Haruyoshi Inukai was 20 when he donned an Imperial Japanese Army uniform on a sunny day in April 1944 and boarded a ship for deployment to Manchuria.
The day marked the beginning of Inukai’s three-year battle for survival — first in Manchuria, and then later in Siberia.
“When you are at war, you can’t worry about living or dying,” the 81-year old veteran said. “You must think only about killing the enemy.”
The sound of bombs and bullets were deafening as Soviet and Japanese troops clashed, Inukai recalled, noting his friends were killed but there was no time for sorrow — it was kill or be killed.
Without knowing Japan had surrendered, Inukai and his fellow soldiers continued fighting the enemy in forests and mountains.
It was September 1945 when Inukai first learned World War II was over. He and his fellow troops then dropped their weapons and surrendered to the Soviet army and were placed in a detention camp in Mudanjiang.
Nearly a month later, the Japanese were told they would be going home. They were herded onto trains like cattle, locked in and not able to see outside, Inukai said.
Their destination, however, couldn’t have been farther from home — Siberia.
Inukai became one of the roughly 600,000 Japanese detainees in Siberia.
During winter, the temperature plunged to minus 60. If it rose above minus 35, Inukai and his compatriots were ordered to fell trees for pulp and railroad ties, and dig graves for those who died.
“The ground was so hard we considered it a success if we could dig about 10 cm per day,” Inukai said.
Food was scarce — a piece of bread for breakfast and a small bowl of cooked grain a day. He added a handful of snow into the bowl. At night, the prisoners slept in a wooden barracks, 50 to a room.
“My mind became completely blank, focusing solely on what I needed to survive,” Inukai said.
The prisoners’ biggest fear was infectious disease, especially with the spread of lice, Inukai said. Uniforms, instead of being washed, were placed in a drying room where heat was used to sterilize the clothing.
Medical treatment was basically nonexistent, Inukai said, noting the only diagnosis given was malnutrition.
After living a year and a half under harsh conditions and being severely malnourished, Inukai was released.
“I was of no use to (the Soviets) anymore,” Inukai said. “I was close to dying, so they shipped me back to Japan.”
In May 1947, Inukai arrived in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, stepping on his homeland for the first time in three years.
On disembarking, Inukai was handed a pack of cigarettes and 300 yen from the government — not worth anything by that time because a piece of candy cost 1 yen, he recalled.
And that was the first and last “compensation” he said he received.
Although Inukai said Japan, along with other countries (such as the former Soviet Union), should pay compensation, he has not demanded it.
“I consider myself extremely lucky,” he said. “Many of my fellow soldiers died during the war. But I survived — survived the war and lived to see my children and my grandchildren.”
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