By Ernest A. Herr
Leading a platoon of Japanese troops to a forward position on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, Kojima Kiyofumi moved his men closer to a group of unsuspecting American soldiers who were standing guard outside their barracks. As the Japanese moved in, they watched the soldiers enjoying a cup of coffee, probably their first of the day and maybe their last, -- ever. The Americans had put their rifles aside so they could relax and enjoy the coffee. With this thoughtless action, these soldiers had perhaps made the first down payment on their own small plot of ground with a tombstone at the head of it.
In a moment, Kojima would have to make a decision that could put many of these young soldiers in their graves; his men as well as the Americans. His men could quickly cut down the unsuspecting sentries but then what? How many American soldiers were inside the barracks? It was a horrible decision he must make and he had only seconds to decide.
He was never gung-ho to go off to battle the Americans, anyway. He would have been happy just to stay at Keio University and continue his studies and just wait the war out. Looking for a relatively safe assignment however, he made the mistake of applying for a commission as a naval reserve officer hoping to end up in an staff position somewhere or anywhere where there was no fighting. Instead, in short order, he got orders directing him to report to the battleship Yamato as a Naval Reserve Communications Officer.
In Kojima's words: "I was shocked! Yamato was then the largest ship in the world. Unsinkable, they said. Japan's finest. Everyone was so envious of me. 'The laziest guy in the class! How'd he get sent there? What's wrong with the navy?" So off he went to the South Pacific. He would not be on the Yamato for long.
But long enough to - in his words; "Get the crap kicked out of us" in the battle of Leyte Gulf in September and October of 1944. When the Yamato limped back to the Kure Naval Base at the end of December, he was sent ashore and transferred to the Twenty-Sixth Air Fleet Headquarters. No one at the naval base could tell him anything about the place or even why he was being transferred there. Eventually, it turned out he was headed for what used to be Clark Field, the old American air force base in the Philippines.
Given the military situation at that time in the Philippines, this was not an enviable assignment but staying on the Yamato would have been even worse as the Yamato, the world's largest warship, went down on her next assignment defending Okinawa. Almost all those who stayed aboard died. Given this alternative, the assignment to the Philippines had some merit.
After the usual military confusion and delay, he was assigned airplane transportation and was on his way with four other reserve officers. Their plane headed out over the Luzon Strait and finally to Clark Field -- but the Americans had already bombed the field and an invasion appeared imminent. It was not to be a happy arrival.
"The runway was all pock-marked, and the air was filled with brown dust. Not an intact Japanese plane was to be seen. We dashed for the terminal building, really just a cottage. There, about ten officers with golden shoulders were gathered, men wearing admiral-class rank-boards and staff officers with gold braid hanging down everywhere. They made straight for that plane. All the naval commanders of the Philippines ran off to Taiwan on the plane that brought me to Clark. In short, that last plane was sent out to rescue them, and we were tricked into going along for the ride. They were to 'lead the defense of the Philippines' from Taiwan, while their subordinates were left behind."
His first night at Clark Field, while trying to get to sleep, he heard small-arms fire and was told that every night Filipino guerrillas attacked and killed sentries at the headquarters. Next morning at breakfast, he received three miserable little sweet potatoes on his plate. On the Yamato, he had white rice to eat for breakfast with several delicious side-dishes. "What a horrible place I've ended up, he thought." Lunch was sweet potato rice -- a few grains of rice stuck on sweet potatoes -- and pickled watermelon rind. Dinner was two rice balls and a tiny sliver of canned beef -- and some cooked sweet potatoes. "I was feed up with sweet potatoes in one day," he said.
The U.S. troops landed in January and within ten days, all the Japanese forces had fled to the mountains. It soon became evident that the Japanese withdrawal had been a little premature so Kojima was summoned by name and told that he would have to go back to the airfield with a few men and await the arrival of the Americans at Clark Field. He would have to report by radio the exact time the Americans entered onto the field.
The report that he was to send was given to him. It read: "The enemy has reached Clark Field. We are about to withdraw." Of course, all the "bigwigs" had been in the mountains for a week but Kojima realized this wouldn't look too good if reported to the High Command back in Tokyo.
