OSAKA -- "Wars only result in unhappiness," says 100-year-old Akira Yoshimura who has continued to share his tragic experience of fighting in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, at the end of the Pacific War, as a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army.
"I can't describe in words how devastating the sights were," the centenarian says. The former private first class saw the waters off Okinawa Island filled with U.S. battleships that bombarded the shore. Soldiers and residents of Japan's southernmost prefecture were killed with nowhere to run or hide.
June 23 is Okinawa Memorial Day -- the day the Battle of Okinawa officially ended with the suicide of a Japanese army commander -- and for Yoshimura, also the monthly anniversary of his wife Haruko's death, which led him to pass down his experiences.
Yoshimura, who now lives in Osaka's Miyakojima Ward, was born in the city of Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, in western Japan. He was drafted into the army in 1940 and took part in missions including the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941.
Though he was demobilized after three years, he was again drafted into the Osaka-based eighth infantry regiment in December 1944 and was sent to Okinawa Island. However, the war was growing fiercer day by day. Haruko, Yoshimura's then fiancee, had pleaded to him, "Please come back alive."
On April 1, 1945, the U.S. military descended on Okinawa's main island. By May, Yoshimura and his troops had been pushed back all the way to the city of Itoman in southern Okinawa. On a battlefield scattered with dismembered bodies, his superior was mistaken for an American soldier and was shot dead by a Japanese soldier. A classmate from his hometown was also killed right in front of his eyes during an artillery attack.
Yoshimura himself was also knocked down by the naval gunfire. It made a hole on his helmet and caused massive bleeding to his head. A shell fragment also wounded his right arm, and he suffered serious back and foot injuries.
To escape the gunfire, Yoshimura hid in a shelter, and stayed deep in the dugout with bated breath during the day, fearing the use of flamethrowers and grenades by the U.S. military. At night he would go out to boil and drink the water in which bodies were floating.
Some 20 people including local residents who were forced to leave their homes and lost their farms and were also hiding in the dugout shared sweet-potato vines and other food with him even though such items were scarce. But Yoshimura was so desperate to protect himself it never occurred to him that he needed to protect the locals as well.
In June, Yoshimura heard an announcement by an American of Japanese descent that the Imperial Japanese Army had lost in Okinawa, but he did not believe it. He finally came out of the dugout and surrendered after hearing the radio announcement of Japan's surrender by Emperor Hirohito on Aug. 15. Only 10% of some 600 soldiers in the infantry regiment were left at that point.
After a period as a prisoner of war, Yoshimura returned to Osaka in February 1946, but he was left with a paralyzed right arm, and shell fragments are still stuck in his back. He kept his mouth shut about the Battle of Okinawa even after the end of World War II, as the experience was too heart-wrenching to describe.
Haruko's death in 2013 became a turning point for Yoshimura. Bit by bit, he started to talk about the Battle of Okinawa to a priest at a temple he visits on the monthly anniversary of his wife's death. "At that time, saying 'please come back alive' would have been considered unpatriotic." Yoshimura has wondered how his wife felt back then. Upon recommendation from the priest, he began to share his experiences in the war at a local primary school and in other places.
Seventy-four years from the end of the Battle of Okinawa, in which some 200,000 troops and civilians were killed, Yoshimura is the only one left among fellow soldiers who went through the same experiences back then. The 100-year-old has continued to ask himself why he was the one to survive for such a long time, and has decided to pass on his wartime experiences to others.
"If I don't pass them down now, there'll be no one that can talk about the tragic war. A world in which people resort to arms is wrong," he said.
Yoshimura plans to quietly pray for the people who lost their lives in Okinawa on June 23.
(Japanese original by Hideto Okazaki, Osaka City News Department)