Iwo Jima vet, Okinawa survivor wrestle with WWII legacy
ITOMAN, Japan (AP) — In Norman Baker’s mind, the Japanese were fanatical, brutal animals with no respect for life. To Yoshiko Shimabukuro, Americans were long-nosed demons who rained hellfire from the skies before raping and pillaging anything with the worse-than-death fate of crossing their path.
Both the 18-year-old U.S. Marine and the 17-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl had known the enemy only from the virulent propaganda they had been fed. When they finally met their foes in the closing months of World War II, in separate, back-to-back battles hundreds of miles apart, it was on the most terrifying terms. And in the 70 years since, it has been difficult to reconcile the hatred of the past with the peace of the present.
Here are their stories, as told to The Associated Press on Iwo Jima and the island of Okinawa.
BAKER arrived with the 4th Marine Division on Iwo Jima in the dead of night on Feb. 25, 1945, and was assigned to a security detachment protecting units clearing two airfields. He was the first off his unit’s landing craft.
“When the clam doors opened, I had no concept of war. I became a man in a matter of seconds. The beach was by this time a chaos of men and equipment under Japanese mortar and artillery fire. It was a sobering and aging experience. I quickly moved into a shell hole.”
One morning, as he walked past a pillbox fortification, he looked inside and saw a Japanese soldier huddled in a corner. The soldier moved. Without hesitation, Baker fired.
“He was so close when I shot him the blood splattered on me.”
“We were indoctrinated throughout that the Japanese were a people to be hated. ... I was a good soldier. I developed a brutal mentality. I didn’t avoid contact.”
SHIMABUKURO was assigned in March 1945 to the Himeyuri Student Corps, mobilized by Japanese soldiers who were fortifying Okinawa and mobilizing Okinawan civilians for the fight ahead. More than half the 240 women and girls who went with her never came home.
Working out of various caves, Shimabukuro watched amputations without anesthesia, treated horribly infected wounds, listened to the cries of soldiers and sat helplessly as they died. They had little water and even less food. When a shell hit right outside a cave opening, killing all who were near, she knew the end was at hand.
Her unit was dissolved on June 18. She was ordered to leave the cave.
“We didn’t want to leave. We didn’t want to have to be scattered out there and die alone,” she said. “I asked for some kind of explosive, or cyanide, so that I could kill myself if the Americans came. I was told they didn’t have anything like that for us. They told us that if we were captured we should bite off our own tongues and bleed to death.
“We called them the American beasts. We were taught that if they captured us, they wouldn’t just kill us. They would strip us naked, rape us. So we weren’t as afraid to die as we were afraid of being captured alive.”
THE ENEMY RE-EXAMINED
BAKER, in an area of some of the worst Iwo Jima fighting, prepared to jump over a shell hole when he spotted a Japanese soldier moving below. The soldier faced Baker and raised his left arm above his head. Baker aimed his machine gun and motioned for the man to raise his other arm. They were just a few feet apart.
“I threw off the safety on the Thompson and prepared to kill him. His eyes pleaded for his life as he turned enough to show me that he had been shot in the back in the area of his right shoulder blade.”
The Marine behind Baker yelled at him to quickly kill the soldier. Baker said no. He was taking the man prisoner.
After making the soldier strip to his underwear to be sure he was unarmed, Baker gave him a cigarette and some water. Then he was taken away.
“I have always wished that I could have found out what he did with his life.”
SHIMABUKURO stepped on an explosive two days after leaving the cave, badly wounding her right arm and leg. Some villagers helped carry her and a wounded friend to a relatively safe place. As they hid behind some crags, maggots ate away at their wounds.
She was fading in and out of consciousness when she heard the footsteps.
“There were five American soldiers standing over us with their guns. They probably thought we had grenades. When they tried to pat down my friend’s chest, she resisted. They checked my pockets too. We didn’t have anything. I was so weak I couldn’t bite off my tongue. I begged to them, ‘Kill me, kill me.’”
The soldiers — probably actually Marines or Navy corpsmen — opened two bottles of a fluid Shimabukuro didn’t immediately recognize. In her haze of terror, she thought it was gasoline and that they were about to set her on fire.
“But then they started treating us,” she said. “What they were pouring on my wounds was to kill the maggots growing in my arm. They poured it out like it was water. The Japanese would have used the same amount to treat 50 men. But they used a whole bottle just on me. The maggots just died and started falling off.”
She continued to hate and distrust her captors for weeks. She refused to eat their food, or tell them anything about her unit.
“Being captured was the greatest shame. I thought they were just trying to deceive us by being kind, and that they would eventually kill us in some terrible way. The kinder they were the more I distrusted them.”
BAKER, after returning home from Japan, pursued an education — interrupted for a year by more combat in the Korean War. He became an aerospace engineer and was active in the space program before switching to journalism and publishing. The 88-year-old has lived in Delaplane, Virginia, for the past 55 years.
Last month, he returned to Iwo Jima for the second and probably final time to attend a “Reunion of Honor.”
“The hate and bitterness I felt for the Japanese, which was universal during World War II, was left on Iwo Jima,” Baker said after the visit. “That was then, this is now.”
But he added: “I can never forget their cruelty and inhumanity, not only to us the enemy, but also among themselves. There is still a cultural divide that I guess we cannot expect to narrow.”
SHIMABUKURO went on to become a teacher. In 1984, she and other survivors of the Himeyuri unit built a museum near the last cave where she served. A few weeks ago, they gave their last formal lectures. The 87-year-old says they just don’t have the strength anymore.
Like Baker, she no longer harbors the kind of blind hatred that once consumed her. But her distrust remains, largely because of the continued U.S. military presence in Okinawa, home to several U.S. bases.
“They say they are here to protect Okinawa, to protect Japan. But we should instead be working together to create a world in which they aren’t needed.
“I don’t hate them,” she added, her voice fading as she carefully thought of what to say next.
“I do still believe the Americans are a kind people.”