by Wally Graves
Fifty-two years have passed since the battle of Iwo Jima. But the story still unfolds.
You remember Iwo Jima: that tiny volcanic island 650 miles south of Tokyo where so many young lives were lost.
If you drive by Eureka's Redwood Acres you'll pass a street named Viale. Viale memorializes the North Coast's lone Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, a lieutenant named Robert Viale who died in the Philippines.
The street also memorializes Robert's brother Raymond, who went ashore on Iwo Jima 52 years ago and simply disappeared. To this day, missing in action, no surviving memento. Would the Viale family welcome a reminder from such a distant past?
Would the families of Japanese soldiers welcome such a memento?
This question was posed -- and has been answered -- by the North Coast Journal, and now the story can be told about a boy born the same time as Raymond Viale to a middle class family named Murakami living in Tokyo north of the Imperial Palace.. The baby's parents named their boy Yoshifumi.
As a child Yoshifumi played in Tokyo's oldest and vastest Yoishikawa garden nearby, built by a lord long ago to display for the people miniatures of the most famous Chinese and Japanese settings. It was called "The Garden of Pleasures Last," alluding to a Chinese saying, "A gentleman should be the first to worry about the world's troubles and the last to enjoy its pleasures."
The boy grew up. He learned photography. When he was 17 his nation went to war with America. His two older brothers enlisted. He studied mathematics at an abacus university, and then took over his family's printing business till, at 20, he joined the navy and found himself in the service of his emperor down Tokyo Bay at the vast naval shipyard of Yokosuka.
On the eve of his departure to war Yoshifumi mailed an authorized military card to his mother in Chiba across the bay. The card pictured an aircraft carrier spouting black smoke from its stack, and above the carrier, in closer view, a fighter plane. The card warned, in print, "No one allowed to meet family."
Yoshifumi wrote: "Dear Mother. Thank you very much for your letter. I am fine and do my duty. I'll give you all the money I have, Please spend it. I'll send you a picture of me. I put on a uniform yesterday. Please take good care, you are not so well. Bye."
That was the last anyone heard from Yoshifumi.
Yoshifumi's mother and father, brothers and sister, survived the firestorms that destroyed Tokyo. They survived the atom bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His two older brothers returned safely. They learned -- much later -- that their beloved Yoshifumi had disappeared at some unknown place five months before Hiroshima, when he was 21. Only the postcard remained.
We know now that when Yoshifumi left for war he carried with him, for his well being, a pure silk flag, easy to fold, soft to the touch, white, bearing indelibly in the center the red orb of the sun. Unfurled, the flag measured 28 inches top to bottom, and 36 inches wide. The red circle spanned 16 inches. At the flag's two corners ties were sewn so it could be waved on a pole.
Yoshifumi's friends had written on the flag, in large black characters, "The bearer of this flag will be reincarnated seven times and each of those lives will be dedicated to his country." His teachers had inscribed well wishes. "Live long, fight well, and survive."
Yoshifumi's name appeared in the upper left corner, and below it the name of his brothers, including the youngest, Kazuo, who had helped see to it that so many had signed eleven in all.
From Yokosuka, Yoshifumi managed to fly south to Iwo Jima, already a target for enemy bombers.
He had little time to serve before American marines -- including Raymond Viale -- landed at Iwo on the morning of Feb. 19, 1945. Yoshifumi hid underground with 21,000 other Japanese airmen, sailors and soldiers. He was among the 20,000 destined to perish in the heat and stench of Iwo's caves, and under the onslaught of a determined enemy itself willing to suffer over 28,000 dead and wounded.
The fighting went well into March when another American marine from Eureka, Edward Walsh, 22, came across a flag lying among Japanese bodies. Walsh brought the flag home. He put it away for 50 years.
In February 1995, the Journal published a story I'd written about North Coast veterans who had lived, and died, on Iwo Jima. Walsh offered his somewhat tattered memento of the battle to the Journal's art director Carolyn Fernandez, and Fernandez, with translation by Japanese language teacher Taku Tojimbara and the determined help of Arcata's Frank Schmidt, went on a fruitless search for the family of Yoshifumi Murakami. (Schmidt, a veteran, had earlier successfully returned to a Japanese family a World War II journal he'd found in the Philippines.)
