Closing a chapter on Iwo Jima
September 14, 2008
Tsuruji Akikusa had always kept a journal. So at 18, when he returned from war to Japan in 1946, he wrote it all down.
The young seaman apprentice wrote about joining the Imperial Navy at 15, sailing from Yokosuka to the Bonin Islands, then arriving on Iwo Jima in the summer of 1944.
His tale, like the war itself, grew more harrowing. It expanded from his time as a communications sailor in an Imperial Navy bunker to watching thousands of U.S. Marines storm Iwo Jima’s black-sand beaches. It carried him through to a U.S. military hospital in Guam, a prison in Virginia, and a shocking return home to Japan.
At times, his memory betrayed him. He survived the 36-day onslaught on Iwo Jima and the following three months. Hunger and grief took its toll. He survived on leeches, dirty water and food stolen from the Americans. He hid with friends and alone. Toward the end, he lived in a cave where his friend, Yasuo Kumakura, had killed himself.
But Akikusa’s weakened mind never betrayed his spirit. He refused to surrender. He refused to use the grenade his fellow sailors had tossed him before they left him behind.
"I was going to live," Akikusa said. "I had to tell the story about everyone and the truth about the war."
All this, he wrote down nearly six decades ago. It covered more than 1,000 pages, and it proved too awful to show his parents. About two years ago, as a father and a grandfather, he shared bits of it with a Japanese reporter. With prompting, Akikusa agreed to turn it into a book.
"Junanasai no Iwo Jima" — a 17-year-old’s Iwo Jima — was published in late 2006 and caught the attention of a Japanese worker in the public affairs office at a U.S. Army base near Tokyo.
Soon the base’s Army spokesman took on Akikusa’s cause — a return trip to Iwo To, the island’s historical and now official name.
Maj. James Crawford began negotiating with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force to arrange a trip. A Diet member made a special request. The commanding U.S. Army general in Japan offered use of his seven-seat jet. Akikusa was determined to find one special friend — Kumakura. He wanted to find that cave. He wanted to deliver a message.
Crawford knew of Iwo Jima’s 16 miles of defensive tunnels and underground bunkers the Imperial military dug. He and Takashi Matsuda, the Japanese reporter in Crawford’s office, doubted the 81-year-old man would find his wartime shelter.
"I told him it’s dangerous," Matsuda said of tramping around Iwo To’s jungle. Still, they all went forward with the quest.
"We’re going to try to find his cave," Crawford said Wednesday as Akikusa, three civilian journalists, two military reporters and two Army pilots prepared to board Brig. Gen. Francis Wiercinski’s plane.
"Destiny," Akikusa said through a translator as the plane took off from Naval Air Facility Atsugi. A slight man who wears glasses, he sank into the general’s seat. "Dreams come true."
Akikusa joined the Japanese Imperial Navy when he was 15.
When it sent him from his communications post in Yokosuka to Iwo Jima in July 1944, commanders told no one where they were going until they got closer to their destination.
"Hell Island," he said of Iwo Jima. Troops who went there never returned home.
By the summer of 1944, Japanese soldiers and sailors were burrowing their defenses into eight square miles of volcanic rock moored in the Pacific about 670 miles south of Tokyo.
The Japanese needed the island as a radar center to track flights of U.S. B-29s headed to bomb the mainland. The United States wanted to halt the communications and turn the island into a refueling strip.
So as 21,000 Japanese bored underground, 70,000 Marines on nearly 900 U.S. Navy ships sailed toward the beaches. U.S. air raids pummeled the island from December into February 1945.
By then, Akikusa was posted at Mount Tamana, a lookout northeast of Mount Suribachi, the highest point on the island where thousands of Japanese troops were hidden. On Feb. 16, 1945, he looked out and saw hundreds of U.S. Navy ships. He knew, he said, that the war was lost for Japan.
‘Peace comes from here’
On Wednesday, Akikusa felt hesitant to walk on the black sand.
No footprints marred Invasion Beach, his first stop after landing at the airstrip. Only sparse trash flecked the view toward Suribachi, where he had seen both the Japanese and then the U.S. flags raised 63 years ago.
Breaking waves nearly drowned his voice as he admitted that his presence, along with that of his escorts and media pool, was desecrating the land.
