This evening, I find myself sitting in a dorm room at Indiana State University at a three-day workshop with my Lilly Fellows. I had planned on being social tonight, but there is something I feel I need to do, and this is the perfect time. So instead of joining in the drum circle which I can hear through my window, or going to the pub with my new friends, I’m going to tell you a story. I wasn’t going to tell this story on my blog because it has nothing to do with geology, or paleontology, or science at all. But last night, it occurred to me that this story is as much about Traveling Through Space and Time as any story I’ve ever heard. This story is not about my personal travels, but about an object that went on a very long journey.
It all started in the spring of 1945. A young American man named Arthur Evans had left his wife and three children in Nappanee, Indiana to go off to war. He joined the Navy and had been sent to the Pacific. During the Battle of Okinawa, his ship supplied the US troops on the Island. When the battle was over, he was given a few hours of leave time to go on shore. As he walked along the beach, he found a variety of small, interesting items with Okinawan and Japanese writing on them scattered around. He did not read the language, but thought his friends and family back home would enjoy seeing such exotic things from a far away place. So he took them back to his ship, and eventually back home after the war ended.
Over the years, he stored the items away. His little family grew to include four more children, then many grandchildren. I am one of those grandchildren. As a young girl, I remember discovering these items in a box in the upstairs bedroom with my cousins. He had a large artillery shell, a box of pencils with Japanese writing, some photos of Okinawan people, a book with maps that I couldn’t read, and a few other things. I was fascinated by them, but forgot all about them over the years as I grew up.
When I was a Junior in high school, my US History teacher gave us an assignment. We were to interview people who lived through World War II and write a paper about their lives. I was lucky enough to have all four grandparents living at the time, so I chose to interview them. I still have a copy of the paper, and I was able to refer back to it to fill in some of the details about this story, although my grandfather died about ten years ago. (I am still in contact with this teacher and recently wrote to tell him this story and thank him for assigning this. I hope that someday I will assign something that has such a big impact on one of my students!)
When my grandmother died in 2011, my father inherited some of his father’s things, including the items from Okinawa. My mother showed them to me one day, and I began to wonder what the letter said. It seemed unlikely that anyone in Nappanee in 1945 would have been able to translate these items, but I thought maybe someone in Indianapolis in 2014 might be able to. I knew several people who spoke Japanese and/or were from Okinawa, so I reached out to them and sent pictures of a few items, including the letter.
In 1945, Okinawa was not a part of Japan, so their languages were not the same. My friends who were raised there were young enough that they learned Japanese, not the Okinawan dialect the letter was written in. They could understand it a little, but not well. Months passed and I had almost forgotten about the mysterious letter and pictures. And then…
I received a message on Facebook. It was from the mother of two of my former students. She immigrated from Japan years ago, but still had many contacts there. Her daughter had passed the photos on to her to see if she could make any sense of them. She had done some research on Japanese websites and contacted someone in Japan who had contacted a reporter from Okinawa. She forwarded my information to the reporter and a few days later, I found myself on the phone with a woman in Okinawa! To make a long story short(ish), the reporter had found the sister of the man who wrote the letter, my mother shipped the letter to her, the reporter brought her the letter, and the story aired on Okinawan TV. I never would have thought my TV debut would be in another language and halfway around the globe, but it was.
The reporter said that she thought it was fate that this letter was returned to its home nearly 70 years after the end of the war. I think it is a great story of a letter that traveled through space (from Okinawa, to Nappanee, to Indianapolis, and back home) and time (from 1945 to 2014), and united people from halfway around the world. Even though this blog is supposed to be about science, I think the story belongs here. I wanted to put these videos and information on a website that I own, so I don’t lose access to them, in case the Japanese TV station ever takes the story down. I hope younger generations of our family will see this story and appreciate the bonds that can grow after war. I love that several very curious women cracked the case of a seventy year old mystery and helped another woman regain part of her past.
Below are links to my uploads of two videos that go with the story. I will also include links to the original websites and also a translation.
My Youtube video of the story that was on TV in Okinawa
Translation (with my comments in parentheses):
“Hello” said Manabu Uehara. He visited Chiyo Kokuba in Kin village, Okinawa, on the 1st of Oct.
“I don’t have any detail of these letters yet. It’s still in the U.S.” he said. He was showing her some pictures sent from the U.S. last month. In the pictures, there were some old letters.
Uehara works for a website to share information about funeral ceremonies in Okinawa. Last month, a Japanese lady contacted him: “My American acquaintance has letters that her grandfather brought from Okinawa during the war. She wants to give them back to the owner.” She said she googled “Sobun Yamakawa”, the name of the sender, and found exactly the same name on the Uehara’s website.
Uehara started to look for the owner. And a few weeks later, he found Kokuba who is a younger sister of Yamakawa.
Seeing the pictures of letter, Ms. Kokuba said “What a fond memory. If the TV crew was not here, I would have burst into tears. I’m trying to control myself now.”
For a long time, she has believed that the letters were “lost” because of an unforgettable incident happened 69 years ago during the battle of Okinawa.
“One day during the battle, some US soldiers came to my house with a Japanese translator. They said they are going to burn my house, because Japanese soldiers are hidden inside of the house. They burnt my entire house. Entire village. Maybe they brought the letters from my house, believing something secret written in them.”
The place where Ms. Kokuba’s house used to be during the war, was taken and became Camp Hansen, One of the biggest US military bases in Okinawa.
“That takes me back…” said Ms. Kokuba, in front of the gate that she is never allowed to go in.
I called Ms. Lisa Evans Kern living in the US. I asked why she has the letters. She told me that the letters were originally from her grandfather. He was in Okinawa during the war as a member of Navy, and he laid up the letters in lavender (put them in storage) after the war back in the U.S.
“During that time, he was walking on the beach, and found several things. He thought it’s interesting and pick them up” said Ms. Kern.
And finally, yesterday….
“Father, please be assured that my family members and I are all doing well in Tokyo.” Ms. Kokuba was reading the letter at home. She saw her brother’s handwriting eventually after 69 years.
“When I saw his handwriting, I felt like I met my brother face to face. I felt like he is still alive and doing well. I feel happy and sweet, cannot describe well. In Okinawan dialect, I would say KIBURU DACCHA, meaning `feel a thrill go through`.”
In the envelop, there was a letter from Ms. Lisa Kern. She wrote she was sad to hear about Kokuba’s story during the war. Also, she was surprised it was the internet that helped her finding Kokuba.
“We can communicate with each other like this, because the world is peaceful now. I would like to tell Ms. Kern `Thank you very much for returning the letters with your kindness`” said Ms. Kokuba with smiles.”
Another video letter to our family, in which Ms. Kokuba says thank you and my heart is warmed tremendously.