NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. - Both sweet and unbearable memories come to mind whenever Shinsho Kuniyoshi recalls his life on Saipan.
Kuniyoshi, 83, was born on Saipan in 1932, four years after his parents migrated to the island in the Northern Marianas from Okinawa Prefecture. His mother gave birth to eight children and he was the first son.
The farming family enjoyed life on Saipan, where nature’s blessings included banana, pineapple, guava and mango trees.
In June 1944, hundreds of U.S. warplanes attacked is island, which had become a Japanese stronghold. Amid the simultaneous naval bombardment, the family of 10 escaped to a mountainous area, carrying as much food as possible.
As bombs rained down, the family, like others, reached the northern tip of the island on July 9. More than 70 Japanese civilians, plus several soldiers who had given up the fight, were gathered there.
Shortly after noon, the U.S. military broadcasted a message urging them to surrender before an all-out attack scheduled for 4 p.m., stressing the availability of food and water, Kuniyoshi recalled.
The adults loudly debated whether to commit mass murder-suicide. His mom argued they should try to survive by surrendering. But his father and elder sisters prevailed, saying the family should die together.
Leaving their two younger daughters under a tree, the Kuniyoshis joined other families to commit mass murder-suicide. They used a few hand grenades, but the blasts were not strong enough to kill all 70 present. The survivors, including Kuniyoshi, who had received a leg injury, then jumped off the cliff and into the sea.
Kuniyoshi and his father survived, but neither his mother nor his siblings emerged from the sea. Kuniyoshi barely managed to swim back to the beach. After seeing him, his father decided against suicide so Kuniyoshi would not be left alone.
Both surrendered to the U.S. the following morning and were transferred to a prison camp. His two small sisters were already there but later died of malnutrition.
Even today, Kuniyoshi gets a lump in his throat when he remembers the ordeal.
“War is a monster that tears up happy lives,” Kuniyoshi said.