Farewell to a Marine
By Kinue Tokudome
He was not a typical Marine. Physical prowess was never a part of his remarkable life as a Marine Bandsman in pre-WWII Shanghai, defender of Corregidor, POW of the Japanese, Korean War veteran, and former POW who reached out to Japanese people in the last decade of his life. What he never lost throughout his entire life, even during the darkest days when he was a forced laborer in a Japanese coal mine, was his faith in God and humanity.
He grew up on a
farm in Nebraska. His parents were, according to him, "dirt" poor, but
they raised him with abundant love and deep Christian value.
His parents made great sacrifice to send him to college. But after one year, it became financially impossible for him to continue his study. Having played in the high school band, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1939, in the hope that he would become a member of the US Marine Band.
boot camp in San Diego, he was sent to Shanghai, China, to be a member of the 4th
Marines Band, later known as the Last China Band. Nineteen months he spent in
Shanghai was a dream-like time for a young Marine from a Nebraska farm. Although war
clouds were gathering, the United States still had presence in China and the
Marines were there to protect her interest.
Last China Band
After holding out on the island fortress of Corregidor for five months, the US/Philippine forces were surrendered to the Japanese on May 6, 1942. The quiet Marine, whose love was only music and photography, became one of some 27,000 American POWs who would endure 40 months of brutal captivity. Forty percent of his fellow POWs would not go home alive.
He was forced to work at the Clark Field in the Philippines, sent to Japan on a Hellship and forced to dig coal for a Japanese coalmine company until the end of the war.
He was not an eager talker when it came to the most difficult time he had gone through as a POW, although he did admit that he would not have survived another winter in Japan. In the very first draft for his memoir he started writing in the winter of 1945, he wrote:
I wonder who can believe what they are told it is like. Talking about it helps very little, so I avoided it a lot. But it comes up in the form of nightmares frequently and sometimes conjures ugly thoughts in conscience meditation.
eventually, he wrote two beautiful memoirs, Mikado
Guest of the Emperor）and
The Last China Band.
He was always grateful that he survived. But he could not help but feel that his
mother's death only three years after his coming home was due to the stress she
was under during her youngest son's captivity.
It was sad to see this once proud and talented person had been thrown down. Some months before, in Shanghai he had received special recognition for a military march he composed and dedicated to our commanding officer, Colonel Dewitt Peck, USMC. What a pitiful sight to see Staff Sergeant Konesky laid in his shallow grave and covered with only grass and a few wildflowers we had gathered nearby. I have no explanation for why the scene remains so clearly in my mind after these many years....
He was also able to relate to the suffering of those who went through similar ordeal even if they were Japanese soldiers. When he learned about the fate of Japanese Siberian Internees, he wrote:
As I learn what these soldiers went through, despite Japanese soldiers then being my enemy, I honestly feel empathetic pains for them. I could feel for them because I'm sure they suffered. No one knows that better than a former POW regardless of his nationality.
Attending Marine's events was always joy for him and he seldom missed reunions of the 4th Marines.
A highlight in his final years was his return visit to the coalmine town of Futase, Fukuoka, Japan in 2010. He was one of the six former POWs invited to Japan through “Japanese/American POW Friendship Program" organized by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. In Tokyo, the POW delegation met with the US Ambassador John Roos and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, who on behalf of the Japanese government apologized for the inhuman treatment they suffered.
(With Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada)
He adored his two daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren. But he was determined to be independent and lived alone (his beloved wife passed away in 1999) with dignity until the end of his life. After only one week stay in the Veterans Hospital, he passed away on June 21, 2014, just two days shy of his 93rd birthday, surrounded by his family members.
Now he has joined so many of his fellow Marines and POWs of the Japanese, whose stories should be remembered by all of us.
Master Sergeant Donald L. Versaw, United States Marine Corps (ret.), you lived your life so beautifully!