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Searching for a father on Attu (7/16/1993)

For daughter of WWII Japanese medic, island is link to a parent she never knew

Editor's note: This story was originally published July 16, 1993

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This is the story of a father and a daughter. The father was an intellectual who became a soldier. The daughter was a girl who lived in Japan when they dropped the bomb. Both have loved Japan and America. And they have loved each other deeply, though they have never met.

Laura Tatsuguchi-Davis was just 3 months old when her father, Dr. Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, died on a bitterly cold, wind-beaten Alaska island.

In May of 1943, Attu, the western-most island on the Aleutian chain, was the scene of a fierce confrontation between America and Japan. The Japanese had invaded the island one year before. The ensuing battle was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific. More than 500 Americans died. Of approximately 2,600 Japanese soldiers on the island, only 27 survived.

Last month, as part of a 50th anniversary commemorative event, Laura traveled to Attu from her home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. She wanted to finally see where her father died. "By doing this, all this research, it's a very important and healing process for me," said Laura. "Because this is the only way to get to know my father."

On Attu, Paul Tatsuguchi was an American-educated Japanese medic. His service was especially torturous. The 33-year-old Tatsuguchi was a pacifist who found himself a part of war. He was a doctor bound to heal who was ordered to kill. And he was a man who held allegiance to and cared passionately about two countries at war.

"Since the time of the American Civil War probably no lover of America has been assigned to such burdensome military service," wrote Floyd Watkins in an article about Tatsuguchi in the Journal of Ethnic Studies in 1975. Watkins, 73, a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, served in Alaska from 1942 to 1945.

Part of his service was on Shemya, where he first learned of Tatsuguchi. The doctor's story still captivates him after 50 years. He calls it one of the most compelling of World War II.

"It grips everybody I've ever known who heard it."


Paul Tatsuguchi loved art, medicine, classical composition, American ice cream and skyscrapers. He was no soldier.

How did this ambitious, Americanized young Japanese physician find himself slogging through the mud of the Aleutians, amputating gangrenous limbs and eating wild thistle to survive? The answer begins in Hiroshima.

In that city, Tatsuguchi's father was a dentist and a philanthropist to the arts. Dr. Suichi Tatsuguchi had learned his profession in America and had converted to Christianity here.

Tatsuguchi's mother, Sadako Shibata, was also familiar with this country and spoke fluent English. When the couple's three sons came of age, they sent them to study in America, a country they much admired.

Tatsuguchi went to medical school in California. He was known as a serious student, friendly but not gregarious. Like his father, he was a devout Seventh-day Adventist. His American friends called him Tatsy.

In California, Tatsuguchi married a childhood friend, Taeko Miyake. Her parents were Adventist missionaries in Hawaii, and she also was studying abroad.

By 1939, Tatsuguchi had earned his medical degree, and he and Taeko returned to Japan where Tatsuguchi had accepted a position at Tokyo Sanitarium. He hoped someday to return to work in America. The couple prospered in Tokyo and began their family.

But their lives took a drastic detour in 1941 when Tatsuguchi was drafted into the Imperial Army, thus joining a system whose fanaticism violated many of his Christian tenets.

In a way, Tatsuguchi became a man without a country. To the Americans, he was the enemy. To the Japanese, he was tainted by his American affiliations, and thus the object of suspicion. His westernization probably kept him from obtaining the rank of officer.

With fellow soldiers in the spring of 1943, Tatsuguchi burrowed down into underground shelters on Attu to escape the wind and cold of the Aleutians. In letters home, he reminded his wife to play classical music for their girls.

Tatsuguchi died on Attu May 29, 1943.

No one knows exactly how. A popular story is that Tatsuguchi was shot. That on the final day of battle the doctor walked out of an island hospital cave waving a Bible and saying, "Don't shoot. I am a Christian." He surprised two soldiers. One heard his words, the other did not.

The story may or may not be true, but it brought some comfort to Tatsuguchi's family. It pained them to think their Paul, a Christian, would commit suicide, even under Imperial command.

MUTSUKO Mutsuko was the name given to Laura Davis by her father. Away at war, he suggested it in letters home to Taeko.

After her husband's death, the widowed Taeko moved with her family from town to town in Japan, shuffled among relatives. Like her husband, Taeko had been educated in America and spoke excellent English. She made friends with American GIs in occupied Japan who gave her cheese and butter and helped her find jobs teaching and working as a secretary in their military compounds.

