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Even the Horses Were Prisoners

07.28.16 07:15 AM – Andy McDonald
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In the course of my writing project about Kentuckian Paul Rusch, I’ve stumbled across a few sources that tell about World War II from the Japanese perspective.

One especially fascinating read is a book entitled Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War, edited by Frank Gibney. It’s a compelling collection of letters to the editor of the Tokyo newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

For many folks of my generation, the precise reasons that the United States and Japan went to war are foggy at best, pieced together in half remembered clips of John Wayne movies, combined with spotty and perfunctory school lessons of long ago. Sure, we were given the quiz show basics. We knew how the war started and how it ended. But we never really learned anything about the people our grandfathers were sent to fight.

Perhaps for that reason, I couldn’t put Senso down. Instead of a dry, dispassionate catalogue of battles and dates, Senso recounts the individual memories of Japanese who lived during that bloody conflict, from the “holy war” in China to the desolation of defeat and the Allied Occupation. Sometimes their recollections were surprisingly funny, others horrifying. Many, like the one below, were heartbreaking.

It’s a tale of a Japanese horseman/soldier who was captured by the Russians at the end of the Pacific War. I thought it might have special meaning for my fellow Kentuckians:

Even the Horses Were Prisoners
by Miyazaki Kiichi.

“At 7 a.m. we departed from our campground in Siberia. It was still pitch dark as we headed for the train station. We prisoners of war trudged along, each keeping his eyes on the backpack of the soldier walking ahead. Due to the cold, hunger and fatigue, we felt no emotion. All we could do was continue plodding ahead. At about 11 a.m. the sky finally grew light. In the distance was a range of low mountains covered in snow. At its base a pine forest stretched for tens of kilometers. A snow covered plain spread from the forest to our formation.

By chance we noticed what looked like a herd of dark animals on the far reaches of the plain. A closer look revealed that they were horses. As soon as one lifted its head and glanced at us, it galloped toward us at top speed. Then a second and third followed. Finally scores of horses ran toward us all together. We could see that they were Japanese horses, and military horses at that. They were so emaciated that their ribs stuck out like the ridges on a washboard. Atop their thin necks were large skull-like heads.

They seemed to be jumping for joy at seeing the familiar uniform of Japanese soldiers. They must have recalled the days when they were military horses. They were no doubt reminded of the soldiers who cared for them without rest, who had given them water and fodder and brushed their coats. Compared to those times, their present condition must have been unbearable – they were overworked, undernourished, and had to sleep standing in the snow.

Cutting into our ranks, they tried to put their noses in our pockets. Soldiers wept, thinking of the horses’ feelings. It was pitiful to see the horses neighing with pleasure at having their noses patted. We soldiers were also prisoners of war, the same as the horses. There was nothing we could do for them. We could only express how sorry we felt by rubbing our faces against theirs and embracing them.

When a cold-hearted Soviet guard shooed the horses away, their eyes filled with sorrow. In their home villages, each horse must have been treated just like a member of the family. To the souls of the many military horses whose dead carcasses no doubt lay exposed to the elements, we ask forgiveness.”

Remarkable, I thought. If Mr. Miyazaki was lucky enough to be sent home to Japan immediately after the war (many languished in captivity as slave labor for the Soviets) he went home to a nation in desolate chaos, a once proud empire reduced to smoldering rubble, utterly desperate with hunger.

But after all he must have endured, and after all those years, it was the memory of those starving horses in the snow that he just couldn’t shake.






Author's note: If you should go exploring Senso on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, take a look at this other fine volume by Verlaine Stoner McDonald, who is co-author of the upcoming book Democracy in a Kimono: Paul Rusch and the Making of Postwar Japan.


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