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Sunday, March 20, 2011

So sad to fall in battle


General Tadamichi Kuribayashi  
7 July 1891 - c. 26 March 1945 (age 53)

A review of Kumiko Kakehashi: So Sad to Fall in Battle, An account of war based on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s letters from Iwo Jima. Ballantine Books, 2007.

As I Read Kumiko Kakehashi’s book about Iwo Jima’s commanding General Tadamichi Kuribayashi I had the feeling that, had we met, I would have liked him. He was a compassionate man who helped his wife, had their servant eat at table with the family, and worried about them right up to the final battle on Iwo Jima.

Kuribayashi was the kind of leader who commanded respect because he gave it to everyone, from the lowliest recruit to the top-ranking officers under his command. He cared about them, worried about them, and was attentive to their needs. “The army was an institution where social class distinctions were carried to an extreme … [F]or Kuribayashi to be so open and friendly with his ‘inferiors’ made him a most unusual officer (page xiii). This also made him unpopular with the military High Command in Tokyo.

Kuribayashi was meticulous in designing a plan that would protect them for as long as possible while at the same time inflict the most damage to the enemy. Though it “was completely contrary to the traditions of the Japanese army … and was derided as rash and aroused universal opposition at the time” (page 38), he held out for over a month and frustrated the goal of the Allied Command of defeating the Japanese in under a week. The Japanese military command lacked Kuribayashi’s grasp of on-the-ground reality and attention to detail. “The grimmer the reality,” Kakehashi writes, “the more commanders have to face it directly” (page 63) He “verified things with his own eyes, and never allowed preconceptions or wishful thinking to cloud his judgment. His strategy was effective in battle precisely because it originated from such a starting point” (page 63).

And in the midst of it all, the daily preparations, the sweat, the inadequate supplied and resistance from people in Tokyo, he wrote daily letters to his wife and family in which he expressed love and concern for them and their welfare.

Why, when he knew he could never win, did he keep fighting when he could have surrendered and saved the more than 20,000 men under his command that died in the battle of Iwo Jima? Honor aside, the reason was keeping the airfield on Iwo Jima from the Allied forces for as long as possible so they couldn’t use it to carry out massive attacks on Japan’s main islands. Sadly, with the advent of Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress bombers, these attacks had already begun.

If it dawned on him that these attacks had begun, it might have thrown him into despair. According to Kakehashi, there is some evidence that it did. Sergeant Ryumae Shinya, who was in close proximity to him, wrote: “When we escaped from the Command Bunker in the dead of night on March 17, he was not energetic… At first glance … he looked like some old man from the countryside being led outside by his children” (pages 189,190). “The sight of the weak, emaciated, and ghostlike soldiers dying in such number as they faced the terrifying intensity of the American assault on one hand, while suffering from hunger and thirst on the other, seems to have been a crushing blow for Kuribayashi” (page 191). “When he heard the news” (of the firebombing of Tokyo), (his) despair and sense of failure must have been tremendous. He did not even know if his wife and children were alive. They were, in fact, safe and sound – but he had no way of knowing that.” For a compassionate man, I don’t see how it could have been otherwise.

In his final telegram to Tokyo, with a copy to his wife, he wrote “so sad to fall in battle.” And indeed, as it always is, it was. General Kuribayashi’s body was never identified. He had removed all insignias of rank from his uniform before the final charge.

Quite a man and quite a book. I give it a hearty ***** rating.

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