The years in Japan after the war were "a meager time," said Laura. Not until 1954 was Taeko finally able to move her family to the United States, joining her parents in Hawaii. Laura was 11 years old. Like her father, she loved America. Like him, she divided her loyalties between two cultures.

Taeko encouraged her daughters' educations, urging them to study medicine. Both became nurses. While her sister, Joy, married a Japanese man and lives now in Japan, Laura married an American and settled in California. Taeko joined her there.

Laura is now 50, but looks much younger, slender in black tights and boots. On the commemoration trip, she mingled with the American veterans, asking and answering questions, as if she were trying to make up for lost time.

She confided that for years she avoided the subject of her father and the war. She disliked the word "Alaska," shivering when she heard it. She hated father-daughter functions at school.

Not until she was an adult woman, married with two children, did she let herself become vulnerable to learning the story of her father. She began a study of him. She read his diary.

WORST YET TO COME The day after American soldiers landed on Attu to reclaim it from the Japanese, Tatsuguchi began a journal. He had kept diaries before. This one would chronicle the last 18 days of his life.

May 12: "Information: American transports, about 41. . . . It seems they are going to unload heavy equipment." For the most part, Tatsuguchi's entries are terse, emotionless notations. Floyd Watkins, who has painstakingly studied them, calls them Hemingwayesque.

Watkins first examined a copy of Tatsuguchi's diary shortly after the battle of Attu. American soldiers had already begun passing translations around and typing copies, thus producing numerous versions.

Watkins was a cryptographer on Shemya, and when a fellow soldier handed him a copy of the diary, he read it and filed it away. Years later in Atlanta he came across the diary and decided to write an article about Tatsuguchi. He found Taeko living in California and flew out to interview her.

May 21: "Was strafed when amputating a patient's arm. . . . Commanding Officer is severe and he has said his last word to his NCOs and officers, that he will die tomorrow."

In his research, Watkins collected seven distinct versions of the diary passed among American soldiers during and after the war. No one knows what happened to the original text Tatsuguchi wrote in Japanese. Not surprisingly, in a war that displaced millions, the Japanese doctor's weathered, 18-day journal slipped into obscurity.

Its numerous variations have created a powerful mystery around Tatsuguchi's death.

May 25: "Naval gun firing, aerial bombardment, trench warfare. The worst is yet to come. The enemy is constructing their positions."

As the end of May neared on Attu, only about 800 Japanese remained. Some historians believe the Japanese, faltering, planned to charge the Americans, capture their weapons and retreat to wait for reinforcements.

Others believe the Japanese commander realized no reinforcements were coming and ordered his men to adhere to the Japanese Bushido code of death before dishonor. Surrender was not acceptable.

On May 29, the Japanese made final assaults against the Americans and were slaughtered in waves. In desperation, hundreds committed mass suicide, pulling the pins of grenades they clasped to their bodies.

A FOLK BALLAD In Tatsuguchi's final journal entry that day, he bids goodbye to Taeko and his two daughters. He says he feels sorry for Mutsuko, who will never know her father.

But then, astonishingly, he writes: "Today at 2000 o'clock, we assembled in front of headquarters.

The field hospital took part too. The last assault is to be carried out. All patients in the hospital were made to commit suicide. Only 33 years of living and I am to die here. I have no regrets. Banzai to the Emperor! I am grateful that I have kept the peace in my soul which Enkist bestowed upon me. At 1800 took care of all the patients with grenades."

The final entry mystifies the events of May 29 and presents a chilling question. Did the doctor, sworn to heal, execute his patients?

It is reasonable the medical staff would have been ordered to murder patients who could not kill themselves. In Japan at that time, the act would have been acceptable in battle. But never so to an American thinker. The implication suggests an agonizing internal conflict Tatsuguchi must have undergone in his last days.

In one sentence Tatsuguchi praises the Emperor, suggesting his Japanese heritage has won over his allegiance to America. In the next line, he makes peace with "Enkist," translated in some versions to mean Christ, suggesting Tatsuguchi still adhered to his Adventist beliefs.

Other copies translate the line to mean he makes peace with the edict to die. Some of the seven copies contain the line about the grenades. Others do not. Some say "I took care of all the patients with grenades."

"It's like a folk ballad," said Watkins of the diary. Or like a child's game of whisper, the facts changing upon each conveyance.

There are several suggested explanations for the variations. That the initial translation was done hastily, that the translator misread the intricate Japanese lettering whose meaning can change with a single stroke.

