Stars and Stripes Archives: Tears and cheers for an old soldier

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Stars and Stripes Archives: Tears and cheers for an old soldier

by: Sgt. C.E. Witter | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: September 18, 2012

Published: Feb. 4, 1972

TOKYO—Shoichi Yokoi, the former Japanese Imperial Army sergeant who hid out in the jungles of Guam for 28 years, jetted home Wednesday and received a hero’s welcome—a welcome that outshone Emperor Hirohito’s return from his world tour.

About 5,000 people crowded the observation decks at Tokyo International Airport Wednesday afternoon as the Japan Air Lines charter plane touched down bearing Yokoi and the remains of two other Japanese soldiers, Mikio Shichi and Satoru Nakahata.

The two soldiers had sp ent some time with Yokoi in the jungles of Guam before they died about eight years ago.

Yokoi, 56, was placed in the first class compartment of the special JAL flight from Guam, where he was captured Jan. 24 after spending half his life hiding from “the enemy,” never wanting to surrender because it would have been a disgrace to do so.

He was attended by Dr. Yoshiuki Koyama of Tokyo’s Daiichi Hospital, a nurse from Tokyo, and Kazushige Nakamura, director of the Repatriation Bureau.

First on board the aircraft after the doors opened in Tokyo were customs and immigration officials. Following them, 10 doctors filed through the doors to examine Yokoi.

Next on board were three officials to claim the remains of Yokoi’s two companions. They came back out almost immediately bearing white boxes con-
taining the remains. They passed by bereaved relatives who wept openly and bowed low in grief.

About 15 minutes after the plane had parked it was time for Yokoi to emerge. He was visibly touched by the response as he stepped onto the stair-ramp. He had to be steadied by his doctor and nurse.

The crowd waved Japanese flags and chanted “Banzai! Banzai!” Yokoi waved back as tears streaked down his face.

At the bottom of the steps he set foot on Japanese soil for the first time in 31 years. He was first greeted by Japan’s Health and Welfare Minister Noboru
Saito. The two chatted for a few minutes, Yokoi now standing on his own but not letting go of the minister’s hand.

After the exchange of greetings the two turned towards the assembled press for pictures. Again Yokoi waved and this time he shouted “Banzai!” The crowd cheered louder.

Two airport ground crewmen, who were also working the day the Emperor returned from his overseas tour, said the crowd was bigger and more boisterous on Wednesday than the day of the emperor’s return.

Yokoi was placed in a wheelchair for the short trip from planeside to a waiting car. As he was pushed to the car he again received a loud ovation. The car took him to the airport hotel for a brief press conference.

During the conference Yokoi was asked his first impressions of Japan. “When I saw my motherland Nippon I could not help but cry. I am too full of emotions to express my happiness to be back in Japan,” he said.

Yokoi also gave his reason why his country lost the war: “Japan lost the  pacific war because it lacked arms, warships and planes and not because of any lack of fighting spirit.”

He also repeated his desire to meet the emperor. Thoughts of Emperor Hirohito helped him to continue during his lonely years in the jungle, he told the press.

He also mentioned one of the possessions he brought back from Guam. “I brought back the rifle entrusted to me by the honorable emperor which I want to return. I want to report that I am sorry I did not serve his majesty to my satisfaction.”

He said, as he did in Guam shortly after his capture, that he was glad he was going to Japan, but apologized for not dying for his country.

Following the conference Yokoi was whisked away to the Tokyo Daiichi Hospital where he will undergo more medical checkups. A team of specialists will be assigned to him full time.

Yokoi seems to know what he wants to do as soon as he is able. He wants to write his memoirs.