Kojima and a few troops were now in the middle of the abandoned airfield waiting for the enemy to show up. "It was an eerie feeling. From far away, a cloud of dust approached us. Tanks and swarms of other vehicles were coming in our direction. We had only one lousy truck. There were enemy planes overhead." Kojima realized this was not a level playing field, to put it mildly. Somehow he managed to send out the report when the tanks arrived and in complete darkness made a desperate dash for the hills. The groups luck held. They made it.
The fight for the airfield had practically wiped out the Japanese Army troops and the few naval soldiers that were left. The stragglers that had escaped were assembled into a platoon. When the platoon commander was killed, the other men at "headquarters" decided that they didn't need Kojima around anymore, so he was ordered to "take command" of the platoon.
The platoon was made up of mostly navy communications men who had no weapons except for daggers so they were ordered to make bamboo spears. The platoon consisted of about thirty men, all draftees but two. "You can't really use men over twenty-five years old as soldiers. Mine were over thirty. The eldest was forty-seven, there were two fifteen-year olds, too. Volunteers. One of the men was a school principal. Our platoon was part of the 'Land Combat Unit' holding the 'front' on Luzon!" About one third of the men had rifles.
"The units on our flanks were soon hit severely and overwhelmed, but our orders to withdraw never came, and we couldn't pull back without orders. The army unit on our right, which was to be our anchor, disappeared into the night. The naval unit on our left was annihilated. When observation planes circled overhead and started dropping white smoke markers, some of the soldiers knew what this meant and yelled, "Commander, we're in trouble!" With this the platoon hit the ground and dug in as immediately trench mortar rounds rained down. "You couldn't breath from the dust and acrid fumes.... When it was over, I lost ten men. Two or three days later, we finally fled."
"Soon everyone was skin and bones. Friendly forces began firing on each other because of lack of food. Weak stragglers became the prey of stronger ones. It was horrible. Surrounded, we just wandered in circles in the jungle in worn-out clothes looking for food. Fighting the enemy was the last thing on our minds... Occasionally I mentioned the word 'surrender,' but surrendering was absolutely unacceptable though everyone instinctively grasped their real situation. There was no way to survive under these conditions. If I'd explain carefully that there was no way out other than surrender, they would explode with anger. Unthinkable! We must fight to the last second! I withdrew my talk about our surrendering. Still to early, I thought."
"Many days passed. Now, we had no salt and nothing to eat. We had to eat snails. So I mentioned surrendering again. This time, they said, 'Take us in, Commander.' There were now just seven of them left -- four navy men, two army men, and one military civilian from Taiwan. I recall at that moment looking up into the blue sky and thinking, 'I will have no nation from now on. I will be alone.' But I thought, too, 'Finally, my fight is over.' I don't think I was fighting for the Emperor in the first place. If you'd asked me why I was fighting, I guess I would have said, 'For my parents, for my younger brothers.' "
Originally, only one in three of his men were armed, but casualties solved that problem and now everyone had a rifle. Kojima knew that these should be discarded prior to surrender but that could not be done without serious risk for the Filipino native defense force was along the front lines.
"I knew we'd be killed if they got us. They really did kill Japanese men by poking out their eyes and cutting off their noses. So we couldn't afford to give up our arms until the very moment we were captured by an official enemy force.....If I'd raised a white flag openly, we'd have been shot by our own forces." Kojima's chances for a successful surrender seemed pretty small. Yet, he was determined his only chance for survival was to approach the American forces.
Kojima had a small white flag that he had kept secret from his troops. Actually, it was a piece of parachute silk that he used to carry things and he had the Taiwanese soldiers carry it so it would not look as obvious as if he were carrying it personally. At the proper moment, he figured he could find a small branch to attach it to and then he would start waving the damned thing. That's about all he knew of surrendering since surrendering was not covered in the manual. He hoped this might do the trick. He moved his platoon in closer to the Americans.
It was now or never as Kojima made his move out into the open in front of the American soldiers. "Everything went flying as they dashed into the barracks. We were there to surrender, yet we hardly knew how. In a moment, hundreds of them, all in field uniform, were aiming their rifles at us. It was a strange moment. We still had our weapons. I had a pistol in my belt and a sword at my side. We were so emotionally wound up, it's amazing we ourselves didn't open fire. I couldn't have complained had they shot me."
