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American man searches for family of fallen Japanese soldier to return 77-yr-old photos

TOKYO -- Seventy-seven years ago, five photos belonging to a Japanese soldier who fought on the Marshall Islands were sent to the United States. At the turn of the century, they were discovered by Pennsylvania resident David Wassel, 59, among the relics of his relative "Uncle Harry" who was dispatched to the Central Pacific in World War II.

    Now Wassel wants to return the photos to the Japanese man's family. Some of the images show young children, and Wassel has ruminated on the Japanese soldier who kept the pictures until dying on a battleground far from home, and his family who were waiting for him to come home.

    David Wassel is seen with relics of Harry Dininger at his home in Pennsylvania in May 2021, in this photo provided by Mariko Fukuyama. =Click/tap photo for more images.

    Perhaps because the five photos were well kept, the images of the people in them remain vivid. One appears to be a family photo of five, with three children and their parents. Others show a man and a boy, a young man holding a wooden sword, a woman in a kimono, and a kimono-clad man.

    Wassel's distant relative Harry Dininger was a U.S. Marine who died in combat at 25. Dininger sent the photos, possessions of a deceased Japanese soldier, to his parents back home while dispatched to the frontlines on the Marshall Islands in March 1944.

    Although it is not clear why he sent the photos, the letter with them reads: "I sort of thought you would like to see what the people we are fighting look like." It appears a majority of those in Harry's hometown had never met a Japanese person before, and Wassel theorizes that Harry sent the photos to try to let his worried mother know about the kind of people he had encountered.

    Afterwards, Harry was moved to the fighting in Okinawa, and died in May 1945 after a bullet hit him in the chest, never to return home. Wassel grew up while receiving affectionate care from Harry's older brother Bob, who married an older sister of Wassel's grandmother. Wassel said that in 2002 he discovered in the basement over 100 letters Harry sent to his parents from various battlefields. The letters were filled with reassuring words to them, such as "I am well, and please don't worry about me as everything is OK." They also describe his yearning to go home.

    A Japanese man wearing a traditional "haori" kimono is seen in this image provided by David Wassel. The bottom half of the photo appears to have been cut off.

    As Wassel read through the letters over several months, he found photos of a Japanese person in one of the envelopes. Wassel sympathized with the individual's family, and wished to return the belongings, but he rarely comes into contact with Japanese people in his small suburban town. He set about searching for the bereaved family after encountering Mariko Fukuyama, 54, a New York-based reporter and director who visited Wassel's town three years ago to cover the presidential elections.

    Based on the dates and content of the letter, it is highly likely Harry obtained the photos at the Battle of Eniwetok in February 1944. According to Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies, Japan and the U.S. engaged in fierce combat on Engebi Island and Parry Island, where Harry was located, and about 2,000 Japanese soldiers -- over 70% of the Japanese forces fighting in that battle -- died. Before sending the letters, Harry also went to Kwajalein Atoll after a battle there.

    Wassel felt sorry for Harry and the Japanese soldier in the photos because they didn't get to be old men. He said "they should have been old men arguing with kids" had they survived the war, instead of fighting people from different countries. He sympathized with the two and said he wanted them to have been able to lead those lives.

    Harry was optimistic and loved his family; he barely wrote about painful experiences in his letters. But the cruelty of war can be gauged by the fact he forgot his own birthday after landing on Okinawa, and the way his vocabulary began to resemble that of an older person.

    Japanese people who are thought to be a family are shown in this photo provided by David Wassel.

    A sergeant major who grew up with Harry and who was in the same unit sent a letter to Harry's parents that read, "I won't attempt to say that he died for the American way of life, freedom, etc. ... What I will say is that he died bravely, and quickly, which is the best way for a soldier to die, if he has to die at all." The letter also mentioned that he spoke only of going home.

    Wassel said what the sergeant wanted to convey was not a romanticized image of dying for one's country, but that "these were real people" with emotions different from national leaders' narratives for the war. Wassel contributed a column including the letters to a local newspaper out of hope that young people today will not have to go to war.

    He expressed a desire to meet and talk with the family of the man in the photos, if they can be found.

    "I would like to know about the young man in the photo. What was he like?" said Wassel. "Now he was from the other side of the world, but he was still a young man, just like them (Harry and Bob)."

    (Japanese original by Asako Takeuchi, Tokyo City News Department)

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    We ask that anyone who has information regarding the photos contact us by email at (t.shakaibu@mainichi.co.jp), via Line at (https://lin.ee/xH8MkEj), or by mail to 1-1-1 Hitotsubashi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8051.

    In Photos: Man in US hopes to return pictures to family of WWII Japanese soldier who died

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