Magazine article American Heritage

An Unlikely Friendship: The Grandson of a World War II American POW Travels to Japan to Learn More about His Grandfather-And the Surprising Relationship That the Prisoner Struck Up with a Japanese Boy

Magazine article American Heritage

An Unlikely Friendship: The Grandson of a World War II American POW Travels to Japan to Learn More about His Grandfather-And the Surprising Relationship That the Prisoner Struck Up with a Japanese Boy

Article excerpt

There's something haunting about my grandfather's eyes in the 1944 photograph: Japanese prisoner of war no. 550 is scarecrow thin, yet his eves radiate defiance and fierce resolution. When this image was taken, the 30-year-old Carl Robert Ruse was a survivor of months of lighting in the Philippines and the Bataan death march. He still faced many more months as a Japanese prisoner of war. A regimen of hard forced labor would shrink his body to 80 pounds of skin and bones.

By the time America celebrated Victory over Japan (V-J) Day, my grandfather could barely stand. Yet with grit and determination, along with a pair of crutches made from two-by-fours, he hobbled outside the prison factory, in southern Japan to wave to an American airplane flying overhead. Crewmen aboard rolled out 50-gallon drums of food for the prisoners. They also snapped a picture of the factory, capturing the tiny figure of my grandfather on the beach. I often ask myself what he was thinking at that moment. Was he awash with relief that his long torment had come to an end, or was he thinking about all of those who hadn't made it?

Growing up, I had heard only anecdotally about his POW experience. But the excuse of a high school assignment a decade ago gave me a chance to ask him in-depth questions, which I recorded in his living room on a VHS camcorder. One of his experiences particularly stood out. For years he had kept a worn black-and-white photograph of a serious-looking Japanese boy, outfitted in a school uniform. He had met the boy during his final year of captivity; while performing forced labor for a private Japanese company, Ishihara Sangyo. Many POWs ended up similarly engaged because the Japanese were severely short of labor. This boy, whom he estimated to be 10 years old, and his grandfather worked in the same plant, joining my grandfather in the hot, arduous task of melting down salvaged metals. Over time my grandfather began helping the boy with some of the more physically demanding tasks. They struck up a friendship. The boy began sneaking food to my grandfather, a significant gesture in a country where food was in extremely short supply.

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At war's end, the POWs learned that they were to take a train to Hamamatsu, a port city where they would board a hospital ship. Instructions directed them to bring along all food and supplies that the airplanes had dropped. Remembering the kindness of the boy, my grandfather secretly delivered a large quantity of food to him and his family. In return the boy gave him the photograph that I now held. When my grandfather boarded the ship for home, orderlies directed him to throw all his belongings overboard. He kept only his own prison photo, taken upon his arrival in Japan, and the photo of the boy, whose name he never had learned. I came to understand that this boy--and the generosity and innocence he exhibited--had played not only an important role in enabling my grandfather to distinguish between his captors and the rest of the Japanese people, but also had helped him cope throughout the rest of his life with the trauma caused by his extended ordeal. Grandfather would carry that photo with him until he died three years ago.

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That encounter with my grandfather eventually led me on a personal odyssey to learn more about his remarkable life, which would result in many rich discoveries and a biography that I published last year. While doing research, I contacted Kinue Tokudome of the nonprofit organization US-Japan Dialogue on POWs. I queried her about the story of the boy. She thought it unlikely that a photograph alone would lead us to the boy but encouraged the effort.

At her prompting, a major Nagoya newspaper published an article with the two photos in September 2010. Shortly thereafter, Kinue received a call from Father Shigeya Kumagawa, a teacher at the Nanzan High School in Nagoya. …

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