Okinawan who aided U.S. finally gets his day of glory

May 29, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Seiichi Komesu peers at the grainy photograph on display at the Smithsonian Institution. His 89-year-old eyes moisten as he gestures toward it and describes the scene in a torrent of Japanese.

"It's the saddest memory of his life," interprets his friend, Masatoshi Uehara, who came to Washington to do historical research and persuaded Mr. Komesu to come along.

The World War II-era photograph at the Museum of American History shows a U.S. Marine craft off Okinawa. A Japanese civilian stands by the rail and yells into a bullhorn, urging (P Japanese soldiers and Okinawan civilians to abandon the caves that honeycomb the nearby cliffs and surrender to American troops.

Mr. Komesu held such a bullhorn. And for three months in 1945 he risked his life with U.S. forces, descending into the caves in an effort to end the fighting that had claimed 250,000 Americans, Japanese and Okinawans in this fierce battle of a waning war.

Some surrendered. Others emerged from hiding and promptly committed suicide with grenades and demolition packs. Sometimes Japanese soldiers mingled with the civilians and menaced them with their rifles.

"He gets angry because Japanese soldiers never took care of civilians," said Mr. Uehara, an Okinawan historian who has written extensively on the war. But thousands of Okinawans and Japanese listened to Mr. Komesu's appeals and claims that they would not be harmed by the American troops.

"He exhibited no fear or apprehension," said Glen K. Slaughter, 71, a former Marine lieutenant who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and was one of those who accompanied Mr. Komesu through the caves. "He was responsible for many lives -- including our own."

Tonight, however, the memories will be brighter for this spry octogenarian. He will attend his first major-league baseball game when the Orioles play the Cleveland Indians.

"He was a great shortstop. They called him 'the Babe Ruth of Okinawa,' " said Mr. Uehara, noting that his friend played baseball until his late 70s. The familiar baseball name sparks the only English response from the humble Mr. Komesu.

"Babe Ruth, no," he said with a brush of his hand.

Tonight's game will follow other firsts. Mr. Komesu had his first ride in an airplane and his first visit to America, whose troops he once feared as "devils" and "demons" -- the Japanese propaganda line.

When U.S. troops invaded in April 1945, Mr. Komesu and others fled north on the island. But soon many of them were rounded up and asked to help persuade others to come forward.

"He was very scared at first," said Mr. Uehara. "He was resigned to die anyway, whether he joined them or not. He was not afraid of death."

But he grew to respect Mr. Slaughter and a fellow lieutenant, Glenn Nelson of Vienna, Va., both of whom spoke Japanese and nicknamed him "Tony."

At one point, Mr. Komesu recalls, they entered a cave that curved to the right. Mr. Slaughter stayed on the left side, instructing Mr. Komesu to keep to the opposite side away from a possible line of fire. A rifle shot cracked from deep inside the cave and grazed the lieutenant.

"He began to be proud of Slaughter and Nelson," said Mr. Uehara. "He finally realized that Americans are very great."

Mr. Komesu was one of the few Okinawan residents -- perhaps the only one, said Mr. Slaughter -- who worked with the troops for the entire three-month campaign, hopeful that he could help to spare lives and bring peace to the island. Mr. Komesu's appeals in "hogen," the Okinawan dialect, were crucial in persuading many to abandon the caves.

But Mr. Komesu's wife and family were angered that he helped the Americans and disowned him, said Mr. Uehara. The former sugar cane worker lived quietly at the home of a friend until two years ago, when Mr. Slaughter told Mr. Uehara about the exploits of "Tony."

Mr. Uehara located him, wrote of his experiences and sparked a newfound celebrity for this quiet man in horn-rimmed glasses who appears decades younger than his years. There was a reunion last fall in Okinawa with Mr. Slaughter and Mr. Nelson, the Virginian who also hopes to get together with his former "foxhole buddy" before Mr. Komesu leaves Sunday.

"He said it was like a 'second life,' being 'reborn' again," Mr. Slaughter recalled in a telephone interview from Santa Fe. "Here he was living in obscurity and poverty. Suddenly he meets all the [Okinawan] mayors and senators and gets a trip to America."

"He said, 'Now I can die anytime,' " said Mr. Uehara, noting that the biggest thrill will come tonight when the lights go on at Memorial Stadium and the players take to the field.

And somewhere in the stands watching it all will be "the Babe Ruth of Okinawa."

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