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Return of photo album found in foxhole during WWII helped ease inner wounds

By KATHY HANKS | The Hutchinson News, Kan. (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 15, 2015

For years after World War II, the photos of the Japanese families mesmerized Grace Hessman.

She would turn the pages of the photo album and study the exquisitely dressed ladies and the men in their military uniforms.

"It was like nothing I had ever seen, and you can't imagine how fancy they were," said Hessman, 96, a Hutchinson resident. "They were such nice-looking people."

Her husband, Roy Hessman, found the photo album when his tank battalion came under heavy fire. He crawled into a foxhole to seek protection during a battle on the Philippines. The foxhole had previously been home for a Japanese soldier. Along with the album, there was a sword and a decorative letter opener. After the war, Hessman came home to Kansas with the album and the letter opener. However, the military confiscated the sword.

Roy Hessman, who grew up on a farm in Ford County, received a Purple Heart after being wounded in action, plus three Bronze Stars. Following the war, Roy wouldn't talk to Grace about those experiences. But she felt herself drawn to the photo album, flipping through the pages and studying every detail.

From time to time, together with their two sons, they discussed how they could find the owner of the album. Tucked inside there was a postcard with an address. Thus, they sent the card to the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce, thinking maybe they could help. However, they were not able to locate the family. Then, in the 1980s, the Hessmans' son who lives in Los Angeles suggested that they contact a Japanese radio station in LA. With the station's help they found the older brother of the album's owner and mailed him the album.

In 1995, Roy Hessman received a letter from Kisaki Hisamitsu, who lived in the city of Kokubu, Japan. He was the older brother of Saubro, the soldier who had taken the photo album with him into battle. He had three brothers and four sisters, they learned.

While it took 50 years after the war to find a family member, Hisamitsu appreciated the Hessmans' determination to get the album back to the right people. He wrote and thanked Hessman for the return of "the precious album." And the Hessmans in turn learned more about the man who had occupied the foxhole before Roy stepped into it.

"My brother was a person with a strong disposition. On the other hand, he was a person with a kind heart," Hisamitsu wrote. "At the time, my brother was sick and living in a hut. His fellow soldiers went to get something for him to eat. It was during their absence that he was attacked. That is what I heard from those who returned. I later heard from his fellow comrades, who had returned, that they could not save him."

He wrote that he had contacted people who had relatives in the photos and sent them to the families, bringing back old memories for them, also. He added that seeing the photos of his brother when he was young touched his heart.

Roy Hessman died in 2001.

"My husband was pretty bitter after the war. One of his best buddies was tortured," said Grace. "He was furious with his sons for buying Toyotas."

But when he received the letter from Kisaki Hisamitsu, she saw her husband change.

"The letter brought him peace," she said.

Now, on the 70th anniversary of victory in Japan, Grace Hessman and her neighbor Hap Walters discussed the well-written letter sent from a person who was once considered the enemy.

"It's a beautifully written letter," said Walters. He didn't think it was unusual to go to war with a photo album. His mother made sure he went off to the military with photos of loved ones.

Meanwhile, not only was Kisaki Hisamitsu thankful for the photos; he wrote Roy Hessman, "For the sake of my fellow soldiers and my young brother, I would like to live a very long life, even if it is for one day longer. I feel thankful that we are able to live in an era of peace."

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(c)2015 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.)
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