Excerpts from Eric Talmadge’s “Iwo Jima Vet, Okinawa Survivor Wrestle with WWII Legacy,” Japan Times, 21 Apr. 2015:
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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 do not have the strength anymore.