Kuribayashi and Hara: Courage in Defeat

posted in: WWII, WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

To start with, only one lived to tell his tale. Only one could, in subsequent years, collect information from the public record and recollect his actions, thoughts, and emotions at the time. The other left only letters for a stranger from the next generation to discover and pore over, ponder and piece together into an haunting narrative for the twenty-first century. One was a captain in the Navy, remembered for numerous victories and his uncanny knack for keeping his ship afloat. The other was a general of the Army, remembered for his stalwart stand in a single, futile battle.

Yet both men shared the qualities requisite of great military leadership. They were both well-educated, perceptive, and analytical. Both were able to follow orders, as befitted a military officer, yet never blindly. Both would criticize or resist plans they thought misguided or poorly thought-out. Both demanded much of their subordinates and even more of themselves. They earned their men’s undying loyalty, as well as their willingness to die in their service.

General Tadamichi Kurabayashi’s letters from Iwo Jima to his family (and to his military superiors) served as the basis  for Kumiko Kakehashi‘s 2007 book, So Sad to Fall in Battle, which provided the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s film, Letters from Iwo Jima, of the same year. Captain Tameichi Hara‘s memoir, Japanese Destroyer Captain, was translated into English in 1961 and annotated 1967. The resulting book gave American readers their first (I believe) comprehensive account of the Pacific War from the Japanese perspective. Though published forty years apart, the two books present a singular portrait of military leadership and honor in defeat that speaks to the ages.

Both Kurabayashi and Hara led by example. Like Rickenbacker (discussed elsewhere in this space), they never asked subordinates to do what they wouldn’t first do themselves. This was especially pronounced in Kurabayashi. On volcanic Iwo Jima, he accepted no special privileges to make the privations more bearable: no special meals with multiple plates; no extra water ration. There was virtually no fresh water on Iwo, and what little there was was salty, geothermally heated, and contaminated. Collected rain water was the main water source for Kuribayashi and his men. One canteen per soldier per day (later a half, then a quarter). Kuribayashi took no more. “To wash my face (actually I just wash my eyes), I put the tiniest drops of water in the basin,” he wrote to his wife. “After that Fujita uses it to wash, and we carefully keep whatever’s left over and use it for washing our hands in the toilet.” [28] Kuribayashi worked side-by-side with his men organizing the construction of the island’s defenses. As a commanding general he could have directed the defense from the much more habitable Chichijima nearby. He did not do so. He lived and worked on Iwo with his men the entire eight months they prepared for invasion.

Life on warships in World War II was luxurious compared to Army life in foxholes on Guadalcanal or the caves on Iwo Jima. Yet, while cruising the work was highly regimented and, when battles came, terrifyingly frantic. In the first weeks of the war, Hara was on active sortie with his men for fifty days straight. One sea battle and its aftermath required him to stay at the bridge, on his feet, for 24 hours without a break. Of those, he spent fifteen hours shouting commands every thirty seconds to keep his damaged ship on course. The sailors on Hara’s Amatsukaze, and then Shigure, knew they could count on their captain. And they made sure he could count on them. Hara respected his officers and men. He expected prompt action but not mindless obedience. In just a few months, he turned a loose affiliation of sailors into a cohesive naval unit.

Consequently, Hara was surprised when, after pulling into the Kure naval base for retooling, high command ordered most of his crew replaced. He would have to start training all over again. His task began abruptly on the very first day. He came across his new gunnery officer berating a sailor and striking him with closed fists. Hara called an end to the abuse and dismissed the sailor. Then he took the officer aside and explained his views on discipline: “Maintenance of good teamwork and proper order is not easy. But I have done it without resorting to corporal punishment. It is hard, but worthwhile. If it is too hard for you, report to me for a decision, the next time you are faced with a disciplinary situation.” [89] The officer left disgruntled, but Hara had made his first step toward building a team.

A year later, given a new ship (actually an old tub), Hara put yet another crew through the most rigorous training regimen. He withheld all praise until his men were clear on his high expectations. Then his superior suggested he give the men a movie night as a well-deserved break. Hara demurred, much to the lieutenant commander’s chagrin, and apologized, not quite according to Japanese decorum: “I feel sorry for you, Skipper, having to put up with a son of a bitch like me….” [167] He might as well have been speaking to the crew, who resented the tireless drilling. But after six weeks under his guidance, Hara was confident he “had transformed Shigure‘s sloppy, dispirited crew into a snappy, hard-working team.” [169]

Kuribayashi’s drive earned him early resentment, too, before earning him ultimate respect and loyalty. Some subordinates described his as a “stickler for details,” “aggressive and imperious” in his attitude, and “having too much confidence in his own abilities.” [62] He drove the men like beasts of burden, so intent was he on being prepared for the inevitable invasion. He had them digging scores of defensive installations, fifteen-to-twenty feet below the surface of the volcanic tuff. “We came here to make war, not dig holes,” grumbled both officers and men. [68] In the end, they dug hundreds of bunkers and a dozen miles of tunnels connecting them. In the final months of their lives, these men enjoyed no entertainment, no whiskey, no women. (Unlike other generals, Kuribayashi allowed no “comfort women” for his men.) Yet the general would slip cigarettes into their pockets, gifts “from the Emperor, originally intended for him but which he chose to share with them. By the time the Americans arrived on February 19, 1945, seventy percent of the planned fortifications had been completed–and every one of twenty thousand officers and men were willing to give their lives fighting for their commander.

