Japanese war diary could find its way home

Solving a 70-year-old mystery

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By Matthew Hendrickson

Contributing reporter

It had been tucked away for 70 years, stored in a garage, kept in closets and drawers. But now, seven decades after its last entry was written, the journal of a Japanese soldier who likely died at Iwo Jima may find its way home.

Wendy Sheridan of Oak Park first found the journal in her family's garage in the home she grew up in. Her father, James Wink, was a lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps, stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. She was working on a class project in high school when she discovered it among her father's things.

He told her that during the war he had been in charge of inoculating American soldiers against disease and had a led a group of African American soldiers charged with burying the dead at Iwo Jima. But he didn't say much else.

"I'm sure it was a traumatic experience for him and that's why he probably didn't talk about it," she said of conversations with her father about his time at war. "My dad was a man of few words and even fewer were about this."

The journal was small — a black book with thin onion-skin paper and Japanese symbols delicately marked in ink.

Decades later, she saw it again, this time going through photos to display at her mother's 80th birthday.

She took it home, hoping to learn more about it, but it would be years before she did.

Earlier this year, another member of her book group put Sheridan in touch with Yoko Avramov, the owner of Forest Park's Montessori Language Academy, 314 N. Circle Ave., a dual language school with classes in Japanese and in English.

"There was something driving me to take it to the next level," Sheridan said. "It was like [the journal's author] was communicating to me and a larger audience."

Avramov came to the U.S. 22 years ago from Japan. Soon after, she moved to Oak Park with her husband for a job he was offered at Loyola Hospital. She got a job at an Oak Park Montessori school that was seeking a teacher fluent in Japanese. Soon after, she decided to start her own dual language school, and opened that school in Forest Park.

Avramov was contacted by Sheridan's book-group friend, Lourdes Nichols, who was the mother of a former student, and told that a woman in Oak Park had discovered an old diary written in Japanese that she was hoping to have translated. Avramov agreed to take the journal and see what she could learn from it.

She recalled setting the book on a table at her school and calling the other teachers around to take a look. It was the journal of a man named Hiroshi Shimizu. As they opened the book and began to read its contents, she said a shiver went through the room.

"All of us literally stepped back and had a chill in our back," Avramov said. "At first no one wanted to touch it."

She explained that in Japanese culture, it's not appropriate to handle the possessions of a deceased person who is not family. But she said she soon reconsidered. She thought of her own journey to the United States and to Oak Park and then the journal's trek across the world. Something, she believed, had brought them together.

"I thought that reaction was too selfish of me," Avramov said. "It was like he was reaching out because it had come to me for some reason. I should take responsibility and play the role that was brought to me."

The journal begins in 1938 when Shimizu might have been in military training in Japan. The majority of the journal details his military experience at war on Iwo Jima. Shimizu, from what Avramov could piece together, was a lieutenant in charge of a crew of men who ran an anti-aircraft gun on Iwo Jima. In each day's entry, he lists the number of planes that flew overhead, when bombs fell and made note of troop landings and battles.

But on Feb. 17, 1945, the journal's final entry, Shimizu broke from his daily reporting and made a final note below an ink line drawn across the page.

"Today our unit will go to take the Americans," Avramov translated. "I don't regret returning to the soil of Iwo Jima for the emperor."

Shimizu goes on to write that he was thinking of his mother and father. He hopes a woman named Tazuko — possibly a wife or a younger sister — will take care of them. Finally, he closes with the lyrics to a popular military song "Umi Yukaba": 

"If I go in the sea, I will die in the water. If I go in the mountains, I will die in the grass. I'm happy to die for the emperor. There is no regret."

"He [must have] died tragically in war," Avramov said of his last entry. "As we know from history, there were only a small number of Japanese [soldiers] left on Iwo Jima [at the end of the battle]. When I read that last part, I thought, 'I have to meet Wendy and translate this personally for her."

Sheridan said she was standing in a line when she received an email from Avramov. As she read it, she started to cry.

"It just hit me in my heart," she said. "It was like bringing [Shimizu] to life again."

Perhaps serendipitously, Sheridan and Avramov first met in person on Veterans Day to discuss the journal's translation. Avramov told Sheridan the journal should be taken to a temple or shrine to be blessed, in accordance with tradition.

Both woman believe that the journal should be returned to his family if possible. The Consulate-General of Japan in Chicago has a program for just these circumstances.

According to spokesman Shimichiro Nakamura, the consulate gets repatriation requests like Sheridan's about once a month, though sometimes less. Mainly, he said, it is the family members of a World War II veteran who wish to return the artifact to a surviving family in Japan.

"Usually, it's people with good intentions," Nakamura said. "Most want to return it to Japan with goodwill."

He said the consulate will work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan to try to track down any surviving family members to return the items. This begins with collecting photos and information about the artifact. If no family can be found, the artifact is released to the current holder. Nakamura said he didn't know if the man's village or a local museum would take the materials, but he said it was possible.

Sheridan, for her part, said she feels a bit conflicted. She said she believes her father should not have taken the journal but also doesn't know exactly how he came to possess it. He died in 1987 and she didn't get an opportunity to ask him more about it. Mainly though, she would hope someone would return it to her if their roles were reversed.

"I do look forward to sending it on," Sheridan said. "It would be great to actually have a connection that was one-to-one [with a family member]. It would be beautiful."

If a family member cannot be located, Sheridan said she would like for it to go to a museum or educational facility to further understanding of the war.

"This isn't mine," Sheridan said. "I think my father would agree it should go. If not to a family member then to somewhere it can do some good."

Both Sheridan and Avramov said they thought the experience reaffirmed their sense of the shared humanity in all people.

"On a personal basis, we are all the same," Avramov said. "We are all human."

Sheridan said she agreed. Both her father and Hiroshi Shimizu were young men shouldering the responsibility of fighting for their nations in war.

"It's important for us to connect with the past, so that we don't make the same mistakes. 

"My dad and Mr. Shimizu are on the same side now."

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