Shoichi Sato, a 98-year-old resident of Showa, Fukushima Prefecture, recalls his days fighting as a soldier in the Japanese military garrison in Bhamo, northern Myanmar, back in 1944.
“The only reason I survived was luck,” said Sato.
His comrades beside him one day didn’t survive the next. He could have been killed any day.
Soon after the outbreak of the Pacific War, Japanese troops stationed in Thailand invaded British-held Burma (now Myanmar) with the aim of securing resources in the south and cutting off U.S. and British support for China. By May 1942, Japanese troops had seized the entire country.
Bhamo, near the border with China, is located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
Burma’s prefectural government office, with its buildings with white walls and red bricks, was located in the city. From the autumn of 1944, the garrison of about 1,000 soldiers led by the 2nd Search Regiment, including Sato, was surrounded by tens of thousands of Chinese troops equipped with the latest weapons.
As the Chinese troops closed in on the city in early December, their bombardment of the Japanese side increased.
With the Japanese military fighting with light machine guns and hand grenades, and facing a shortage of food and ammunition, it was obvious which side had the advantage.
Sato and his comrades took the weapons of fallen enemy soldiers and fought for their lives. On Dec. 2, an enemy mortar shell struck the shelter in which they were hiding, injuring Sato’s shoulder and waist.
One night, Sato dug a hole and built a shelter with four others.
But a senior military officer said, “You can’t come in.”
Looking for a place to hide, they went into another hole 20 meters away.
While Sato was dozing off after eating a rice ball, three enemy planes bombed the area. After the bombing and machine gun fire had ceased, they emerged and found a big hole in the bunker where the senior officers had hid.
“If I had gone in with them, I would have died,” Sato said.
In what could have been a suicide mission on another night, Sato crawled to the enemy in the dark to attack them with hand grenades and other explosives.
On Dec. 15, about 800 soldiers succeeded in breaking the siege and escaped. With the end of the war in August 1945, they were disarmed and returned to their hometowns the following May.
The eldest of nine siblings, Sato helped his father Shohei with his plastering business. At the age of 19, he volunteered for the Imperial Japanese Army and joined the 2nd Division in Sendai in April 1943. He was later selected as a member of the 2nd Search Regiment, which was transferred to fight on the southern front.
Before joining the regiment, he faced many hardships.
On the way from Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture to Sumba Island, the first line of defense in what is now Indonesia, Sato’s ship was bombed off the coast of Timor Island and he lost many comrades.
Sato was hospitalized for a long time with malaria and other diseases in Surabaya on Java Island. He thought he would die.
After Japan was defeated by the Allied Forces in the Battle of Imphal in 1944, Rangoon (now Yangon) fell to them in May 1945. The gap in military strength between Japan and the Allies was apparent. And with a lack of supplies, Japanese soldiers on the Burma front were forced to fight a miserable battle.
After the war ended, Sato lived his life in mourning and anguish for his comrades who had perished at a young age, wondering what they had died for.
There were many surviving war buddies with whom he had exchanged letters over the years. But with most of them dying, he has not received any New Year’s cards in recent years.
While working as a newspaper salesman and plasterer, he wrote a memoir about his experience during the war, which was compiled into a book after he turned 80.
“It is a terrible sin for people to kill each other,” he said.
More than seven decades on, only the fragment of a mortar shell buried in his left shoulder, which shows up in X-rays, brings back old memories.
“War is lonely, terrifying, cruel and tragic. It must never happen again,” Sato wrote in his book.
This section features topics and issues covered by Fukushima Minpo, the prefecture’s largest newspaper. The original article was published Aug. 11.
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