by Mark Stoddard
In 1998 on Memorial Day, I stood in the rain at the Ofunu railroad station just outside of Yokohama in Japan. I’d always heard how Japanese were polite and many spoke English, but it’s often unwise to rely upon conventional wisdom. While they were polite, few spoke English, and my Japanese was non-existent.
So I stood in the rain watching the Japanese world go by. Then I spotted a middle age man with a child. I asked him, by chance, if he spoke English and he said he did a little. I asked him if he knew where the World War II prison camp had been. He said he did not and was surprised to hear that there might have been one here. He’d been raised in Ofunu and the subject had never come up. He also couldn’t imagine such a thing being so near Tokyo. I assured him it was and he apologized for not knowing. I thanked him and went about trying to find someone in their sixties who might have lived here as a child during the war.
A little while later as I was asking more people if they spoke English, the man came running up, out of breath. He told me his wife had just arrived to pick him and his daughter up, and she thought she had heard of it. He invited me to come with them and find the spot.
His wife said her English name was Lucy and his was Guy. She was charming and spoke a little better English than he did. She asked if I knew details about the camp. I could also tell from Lucy’s manner and questions, she really wanted to know why I would want to find a prisoner of war camp.
I explained that my father had been a prisoner in Ofunu during World War II. They both were very quiet and apologized for his suffering. If they could have disappeared in that moment, they would have. I told them quickly that my father loved the Japanese people.
They were more shocked. Yes, I explained, he understood the difference between the political events and the people. It was the guards who were brutal. I told them of the days by the wire fence of the camp where the local people had come up to bow to them and offer greetings. Despite their homes being fire bombed nightly by the B-25s, they went about their business the next day and part of that business was being hospitable to the American POW’s.
My father related many stories of kindness as well as stories of shock of how the guards often ran outside of the fence and beat the villagers for their kindness. Still, they returned.
That made Guy and Lucy smile and say that during war much could not be understood.
I then took out my father’s book and read some of the descriptions of the area around the camp. Lucy then said she knew exactly where the camp had been and drove to the spot.
Just as my father had described, a hill suddenly rose up, covered with a dense forest. In the middle was a Buddhist temple, the same one my father had seen from his camp.
I told Lucy and Guy that I had two reasons for being there. The first, to see the spot where my father had lived for 15 months and the second, to find the grave of Ernie Peschau, my father’s navigator on his B-24 that had been shot down over Saipan while flying cover for a crippled plane.
Ernie had had serious internal injuries, but somehow managed to survive the days in the raft after the crash landing, the days of torture in Saipan, the flight to Tokyo and the torture and starvation in the Ofunu camp. One day it was all too much and he died.
The Japanese by custom cremated his body, but my father wanted him to have a proper burial. As commanding officer it was his duty to see to the service. So he bribed the guards to take him to the Buddhist shrine where they might have some burial area. A young Japanese girl met them and said she had a sacred spot up the hill. They wound their way through the thick forest to a little burial spot. There they spoke their words and buried the remains of Ernest T. Peschau, a brave fellow who died for his county.
Dad said he thanked the young lady and wanted to give her a gift, although he had nothing much to give. He offered her some items, but she refused and said it was but her duty to care for them.
So I was there some 52 years later to find the grave that the Peschaus had never found.
Lucy went inside to see if someone there knew of a grave site on a hill. She returned with an older gentleman and an older lady, both dressed in traditional Japanese clothing. They bowed and said they remembered the prison camp and offered their apologies. I assured them none were needed. The gentleman said he remembered a burial spot but was too old to hike the hill. The quiet old lady said she would take us there.
We wove our way through the formal gardens into the forest and up the hill. Soon we arrived at the little clearing where some stone markers stood and about twenty five foot high wooden stakes leaned up against trees. Each stake was about three inches wide and ornately carved at the top with Japanese characters gracing the face of the stake.
She asked the name of the soldier and I told her. One by one we read the stakes. Finally, they read, Ernest T. Peschau. I’d found his grave.
The old lady said his name over and over. In broken English she asked, “Was your father named, Loren?” Shocked, I said it was.
She smiled. “I remember him. He was most kind and gentle. He offered me gifts for helping him bury this young man.” It was the young lady. She smiled, “How is your father?”
“Quite well,” I said.
On this Memorial Day as I write, I remember Ernest T. Peschau, my father, the lady of the Buddhist Temple and the others who gave of themselves for others. Especially to the families of those who died for our blessings of liberty, I remember you.