A Menlo Park link to Iwo Jima

A Menlo Park link to Iwo Jima


By Brad Kava

Watching Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony may be particularly emotional for Menlo Park's Miyuki Hegg. Especially when it comes time to present Oscars in the four categories that include Clint Eastwood's film “Letters From Iwo Jima.''

Hegg's father was one of 216 Japanese soldiers captured after the deadly battle of Iwo Jima. At first he was reported to be among the 22,000 Japanese soldiers and 6,825 U.S. soldiers who died during the fighting.

The handwritten journal her father, Yoshikumi Mashiyama, kept during the battle tells a tale strikingly similar to that of one of the movie's main characters, the baker Saigo. In fact, letters similar to Mashiyama's writings inspired Eastwood's movie.

Mashiyama's journal depicts the evolution of a soldier blinded at first by nationalism, who grew — after seeing the horrors of war, and the lives of his American captors — into a passionate believer in democracy and internationalism.

“When he came back, he realized the world is so big, he wanted us to see that there were other views outside Japan. And, since he `died' once, he threw himself into contributing to his country,'' Hegg said of her father.

Eastwood's movie, which unflinchingly shows the 1945 battle in World War II's Pacific theater from the perspective of Japanese soldiers, gave pictures to the words in Mashiyama's journal, published by family members in 1972.

Mashiyama was a reluctant soldier. He was a civil engineer who had three young children when he was drafted in 1941. His induction was a mistake.

Mashiyama's younger brother was the one who was supposed to go into the Japanese army. By the time commanders realized they had the wrong man, it was too late. Mashiyama was on Iwo Jima.

What he found there was even worse than what was portrayed in Eastwood's moving film.

Boiling hot

“Iwo Jima, as its named implied, was the island of iwo, (sulphur),'' Mashiyama wrote. “It seemed like a sauna. If we buried a pot of rice about one foot underground, the rice would cook in about 30 minutes. We could not last for more than 20 minutes at a time when we tried to dig trenches.''

Water on the island was provided only by rain, and Japanese army commanders offered a reward to anyone who could come up with a way to find more water. Mashiyama engineered a system to harness the many small geysers to make the water drinkable.

For that he was rewarded with 3.6 liters of sake reserved for officers.

But his joy was short-lived, as U.S. forces increasingly pounded the island with bombs, first from planes and then from huge ships, some so far away they couldn't be seen.

The United States sent 70,000 Marines to capture Iwo Jima. They landed Feb. 19, 1945, and captured the island March 25.

Japanese soldiers hid in rock-covered holes during the day, avoiding the gas and flamethrowers U.S. troops used to smoke them out. “It was hell, the Inferno,'' Mashiyama wrote.

He surrendered

Down to 90 pounds and almost dead from hunger and thirst, Mashiyama was finally found by U.S. troops, who threw candy and cigarettes trying to get Japanese soldiers to surrender.

He was humiliated and thought he was going to be killed. Instead, Mashiyama was taken to a hospital, and then to Hawaii, where he was treated for intestinal problems.

Months later, he and other Japanese prisoners were taken to the mainland and moved across the United States by train and bus. That he spoke some English helped him. He was befriended by American soldiers, one of whom took him to a movie in Washington, D.C. There, with mixed emotions, he saw a newsreel about the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.

“I must have been the only Japanese who saw this type of news in an American theater — where I had been brought by an officer who wanted to comfort me.''

On his 40th birthday, Mashiyama returned to Japan on Jan. 7, 1946.

He came back to a family that was shocked that he was alive. Mashiyama worked as an engineer rebuilding his country. He, like many Japanese, embraced the democracy of their victors, and the power it gave back to the people.

He encouraged his daughter to study and go out in the world. After attending college in the United States, she met her future husband, an American, in Tokyo and married in 1970.

Yoshikumi Mashiyama died in 1962 at age 56. His family believes that the deprivation and illness he suffered during his four years at war contributed to his death.

Hegg is now a director at the San Jose office of the Deloitte accounting firm. She is in charge of tax statements for international employees working overseas and realizes it is the kind of life her father would have wanted her to have.

Vital compassion

“There's a twist to the story,'' said Warren Hegg, 60, a former journalist, who met Miyuki at a party while he was earning a doctorate in Asian economic history in Tokyo. “If not for the compassion of American soldiers, I wouldn't have my wife and family.''

Warren Hegg heads a project called the Digital Clubhouse Network, which collects interviews with veterans, many done by students, all of which can be found at www.stories-of-service.com.

Students say they have been inspired by the living histories, the same way that the Hegg family has treasured Mashiyama's memoir.

“This memoir shows me how important it is to write things down,'' Miyuki Hegg said. “It's the way to pass who you are to another generation.''


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