"Maybe it should be forbidden to stand here," Akikusa said.
Akikusa then retold his version of Feb. 19, 1945, when the Marines stormed the beach. He remembered seeing first 1,000, then 2,000, and then, by his estimates, 10,000 Marines trudge up from the water, unharmed. The Marines planted colored flags in the sand to mark unit locations.
The Japanese — hidden in bunkers, rock and mountain — watched and waited.
Then it started.
It would last 36 days. Outnumbered nearly 4 to 1, Japanese commander Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi didn’t expect to win. His victory would come when his troops killed so many Marines that America would think twice about any future invasion on Japanese soil.
In five weeks, 28,000 Marines would be wounded and nearly 6,900 killed. In the end, only 1,000 Japanese would survive.
"Peace comes from here," Akikusa said, waving his arms around.
‘People with guns had the power’
By March 8, 1945, the Marines were attacking Tamana, Akikusa’s outpost. He and others began running toward a bigger Imperial Navy headquarters post. On the way, he was wounded in his left leg and lost three fingers on his right hand.
"What will happen to me? What should I do?" the 17-year-old Akikusa asked his fellow sailors.
One handed him a grenade.
"Good luck," the sailor said.
Then the sailors, who were off to a fight, set everything in the bunker on fire. Akikusa tried to drag himself, to follow them. They only apologized and left him in the scorched tunnels.
"I had nothing," he said.
Thus began his three-month struggle for survival. He spent days meandering through tunnels and caves in the middle of the island. Despair came in waves. He learned that the main headquarters north of him was taken. He lost a close friend, Kage, a sailor he’d known since Yokosuka.
As the days went on, he watched his military shoot Japanese troops who tried to surrender or who shouted out in fear or pain.
"People with guns had the power," he said. "I guess that’s war."
He hid in tunnels and caves, only to be chased out by Marines. Once, they tossed poison gas cans into a tunnel where he lay. He survived by breathing out of a hole the size of a pinky finger.
Another time, U.S. troops flooded the bunker with a mixture of water and oil, churning up excrement and corpses. He left for higher ground to save his wounds from infections and avoided a big bang. The Americans had set the fuel-laced water on fire.
"People’s skins were peeling off. They were like ghosts," he said. "It was like an inferno."
Finally, Akikusa left that area for good. He ran into another Japanese soldier, who showed him how to steal food from the Americans. Akikusa almost got caught, and he began looking yet again for a safer place to hide. That’s when he found his cave and his friend, Kumakura.
‘There is no evidence that I was here’
Akikusa showed no sign of a limp Wednesday when he went into the first series of tunnels. His tour guide, Japanese Lt. Nobuo Hiraga, had handed out flashlights and warned everyone of the slippery slope. A reporter in hiking boots fell. Akikusa, in treadless sneakers, clipped steadily along.
The group first entered tunnels that had served as the Imperial Navy’s hospital, then another series that was Kuribayashi’s headquarters. Akikusa remembered being there as he flashed his light on the cave’s remnants: wooden shards of furniture, tea kettles, cloudy sake bottles.
Iwo To means Sulfur Island and a rotten smell permeated the tunnels, which trap the island’s natural heat. The saunalike air was as hot as Akikusa remembered.
The last cave on the tour was used by Navy communications sailors like Akikusa. Hiraga thought it might be the one Akikusa was searching for.
But as the group wound through the underground loop, Akikusa knew it wasn’t. After more than three hours trekking around the island and reliving his past, Akikusa climbed aboard the van and collapsed in his seat.
In an earlier interview, Akikusa had described his frustration when he lost his pencil and paper as his unit sailed for Iwo Jima. With that loss, he imagined his family would never know what might become of him.
"No one knew I came here," he remembered. "There is no evidence that I was here."
‘Was I finally alone?’
Akikusa had spent March, April and May of 1945 hunting for food, water and shelter.
He, Kumakura and hundreds of others hid in the caves and tunnels on the island. They stole food from the Americans. They picked bananas when they could. They ate coal and leeches. They combed the miles of tunnels looking for luck and sustenance.
Kumakura was from a farming family in Iwate prefecture. Akikusa described him as 5 feet 4 inches, with eyebrows thick like caterpillars. When he shaved, he’d miss spots of his thick beard.
