|US Army Sgt John P. Gallagher- |
South Pacific- WWII- Island of Biak 1945
“’The light enemy resistance at the beachhead held little hint of what was to come’, recalled MacArthur. Lieutenant Colonel Naoyuki Kuzume put up a fierce defense that included tanks, which was rare for Japanese troops in this theater of the Pacific War. Kuzume utilized his knowledge of the island's topography and devised a brilliant defense plan that fully utilized the terrain...
It was the first time Japanese troops effectively used caves as defensive strongholds. Before this point, Japanese troops defended the islands at the beach; when all was lost, surviving troops formed a banzai charge, and the battle was over. After the battle, the Japanese began to include caves as an option, which dramatically increased American casualty rates during operations to secure the subsequent islands...
His effective defense even rendered the airfields, newly captured by the Allies, useless. On 28 Jun, Kuzume's command post, located in one of the numerous caves, was breached. He committed ritual suicide."
Most of us are descendants of soldiers, survivors, war heroes. Facts can be researched, stories recorded, but the question I struggle with now is: How do I feel? As I read war narratives--while drinking my iced coffee in a Park Slope cafe--I feel proud. Wait. Proud?--though he was partly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers? Proud of his intelligence? Proud of his sense of honor and duty?
I also feel profoundly sad. Heatstroke, skin ulcers, malaria--there were many more dangers than gunfire. The troops had few rations (supply routes cut off by American military) and survived on potatoes in the dark passages of caves they’d tunneled into. One reseacher even suggests there was evidence of cannibalism in the caves.
Did they know they wouldn’t escape?
Is such suffering lightened, transformed when undertaken for love of country and emperor worshiped as god?
Last night, instead of working on this blog, I watched "Duets" on Hulu. Life as a writer is a series of confrontations and evasions, attack and retreat, even though no one is forcing me look back, to ask questions such as: where is the body?
I turn up the volume on the TV.