20th in a series

The lone survivor of an infantry unit on Papua New Guinea in World War II, Kokichi Nishimura swore to his comrades he would bring their bodies back to Japan. Sixty years later, he is still trying to fulfill his promise in a story of indomitable will and determination.

In 1979, Yukiko Nishimura listened to her husband, Kokichi, in shock. After 35 years of marriage and four children, the 59-year-old was leaving.

He would turn over the family business, one of Tokyo's most successful engineering works, to his oldest son, then board a plane back to the South Pacific island, where he would start life anew.

The object of his attention: The bones of men killed more than three decades before. "I'll be gone for a long time, probably years," he said.

As the Nishimura family was about to be torn apart, only daughter Sachiko sided with her father as he reminded his wife of a promise made before they married, to find his comrades' remains.

Kokichi Nishimura would spend 26 years trying to fulfill that promise, at the cost of his business, his life in Japan and his relationship with his sons and wife, whom he never saw again.

"I heard she died a few years back," he said, adding he can't even recall her name. As for his sons: "They are nothing to do with me."

Today, Nishimura lives with his daughter in a densely packed suburb north of Tokyo in a house that would be bland except for its unusual driveway. Stuck into a pillar beside its garden of well-trimmed shrubs is the propeller of a U.S. B-24 bomber.

The symbolism is rich: a war trophy from Papua, but it could have been one of the hundreds of U.S. bombers that reduced 56 Japanese cities, including Tokyo, to rubble and incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After a quarter-century fighting the weather, bureaucrats in two countries, fading war memories and eventually his own declining health, the propeller signifies a last thumbing of Nishimura's nose at the world, one, a new biography says, heroic, if futile, final gesture.

Nishimura has been thumbing his nose at the world all his life. As a private during Japan's inglorious campaign to conquer Papua New Guinea, he was the sole survivor of a platoon of 56 infantrymen from his native Kochi Prefecture.

Starvation, cannibalism, disease and death on an epic scale marked his tortuous wartime path home.

Had he lived till 25, his story would have been miraculous. But he is still alive and fighting a battle that has defined his life since the war: bringing back the remains of the men he fought with.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the remains of 1.2 million Japanese soldiers and civilians are scattered across Asia, nearly half of the 2.4 million Japanese killed overseas during the war. Victims of Japan's timorous postwar diplomacy, and the shame and amnesia that descended on the nation following the war, most lie where they fell in the battlefields of China, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea.

The figure is considered shamefully high by men like Nishimura. In contrast, the United States spares little effort to recover its war dead: Only 17 percent of the half-million American soldiers who fell in the combined Pacific, Korean and Vietnam conflicts remain listed as missing.

"Everybody today is against war in Japan, but nobody wants to talk about what happened," Nishimura lamented. "It's pitiful. Why did all those people die?"

In 1942, he was a 22-year-old infantryman when he was ordered across sweltering Papua from Kokoda over the Owen Stanley Mountain Range to take the capital, Port Moresby, in one of the most infamous World War II battles. During the two-week battle, he was shot by an Australian and his entire unit was wiped out.

But the barbarity was just starting. In the following months, he and his comrades waged a savage war of attrition that left him a skeletal 28 kg. The survivors resorted to eating horses, rats, tree bark and eventually the flesh of dead Australian and American soldiers — "white pork."

"It was eat or die," Nishimura told Australian journalist Charles Happell, author of the new book "The Bone Man of Kokoda."

Happell describes how the battle for Papua scarred Nishimura deeply and left him with a lifetime of guilt. "He said if I survive the war, I will come back and try to find your bones," the author said.

"He grew up at a time when those old-fashioned ideals of duty, honor and sacrifice had some traction in Japanese society. He was a man who thought his word was his bond."

Nishimura not only survived the island campaign, but also the sinking of his ship off Taiwan and near-death in a Burmese jungle, where he was abandoned, delirious with malaria. Then came a decade of wandering in Japan after the war ended.