Perhaps translators had trouble deciphering the shaky lettering of a man entrenched in battle. From the diary we know Tatsuguchi was in pain his last days, that he took morphine to sleep. Maybe Tatsuguchi's notations were simply difficult to read.

Said Laura: "He was a doctor. He had a horrible handwriting problem."

In all of Watkins' research, he found no answer to the question that burned brightest in his mind. Did the doctor kill his patients?

"I could not prove either he did or he did not."

If that disappointed Watkins, it devastated Taeko.

A MYSTERY The Tatsuguchi family is convinced the key to the mystery of what happened to Paul Tatsuguchi May 29, 1943, lies in a dusty box in some forgotten warehouse somewhere in Washington, D.C.

The original papers were probably collected from Tatsuguchi's body or a satchel he carried, said Henry Yeo, who researched the doctor for an article he recently published in Loma Linda University's medical school alumni magazine. Tatsuguchi was a 1938 graduate of the university, then called the College of Medical Evangelists. Yeo graduated from the school in 1968.

"This story has fascinated me for almost 10 years now," said Yeo. "I've looked high and low. I've asked a lot of people." On Attu in the days after the battle, American soldiers emptied the pockets of the dead Japanese before tossing their bodies into communal graves. Any papers they found were passed on to intelligence officers on the island, said Yeo.

Some of the seven copies of Tatsuguchi's diary are titled with the designation "G-2," which means military intelligence. Watkins believes the diary was first ordered translated from the Japanese by intelligence officers. It may have been sent to the Alaska Defense Command. From there it disappeared.

Could the American government have destroyed the diary, based on sensitive wartime references Tatsuguchi might have made?

Some of the copies contain an entry Tatsuguchi made on May 14, four days after the American troops landed on the island to reclaim it. He writes: "Continuous flow of wounded to the field hospital. In the evening, the U.S. forces used gas, but no damage was done on account of the strong wind."

The Japanese several times accused the Americans of using poison gas in the Pacific, said Watkins, a charge the American government repeatedly denied. Some sources say Tatsuguchi mistook smoke shells the Americans used to site targets.

Is it possible the diary simply became buried in a mass of wartime paperwork?

"I'm almost sure that thing was thrown away on the island or destroyed," said Yeo.

A COMPLEXITY OF CHARACTER Stephen Jaffe, a friend of Laura's who lives in Boston, said he has searched the National Archives for the diary with no result. Jaffe became interested in the story of Tatsuguchi for its complexity.

"I'm trying to understand the man's character and why he made the decisions that he did," he said. There is no simple answer to what happened to Tatsuguchi on Attu, he stressed. Posing it as a question may be all we ever know about it.

"That's what makes this story so interesting."

It is still possible the diary will be found. The family continues its search. Naturally, Laura and her family hope the original text, when translated carefully, would dispel the suggestion once and for all that Tatsuguchi killed his patients.

Laura has said she makes no saint of her father, that she wants to think of him "in a very human way." But one thing she knows.

"Killing wasn't in his heart. He was there to help."

Those who knew the doctor have assured Laura that not only would Tatsuguchi not have considered it a dishonor to survive the battle, he would never have violated his Hippocratic oath to heal, even under such impossible circumstances.

Watkins isn't so sure. He once posed the question of his clergyman.

"I said, 'Could a man have maintained his Christian faith and still (have) killed his patients?' And he said yes, he could."

Pondering the death of Tatsuguchi, Watkins writes: "Those who sit in safety far from the battlefront should not judge a man under pressure of combat, edgy from lack of sleep, shaken by the crashing of shells, sick with diarrhea, troubled by confusing issues, torn between loyalties to God and country, faced by inevitable death."

AMERICA AND JAPAN When Laura sat down to compose a speech she was to give at the commemoration ceremony in June, she wrote: "How ironic that my father was killed in combat against his beloved America while in loyal service to his Japanese homeland. . . . Like my father, I too have a great love for Japan & America."

On the plane traveling to Attu, Laura fretted over the words, scratching out the last part of that sentence and changing it to read "America & Japan."

Later, as she stood before the American veterans, Japanese and Aleuts who joined her on the island, she shakily read her speech first in English, then in Japanese, ending it with these words:

"Today, I place this wreath in honor of all the American & Japanese fathers, sons, husbands and friends who died and were buried in this soil. On behalf of all their loved ones who were left behind, but have never forgotten; and finally, in memory of my father, Dr. Paul Nobuo Tatsuguchi, who died as he lived, in the act of healing."