"The enemy formed a circle around us and drew closer and closer. They were shouting something at us. Suddenly, I realized this wasn't captive style, the way we were, so I told my men to drop their weapons. The enemy still kept shouting. Our hands weren't up. But I honestly didn't know what to do, I'd never surrendered before. Finally, one of them beckoned to us, hand flat, palm up, so we advanced step by step. As soon as we were within reach, enemy soldiers jumped on us and patted us down, touching us all over. I know now they were checking for weapons..... but that's how we were able to officially become prisoners of war.
"My men had eaten nothing for days. They begged me to ask for something to eat. I was embarrassed to ask for food practically at the moment of surrender, but I did it anyway. They told me they'd just had breakfast, and as a front-line unit had to wait for more food from the rear. They were sending us back there in any case. In fact, they put us in jeeps and off we went."
"The driver of my jeep offered me a Lucky Strike. I was a heavy smoker, and I hadn't smoked for so long, I was dying for one. I drew it from the pack and thanked him, and he told me to pass it back to the others. The Americans were still holding riffles on us, but when we put our cigarettes between our lips, they lit them for us with a lighter. From that moment on I think I could feel my closed mind opening up. When I finished that first cigarette, he gave me another. He ended up giving me the whole pack."
"A swarm of enemy soldiers came out to see us when we reached camp. I guess they wanted to get a look at these funny-looking guys they'd caught. But when I saw them! Blond, silver, black, brown and red hair. Blue, green, brown and black eyes. White, black, skin colors of every variety. I was stunned. I realized then that we'd fought against all the peoples of the world. At the same time, I thought, what a funny country America is, all those different kinds of people fighting in the same uniform! I'd discovered a new kind of country."
"We were put out in a open field with everyone staring at us curiously. Two enemy men stood behind me. My soldiers, the four of them, were sitting off to one side, nobody keeping them covered. I was envious of them, they looked more at home than I felt. When I again asked for food, I was told, 'We've just finished lunch.' But when I said we'd take anything, even water, they brought us water. When I told them we hadn't eaten for days, they brought us some canned food. I think it was corned beef. It was unbelievably delicious. After all, we'd been eating grasses."
Eventually, Kojima Kiyofuma was flown to a camp on Leyte where he joined other prisoners of war. Here he was selected to represent the Japanese POW's for the area. Though a junior lieutenant, he was selected in preference to other higher ranking officers. His experience in the navy and in the Philippines convinced him that Japan had no chance of winning the war so Japan's best interest lay in getting the best terms of surrender and inending the war at the earliest possible date. This attitude found favor with the higher echelon of the American military, so he was sent to Hawaii to determine how he could be best used in the pursuit of this goal.
"In Hawaii I was given a single room with a bed and a lamp. Like in a hotel. That first morning I looked out of the window and saw rows and rows of tents -- all Japanese prisoners. It was a shock. I hadn't realized so many POW's had been taken. I thought they had only been surrendering one by one. For the first time I began dreaming that, if there were this many of us, I might actually be able to return home someday.?"
There were plans to send Kojima to Washington where his knowledge of the Japanese language and the thinking of the Japanese people could be of considerable value. However, at this time he fell ill with malaria and was limited in his efforts to help in the war's end. He was however involved with the preparation of leaflets that were dropped over Japan at that time and he monitored all the Japanese radio broadcasts for the American military.
Kojima returned to Japan in October of 1946 and shunned going back to big city life, instead returning to his mother's small hometown. "There I ran a local newspaper on my own, believing that democracy should start at the bottom. I was very popular among the Occupation forces and even got special allotments of paper. I ran it for ten years before returning to Tokyo."
"I don't think I have long to live, but I want young people to know how stupid that war was. One other thing, too. I want to make this country a land where people think and live on their own. I was very briefly a captive, and while living as a prisoner of war I learned about democracy and freedom. The impact of that war will last until I die."
While Mr. Kojima did not seem to have been stigmatized in the postwar years for being a POW, many Japanese who were captured before the war ended did suffer discrimination and were torn by self doubt.
This true story was condensed from a larger writing
and was completed October, 1998.
JAPAN AT WAR AN ORAL HISTORY by Haruko Taya Cook & Theodore F. Cook