Over the weekend I had the sad job of paying a final visit to my wife’s uncle Kumakichi, who’s in the hospital with advanced pneumonia. He’s the one who fought in World War II, serving as a gunner on the Battleship Ise. Many’s the time my family and I would go over to his house for a Japanese-style Oshogatsu (New Year’s Day), eating mikan oranges with our legs in the kotatsu while playing traditional Japanese card games. Having a family member who fought in World War II was a very interesting thing, and I got to hear many tales, like how Japanese sailors always wore extra long fundoshi (traditional underwear) so that if they ended up in the water they could unwrap the cloth and trail it behind them, which made sharks think they were too large to attack. Since my kids are of both the U.S. and Japan, I wanted to expose them to these stories as much as possible, and I know Kumakichi was happy to have someone show an interest in his reminiscings. Truth be told, no one else in the family wanted to hear about the war, but I was always happy to listen (though I would sometimes overlay Space Battleship Yamato BGM in my mind as I did so).
My wife’s uncle joined the Japanese navy in 1943, after the Battle of Midway robbed Japan of many of its aircraft carriers. As a result, the Ise was retrofitted into a half-battleship, half-carrier, able to fire great volleys from the front and launch 11 fighters off the back — pretty bad-ass if you ask me. By any account, Kumakichi was a very lucky man. First, he had a horizontal scar across his cheek where an American bullet had barely missed him, and if his head had been a centimeter to the right he would have been killed. His ship was to have been sent out with the Yamato on her final mission, but there was no fuel so they had to stay docked at the shipyards at Kure. Finally, after the atomic bombing of nearby Hiroshima, the captain picked eight crew members out of a line to go to the city and see what had happened, eight men who never returned. My wife’s uncle had been the tenth man in that line. Anyway, thanks very much Uncle Kumakichi for all the awesome stories!
A real photograph of the Ise being attacked in 1945 (full size version here).