Private First Class William Carneal from Paducah, Kentucky; Private Bernard Gavrin of Brooklyn, New York; Private William Yawney, Freemansburg, Pennsylvania; PFC Richard Bean of Manassas, Virginia.
These four men of the US Army’s 105th Infantry Regiment, 27th Infantry Division, didn’t return home after fighting against the Imperial Japanese forces in the Pacific at the end of World War II. They were among the missing on the island of Saipan until their remains were recently discovered, identified and repatriated to the United States by a team from a Japanese nonprofit group called Kuentai, which searches for bodies of their own countrymen. More American bodies remain in that area of Saipan, which will soon be bulldozed in order to build condominiums, and too little is being done to retrieve them, Kuentai-USA says.
Kuentai-USA is an outgrowth of Kuentai, a nonprofit organization founded in Japan by Usan Kurata to find and return home the remains of Japanese soldiers lost in World War II. When its research and remains-rescue team discovered American remains as well, Kurata established an American branch. On December 1, 2014, HistoryNet spoke with Yukari Akatsuka, a translator for Kuentai and secretary-general of Kuentai-USA, about their organization’s mission. (Akatsuka provided translations with Usan Kurata when needed.)
HistoryNet: How did Kuentai-USA begin?
Yukari Akatsuka: There is a Japanese non-profit organization called Kuentai, which has been working since 2006 on retrieving Japanese soldiers’ remains from battlefields. Its mission began in the Philippines, where it discovered about 20,000 sets of Japanese remains, 17,000 sets of which were returned home.
When Kuentai started its research on Saipan in the Northern Marianas Islands in 2010, the group accidentally uncovered five American MIAs during the excavation for Japanese war dead. They were all sent to JPAC (U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command); four of them have already been identified and returned to their families.
The founder of Kuentai, Mr. Usan Kurata tried to convince JPAC and DPMO (Defense POW and Missing Personnel Office) that we should find a way to retrieve fallen servicemen from both countries because they all died on the same battlefield. They answered that they have no budget for the recovery on Saipan.
The Saipan property is managed by a venture capital group from Singapore, and they are going to build condominiums on the field next year. As a Japanese organization, we can’t do anything for the US soldiers, but we can’t just leave those probable US soldiers who might be buried somewhere in the property, knowing that the development is ongoing and the US government does not come for the recovery. This is how KUENTAI-USA was established.
When Mr. Usan Kurata, a chairman of KUENTAI-USA, is asked the same question, he always answers, “because I am Japanese.” His pride as a Japanese would not allow the injustice that he has seen.
You can read the details on our website. (http://www.kuentai-usa.com/project1.html)
HN: What is the organization’s backstory? What led Usan Kurata to establish Kuentai in Japan?
YA: He is a journalist and also a Shinto Priest. As a journalist he had the opportunity to fly to the Philippines, about 10 years ago I would say, and he was told there are actually so many war dead of the Japanese still left in the Philippines and elsewhere. As a journalist couldn’t believe it; he flew to the Philippines to check with his own eyes. He was so shocked. Even though it had been 60 years (at that time) since the war ended, Japanese remains were scattered everywhere.
He was talking with local Filipino people, who are the residents of that area, and they asked him a simple question. They said, “The Japanese are very nice; they are very kind. For example, they help us build freeways and airports and many big constructions for the benefit of the Filipino people. Why do they leave behind so many brothers, so many who fought for your country in wartime?” He couldn’t find the answer. He recorded everything, brought the information back to many people in Japan—for example, the government and Japan War-Bereaved Family Association (Nippon Izoku kai) (of World War II Japanese soldiers). He tried to explain what he saw in the jungles and caves in the Philippines. Almost all of those he talked with told him, “I can’t believe this.”
There are 370,000 Japanese remains left in the Philippines, but there is no progress; no one has been taking care of those people on the battlefield especially in the Philippines, so he decided to take action. He said, “I have to do something for them.”
More shocking to him was to see that kids in the street, they are actually playing with the bones. It is part of their life, part of their environment. It is not surprising for them to see remains in their backyard.
Mr. Kurata was asked by a local Filipino why the media doesn’t cover this story. He told him that because it is big news that there are so many remains. But it is part of their life, not a big deal for them. It is not even like news for them.
HN: News media in the Philippines and Australia have reported some controversy over the remains that were found in the Philippines and sent to Japan for re-burial. Would you like to address that controversy here?
YA: Kuentai has never taken any skeletal remains to Japan. All the returns were made by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW from Japanese government).
The role of Kuentai was to identify the location of the remains, to move the remains somewhere secure—especially when the remains were in areas where the team from MHLW is reluctant to go (for example, the places controlled by guerrillas), and to preserve the remains.
Kuentai has never been involved in the identification of the ethnicity of the remains; it is the Japanese government and Philippine government who were in charge of the identification.
