A relic of World War II proves hard to return

LYNNWOOD — Ed Rekola has spent decades trying to return a diary to the family of a Japanese soldier killed in combat during the Second World War.

Now, he’s ready to give up.

The scrapbook-style journal tells of an army mechanic who missed his family, relished horse racing and likely harbored misgivings about the war that would eventually take his life. There’s also a pen-and-ink drawing that Rekola believes depicts Japanese warships and airplanes from the attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago today.

“It’s been a long journey,” Rekola said. “It’s over, though. It was over a long time ago.”

Rekola’s father found the materials during Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 1945 invasion of the Philippines. Arvo Rekola had participated in the assault as part of the 340th Army Corps of Engineers.

The scrapbook remained in the family’s cedar chest as Rekola was growing up. He heard about it, but never saw it until after his father’s death in 1974.

In the next few years, the son worked with foreign exchange students, visiting dignitaries and even military and consular officials from Japan.

“Everybody I deal with, I never hear from them again,” he said. “The only way I thought I could find the family was the media.”

Rekola is ending his search as living links with World War II are becoming thinner and thinner.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, caused the United States to declare war on Japan the next day. The attack started shortly before 8 a.m., killing about 2,400 Americans and almost destroying the U.S. Pacific fleet.

The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, a national organization founded in 1958, recently voted to disband at the end of this year. George Bennett, the national association’s secretary, said, “It was obvious that a decision had to be made,” since many would no longer be alive. Another organization, Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, is preparing to take over their duties.

At his Lynnwood rambler last month, Rekola, 56, removed artifacts from a worn, brown briefcase.

His father had worked on road and bridge projects in the Philippines during MacArthur’s invasion. He stayed there until after the war ended later that year.

Arvo Rekola at first mistook the slain enemy soldier for a boy because of his short stature. He buried him to keep the animals away and kept the diary. He kept his own diary and hoped somebody would have done the same thing, had roles been reversed.

Back in civilian life, the elder Rekola moved to Seattle in 1952 and went to work as a contractor.

In 1978, after his father’s death, Ed Rekola began working with translators and others to learn about the man the diary identifies only as “Private 1st Class Zushi.” Clues in the paperwork mentioned two children in Japan. The materials included newspaper clippings, letters in Japanese script and the drawing of Japanese warships, about a foot wide and 6 inches tall.

It shows the view from the deck of a ship flying the Japanese naval flag, with the red sun and rays on a white background. There’s a cruiser, a battleship and two aircraft carriers in the distance. Fighter planes fly like a flock of birds overhead. In the lower right-hand corner, the artist’s name, N. Motoaki, is spelled in Latin script, not in Japanese.

There are American propaganda leaflets dropped over the Philippines. A black-and-white picture of a Filipino toddler bears the name “Freddie” on the reverse side. Scrawled on the back of a picture of Emperor Hirohito are the names of jockeys, horses and tracks.

The most personal glimpse comes through a letter from a friend, Tsuchida Kazuo. To all appearances, Zushi is homesick and suffering from alcoholism.

“(Y)ou must try to overcome the pain to consider your career, your wife’s pure-minded feeling, your children and your future,” the friend wrote.

Starting in the 1990s, local newspapers and television stations ran stories about Rekola’s effort. Japan’s Fuji TV even sent a crew to his house for a story.

A friend, Rick Denton of Shoreline, brought Rekola in 2003 to the Consulate-General of Japan in Seattle. Rekola later handed over copies of the diary to the consulate and waited to hear back.

An official reply arrived in March 2005. It informed Rekola the Japanese government had identified the scrapbook’s original owner and surviving relatives.

“His present family was deeply moved by your offer and appreciates your care in preserving the book for such a long time,” the letter said.

There was a problem, though. The family, according to the letter, wanted Rekola to hand over the diary through the government.

His answer: No.

For Rekola, what happened next confirmed he made the right choice. The day after a March 23, 2005 news story in a Seattle paper, a private investigator called to offer help. The investigator’s Japanese colleague reported finding Zushi’s daughter in Tokyo and relayed this response: “I didn’t like my dad, I don’t like Americans. Leave me alone.”

That information led Rekola to conclude that the Japanese government wasn’t being truthful about finding the family.

“If they would have told me the daughter refused it, that would have been fine,” he said. “End of story.”

A Japanese consular official recently said no further activity has taken place since then.

“I suppose because this is such a significant item, perhaps one could think about donating to a museum either here or in Japan,” said Aki Takeda, senior aide for information and cultural affairs.

The National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, has collected soldier diaries and other artifacts to portray all sides of the conflict.

“We don’t come across them often, but those are objects that we look for,” said Helen McDonald, director of programs.

McDonald’s experience has taught her that some Japanese families remain reluctant to accept items. That’s especially true, she said, in cases such as Zushi’s diary, which express doubts about the war.

“That can be embarrassing to family members,” she said.

Rekola said he’s considered loaning the scrapbook to a museum. He’s not ready to donate it, he said, because that would allow a museum to turn around and sell it. For now, he marvels that his plan to return relics of World War II proved so difficult.

“I thought it would be easy,” he said. “It was impossible. The bureaucracy kind of got into it.”

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