Soldier’s Story

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LAST DECEMBER we published the reminiscences of some of the survivors of the terrible Bataan Death March. Among those who read the article was Felix Imonti of Los Alamitos, California. He found it particularly interesting because he knows a soldier who fought at Bataan—for Japan.

Mr. Imonti writes, “My wife is fluent in Japanese. We met Mr. Ebina in 1970, shortly after he moved from Japan to the United States. He never learned English and has adopted us in order to have someone with whom to speak. Over the years he has talked generally about the war, but we never pursued it, for he was afraid it would stir old hatreds.

“After A MERICAN H ERITAGE published the reminiscences of survivors of the Death March, I asked him if he knew about it. That question initiated the several hours of interviews, from which this narrative is drawn. Mr. Ebina’s reminiscences may add little to the historical record, but they do illuminate the character of the men who could commit the atrocities described in your recent article.

“When I told Mr. Ebina that the material was being published, he was surprised and pleased that anyone cared about what a Japanese soldier thinks. He is quite convinced that foreigners can never understand the Japanese mind. His is a common belief. The Japanese seem to believe more in the idea of the inscrutable Orient than do Westerners.”

Mr. Ebina’s story begins with his unit in China late in 1941.

WE WERE waiting for the news that we would be going home. For two years our unit had seen heavy action. It was time for us to let someone else finish the job. Our three years in the army were nearly over.

On December 9 we heard the reports about Pearl Harbor. It had been a great victory. The American Navy had been cleared from the Pacific. For us in Shanghai it meant that we wouldn’t be going home. We had another enemy. We would have to fight him somewhere.

What interested us was an American ship which had been captured on the Yangtze. It was much closer than Pearl Harbor. We had learned to ignore anything too far away to shoot at us. Strategy and propaganda didn’t mean very much. Where the enemy was and what weapons he had meant everything.

We had until mid-March to wonder about it. Finally we received our orders to sail, but no one told us privates where we were going. As we sailed south, we knew we wouldn’t see home, we were wondering if we were heading for Malaya, Java, or the Philippines.

We had landed and were marching steadily south across some place without a name. Not until we reached San Fernando did we learn that we were in the Philippines and we would be fighting the Americans.

I was not certain if I had ever seen an American. While I was a student in a secondary school in Kōbe, I did see foreigners. There were many in the city. Usually I saw them on Sunday. They were in families near the harbor or in the parks.

In a way, I envied them. They were much more relaxed than Japanese. Somehow they were able to enjoy life, and they were more prosperous. If I could, I would have liked to have been like them. But I never had any contact with them. I didn’t know whether or not they were Americans.

None of those thoughts mattered when I realized whom I would be fighting. I was a soldier. No one gave me a choice. I didn’t choose my enemy. I simply fought.

To reach the Americans we had to march south toward Bataan. We learned what had happened and why we were there. The 14th Army had landed in December. General Homma was to capture the Philippines. It was to be fast and easy.

In Bataan Homma was slaughtered. The Americans were fighting harder than anyone expected. My division, the 4th, was sent to relieve those chewed up. The army needed experienced troops.

There was no time to rest in San Fernando. The easy, fast victory was long overdue. We moved toward the peninsula. Along the highway we saw signs of the battle. There were destroyed vehicles, and patches of the bush had been blackened. A bridge had been replaced. Large areas of the highway pavement had been broken by tank treads and shell bursts. It was a miserable march. The place was so hot, and we were loaded with equipment. The Japanese army always had a shortage of trucks. We had about four hundred trucks for thirteen thousand men. Often our artillery was horse-drawn.

We took our positions, and on April 2 the attack began. Artillery kept shelling the Americans. We started to push through the heavy brush and jungle, but we couldn’t see ahead. I was in the communications corps. During the attack I was behind the advancing front line. I had to see the results.

One strange impression has remained with me. When I passed our dead, I noticed that they were usually lying on their backs. Because of the brush, we had to walk stooped forward. Yet they would fall backward. Most seemed to have been killed by shell bursts or grenades.

We kept pushing south. We were told that when we reached the sea, we would be the victors. Trying to get to the sea was not so easy. We lost many men. The Americans would resist for a while, then the line would rush forward until it stalled again. It moved in spurts. Night was worst of all. In that bush you can’t see. At night we would hear strange noises. The men shot at anything. If we had to move, we clung to each other.