Japanese veterans of World War II recount horrors of the battlefield

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tetsuo Sato shows a photo of himself taken around 1945 during an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in Murakami, Niigata Prefecture.

Veterans of World War II, some of them more than 100 years old, continue to recount their experiences on the battlefield. Among them is Tetsuo Sato, 103, of Murakami, Niigata Prefecture. In 1944, he took part in a campaign to capture Imphal, India, as a squad leader of the 58th infantry division.

Sato remembers how the jungle paths were strewn with the bodies of Japanese soldiers in July that year, men who had died from illness or starvation while taking flight. Vultures feasted on the bodies, which turned into skeletons in three or four days.

Then 24 years old, Sato told himself as he walked, “Don’t die, don’t die.”

The Japanese army was in shambles, having neglected to ensure the proper supply of military goods. More than 30,000 soldiers are said to have been killed in action.

Sato was also wounded in an attack by British forces, with shell fragments piercing his left knee. Using a cane, he walked to a medical aid station, but there were no anesthetics. Sato’s arms and legs were tied to a board and the shell fragments pulled out.

Captured by the British forces, Sato eventually returned to Japan in 1947. He married and had five children. He rarely spoke about the war, thinking “a defeated soldier can never talk about his battlefield experiences.”

As he approached the age of 100, however, Sato realized that surviving was his destiny and sharing his war memories with other people was his mission. He began accepting interview requests from local TV stations and newspapers.

Due to poor eyesight, Sato can no longer read materials that document his military career. But his memories are clear. “In war, you have nothing to eat and are told to just fight,” he said, sitting up straight. “War must never be repeated.”

Fallen compatriots

Former soldier Minoru Matsumoto, now 102 and a resident of Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, has travelled to Leyte in the Philippines 29 times to collect the remains of his compatriots.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Minoru Matsumoto

Matsumoto was sent to Leyte in November 1944. The day after his arrival, U.S. forces shelled the area.

He was able to escape into a cave but heard someone saying: “I got hit. Help me.” Matsumoto stepped out of the cave and found a soldier lying with his back slashed by shell fragments. The soldier soon died, the first person Matsumoto saw killed in action.

The harrowing battle continued. Begged by a badly wounded soldier for a grenade, Matsumoto had no choice but to give it to him, although he knew immediately the other man was going to kill himself. There was no way to treat his wounds.

Matsumoto has lived with the thought that he left many of his compatriots on the island of Leyte. Due to the pandemic, he has been unable to travel there after his visit in 2019, and he is anticipating the day when he can make his 30th visit.

While spending more time at home because of the pandemic, Matsumoto wrote about what he experienced on the battlefield.

“I survived only because I was lucky,” he said. “Only those who have experienced war can understand the horror of it, of people killing other people.”

Matsumoto is determined to continue speaking about his experiences.