SAPPORO - Sadao Suzuki could not hold back tears of relief when he finally got off Guadalcanal in February 1943 in the midst of the Pacific War, having fled into the island’s jungles for six months and eaten whatever he could find.
Guadalcanal was an “island of death from starvation” after Japanese troops saw their supply lines of food and weapons cut, said Suzuki, 97. “There weren’t even any frogs, snakes or mice to eat.”
Seventy years on since the end of World War II, Suzuki said he wants to pass on his tales of the human suffering to younger generations.
Guadalcanal, the largest island of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific and some 5,000 km from Japan, was a major battlefield between Japanese and U.S.-led Allied forces. Japan began building an airfield on the island in July 1942 only for it to be captured by the Allies one month later. Japan then made several attempts to retake the island until November of that year.
“We were highly motivated when we landed on the island on Aug. 27, 1942,” Suzuki recalled. He was a member of one of the Imperial Japanese Army units deployed to retake the airfield.
But they quickly became short of food as they had been sent to the island on the assumption that they could take food from captured Allied forces. With battlefronts stretched out from Asia to the Pacific, Japan could not maintain its supply lines, making starvation the main enemy for Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal.
“We couldn’t approach the (Allied forces’) positions because of fierce shooting from them,” Suzuki said.
The Japanese were then routed and driven into the jungles, where they eventually became too starved to fight or even to move. Of 1,885 soldiers who landed on the island with Suzuki, 1,485 died — many from hunger.
“Some killed each other for the limited food. They lost their reason and did what humans should not do,” he said, “but it was what happened.”
“I never imagined I would return home,” Suzuki said. At one point he thought of committing suicide with a hand grenade but refrained because “I really wanted to go home and see my mother.”
Suzuki, then a soldier in his mid-20s, managed to survive by eating whatever he could, even while suffering from malaria.
In the dead of night on Feb. 7, 1943, he managed to draw on his remaining strength to climb a rope ladder onto a destroyer dispatched from Japan.
“There were many soldiers who were too weak to climb the ladders and plunged into the sea or took their last breath upon boarding them,” he said.
Suzuki returned to his hometown of Asahikawa, Hokkaido, in July 1943. “I was so happy to see my mother again and we cried together,” he said.
Military police then frequently asked Suzuki’s neighbors if he had talked about his experience on Guadalcanal because the Japanese military did not want the public to know the facts about the battle.
“Lots of soldiers died without food and water,” Suzuki said. “There shouldn’t be any war again.”
According to an official estimate, Japan sent a total of 30,000 soldiers to Guadalcanal, of which only 10,000 returned. Three-quarters of the 20,000 dead were noncombat fatalities, with starvation and illness key causes of death.