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Iwo Jima Vet, Okinawa Survivor Wrestle With WWII Legacy

  • In this March 21, 2015, photo, Norman Baker of Delaplane, Va., smiles atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima after attending a memorial for the 70th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. Courtesy of Norman Baker via AP
    In this March 21, 2015, photo, Norman Baker of Delaplane, Va., smiles atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima after attending a memorial for the 70th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. Courtesy of Norman Baker via AP
  • Yoshiko Shimabukuro, a survivor of the Himeyuri Student Nurse Corps 70 years ago, speaks about the battle of Okinawa during World War II during an interview with The Associated Press on Okinawa in March 2015. Eugene Hoshiko/AP
    Yoshiko Shimabukuro, a survivor of the Himeyuri Student Nurse Corps 70 years ago, speaks about the battle of Okinawa during World War II during an interview with The Associated Press on Okinawa in March 2015. Eugene Hoshiko/AP

ITOMAN, Japan -- 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. Seventy years ago, when they finally met their foes, it was on the most terrifying terms.

Japan and the United States, the bitterest of enemies during World War II, are now among the closest of allies. Polls show the Japanese feel more affinity toward the U.S. than any other country. Most Americans and Japanese alive today weren't even born when Japan surrendered in 1945. That includes U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will meet in Washington this month.

But for Baker and Shimabukuro, who experienced the war's darkest moments in separate, back-to-back battles hundreds of miles apart, it's never been easy to reconcile the hatred of the past with the peace of the present. It took decades for Baker to open up about his experiences. Shimabukuro has spent her life teaching children the horrors of her personal battle and praying for the day when the 20,000 U.S. troops still based on her island will leave, once and for all.

These 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, a last-minute replacement to a battalion of Seabees. Because he had no construction experience, he was assigned to a security detachment protecting units clearing two airfields, the first near Mount Suribachi -- scene of the iconic U.S. flag-raising. Initially, he was armed with an M1 carbine. Later, he got a Thompson submachine gun.

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He was the first off his unit's landing craft.

"When the clam doors opened, I had no concept of war," he said. "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," he said.

With sunrise, his unit moved toward the south end of the first airfield and dug in for the night. Baker found his best friend, Lincoln Clement, dead in a foxhole the next morning.

At first, most of the Japanese soldiers Baker came across were either dead or hidden in the tiny island's thick foliage, extensive labyrinth of caves or heavily fortified firing positions.

It might have been the second day, or maybe the third -- Baker had already lost his sense of time -- when it happened. He and his foxhole partner were moving northward. It was morning.

"We encountered this small pillbox, which had been neutralized earlier by the Marines," he said. "As we moved past the pillbox, I cautiously looked into the firing aperture."

Inside he saw a Japanese soldier huddled down in a corner. The soldier moved.

"It was standard operating procedure not to bypass a questionable 'dead' enemy soldier without making certain that he was dead."

So, without hesitation, Baker fired.

"He was so close when I shot him the blood splattered on me," he said.

"We were indoctrinated throughout that the Japanese were a people to be hated; that they considered prisoners as cowards to be brutally treated, if the prisoner was lucky, or killed at the slightest provocation, as so many were," Baker explained. "Before Iwo, we had learned of this inhuman treatment, not only of the prisoners of war, but also of the civilians they conquered. The Japanese exhibited no compassion. We saw them as the terrorists of the time."

Baker's battlefield experiences, for the most part, reinforced his hatred.

"I was a good soldier. I developed a brutal mentality. I didn't avoid contact."

Only once did he hesitate to pull the trigger.

Iwo Jima was declared secure on March 16, 1945. On April 1, the U.S. invaded Okinawa. For both sides, this was high noon.

Japan poured everything it could into defending the island and the U.S. sent the biggest armada in history to mount the "Typhoon of Steel," seen as a prelude to the invasion of Japan's main islands that -- until the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- seemed inevitable.

Unlike Iwo Jima, inhabited only by combatants, Okinawa was densely populated with civilians.

By late March, Japanese soldiers were fortifying Okinawa and mobilizing Okinawan civilians for the fight ahead. Shimabukuro was assigned to theHimeyuri Student Corps.

She packed lightly. Like her friends, she was told she'd be home in a week. In fact, more than half of the 240 women and girls would never come home.

