IWOJIMA ISLAND — At 2:30 a.m., Yoshikatsu Takeda was awakened by a knock on his door.
He knew no one was there, but he got up and opened it anyway.
“Let’s go home,” he called out before going back to sleep.
On the island of Iwojima, 1,250 km south of Tokyo, it is said that people often encounter the spirits of the war dead, mirroring the experiences of Takeda, a Maritime Self-Defense Force officer who has been stationed there for two years.
The sulfurous island (“iwo” means sulfur) was the site of one of the bloodiest World War II battles between Imperial Japanese forces and the U.S. Marines and Navy.
The one-month ground battle that began on Feb. 19, 1945, left 20,129 Japanese and 6,821 U.S. military personnel dead. More than 20,000 Americans were wounded and, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, only 1,023 Japanese returned home.
There are still thousands of sets of uncollected remains.
Retrieval efforts are hampered by volcanic heat — most of the Japanese defenders perished in underground caves where the temperature can reach 50 — jungle growth, construction work on new facilities and live ordnance.
According to Defense Agency officials, about 5 tons of unexploded shells are annually disposed of on the island.
The island now is used only for military purposes, hosting bases of the Air Self-Defense Force and the MSDF. U.S. Navy aircraft based in Japan occasionally engage in night landing drills there.
Takeda said he heard similar knocking sounds at midnight a couple of times before he was scheduled to fly to the mainland.
“I guess (the spirit) wanted me to take him over to the mainland,” Takeda said. “But you need not worry. The spirits here do not hurt you.”
Health ministry officials and relatives of those missing and presumed killed in action have carried out searches for remains since 1951, but those of 11,728 Japanese soldiers have yet to be retrieved.
Many people believe the bloody war legacy has made Iwojima one of the most spiritual places on Earth.
Many who had the chance to visit or stay on the island, which is only accessible by military ship or plane, claimed that white swirls resembling human faces appeared on photographs they took there.
In extreme cases, people have felt the presence of surrounding ghosts so strongly that they were unable to walk after arriving there, according to Self-Defense Forces personnel stationed on the island.
Kiyoshi Endo, 81, president of the Association of Iwo-Jima Japan, a group of survivors and relatives of those killed in the battle, said a barracks on the island has a human bone protruding from the ground beneath it, while one of its locked rooms cannot be opened with any key.
“The war is not over. More than 10,000 dead Japanese army soldiers are still left (on the island),” said Endo, an Imperial Japanese Navy veteran who served on Iwojima before the battle began.
“Unfortunately, however, the reality is that most of their remains will never be brought home,” he said.
At the time of the battle, Iwojima was a barren, rocky island that had been pulverized by intense naval and air bombardments. The Japanese defenders were entrenched in a complex maze of underground tunnels and gun emplacements.
Most of their remains still lie in what is left of those tunnels, but the heat from the volcanic sulfur deposits make search efforts difficult.
Meanwhile, thriving groves of silk-cotton trees, whose seeds were spread by U.S. forces after the battle to reduce the stench of death, are another hindrance.
All the American remains were recovered soon after the end of the war, according to the health ministry.
To calm the spirits of the dead, the Association of Iwo-Jima Japan plans to bury on the island a box containing the names of all the soldiers who died there, Endo said.
He said the group hopes to complete the project by March 17, the day 58 years ago that major combat on Iwojima ended, and hence considered the anniversary of those killed there.
While the association is also lobbying the government to build a monument inscribed with all the names of the war dead, prospects seem bleak.
“They ask why only Iwojima should have such a costly monument, when we (survivors and next of kin) could rarely get to the island (to visit it),” Endo said.
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