By August of 1996 they gave up, and I returned the flag to Walsh who lives with his wife Cordelia on Hawthorne Street. Walsh said he'd keep the flag for his grandchildren. He stuck it under his bed, wrapped in protective white paper.
Then on Christmas Eve last, Fernandez received the following letter from Schmidt's Japanese contact, and the gathered pieces fell into place:
...I have, at long last, succeeded in locating the kin of the owner of the Japanese battle frag which Mr. Walsh got in Iwo Jima and you have been looking for the kin.... They have no article left by the departed brother, Yoshifumi. The battle frag is the only article left for him. The kin hope to have it from Mr. Walsh.... Although one year passed, I could not locate the kin. However, in the last summer, a friend of mine whose name is Takehika Sugino ..., a leader of peace making activity..., visited the Ministry Wellfare in Tokyo and found old documents and turned pages one by one and finally found Yoshifumi Murakami. He spend many hours to do this work. My effort that I have done is a small thing. "I am contented and happy if Mr. Walsh and the kin are delighted," said he "Those who made their efforts to locate the kin are waiting for the frag. Needless to say, the kin himself."
Fernandez phoned me on Christmas Eve. Yoshifumi's youngest brother, Kazuo, was alive. He awaited his brother's flag. Could I ask Ed Walsh to give it back?
I asked. Walsh returned it without hesitation.
There was still the question of exactly where, exactly when, on that miserable volcanic piece of rock, and under exactly what temporarily insane circumstances Walsh had retrieved this few ounces of white silk with its red circle and its messages of hope and good will.
Walsh only murmured, "They wouldn't want to know."
Like other veterans who have truly been there, done that, Walsh is happy to put it all to rest.
In The Journal office hangs a calendar for 1997 with the words, in Japanese, "Winter has gone, spring has come. All things out of doors, awaking the winter sleep."
The calendar is a gift from from Takohiko Sugino whose Peace Institute in Kagoshima, far from Tokyo to the south, managed the return of the World War II Japanese flag from Eureka to the family of Yoshifumi Murakami. The young enlisted man had carried the flag to Iwo Jima, and had lost it along with his life in March, 1945. Ed Walsh of Eureka had recovered it as a young American Marine.
On March 2 of this year the flag was formally presented to Yoshifumi's younger brother Kazuo, now 67, who spoke before a cadre of national TV and newspaper reporters: "When I saw the flag, and my signature, and my sister's signature, I was very moved. Our family did not have any remains of Yoshifumi and somehow that made it very difficult for us to cope with his death since there was no sense of closure. I will be taking this flag to the cemetery to show it to my brother. He will rest in peace and calm if the flag can be useful in establishing world peace."
It was by chance, and a lot of good will and hard work, that the flag ever made it home. The grisly details of the battle of Iwo Jima were essentially suppressed in post-war Japan. The fallen warrior was thought to have been in the army, but was in fact in the navy. Records of war years were scattered and incomplete. Nor were many Tokyo residents at the battle, the bulk having come from the south.
At the press conference the young reporters couldn't read the old Japanese letters written on the flag. But a middle aged reporter whose cousin had been killed on Iwo Jima was very interested, according to Tadakatsu Tsutsui, the go-between who connected things: "That reporter, and Mr. Sugino and I explained the writing on the flag to the other reporters, recollecting for the others the cruel battle. This return of the flag has triggered a delegation to have a memorial service in Kagoshima where Mr. Sugino lives. These things can contribute to peace."
In thanks for the flag's return, Toshifumi's brother Kazuo sent Walsh a small gold silk brocade symbolizing the joining of east and west, explaining that there is evidence as early as 300 B.C. that the "silk road" between China and Ancient Greece left traces of a joined art form.
"I am the younger brother of the owner of the flag," he wrote Walsh. "Thank you very much for you having made an effort to return the flag to me. We are going to have a memorial service in March which is the month when my brother Yoshifumi deceased. Please take good care."
Wally Graves is a freelance writer who often contributes to the Journal.