After three days of training, she was sent to Imperial Army Hospital Cave 24, where she helped dig and prepare the interior for patients. By the end of the month, she was moved to Cave No. 17, where she got water and helped with surgeries. After about a month there, she was moved to a smaller cave, then to the Ihara No. 1 Surgical Cave.

As the fighting closed in around them, 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."

With a friend, she wandered around at night, clinging to the shadows of rocks along the shoreline as U.S. Navy ships offshore blasted orders for them to stop hiding and surrender. They were also ordered to move only during the day, when they could be identified as non-combatants.

"We assumed it was all lies, and we didn't obey them," she said.

Two days after she left the cave, she stepped on an explosive, badly wounding her right arm and leg. After that, her memory is a blur. Some villagers helped carry her and her friend, who was also injured, to a relatively safe place. As they hid behind some crags, maggots ate away at their wounds.

"The pain was tremendous," she said. "I asked my friend to kill me. But she couldn't kill a friend."

On Iwo Jima, some of the worst fighting was around Hill 382, the highest point on the northern part of the island, from which the dug-in and hidden Japanese fought desperately. The area was known as the Meat Grinder.

Walking in a column with his unit, Baker 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," Baker said. "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 Japanese 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," Baker said. He will probably never know.

Shimabukuro was fading in and out of consciousness when she heard the footsteps. "I prayed they wouldn't come to us, but they did," she said.

"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.'"

One of the Americans put his weapon down. Another blew a whistle to alert comrades nearby. Because her friend had more strength, it took three of them to hold her down. Shimabukuro was so exhausted from the pain and loss of blood she could barely resist. She remembers her friend saying, "Let's die quietly, looking at the moon."

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 assumed 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 was taken away on a stretcher.

She continued to hate and distrust her captors. 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."

As more and more local people she knew and trusted were interned with her, she loosened up. Okinawa had officially fallen on June 23, before she was even captured. She learned the war itself was over not from Emperor Hirohito's unprecedented radio announcement on Aug. 15, but from a Japanese man at the camp who was born in Hawaii and spoke English.

"My question was, who won?"

After returning home from Japan, Baker pursued an education. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he endured another solid year of combat, fighting in some of that war's most brutal battles: the Punchbowl, Heartbreak Ridge, Kumwha Valley.

Home for good, he finished his degree, became an aerospace engineer and was active in the space program before switching to journalism and publishing. He has lived in Delaplane, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, for the past 55 years.

"For 40 years after the war, I never spoke of the conflict or the role I played in that conflict," said Baker, now 88. He said he didn't tell his parents, colleagues or even his closest friends about his experiences on Iwo Jima. "It was only after I attended my first reunions that I found there were others that I could talk to."

Last month, Baker returned to Iwo Jima for the second and probably final time to attend a "Reunion of Honor." The memorial is held with Japanese officials and bereaved families on the island, which Japan renamed Iwoto in 2007.

"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."

No Japanese survivors were present at this year's memorial -- of the 22,000 Japanese who fought there, only a couple hundred survived. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. vets healthy enough to make the trip declines every year.

Baker and his 4th Marine Division comrades will hold their group's final muster this summer at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. It was with these vets that Baker first opened up about his past. He was president of the 4th Marine Division Association for a year.

"Our attending numbers have become so small that we will have to fold it up," he said.

Shimabukuro's wounds were so severe that doctors at the U.S. medical facility where she was treated wanted to amputate. She refused. She still has shrapnel in her arm and chest.

She went on to become a teacher. In 1984, she and other survivors of the Himeyuri unit built a museum about 400 meters away from the last cave where Shimabukuro served. Ever since, large groups have gathered nearly every day to hear Shimabukuro and the others talk of their experiences.

A few weeks ago, they gave their last formal lectures. Shimabukuro, 87, says they just don't have the strength anymore.

Like Baker, she no longer harbors the kind of blind hatred that consumed her 70 years ago. But her distrust remains, largely because of the continued U.S. military presence in Okinawa, home to several U.S. bases and the largest contingent of Marines outside of the United States or a war zone.

One of the camps where Shimabukuro was held after her capture is now Kadena Air Base, the largest Air Force base on foreign soil in the Pacific.

"I don't feel any gratitude toward the Americans on their military bases here," she said. "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."

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World War II Japan