Sixty-one years ago, Cosmo Vitale walked over the mountains dividing an island near Okinawa and ran into Japanese prisoners of war on the other side.
“The Japanese were holding shovels. Maybe they were building roads, maybe they were digging graves,” the former U.S. Navy seaman recalled during a recent telephone interview with The Japan Times. There was a black American officer with a submachinegun in his hand nearby, watching over the prisoners, he said.
Although Vitale was not authorized to be in the area, he took out his camera, asked permission to take photos, and captured the Japanese prisoners on film.
Vitale, who is now 80 years old, recently came across the photographs in a collection of albums at his home in Martinsville, New Jersey.
He sent two of the photos that he took when he was 19 to The Japan Times earlier this month, hoping some of the men might recognize themselves if they were printed in the paper.
The retired veteran does not remember the exact date or the name of the island where the photos were taken, except that it was in June or July 1945, and that the island was just north of Okinawa.
However, he still remembers “the cute little kid” in the photograph who became friends with a U.S. officer and how the prisoners were polite to the Americans.
“I kept on taking photos, until I was told ‘that’s enough’ by an officer. The prisoners started giggling,” Vitale said.
Vitale joined the navy when he was 17 and was assigned to the Mediterranean Sea on the USS Laning to support the troops in Europe. He was later transferred to USS Chase, which was hit by a kamikaze near Okinawa on May 20, 1945.
The ship was harbored at the island of Keramas in Okinawa while its severely damaged hull was being repaired. It was during that time that the crews were allowed to visit a local beach.
“We were told not to go over the mountains and stay on the beach, but I took my camera with me and went over,” Vitale said, chuckling.
As he took photographs of the prisoners, he witnessed a high-ranking Japanese soldier coming down the mountain to surrender. According to Vitale, the soldier took his sword out and handed it to the officer with his left hand.
Vitale was flown from Okinawa back to the U.S. shortly after Japan’s surrender in August that year, upon receiving notice that his mother had passed away. On his way back, his film rolls were confiscated at the navy base in Pearl Harbor except for the roll that was still in the camera.
Vitale married his wife, Doris, that September and worked as a bricklayer until he retired 15 years ago. He has two sons and four grandchildren.
He never retrieved the confiscated film rolls, but he kept up his hobby of taking pictures. He said he has at least 20 albums in his home, filled with photographs taken by him and his family.
But one thing that has changed over the years is his opinion about war.
“I think the U.S. should mind their own business, and let other countries fight for themselves. I mean, look at Vietnam! That was just a waste of time,” the veteran said.
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