The Ie Shima five

It was D-Day+3 on the tiny island of Ie Shima, located a few miles northwest of Okinawa, where the last great battle of World War II was raging. Our military planners wanted Ie Shima to neutralize its air fields and convert them to our own use.

In the great expanse of the Pacific War, Ie Shima was just another spitball of an island where good men died in obscurity and anonymity, but this island was spared that indignity by the death of a national celebrity. It was there, on Ie Shima, where a Japanese machine gunner ended the life of Ernie Pyle, easily the most notable of World War II war correspondents.

I served aboard the USS Clearfield (APA 142), a troop carrier that carried LCVPs instead of lifeboats. Our mission in the war was to transport troops and other personnel to their destination and put them ashore in our landing craft. As with other members of the crew, I did double-duty as a deckhand aboard one of those boats.

By D-Day+3 (probably around 19 April 1945) our designated landing beach had been thoroughly secured. We delivered our cargo of Army reinforcements without incident and decided to prowl the beach in search of souvenirs. Evidence of the fury of battle was everywhere: bomb and shell craters dotting the beach, coconut palm trees grossly disfigured, large and small shell casings strewn about, empty ammo boxes and other debris scattered throughout.

We poked through the debris until a voice from somewhere put an abrupt end to our souvenir quest: “Hey, swabbies, I wouldn’t be poking around in there, the place is loaded with booby traps!” The warning, valid or put-on, was enough for us swabbies. We abandoned our search for souvenirs and just strolled along the beach, sightseeing, until we came upon a dramatic sight.

Of all the surviving memories of my sailor days, that scene is among the most vivid. A group of war-weary GIs, some armed with Tommy-guns, were seated in a semicircle and glaring menacingly at a group of five Japanese POWs seated Buddha-like within the circle. The soldiers were grousing and grumbling among themselves. “Hey, Sarge,” someone yelled, “give us five minutes with ’em!”

The request was immediately echoed by a chorus of “Yeah, Sarge, come on, be a sport! Just five minutes!”

The sergeant gravelly responded, “Knock it off, you guys!”

Today, combat film from the Pacific War invariably depicts scenes of Japanese soldiers in the act of surrendering. Not many such scenes, of course, mainly because the enemy preferred suicide to surrender. Those who did allow themselves to be taken captive were, invariably, in drab combat fatigues. (Small skinny guys, wearing mainly loin cloths, are probably Korean laborers.) The “Ie Shima Five,” as I lamely dubbed them, did not fit either of those molds. Those POWs were different, to say the least.

First off, they were big guys, big and husky, all of them, and obviously well fed, the picture of health, and neatly groomed. All sported trim crew cuts. Their uniforms were oddly clean and, stranger still, of a cool pastel hue. They returned the guards’ menacing glares with passive inscrutability, neither hatred nor anxiety.

Over the years I have spent many an idle moment wondering about the identity of those prisoners. Were they, perhaps, the favored staff of some important general or civilian dignitary? Could they have been Shinto or Buddhist priests? Did some diabolical misfortune place them on Ie Shima instead of their planned destination? The possibilities are virtually endless. Perhaps a reader can shed some light on this perplexing mystery.

Editor’s note: If you can shed some light on who these men were, contact Military through our email link and we will pass the message to the author