Documentary takes WWII soldiers from Japan, US back to island caves

They say that time heals all wounds.

Port Moody filmmaker Eva Wunderman was a witness to that 10 years ago when she reunited a few American and Japanese soldiers from the Second World War.

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Wunderman and her team brought former US tank commander Lee Smith and platoon leader Bill Cumbaa to the tiny tropical island of Peleliu, which is part of Palau near the Philippines.

Sixty years earlier, the 81st Infantry Division soldiers fought for an airstrip in what was supposed to be a four-day campaign.

But, because the Japanese had fortified themselves in caves, the battle lasted three months - a bloody scene that cost 2,000 American lives and 10,000 Japanese souls (today, there are war memorials on Peleliu to the fallen soldiers on both sides).

In their rediscovery of the island that has now overgrown but remains filled with war artifacts, Cumbaa finds the so-called Monster Cave in which he commanded his men to torch. Smith also comes across his tank "Lady Luck" at the same place he abandoned it.

Still, little did they know they would be meeting one of the 34 Japanese soldiers who had lived in a cave for two years after the war had ended.

Wunderman said it was a big risk to surprise the veterans with Tsuchida Kiyokazu; however, in the end, it gave the men the peace and closure they needed to move on with their lives.

"I had no idea how they were going to react to each other," she said, "but they totally greeted each other and hugged. It was like they were long-lost friends."

Speaking through the Vancouver photographer and interpreter Koichi Saito, the men went back to the reopened cave to see what it looked like 60 years on and to hear each others' tales.

Wunderman had received permission from the president of Micronesia to open a cave and film inside; she had also recruited a Shinto priest to honour the sacred ground.

It was during the three weeks' of filming that Kiyokazu related a miserable story about the nightmare he endured inside his cave prison.

He and a friend had snuck out to steal food from the American troops when they saw posters around the island notifying the hidden Japanese that the war was over. But when the pair relayed the information to their commander and begged to surrender, Kiyokazu's friend was shot in the head for insubordination. Kiyokazu, in turn, was forced to bury his friend. In 1947, Kiyokazu escaped the caves and told the American soldiers of the trapped 34 men. And it was during the boat ride home to mainland Japan when the commander told Kiyokazu never to reveal the murder.

During the filming of the documentary, Kiyokazu wept at the place where he buried his friend, who out of respect for the next of kin, was only identified as Soldier A. "It was so emotional," Wunderman said. "This had been on his chest all these years."

Also featured in the film is Shinji Karasumaru, whose brother committed suicide at Col. Kunio Nakagawa's side.

Wunderman said she's had trouble securing funding for her $350,000 work, which was released last year and has since won the Golden Sheaf Award for best historical documentary at the Yorkton Film Festival and the Gold Remi Award at Worldfest Houston (it has been aired on SVT, SBC, NHK - the Japanese broadcaster - KCTS9 and Discovery Asia).

Interest is now picking up with the distributor Off The Fence and the Smithsonian Institute.

On Friday, during the week of Remembrance Day, the Port Moody Film Society will show Once Were Enemies on Wunderman's 65th birthday. The screening will take place in the Inlet Theatre at city hall (100 Newport Dr.). Wunderman will take questions from the audience about the production.

Tickets for Once Were Enemies on Nov. 14 are $5 plus a $5 annual membership to the Port Moody Film Society. Visit pmfilm.ca for more information.

jwarren@tricitynews.com

@jwarrenTC

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