Story by Caitlin Gibson for The Washington Post, April 7, 2011:
Sixty-nine years ago on Saturday, American and Filipino prisoners of war on the Bataan Peninsula started marching at gunpoint. By the time the survivors arrived at a prison camp in the Philippines in spring of 1942, they had watched thousands of their comrades die along the 60 or more miles. What they suffered endures as a symbol of wartime cruelty. ¶ A few months ago, the grandson of one of the survivors traveled from Northern Virginia to Japan with an old photograph in his hand. It was a grainy picture of a young Japanese boy. For Tim Ruse, a 27-year-old sleep disorders specialist from Centreville, and for the Japanese people who greeted him, the photo offered a way to pluck from a dark chapter of history one single act of compassion. It was a photo of the child who helped save his grandfather’s life. ¶ Now they just had to find him.
The image of the boy was one of two photographs that Carl Ruse clutched in his hands when he boarded the USS Rescue in September 1945. He stripped the filthy clothes from his emaciated frame and threw his makeshift crutches into the sea. He left everything behind except those two pictures: The first of himself when he arrived at the prison camp in Japan — his cheeks hollow, his gaze hard and haunted — and the second of the boy.
In the old, torn print, the child looks perhaps 11 or 12. He is not quite smiling, but his eyebrows are raised slightly. He wears a cap and buttoned jacket, a somber uniform framing his pudgy cheeks and dark, gentle eyes.
In 2007, four years after Carl Ruse died at 89, his grandson inherited his boxes of letters, medals and memorabilia from the war. Tim Ruse had interviewed his grandfather about his experience in Japan once before, as a high school senior for a class assignment. But it wasn’t until Ruse went through those boxes that his fascination with his grandfather’s history was rekindled in earnest. Ruse and his wife, Meagan, were expecting their first child, a son whom they planned to name after Carl.
“I got this idea to write down all of my grandfather’s narratives for my son,” said Ruse, now a father of three and the head of the Sleep Disorders Center at Georgetown University Hospital.
It became a years-long project, with countless hours spent scanning letters and photographs and writing a narrative of his grandfather’s experience.
At the heart of his grandfather’s story was the photograph of the boy that he’d kept folded in his wallet all his life. The child, a grandson of a factory worker, had helped keep Carl alive during his final year of forced labor at the Yokkaichi-Ishihara Sangyo prison camp. Despite the language barrier, the two became unlikely friends, and the boy slipped the starving prisoner extra food when he could. Carl never knew his name.
Ruse is convinced that the child’s gift to his grandfather was far greater than just the rations he shared.
“I think this boy had an innocence that allowed my grandfather to leave the war where it was when he came home,” Ruse said. His grandfather returned, he said, without the weight of bitterness and hatred that scarred so many other survivors.
He had to try to find the boy. He contacted Kinue Tokudome, founder of the California-based nonprofit group US-Japan Dialogue on POWs, and asked if she could help.
Tokudome believed that it would be impossible to find the child with just one picture — but she thought the story of the Japanese boy and the enemy POW was beautiful, she said. She contacted a Japanese newspaper in the Nagoya area, the region in central Japan where Carl Ruse had worked at the prison camp. The paper published a story about Ruse’s search for the child in September.
Tokudome’s phone rang just a few days later. The Rev. Shigeya Kumagawa, the head of a private Catholic school in Nagoya, had read the article and wanted to invite Ruse to share his story with Japanese students.
Families shaped by war
It was Ruse’s first journey overseas. He traveled to Japan in November with his wife and his brother, Steve. Tokudome joined them for part of the trip.
Ruse brought a copy of each of the two photographs that his grandfather had kept when he left Japan.
On the train to Nagoya, Kumagawa told Ruse that he had lost much of his family to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; many relatives survived the initial disaster only to perish of radiation poisoning in the days and weeks that followed. Kumagawa, a peace studies teacher, said his grandmother had gone insane from seeing so many of her loved ones die that way.
Ruse found it difficult to reconcile how both their families had been shaped by opposing sides of a brutal history.
Far from the devastation of Nagasaki, Carl Ruse and his fellow prisoners had watched the U.S. planes firebomb Nagoya, incinerating the homes below. Carl had suffered a broken leg in an earthquake and could no longer work. He had withered to 80 pounds. He was running out of time.
“If it hadn’t been for Harry Truman and his atomic bomb,” Carl once told his grandson, “we would never have gotten out of there.”
Members of the Japanese media trailed the American visitors during their trip, broadcasting parts of Ruse’s speech to 1,500 students at Kumagawa’s school about the way one child’s compassion changed his grandfather’s life. Cameras also shadowed them when they visited the Yokkaichi factory and stood in the place where Carl Ruse had watched the first U.S. planes drop food for the prisoners after Japan’s surrender.
“That was just overwhelming, to travel to that spot where he stood and knew he was going to make it,” Ruse said.
Finally, a name
The employees of the Yokkaichi factory examined the photo and said they believed that the boy was one of the few young teens who had worked in the factory. The photo, they said, was probably taken before the war began. But they didn’t know the child’s name or how to find him.
Then, as the trip was coming to an end, Kumagawa’s school received a call from a man who believed that the boy in the photograph was his brother.
There were more cameras flashing when Ruse, his wife and brother met the caller in a hotel meeting room. Takeo Nishiwaki, a small, elderly man, said his older brother — who had died at 30 of a respiratory illness — had worked at the factory when he was about 14 and had told him that he had given food to a prisoner there.
Ruse’s pulse quickened. He wanted to believe that he had found the boy, though he knew it was impossible to be certain. Still, there was finally a name: Fumio Nishiwaki.
Nishiwaki showed Ruse a photo of his brother, taken around age 18. It looked like the same boy, only taller, slimmer.
Nishiwaki returned the next day, as the travelers were preparing to leave. He told Ruse that he had called his brother’s widow after their meeting. She said she had seen the photo of the boy on the news and felt sure that it was her late husband.
There were no cameras in sight this time as Nishiwaki bowed farewell. “I’m going to go to the cemetery, and I’m going to tell my brother that we met,” Nishiwaki told Ruse.
Before Carl Ruse left Japan, he had carried the extra food dropped from the U.S. planes to the family of the boy. It was then that the boy, as a gesture of thanks, pressed his photograph into Carl’s palm.
The moment echoed, more than sixty 60 years later. As Ruse and Nishiwaki parted ways, Ruse took his copies of the photographs his grandfather had carried out of Japan and handed them both to the old man.