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.
 

                                           
                             In grade school                         Graduating from high school
 

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.

After surviving 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.
 

                       

Documentary  Last China Band
 


The 4th Marines Band leaving Shanghai


On November 28th, 1941, the 4th Marines finally left Shanghai. Ironically, it was the Philippines where the Marines were evacuated to that the Japanese forces attacked only a few hours after their bombing of Pearl Harbor.

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.

His POW story

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.

But eventually, he wrote two beautiful memoirs, Mikado no Kyaku The Guest of the Emperorand The Last China Band.  Excerpts
 

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.


 


With his parents (1945)

Mother's letter

Forgiveness seemed to have come to him easily. What he never forgot and always cared about were his fellow Marines- both who did not survive and who did survive. In his memoir he movingly wrote about his burial detail at a POW camp in the Philippines when he had to
bury the assistant bandmaster of the 4th Marines, who died of dysentery:

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....

No place was too distant for him, even in his 80s and 90s, to travel to pay tribute to his fellow Marines, be they victims of the Palawan Massacre or his life-long Marines band friend.

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.


With his life-long Marines Band friend, Lou Curtis

 

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)


A Hellship and an old railroad car that brought him to Futase 66 years earlier were replaced by a modern day airplane and a chauffeur-driven limousine. His daughter was with him to see the place her father once described “where the birds don’t sing and the flowers don’t smell.” While a POW, he always believed that a greater power was looking down on him and guiding his footsteps. It was a triumph of his faith that he was able to go back to Futase totally devoid of bitterness, and was even able to share his memories of the town with local people.
 


With his daughter Judy at the preserved gate of the coalmine
 

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!

Semper Fi