Journey Into Wholeness
In my previous post, “The Last Wish of a Woman Who Survived The Battle of Okinawa” I wrote about a Japanese lady who experienced the horror of the war but hadn’t talked about it until she faced the final stage in life. This is not uncommon among those who lived through WWII.
The war was long and awful, and everyone suffered. So when it was finally over, people were expected to move on. Soldiers who returned home wounded physically or mentally didn’t get counseling nor did the grieving families. They were supposed to just go on with their lives, and in most cases that is exactly what they did.
But when their final days approach, memories they have buried long ago reappear.
A few years ago when I was working at hospice in Ohio, I met a new patient and her husband.
“Are you Japanese?!”
He nearly got up from his chair when I introduced myself to him and his wife who was lying quietly in bed. His name was George, in his late 80’s with large gray eyes. When I acknowledged my nationality, he widened his eyes with excitement.
“I love Japan! I lived there for a while after the war. Can you play Japanese songs?”
I sang “Yashi no mi,” a well-known Japanese folk song with a harp accompaniment. George seemed to be thinking about something deeply. After the song he showed me a scar on his left hand, a size of a dime.
“I was in the Philippines and got shot by the Japanese.”
He was shot by a bamboo spear, a handmade weapon used by the Japanese who were running out of weapons toward the end of the war.
“And my best friend was killed there…”
George was in Leyte Island where a deadly battle took place between 1944-1945. Over 3,000 American soldiers and 80,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives, and George’s best friend was one of them.
“A Japanese soldier was about to throw a grenade at a group of Americans. My best friend saw it, and he… jumped over the guys to protect them. They all survived… except him…”
His voice trembled as he talked about the incident. He could not look at me.
I was beginning to wonder why he loved Japan, given the information he had just provided. I decided to ask.
“You were shot and your best friend was killed by the Japanese. Aren’t you angry about Japanese?”
“No,” he shook his head.
“I realized that they’re people just like us. During the war we did what we were told. Japanese did the same thing. That’s all.”
After George was shot, he was hospitalized, and by the time he got better, the war was over. He was sent to Hiroshima.
“That was right after we dropped the atomic bomb. You won’t believe what I saw… I saw stuff like melted light bulbs on the ground… even the people were melted. Can you believe it?!”
George stayed in Japan for a while after the war.
“I love Japanese people,” he said with tears in his eyes.
George had seen the horror of the war on both sides. After returning to the U.S he rarely talked about his experiences, but in recent years he began sharing it with his son who is also a veteran.
A few weeks later George’s wife died at hospice, and he asked me to sing a Japanese song at her funeral. I sang “Yashi no mi,” the same song I sang for them before.
There is a far away island, which I don’t know the name.
From this island came one coconut floating on the ocean.
How long have you, coconut, been drifting on the waves,
so far from the coast of your home?
（Translation: Social and Cultural History of Japan)
After the funeral I said good-bye to George and thanked him for sharing his memories with me. He shook my hand tightly. His eyes were filled with tears.
“Please don’t forget.”
“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
― Elie Wiesel