Japanese Iwo Jima vet returns to battleground

A pile of American military dogtags and other military memorabilia rest on top of a monument marking the point where U.S. Marines raised the flag over Iwo Jima on top of Mount Suribachi. David Guttenfelder, The Associated Press

By Joseph Coleman

IWO JIMA, Japan – The tunnels of Iwo Jima snake deep beneath the volcanic rock and soil, their entrances camouflaged by a dense tangle of vines and tall grasses.

In their stifling heat, Tsuruji Akikusa suffered months of hunger and thirst. The bodies of dead comrades lay around him. His closest buddy blew himself up with a grenade rather than surrender.

Finally, Akikusa was the only one left alive in his cave.

In May 1945, he says, U.S. troops found him wounded, unconscious and dehydrated. Out of 21,000 Japanese defenders of Iwo Jima, only about 1,000 had survived.

Akikusa, now 81, relived those horrors this month when, for the first time since the war, he stepped foot on Iwo’s black volcanic beaches, flown to the island for a U.S. Army-produced documentary on his life.

“Our commander told us we were going to Hell Island, not Iwo Island,” Akikusa recalled, looking out over the waves where the U.S. Marines stormed ashore on Feb. 19, 1945. “We figured this was a place we would never return home from.”

Not many did. And today, as old age catches up with the last survivors, only about 20 Iwo Jima vets are still alive in Japan.

Presumed dead by his family, Akikusa came home to find his own funeral in progress. Then he plunged into the hard work and growing prosperity of postwar Japan – became an electrician, married, had a child.

But he never forgot Iwo Jima, and he never forgot his buddy, Yasuo Kumakura. Once Akikusa finally returned 63 years later, he found an island where the terror of the past remains frozen in time.

Signs of battle still on island

Iwo Jima holds an honored place in the history of World War II. The desolate eight-square-mile island was the first major battlefield on Japanese territory, a fight of unbridled ferocity between U.S. Marines determined to win at any cost, and dug-in Japanese forces just as determined to fight to the last man.

The bloodletting was unprecedented. Over the course of about five weeks, from Feb. 19 until March 26, some 27,000 men were killed.

Today, the Japanese military keeps a base and airstrip on the islet and considers it a massive open tomb. Visits are tightly restricted. The only access is by U.S. or Japanese military flights.

The remains of the 1945 battle are everywhere.

A rusted American tank lies immobilized in the ditch where it fell decades ago, its hatches yawning open. A memorial atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima’s volcanic peak, marks the spot where the Americans raised the Stars and Stripes – an image immortalized by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal. The tunnels, heated like ovens by the island’s volcanic stirrings, are littered with helmets, cracked sake bottles and gas masks.

Akikusa finds peace

That Akikusa survived such a hell hole is remarkable enough. But his story – which he detailed in a 2006 book, “Seventeen Years Old at Iwo To” – is a string of extraordinary coincidences and near-misses with death.

His march to Iwo Jima – or “Sulphur Island” – started in November 1942, when he entered the Japanese Imperial Navy Signal School. His studies concluded, he went to war, landing as a signalman on the northern side of Iwo Jima on July 30, 1944. He was just 17.

Today he owns a company that fixes equipment at schools and businesses, and has often dreamed of returning to Iwo Jima to pay his respects.

His book paved the way. His writings caught the attention of the U.S. military, which flew him to Iwo Jima on an Army jet for a day of filming. (The documentary is for in-house purposes and there are no plans to make it public.) Once Akikusa arrived at the tunnel where he suffered, he lost his breath.

“Oh, this is it! It’s the north entrance,” he gasped, choking back tears as he pointed into the leaf-shrouded darkness. “Kumakura’s in there, Kumakura’s in there!”

He pressed his hands together and murmured a prayer for his lost friend – then he pushed his fit and nimble body through the foliage and crouched in the hole, disappearing for a few seconds in the darkness where he and Kumakura endured hell.

Later, as the plane flew him back to Tokyo, he mused about having greeted Kumakura’s spirit.

“I’m happy we got to meet again,” he said. “I told him: ‘Now we have peace.'”