Kuribayashi’s defense of Iwo Jima was unyielding but also unorthodox. Until August 1944, Japanese doctrine dictated island defense begin at the shoreline. A month earlier, after inspecting every square foot of ground on Iwo, Kuribayashi had already discarded it on his own. He and his men would allow U. S. Marines to come ashore unopposed and mount his defense only after they were massed on the beaches. His troops would defend the island from defensive installations inland. Only by doing so, could they extend the battle and impose maximum cost on the enemy. Victory was not Kuribayashi’s objective, but in prolonging the fight he and his men might push back the date of the fire-bombing of Tokyo. “Exacting the maximum bloodshed from the US forces on Iwo Jima would work to Japan’s advantage in negotiating an end to the war,” he explained to one of his superiors. [45]

Navy officials were furious when they heard his plans. Iwo Jima was their “unsinkable aircraft carrier” capable of sending planes into the air in defense of the Imperial Navy’s ships–never mind that hardly a dozen planes still operated from its three air fields. Ever the good soldier, Kuribayashi assigned part of his men to build pillboxes on the beaches. They would serve as decoys…and would be obliterated in the two-month bombardment that preceded the invasion. “Precise in observation and bold in action,” according to at least one comrade, Kuribayashi was determined to give his men the best possible chance–not for victory, but to not die in vain. [61]

Captain Hara was equally observant, analytical, and bold. Even before the war, he noticed that training torpedoes missed their targets more often than chance would indicate, if Japanese torpedo “doctrine” were correct. Hara studied the matter systematically and developed a new theory, highly technical, that the Imperial Navy later adopted. Time and again in his memoir, he describes himself thinking outside the box, devising a novel tactic for a unique situation. His idea to induce an engine explosion and thereby convince his attackers he had been struck, came on the spur of the moment. It saved his ship and the lives of his men. Likewise his response to Allied “skip-bombing” came to him at the fifty-ninth minute of the eleventh hour–though the problem had been haunting him for months. Intuitiveness enhanced his analytic strengths.

Hara’s innate critical ability led him to enumerate the “blunders” of the Imperial Navy and of himself. He was continually shocked by how uninterested his superiors were in his experience and in his analysis. Indeed, he found their lack of curiosity disturbing, their myopia and mulishness astounding. Composing his book fifteen years after the fact, Hara had the benefit of hindsight and a wealth of documentary evidence with which to make the revisionist case. We don’t know if he were as convinced in his views at the time, in the frenzy of war. Yet Hara is unstinting in sharing his own “blunders” during the war. Indeed, the honesty and modesty of his tone are the most appealing aspects of his writing.

Kuribayashi, too, wrote refreshingly directly, in letters to his wife and children. He recounted his dreams (the kind that enlivened his sleep), responded openly to the subjects of their own letters, shared the details of his discomforts and privations, and yet expressed the joy he was able to find in being alive each day, not thinking about tomorrow. “I want so badly for all of you to be able to live long and happy lives,” he told his wife, Yoshii, more than once. [80] There is so achingly much behind that simple plea.

Kuribayashi did not shrink from speaking truth (his understanding of it) to power. “America is the last country in the world Japan should fight,” he said after a two-year tour of research in the United States for the military. [106] To an Iwo Jima civilian who asked if he would give the Americans “a good thrashing,” Kuribayashi broke all decorum when he replied, “We just haven’t the strength for that. …with things the way they are, there’s just nothing we can do.” [35] In his second month on Iwo Jima, he wrote a report to Imperial General Headquarters, asking that they “urgently appraise the fighting power of the United States, and make efforts to conclude peace after the fall of Saipan.” [44] Most famously, in his final telegram (an expectation of all Japanese commanders facing annihilation), he again shattered expectation, confessing:

…the gallant fighting of the men under my command has been such that even gods would weep. …they have continued to fight bravely though utterly empty-handed and ill-equipped against a land, sea, and air attack of a material superiority such as surpasses the imagination.

These words were “tantamount to whining,” says Kakehashi, and unbecoming an officer and commander. [xx] The offending phrases were changed or omitted in the version published in the newspapers. And it was that very discrepancy that drove Kakehashi’s years-long inquiry…which resulted in her book…which led  to Clint Eastwood‘s award-winning film.

It is the futility of the Kuribayashi’s mission that makes her book–and Hara’s, too–so powerful. “History is written by the winners,” we are taught. But these books are history as told by the losers. They are by and about men who not only were defeated, but saw defeat coming at them from a distance and could do nothing to stop it. They had their ideas to prevent it, but they were cogs in a great (if collapsing) military machine. They had orders to follow. They chose to follow orders they knew were misguided and accepted them with resignation and grace.

But always with a fighting spirit.