In fact, Kuentai took a legal action against NHK (Nippon Hoso Kyokai) which made a documentary and misreported the activity of Kuentai in the Philippines, and the Supreme Court in Japan made a judgment that the information provided in the documentary was wrong.
If Kuentai has done something illegal, why did MHLW come to Saipan with Kuentai to continue the recovery of Japanese soldiers?
Therefore we don’t intend to engage in any argument that is made based on the wrong information.
HN: There are two slogans at the top of Kuentia-USA’s website: “As many and as quickly as possible…” and “A Rescue Team from the Sky.” The meaning of the first slogan is obvious, but why “a rescue team from the sky”?
YA: It isn’t really a slogan; it is just a name for our team. KUENTAI (空援隊) in Japanese means “a rescue team from the sky.” The image behind our name is that we fly on helicopters to the islands to rescue remains. You can read the meaning of our slogan from our website.
HN: Presently, your team is doing an archaeological dig on Saipan, in the area of the banzai charge that took place July 7, 1944, which resulted in about 4,000 Japanese and 1,000 American casualties. As you said earlier, the area is slated for development as condominiums, so your team is racing against time. But a project diary on your organization’s website frequently expresses frustration with JPAC. Would you like to talk a bit about the project and some of the bureaucratic hurdles you seem to have encountered?
YA: It seems to us that, for the U.S. government, the priority is to defend their vested interests or protect their business and not to return the remains of fallen servicemen home. The government does not allocate the budgets on the cause of “until they’re home” or “you are not forgotten.”
For example, one complete set of skeletal remains were discovered in the field investigation in September. But we were told to re-bury the remains, and it would be up to us to pay the fee for the recovery.
When we prepared for the field investigation in July, we had a meeting with JPAC and DPMO to discuss how they want to cooperate with us for the recovery of their soldiers. JPAC told us that they could support if we establish a partnership with them, but the conditions they required us to follow are too strict and unfair.
HN: Can you give us a couple of examples of the JPAC conditions you feel are unfair and too strict?
YA: There are a couple of things they mentioned in the email they sent to me. We could only work under their control, and the freedom of speech and action is completely restricted. I couldn’t do this kind of interview, for example. I can’t talk to the media; I can’t talk to the family members. We can’t solicit funds from anybody else. We have to follow their schedule. We have been told that JPAC has no plan to come to Saipan for recovery in 2015. We have discussed it for a year already. There is no budget allocated for recovery on Saipan, but a developer wants to build condos there.
HN: How much longer will the Saipan dig site be accessible before construction begins on the condos?
YA: The plan has been changing. Originally, the development company said they were going to start this fall; now it seems it will be spring next year.
HN: So what happened to the remains you said you found in September and were told to re-bury?
YA: Because we were unable to accumulate the enough funds from U.S. side, the September project was completely supported by the Japanese members to search for U.S. remains. The property owner was cooperative, and many Japanese volunteers and financial supporters helped our mission. What was not present was the support of U.S. government and awareness of U.S. citizens.
There are more than 40,000 MIA still left in the battlefields in the Pacific today. Sometimes people tell us that we should work well with JPAC or any government agency for the recovery, but we think this is wrong. If the private organizations just follow those agencies’ directions, those MIAs would not ever be able to come back home.
(HistoryNet attempted to contact JPAC for a response but was unsuccessful in time for publication. If we receive a response later, we will post and link to it.—Editor)
HN: What can Americans do to assist Kuentai-USA in identifying the bodies of US service personnel from World War II and, hopefully, returning those remains?
YA: Because of the reasons stated above, we think to maintain independence from the government is really important, so we need donations to operate the fieldwork as well as to continue the archival research/document analysis by the volunteers. We also need volunteers who are willing to come for the recovery on the field. We really want people in the States to see with their eyes what is going on the field and to have their fallen heroes recovered by the hands of people living today.
HN: Thank you for taking time to talk with us. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?
YA: Since establishment of Kuentai-USA, we have had a chance to talk and share our effort with many different people, and many of them are positive about our activity and think that returning their loved one is really important. However, it raises for us a simple question—why do the people in the US, including the media, not face this issue, the issue of inefficiency of the MIA recovery efforts, especially those from World War II? We just simply wonder why and how. The total number of American Missing in Action from major conflicts since World War II is roughly 83,000. The total of MIA in the Pacific is roughly 40,000. (The Defense Prisoner of War–Missing Personnel Office statistics show over 73,500 unaccounted for from World War II and approximately 9,600 total from the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Iraq and other post–WWII conflicts.—Editor)
Click on the links below for articles about the reinterments of the four soldiers whose remains were recovered from Saipan. A documentary maker has approached Kuentai-USA about possibly doing a film about the project. An earlier documentary, Return to Tarawa, the Leon Cooper Story, told the story of an American WWII veteran’s attempts to have war dead repatriated from Tarawa.
How the remains were identified
■ William Carneal (from Ky.)
■ Bernard Gavrin (from N.Y.)
■ Richard Bean (from Va.)