A gifted engineer, he built a successful business, married and had children, before that fateful night three decades ago when he reminded his family of his promise.

To his mind, they rejected him: "I married my wife on condition that I would go back to New Guinea, but neither she nor my sons understood this. It made me sad."

At an age when most men would consider retiring, the 60-year-old former company president set up base in one of the world's poorest and most dangerous places, living in tents and makeshift huts as he searched for bones.

In a quarter-century of digging, armed with a metal detector and hand tools, he estimates he found the remains of 300 to 350 men, including some former members of his 144th Infantry Regiment. "It is hard to tell because they have become so damaged over time."

The digging, and the quest to find relatives of the dead, became an obsession, consuming his life and about ¥400 million of his own money. The collection of skulls, femurs, gold teeth and rusting knives, swords, buckles and spoons steadily built up in his rickety hut.

His fame reached Japan, where TV crews were dispatched to the island.

In the mid-1990s, the Japanese ambassador in Papua offered to take care of his treasures and return them to Tokyo. Reluctantly, Nishimura agreed, a decision he came to bitterly regret.

Instead of being reunited with their families, the remains were incinerated in the charnel house of Chidorigafuchi Cemetery, Japan's equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Nishimura, Happell said, was furious. "These young conscripts died for Japan, but they were treated no better than criminals." The decision reinforced his distrust of authorities; they wanted to leave his colleagues buried, along with rest of the war's ugliness. At 75, he would continue to go it alone.

The welfare ministry rejects Nishimura's criticism, but the once steady stream of remains being returned from abroad has turned into a trickle: just 604 came home in 2005. "We send teams out every year to many countries," a ministry spokesman said.

In Papua, where the bodies of about 78,000 of the 127,600 Japanese troops who died remain, the search becomes more difficult by the year, said Susumu Kiyosawa of the Japanese Embassy. "You have to remember that it is 60 years since the end of the war. There is not much left."

Nishimura refuses to accept these claims. "They're just words," he said. "They don't care. It has always been the same."

He continued to dig until last year, when, at 87, his frail body forced him to return to Tokyo. Before he left, he fought hard against one more indignity: Skeletal remains dug up by locals, displayed in stalls for tourists and even, he recalls with disgust, offered for sale.

"I asked the people there: 'What if it was a member of your family. Would you treat them like this?'

"I know of one Japanese man who went to Papua and was so upset he paid to buy some remains," he recalled. "So now the locals know they can get money for them."

It was, Happell noted, the worst possible way for Nishimura to leave the country.

"The only time he cried was when he talked about the bones of his comrades becoming part of these tourist attractions. He hates the fact that the bones that have been recovered are sitting on trestle tables, and that the government knows that they're there and doesn't go get them."

Back in Tokyo, his backbone weakened by repeated bouts of malaria, Nishimura rifled through his belongings to return with a dusty picture of wartime Emperor Hirohito, known posthumously as Showa.

For most Japanese, the war was a disaster and for many the Emperor a reviled figure, but Nishimura believes the country had no choice but to fight. "We were starved of oil and supplies, but I knew we would lose. America was so powerful."

He believes "reds" have helped make Japan ashamed of its past. Ultimately though, Happell said, discussion of the war all comes back to one thing: "the forgotten dead."

Before he dies, the indomitable veteran has two final missions to fulfill. He wants to help build a new city at the mouth of New Guinea's longest river, the Sepik, which would, he believes, help lift the country he came to love out of poverty. And he would like to see all the graves of the 365 troops in the 144th Infantry Regiment. So far, he thinks he has visited more than 330.

"I'm not sure how many. At my age, things begin to fade."

"The Bone Man of Kokoda" by Charles Happell isn't available in Japan but can be purchased via www.panmacmillan.com.au. In this occasional series, we interview firsthand witnesses of Japan's march to war and its crushing defeat, who wish to pass on their experiences to younger generations.