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Soldier’s Story

July 2024
7min read

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.

Most of the time we were away from the road. When we did reach it, it was a line of burned-out vehicles and bloated, blackening corpses. In that heat bodies swell and stink. After a few days you can’t tell who they are. Everyone was mixed together.

Our objective was Mariveles. We reached it about a week after the first assault. The town no longer existed. Buildings had been smashed and were burning; the bricks and stones were charred. Men were wandering everywhere. I saw the first live Americans. Some of them didn’t have all their uniforms and were dressed in rags. We didn’t have any orders, and they didn’t know where to go. Civilians and soldiers just milled around.

I had little time to enjoy the peace. Some units were still fighting, and we were sent to find and destroy them. When I returned to Mariveles, the prisoners had gone. I didn’t think of them. Corregidor was not yet conquered.

The infantry stayed out of the way. Day after day artillery units fired at the island. The fire was returned. As much as possible I made certain to stay away from artillery batteries. Besides, I had another problem. I had dysentery and a fever. Most of us were sick. We were in no shape to fight anyone. If the order had come to attack the island, we sure as hell weren’t able.

In early May the guns on the island were being knocked out. Most of us had recovered from the dysentery. The order came to capture the island.

From the mainland to the island is just a few miles. In open steel landing craft we pushed off about midnight and landed around four in the morning. The 61st Regiment from the Osaka-Kyoto area led the attack. They had suffered heavy casualties in Bataan and suffered more at Corregidor. Most of those slow, damned boats never reached the shore. Artillery and mortar shells were hitting them.

My unit followed. We were the reinforcements. We took heavy casualties, but we reached the island. I was able to establish my communications post away from the direct line of fire. Still, nothing was safe on that place. Our men were cut to pieces whenever they tried to advance.

There was a long flight of steps cut into the rock. Time after time men climbed them to be shot off. I imagine about a thousand men died trying to climb those stairs. Finally, by late morning, some reached the top. Then the command to cease fire came. A group of Americans carrying a white flag appeared. I believe that there were ten. They crossed to the mainland. A couple of hours later everyone surrendered. Streams of men with their hands raised marched out.

I wanted to see what we had won. As soon as I could, I went inside. There were three tunnels. Two had collapsed. They led to a large three-story building cut from the heart of the island. I had a chance to learn something about those men.

A few months earlier, when I heard about Pearl Harbor, I believed that we could win a war with the Americans. Inside Corregidor, while we were enjoying our victory, I was convinced that we would be defeated. Our equipment was so poor in comparison. It was then I began to wonder about the future of Japan and how I would die. Of course I kept my thoughts to myself. In the Japanese army you didn’t talk about defeat. You didn’t talk about anything.

After the war, I heard about the Death March. I was not surprised.

I spent six months in Manilla. During that time we talked about the places to find prostitutes and how much to pay.

It was my last six months in the army. I spent those eating American rations. I hated those cans of meat. We had to eat them without rice. It did tell me one thing. I realized that there was someone very powerful behind those guns and canned meats.

After the war I heard about the Death March. I was not surprised, and I am not shocked.

The Americans were prisoners. They had disgraced themselves. No one could give a damn about them. So many of them were sick. Our men were doing them a favor killing them. It was faster than to die from diseases.

One of the things those prisoners did wrong was to walk so slowly. In the Japanese army there is nothing as bad as a man who walks slowly; he’s not behaving as a soldier should.

In the Japanese army you had to expect to be kicked around. When I was first drafted, I quickly learned that the army had one way to do things. You did it that way. To make certain that we learned, the officers beat us. I was beaten so I couldn’t recognize myself. No one questioned the right of the officer to do it.

An officer would use a leather sandal to whip your face. You stood and didn’t complain. If you wore glasses, he allowed you to remove them. He would tell you to clench your teeth. He didn’t want you to bite off your tongue. One man did and choked to death.

Everyone learned the lesson. If we complained, the long-term soldiers would pound your face raw. There was always someone willing to beat you. You shut up. Why be surprised about prisoners?

While I was in China, I had dysentery. We were on a troop train and were jammed into boxcars. There was no toilet, and the train wouldn’t stop. All the officers allowed us to do was to open the door to do it outside. What the prisoners got wasn’t much different.

It was common in the army to have the troops go on a foraging operation. The army called it “appropriations on site.” It was plain looting. We would be told that the army didn’t want to feed us on that day, so we went looting. We returned with our loot to let the officers select the best for themselves. We kept the scrap and thanked them for the privilege.

The younger generation acts as if it wouldn’t take it. We had no choice. From the time I was born, I learned to obey. The army made certain that you did. If you argued, you suffered. If you wanted to survive, you obeyed and shut up. I did. The fact that forty years later I am able to sit and talk to you about those days proves I am right. I survived.

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