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Real-Life Letters From Iwo Jima Find Home Six Decades Later

In a heartening case of life taking a cue from art, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated film Letters From Iwo Jima inspired an aged veteran to return letters he took from that Pacific island over half a century earlier to the family of their owner.

As reported in this Times Herald-Record article (English), a Times Herald-Record video report (also English), TBS News (Japanese), and a variety of news sites carrying an AP story.

Vic Voegelin was an 18-year-old sailor in the U.S. Navy during the Allied assault on Japanese-occupied Iwo Jima. After the fierce battle was over, Voegelin found a small bag on the beach containing 108 letters and post cards belonging to one of the many Japanese soldiers killed in the attack that day. He kept the letters when he returned home.

TBS News quoted Voegelin as saying that while keeping the letters initially seemed like a good idea, as he grew older he began to look at it differently. He realized that the owner of the letters had people whom he loved, and wanted to somehow return the letters to them.

62 years later, the now 80-year-old Voegelin said that he was spurred by Clint Eastwood’s film to try and find the family of the soldier to whom the letters were addressed. He first tried contacting the film’s production company, then the Japanese embassy in New York, but neither had any desire to help. He then contacted a local newspaper—the Times Herald-Record—which passed the story on to Japanese news services.

Masaji Matsukawa reads letters
he wrote 62 years ago
during a media event.

The story received national attention in the Japanese media, and the family was found almost immediately. The letters were written by a young Masaji Matsukawa—still alive today—to his older brother Tadashi, who was a First Lieutenant in the Japanese Army.

The Matsukawa family had been informed of Tadashi’s death by the Japanese military, but they never knew where he had been killed. Although it took 62 years and a man who had been an enemy reaching out in a gesture of peace, Masaji finally was able to find a sort of closure knowing where his brother had died.

Voegelin was unable to bring the letters to Japan personally, but after a month of logistical arrangements they were finally delivered to Tadashi’s younger brother, who spoke with Voegelin by phone through an interpreter. Masaji reminisced in front of cameras as he read the words he had written so long ago. Although the letters were formal in tone and the content subject to strict censorship before being delivered to the front lines, the younger brother’s concern for his older brother is evident and they offer a glimpse at the circumstances in Japan during the war.

Some excerpts as published by TBS News (story no longer available online):

“We couldn’t sleep well last night because we were so excited about news of the war. We ate oseki-han [a festive red bean and rice dish].”

“I will work like mad this year. I’m not going to let you outdo me, older brother. I’m going to follow you [to war].”

“The weather turned terribly cold today. My hands and feet are numb from the cold. Please do not fret since both father and mother are doing well. I am relieved now that I know you are also well. Mother is pleased. Well then, take care of yourself and keep your chin up.”

TBS News noted that Masaji said that the post-war for him had finally come to an end. For his part, Vic Voegelin said told the Times Herald-Record that his small gesture was for once a story about peace, not war.

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