The man who never asked his men to do anything he wouldn’t do first, who questioned the value of sacrificing 20,000 soldiers for Iwo Jima, who wrote to his wife, philosophically, “I am past caring about myself and am ready, no matter what,” was yet the same man who wrote up a list of six Courageous Battle Vows that sound as fanatical as any kamikaze pledge we might imagine. Vow no. 2: “We  shall fling ourselves against the enemy, dashing in among them to kill them.” Those are the words of the thoughtful Kurabayashi? No. 5: “We shall not die until we have killed ten of the enemy.” He believed this stuff? “We shall continue to harass the enemy with guerilla tactics even if only one of us remains alive.” Really?

Significantly, Hara indulged in similar language as the noose began to tighten around his neck. Iwo Jima did, in fact, fall, and Okinawa became the final line in the sand (though everyone had to know its fate would be no different). Hara was asked to lead a one-way kamikaze surface fleet attack, but he saw no purpose in it other than suicide and said so. The other captains in the fleet spoke up in agreement. They were over-ruled by high command. Hara gathered his men and explained their task. “Our mission appears suicidal and it is,” he began. “But I wish to emphasize that suicide is not the objective. The objective is victory. You are not sheep whipped to a sacrificial altar. We are lions released in the arena, to devour the enemy gladiators.” [269] These words did not sound like the Hara we had come to know for 250 pages and three years of war.  Then the Hara we know resurfaces. “Do not hesitate to come back alive. …You must not give away your lives cheaply. You are not to commit suicide. You are to beat the enemy!” [270] Perhaps he did not really believe the last injunction, but sensed it was necessary to make the previous three acceptable. Then he became more philosophical, quoting from the Code of Bushido, “A warrior lives in such a way that he is always prepared to die. It does not mean that a warrior must commit suicide for some slight reason. It means that we live so that we shall have no regrets when we must die.” [271]

For twelve glorious minutes, Hara was in a sea battle high. As the American bombers circled and dove, he dodged and weaved and thrilled to the fight. But then something happened so unprecedented as almost to offend Hara. His ship took a torpedo to the hull. Suddenly, he was dead in the water, a commander with his hands tied behind his back. Bombs rained down on the deck, bodies blew up in the air, while he remained untouched. He abandoned the bridge only when the water rose to his knees. The ship’s suction pulled him under, and he believed he was dying. “I resisted and struggled, but the sucking whirlpool of a sinking ship is irresistible. I gave up and passed out, accepting death.” [282] To his credit, Hara was grateful when members of the only surviving Japanese ship rescued him among the survivors. He was happy to be alive, even in defeat.

For Kurabayashi, defeat, in its common understanding, was inevitable. Death was unavoidable. And yet, defeat, as he defined it, was never an option. The lives of 20,000 men would not, could not, be in vain. Kuribayashi willed himself to believe that their inland defense with Six Courageous Vows would save lives on the Home Islands, would bring a negotiated peace with at least a modicum of honor for the Empire. Like Hara, Kuibayashi steadfastly refused to allow his men to sacrifice their lives in a meaningless banzai charge, as was becoming commonplace in the Pacific. Nor would he or his adjutants commit ritualized suicide, hara-kiri, as prescribed by tradition. His island defenders would take as many Americans with them as they possibly could. Indeed, they took 25,000 American casualties (7,000 killed), in their fight to the death. Flags of Our Fathers author James Bradley said Kuribayashi was “the man America respected the most because he made them suffer the most.” [47]

A month into the siege of their underground, tunneled fortress, Kurabayashi was finally ready to make their last stand. They were reduced to a few hundred souls in an area less than a tenth of a mile square. The dearth of food and water had become untenable. The shortfall of ammunition had reduced their armaments to knives and grenades. Kuribayashi called his officers together and told them to burn their insignia of rank and all important papers. He gave each a cup of sake and two cigarettes (from the Emperor) and spoke: “With things as they are, each one of you must kill one hundred–there is nothing else for it.” [189]

Then an interesting thing happened. The commander dithered. He was ready to die, but, like the rest of us, perhaps, not quite yet. Eight days passed: more assaults from the Americans repulsed by the holed-up Japanese. Kakehashi argues that Kuribayashi did not deem the situation suitable for a final charge that would not be merely suicidal. (I admit the distinction is too fine a one for me to discern.) But on March 25, the American assault slackened, and Kuribayashi delivered his final, final speech: “The glorious exploits that you have carried out will never be forgotten. …Be easy in your minds and sacrifice yourself for your country.” [194] The attack that followed in the early morning of March 26, according to the official US Marine Corps History, “was not a banzai charge, but an excellent plan aiming to cause maximum confusion and destruction.” [195] Was their sacrifice “meaningful” in any meaningful way? And what of the 170 U.S. casualties that day?

Nevertheless, it is hard not to admire Kuribayashi as both principled and a hard-nosed realist. And Hara, too. They fought as hard as they could, enlisting all of their perspicacity and skill, in the aid of their nation’s cause, even when they disagreed with its tactics and strategy. Both men, in similar–and different–ways, loved life, but were willing to sacrifice their own in defense of their countrymen’s. Kuribayashi’s words ring loudest today, three quarters of a century later:

Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall. [Kakehashi 186]



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