One day, the Americans approached Akikusa’s final hiding place and shouted demands for surrender. Kumakura began running into the depths of the tunnel.
Kumakura yelled for Akikusa to follow. But Akikusa, with his wounded leg, couldn’t keep up.
He heard an explosion, then continued forward. He found a room filled with smoke.
Kumakura, a 20-year-old seaman first class, had pulled the pin on a grenade. He was gone.
"There was not a soul inside or outside of the cave," Akikusa wrote in his book. "Was I finally alone?"
Toward the end, Akikusa’s memory dimmed. He remembered resting in a tunnel. He remembered being unable to move and fading away. He remembered still wanting to live.
"I didn’t mind dying like a dog," he said. "I decided not to take my own life."
Akikusa awoke to white. It was a nurse in a U.S. military hospital on Guam. It was early June, 1945. He had no memory of being captured or leaving Iwo Jima.
The Americans were tall, with big noses. They didn’t scare him, nor did his interrogator, a Japanese-American. "I thought it didn’t do any good to lie," said Akikusa, who provided his real name.
The Americans sent him to the States and put him on a train in Seattle. He was startled to see how little effect the war had on the United States. Women wore dresses. Cities kept their lights on at night, unlike the Japanese who turned off their lights at night to avoid air raids by American bombers.
"Red flowers were at bloom," he said of the ride. "They were beautiful."
He rode to Pennsylvania and eventually ended up at a prison in Virginia. He worked with Germans and Italians in the mess.
Akikusa was returned to his home on northeastern Honshu in early 1946. It was the very day his community held a public funeral with his name listed among the dead. His parents had refused to believe the bad news, and they were at home when he reappeared.
After their reunion, his father made him go down to city hall to change his status on the government rolls, from dead to alive.
Akikusa has spent his life as an electrician. He worked for 35 years with the Tobu Railway. Now his company does electrical work for schools and other buildings near Ashikaga, where he lives with his wife.
Last Tuesday, he drove five hours to Camp Zama to prepare for his return to Iwo To and his search for Kumakura. By 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, the tour of the island was over. The van headed back to the airfield.
Akikusa, sitting toward the front, grew anxious. He saw something that looked familiar.
The van stopped in the middle of the road. Akikusa got out and walked straight to the edge, near a copse of bushes and trees. He began crying.
"Kumakura, Kumakura, Kumakura, Kumakura," he chanted in a faint voice. He was standing near the entrance of a cave.
The vegetation had grown up around the tunnel, which lay in a bowl in the earth about 7 or 8 feet below the road. Hiraga knew there was a cave there, but he also knew that it hadn’t been explored. There might be live munitions inside.
Still, Hiraga began clearing the brush to make a path into the hole. First Hiraga, then Crawford, then Akikusa slid down the slope. Akikusa darted straight for the tunnel’s entrance before anyone could stop him.
One by one, the reporters slid into the hole. By the time most were down there, Akikusa had emerged from the cave. He didn’t want cameras down there. It was the only rebuke he’d given throughout the long, invasive day.
He got back on the van without a word. He had found his cave and delivered his message. He was done.
"I’m a cynic," Crawford said later when asked whether he believed if Akikusa found the cave where Kumakura died.
But he’d seen Akikusa’s reaction, his recognition of the landscape. And the Japanese commander at Iwo To later brought out maps for Akikusa. That cave had been used by communications sailors like Akikusa, Crawford said.
"I tend to believe it," Crawford said.
‘... now, there is peace’
By the time he was back on the airfield, preparing to board the plane, he was smiling again. He wanted to pose for photos with the pilots and the reporters who had accompanied him. He thanked everyone several times. He said he’d like to come back one day.
On the flight home, Akikusa looked out at Iwo To and the Pacific Ocean as the plane headed north. The sunset glowed orange through the clouds, spreading rays like the Rising Sun. Akikusa answered a few more questions from reporters before falling asleep.
He explained the message he’d waited so long to give Kumakura and his other friends who had died in that cave.
"I’m very happy to see you," he had said through tears at the hole’s edge. "I wanted to tell them — now, there is peace."
See more photos of Tsuruji Akikusa's visit here.