Letters (and flags and maps) from Iwo Jima

By The History Detectives Team
12 April 2010
Category: Viewer Mailbag

We’ve read about dozens of copies of the Declaration of Independence, hundreds of Revolutionary War musket balls and every variety of Lincoln relics conceivable. But perhaps the most numerous story submissions are about souvenirs brought home by men who served in Japan during WWII. These include flags, coins, and often letters. The latest came from Bill Matthews who writes on behalf of his siblings:

Our Dad was stationed on Iwo Jima in WWII. At some point he came across a dead Japanese soldier and took a letter off of him (Creepy, I know, but there it is). The content of the letter is nothing special: “we are fine, don’t be afraid, we are proud of you, have you gotten paid by the navy” kind of stuff, but in a strange way the ordinariness makes it kind of special. Anyway, I think the right thing to do is to get this letter back to the family if possible. I was hoping you might be able to tell me if there is any organization or service either here or in Japan that assists in returning personal items to their rightful owners.

There are several ways to repatriate souvenirs taken from the battle of Iwo Jima with the descendants of their owners in Japan. The Iwo Jima Association of Japan provides an opportunity for veterans, families, and historians of both countries to join annually for a “Reunion of Honor” on the former battleground. It is possible to submit a repatriation request in English on their website, but be aware that the Association will not track down a deceased soldier’s family without a guarantee that the relic will be returned.

The Iwo Jima Association of America, Inc. may also be of assistance. They encourage the return of relics, have conducted joint events with the Iwo Jima Association of Japan mentioned above, and will also know of other American veterans who have sought to repatriate items in the spirit of reconciliation.

If you are not able to repatriate the artifact with a family, you might consider giving the object a permanent home in a Japanese shrine to war dead. One such shrine in Tokyo, the Yasukuni, also operates the Yushukan Museum.

As we were about to post this reponse, Matthew wrote back to us with good news about yet another avenue for repatriation:

I’ve done further research and have been put in touch with the Japanese Welfare Ministry that handles the return of such items. I contacted this office via watanabe-mitsuo@mhlw.go.jp. I received a form and instructions and I’m about to send it off. Your readers might like to know that the Ministry responded in less than two days to my original query, but they told me that it can take quite a long time to resolve these issues. Thanks for all your help.

This coming season you’ll see Eduardo investigate a captured Japanese map that may have provided intelligence about Iwo Jima’s strategic locations. Have you ever encountered an artifact brought back from Iwo Jima? Tell us your story here.

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