Each Christmas when I was a boy in the early 1960s, my mother boosted me through a hatch into our attic. I’d toss down empty boxes stored there for wrapping presents. Nearby was a trunk filled with WWII mementos my father brought back from his Pacific island battles.
There was a U.S. Marine code manual. Secret landing maps. Japanese photographs. And other items, including a passport issued by the Imperial Japanese Government.
When I was old enough to sneak up there, I’d stare at the mug shot in the passport of a gentle-looking man. His name was Seiichi Zayasu--it was written both in Japanese and English. My father, Steve Maharidge, must have killed him to end up with the document. Who was Mr. Zayasu? Little did I know that decades later I would find out.
Dad never talked much about the war. He had a sometimes explosive rage. I connected this to his being in combat. As a boy I dreamed about going to the war places with him so that I could understand his demons.
He died in 2000 with the war’s role in his life remaining a mystery.
I then spent the next 12 years finding 29 men from his unit. I learned that he suffered two blast concussions on Okinawa and a near-fatal mortar explosion on Guam in 1944.
Dad had recuperated from the bleeding wound. But experts told me he certainly suffered traumatic brain injury, TBI. The brain does not heal. This explained his temper, a symptom of TBI.
I came to peace with his anger. But unfinished business remained. I needed to return the passport to the Zayasu family.
I flew to Okinawa and went to the village of Okuma with an interpreter. Seiichi’s address was a vacant lot. Across a lane was a home on which was a name: “Zayasu.”
Filled with dread, I knocked. An elderly man opened the door. Seijin Zayasu told me that he was Seiichi’s nephew.
“I think my father killed your uncle,” I sputtered.
As my words were translated, puzzlement filled Seijin’s face, which turned into a look that considered me crazy. Seiichi was too old to be drafted--he was 49 in 1945, Seijin said. He’d died in a 1952 construction accident. Seiichi, his wife, and seven children had fled to the mountains before the American landing on April 1, 1945.
I'd shaped a false narrative my entire life. Dad had gone into their empty house. He was a thief, not a killer in this case. I imagined Dad laughing somewhere. It’s the kind of thing he would have found humorous. I was happy that my father hadn’t slain Seiichi.
I found my way to Moritake Zayasu, Seiichi’s son. In 1945 he was age ten. Japanese military propagandists said Americans would shoot civilians, so the family hid until after the battle.
Moritake’s parents weren’t upset about missing things when they came home. They were glad to be alive. Theirs was one of the few Okinawan families that hadn’t lost anyone during the 82-day battle. An estimated 150,000 civilians were killed, the vast majority from American shelling and bombs.
Moritake asked why my father kept the passport. He wasn't angry--just baffled. I had no answer. All but one man I found from Dad’s company took souvenirs from bodies and houses. Perhaps Dad saw it as “exotic,” a token to remember his journey halfway across the globe to fight people he did not hate.
Ed Hoffman, who was in Dad’s company, had Japanese photographs. In the 1990s he sent them to an Okinawa newspaper hoping the families might see them. Stories abound today about Americans repatriating items from that war nearly 70 years ago.
What motivates us to do this?
Perhaps it’s our trying to cope with the inherent insanity of war. Nations engage in conflict but the ultimate cost is not borne by politicians or generals.
My father wanted no part in World War II--he’d ignored three draft notices in 1943 and only “volunteered” for the Marines after police came knocking. As civilians, the Zayasu family also didn’t want war.
My father was powerless against the collision of nations. Though my fantasy about coming to Okinawa with him never happened, I felt he was with me in spirit as I sought healing in one small act that I could control for him.
"My father entered your house,” I said to Moritake, “and took some things. So, I apologize in his behalf, and return them to you."
I set out items besides the passport that were connected to it--including a wallet and a baby picture.
Up to that point, Moritake had been reserved. His eyes now widened.
"I think this might be me!" Moritake exclaimed as he held the image of the baby.
Dale Maharidge is author of "Bringing Mulligan Home."