‘Even the dead were being forced to fight’

by David Mcneill

Satoru Omagari was a 23-year-old mechanic and a sub-lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force when he was ordered to the defense of Iwo Jima in 1944. Before he was drafted into the military he was a university student. Here, published for the first time in English, are some of his horrific recollections of the battle.

* * * * *

At 18:00 on March 8, 1945, 20 days after U.S. forces had landed on Iwo Jima, we were ordered to launch a full-scale attack on Mount Suribachi.

I was leading a group of 100 troops. We wandered into Commander Nishi’s Tank Unit Bunker Headquarters on the way there, and I was persuaded by Nishi to stay and regroup his units. The unit had already lost all its tanks from mortar attacks and the Americans’ M4 combat tanks. We organized the men who had gathered at the bunker into five to eight groups of three or four people and hid ourselves at 4 a.m. at points where we expected the enemy the next morning.

While waiting, we collected the dead bodies of the Japanese soldiers around the area, cut open their bellies and pulled out their guts. We undid the buttons of our jackets and pushed the guts through the holes into our own chests, and dangled the guts from the bottom of our pants. Then, we waited for the enemy in the pile of dead soldiers.

I didn’t feel fear anymore, but I could sense the dead. Their wide-open eyes became 1,000 sharp arrows, piercing my skin, my flesh and my bones. I tried hard to stay calm, clenching my teeth, fighting against nausea caused by this inhuman, brutal ordeal. Even the dead were being forced to fight. Lying among the bodies, I waited for the enemy tanks. I floated in and out of consciousness and didn’t know if I was alive or dead anymore.

Suddenly, maggots crawling around my neck and face brought me to myself. I became one with the bodies that had their guts taken out. I could be one of them tomorrow. “This is war,” I told myself, cursing. Having to perform such an operation is a sign that the end is close.

We attacked the tanks but to no avail. The U.S. troops soon caught on and began setting fire to the piles of corpses.

As the weeks passed from the order for the full-scale attack, the Japanese troops no longer fought in an organized way with commanders. We moved in groups of three or four with soldiers we met randomly.

Guards stood in front of the bunkers and shelters, trying to prevent friendly forces from entering inside. We had to negotiate for water. “One mouthful” meant we were allowed to gulp the water. “Half” meant we had to stop before the throat made a sound. It was a naturally made rule. Surviving in those shelters became more serious than fighting battles.

We became obsessed with water. If the situation outside didn’t allow us to leave the shelters, it became impossible to collect water. So we couldn’t give even a drop of water to the soldiers dying next to us. Soldiers became extremely careful not to let the water in their canteens make a sound when they walked around the shelters. When they heard that sound, some soldiers tackled the owner of the canteen, and sometimes it developed into murderous fights.

No one cared about the injured. If they groaned, they were told to shut up or were strangled. No one said anything about this because survival was everything. Now, the enemy was not only the U.S. troops but our own troops.

On May 10, two months after the full-scale battle order, I went looking for a shelter. I found one, but the guards stopped me going in.

I was calm because by then this was a natural reaction. I said, “I am Lieutenant Omagari from the Southern Air Command,” and a soldier with me repeated it, saying “This is the chief of our squad.” After that, they let us in.

I was surprised to find about 130 soldiers inside. Some opposed letting us join the group, but we were helped by others. As may be expected at the headquarters bunker, they said there were still 60 to 70 drums full of water. There was food too, although it was just one rice ball every two days.

Since I was no longer desperate for water and food, I felt I regained some humanity. But even here, a few soldiers were tossed out once every two or three days to reduce the population. This was called kirikomi-tai (death by a squad of sword-wielding soldiers). The rule was that those who left the shelter were never allowed back in. Before leaving, they were given two grenades, a canteen of water and a pack of dry bread. The grenades were to commit suicide.

One day, some officers started to talk about stealing a U.S. aircraft to go back to the mainland, and they left the shelter. Everyone was happy to see them go because they thought that they wouldn’t be ordered to do kirikomi-tai anymore. But the officers returned in an hour.

When Commander T tried to re-enter, a group of soldiers blocked the entrance and said: “You drove our colleagues out, saying it is the rule of this shelter that once you leave, you cannot re-enter. How hard those soldiers asked you to allow them back, crying and getting down on their knees. But they died elsewhere. For their sake, we cannot allow you back inside for any reason. This is a rule you created yourselves.”

Commander T called to me and I intervened, but the other soldiers said I was a newcomer and shouldn’t interfere. But I persuaded them, quoting a proverb, Bushi nimo nasake (even a samurai is merciful), and saying “Why don’t you allow them in for one night only.” That worked. The next morning, there was no option for the commanders but to leave the shelter. No one knows their fate.

The U.S. troops attacked us on a regular basis, from around 10 a.m. to around 4:30 p.m. every day. They sometimes poured water into the shelter. First, we were stupidly pleased to see the water coming in, but then found that it was sea water. They were using pumps and hoses to bring the water in from the coast.

One day the water came in without notice and breathing became difficult. We thought it might have been leaks of volcanic gas after a squall, or perhaps the air holes had become clogged with mud. Within an hour, the water was up to our waists and the dark cave fell into a panic. Everyone scrambled for higher ground in the ant-nest-like shelter, wading through the corpses, and an enormous amount of garbage and filth. Soon after, the water stopped and the inside of the shelter turned into a sea of flame. I was not sure, but the U.S. troops might have poured in gasoline and set fire to it. I could see the outlines of dozens of people in the flames who had failed to make it to higher ground. Their screams filled the shelter. It was an inferno. A soldier waded up to me and hung onto my neck, screaming “Water! Water! Give me water!” But he died unattended.

Finally, I ran out of the shelter. I was dehydrated, exhausted, suffering from dysentery and had no energy to go back inside, so I just lay there as the sun came up. Around noon, I heard an American soldier call my name to surrender. He probably got my name from my captured colleagues.

I became a hostage, but I felt nothing; no shame, sadness or any other emotion. I was an empty, worn-out husk. Later I would think about what I had done on the island, to the dead and the living. I still have nightmares but I don’t want to talk about them.

After his capture, Omagari was taken to the United States via Hawaii and was a prisoner of war there until his return to Japan in early 1946. He later worked as an engineer in a medium-size factory in rural Fukushima Prefecture. He now lives in Tokyo with his only daughter and her family.

See related stories:
Scriptwriter talks about Japan hit ‘Letters’
Eastwood didn’t idealize Kuribayashi
From knights to pawns
Hollywood waves the flag for Japan
Telling another side of the story
Iwo Jima: ‘A futile battle’ fought without surrender
His Emperor’s reluctant warrior
War dead said to haunt Iwojima