The other side of world’s ‘worst battle’


FIGHTING SPIRIT: The Memoirs of Major Yoshitaka Horie and the Battle of Iwo Jima. Edited by Robert D. Eldridge and Charles W. Tatum. Naval Institute Press, 2011, 224 pp., $26.95 (hardcover)

Iwo Jima is a tiny sliver of an island 1,200 km south of Tokyo, an unlikely setting for anything historical, let alone what has been called “the worst battle in world history.” American forces stormed it on Feb. 19, 1945. There were Japanese at this point who knew the war was lost. Iwo Jima’s commander, Lieutenant-General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, was one of them. Some months earlier he had told a colleague, “I was in the United States for about five years. If war comes, the great peacetime industries of America can be converted into a wartime industry at a moment’s notice with just one command. Japan’s war planners did not realize this. … There is absolutely no chance for Japan to win this war. But we must continue to fight until the end.”

They did, of course, costing the Americans 23,000 casualties before the island was finally taken six weeks later. It was the first American incursion onto Japanese territory — the first incursion by any foreign enemy since the 13th-century Mongol invasions. Its enduring symbol is the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of five Marines raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi. That photograph symbolizes something else as well — the fact that we only know the carnage of Iwo Jima from the American viewpoint. The Japanese participants — and their stories — were all but wiped out. Twenty thousand of 21,000 Japanese defenders died, either in battle against hopeless odds or by suicide. Only four senior officers survived. One of them was Major Yoshitaka Horie, the author of this book.

He survived because in July 1944 he was abruptly transferred to nearby Chichijima island as a logistics expert charged with forwarding emergency supplies to Iwo Jima. “What a peaceful island it was, especially when compared to Iwo Jima!” he writes in a rare burst of lyricism. His preferred style is dry, clinical, technical — to the point of discouraging the nonmilitary reader. What keeps you going, if anything does, is the book’s significance as Japanese testimony, otherwise almost nonexistent, concerning those fatal few weeks of history.

Horie was among the enlightened ones. In February 1944, a year before Iwo Jima, he was lecturing army officers on anti-submarine tactics. During an intermission he was told, “Your lecture is so pessimistic that the listeners may lose their fighting spirit. Please tell them that our Imperial Army still has fighting spirit at the end of your speech.” “I did,” he notes, “albeit with somewhat mixed feelings.”

But “Japan in those days was like a ship that had already been launched — there was no alternative now at this point.” He sought one anyway, for plainly he was a man of courage and vision. “General,” he said to Kuribayashi, “I think the best thing to do would be to [dynamite and] sink Iwo Jima to the bottom of the sea” — thus depriving the enemy of the use of its airfields. The reply: “Are you saying that we must just roll over and die here at the doorstep to Tokyo? You must be drunk!”

Horie had learned some English at university, and on Chichijima, eager to improve his skills, he turned American prisoners of war into his teachers. “Finding some time during my busy life with my duties of sea transportation, cave digging, position inspections and teaching tactics to the officers and men, I tried to improve my broken English at every opportunity. In a sense I wanted to try to forget about the gloom of war.”

He became known accordingly as “the conscience of Chichijima,” in pleasing contrast to two fellow Chichijima commanders whose notorious cruelty to POWs extended to torture, murder and cannibalism, for which the two were hanged — in part on Horie’s testimony — following postwar war crimes trials.

After the war Horie worked as an Occupation interpreter at Tachikawa Air Base, near Tokyo. Later he turned to writing and teaching. “Fighting Spirit” first appeared in Japanese in 1965, the 20th anniversary of the events it describes. An English translation begun by Horie himself was completed by Robert D. Eldridge, a Japan-based marine officer and professor, and Charles Tatum, an Iwo Jima veteran and author. Horie died in 2003.

The nonspecialist reader is sure to wish Horie’s style was a little less pedestrian, but as the author says, “I believe the facts must be allowed to speak for themselves.” The occasional glint of humor and deep feeling hints at what he could have done with his material — as when, drearily cataloguing Japan’s shipping losses, he abruptly changes tone and remarks, “I remember someone said during this time that ‘we are losing the equivalent of the island of Shikoku every night.'”

“Fighting Spirit” is an important book whatever its flaws. It adds a Japanese perspective to an episode seen to date only through American eyes, and it shows the Japanese national character in transition. “In olden times,” Horie quotes a survivor writing to the widow of a dead comrade, “our ancestors said, ‘Bushido — the way of the samurai — is to die.’ These words look beautiful, but … cannot really be applied to Iwo Jima. Modern war does not allow such easygoing words to exist; death is too violent and widespread.”