Marine veteran bothered by souvenirs of Iwo Jima

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

March 15, 1995|By Arizona Republic

CAMP VERDE, Ariz. -- Fifty years ago on Iwo Jima, two things happened to an 18-year-old Marine named Elmer Bechtold that have bothered him all of his life.

One he can't do much about. A Japanese rifle round smashed his upper left arm, putting him in the hospital for nine months. The wound shortened the limb by 4 inches and causes him perpetual pain.

The other incident wounded his conscience. He took a dead Japanese soldier's wallet.

But earlier this month, Mr. Bechtold, 68, arranged for the wallet and its contents to be given to Japanese veterans joining about 880 U.S. veterans on Iwo Jima yesterday to observe the 50th anniversary of the savage battle.

In a letter describing how he found the wallet, he said: "May God forgive the wrath that this Japanese soldier and I had in our hearts."

He asked that the wallet, containing a postcard, an envelope, money, and calling cards bearing the name Lt. Col. Masuo Ikeda, be returned to the soldier's family.

"They should know that this man's body was not blown asunder," said Mr. Bechtold, a small, mild-mannered former nursery owner whose garden is full of irises and fruit trees in full bloom.

"I think his family would like to know what happened to him. That might give them some comfort. I'm sure he was given a decent burial."

Only 216 of the 22,000-man Japanese garrison survived the 36-day battle for the small volcanic island. American casualties were 6,821 dead and 20,000 wounded.

Mr. Bechtold's odyssey began Feb. 19, 1945, the day of the massive Marine Corps landing.

The jeep the private first class was to drive was swamped before he got ashore.

After just two hours, only 12 of the 220 men in his company were left fighting.

Three weeks after he landed, most of his friends were gone.

"I still can't accept the fact that all of these guys died so fast," he said quietly.

"I was scared, but I didn't have any problem dealing with death. I had no emotions. I didn't hesitate to go forward. I don't know why. Maybe it was the training."

On March 14, 1945, the day he took the wallet and the day he took a Japanese bullet, U.S. generals declared that Iwo Jima was secure. That is the day celebrated in yesterday's reunion.

Mr. Bechtold had reached the northern tip of the island, where the last of the enemy was still fiercely resisting. To stay alive, he crawled everywhere on his belly, dragging his M-1 rifle behind him.

Then he found the body of the Japanese soldier lying on its side in a shallow, narrow trench as if he were asleep.

"He had just been shot," Mr. Bechtold said. "He had a massive chest wound. He had torn his shirt open to get at the wound. That's probably how his wallet fell out onto the ground right beside him."

Mr. Bechtold took the wallet and stuffed it unopened into his pocket. It was just an impulse. The battle was almost over, and everyone was taking souvenirs: rifles, swords, flags, helmets. He crawled into a depression 100 feet away to take shelter, but less than an hour later, he was shot from behind.

He didn't think much about the wallet for years, he said. It was just another war trophy, the kind many GIs brought back from the war.

But as he got older and Iwo Jima became only a memory, he found himself wondering about the postcard he had found written in a child's careful hand.

He began to wonder whether he had done the right thing and whether the soldier's family agonized over his fate.

That is why about 10 years ago, Mr. Bechtold started asking Japanese-American customers visiting his store near Tacoma, Wash., if they could decipher the writing on the postcard. He didn't get any satisfactory answers.

Two years ago, he stopped at the Japanese Consulate in Seattle to try to send the wallet back. But, he said, an official there told him that the Japanese had put the war behind them and that he intended to destroy the wallet.

"It has to go back to the family," Mr. Bechtold said. "His son, his daughter, whatever, would have something of his."

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