The unknown japanese soldier


27 July 1944, just before dawn, as Larry Kirby inched his way through thick jungle, 40 yards ahead of his platoon’s perimeter on Guam, he discovered a small booby trap wire that looked almost like a spider web. He carefully disconnected the wire and was shocked to look up and lock eyes with a lone enemy Japanese scout barely 20 feet away.

“I was paralyzed with fear. I could only stand, pulse racing, and stare back at him.” In those surreal moments, Kirby notes: “We had become the whole war. Two teenage boys, alone and afraid, in a strange and terrifying place, thousands of miles from home.”

Kirby dropped to the ground just as the Japanese soldier raised his Arisaka 6.5mm rifle and fired. Hidden by the brush, Larry heard a familiar click as the Japanese scout armed a hand grenade by striking its plunger against his steel helmet. Kirby recalls panic as the grenade landed in the bush behind him at which he bolted towards the enemy scout firing short bursts.

The grenade’s violent detonation sent shrapnel tearing into Kirby’ s back and slammed him to the ground. Bleeding, gasping for breath and wiping mud from his face Kirby looked up to see the Japanese soldier sitting hunched over dead from a bullet wound to the chest. Kirby crawled over to the dead soldier, immensely relieved but shaking violently as the realization that he had caused the death of another human being overwhelmed him.

“I almost vomited the few rations I had eaten that morning. My cheek was pressed against his forehead as sorrow welled up inside me and I wept like an infant. I could taste the salt of my tears as I cried without control and without shame. The blood leaking from the hole in my back was soaking into my jacket. I was dangerously close to the edge. Mercifully, I lost consciousness.”

Kirby awoke attended to by a Navy corpsman whom Kirby asked to retrieve the dead Japanese soldier’s id photograph. Kirby made a promise to carry the photo as a memorial to the fallen soldier. For over 70 years he has kept his promise.

After reading Kirby’s book, “Stories from the Pacific” and learning about the above episode, I approached Barry Frechette, producer of Paper Lanterns (see post on Shigeaki Mori). Frechette kindly connected me with his Japanese contact Mrs Yukako Ibuki who in turn referred me to Mr. Isao Arai. These 2 stalwarts, in addition to living through the war, work continuously to promote peace, reconciliation and closure for families torn apart by the violence of WWII.

In Arai’s own words

“My greatest joy lies in locating the families of Japanese and American soldiers who died in the war and providing them with information about the circumstances of death and, when possible, returning personal items. I intend to continue this work for as long as I can.”

Isao Arai

Ibuki and Arai’s extensive contacts resulted in the following, extracted from the pictured news (Guam Daily Post) report:

Friendship ceremony honors Japanese, US soldiers
A friendship ceremony was held in July 2018 at the South Pacific Memorial Park in Yigo to remember the lives lost by Japan and the United States during World war II. Sumiko Naito, a member of the Peace Ring of Guam-Japan, whose father died in Guam, led an effort to track down family members of an unknown Japanese soldier who was involved in a firefight with retired U.S. Marine Lawrence Kirby.

Mrs. Naito’s father was also a soldier of the lowest rank. It is said that more than 10,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives in Guam, and the number of the ashes returned to the families is so small. The bodies had all been buried together, Mrs. Naito visited Guam ‘innumerable times’, she told Mr. Arai. “It is so difficult to find remains, but I still go.” She told Mr. Arai not to expect much about identifying this soldier.

Below are Larry’s comments to me by email: 12 July 2018

I am speechless! What a marvelous tribute to that young soldier. It is so gratifying that the courageous young man I met in the jungle of Guam, a brave young man who, without hesitation, gave his life in service to his country.

I am overwhelmed with the emotion that this brings. So long, long ago I wished that we had a chance to know each other and become friends. Now I am so grateful that he is being remembered. It is almost as if one of my lost comrades is being remembered all these many years later. To see my name beside his picture brings us closer together.

The love and kindness, which are hallmarks of Japanese culture, are clearly demonstrated in these photos from Mr. Arai.

Thank you again Nick for helping to create this moment. I will cherish this forever.

Larry Kirby”

Not satisfied that every last stone had been overturned, in 2019 Isao approached powerful technological firms in Japan asking about IT based facial recognition searches. Panasonic corporation agreed to run the photo of the Japanese scout through its extensive databases: sadly no match was found. Isao has conceded defeat for now… I would not be surprised if he thinks of another angle later on.

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