Tim Ruse's grandfather survived the grueling Bataan Death March during World War II, only to find himself starving to death in a Japanese prison camp. Ruse knew a Japanese boy had helped keep his grandfather alive. Seven decades later and armed only with a grainy photo, Ruse made it his mission to find that boy.
WASHINGTON — Sixty-nine years ago Saturday, American and Filipino prisoners of war on the Bataan Peninsula started marching at gunpoint. By the time the survivors arrived at a Philippine prison camp that spring in 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 survivor traveled to Japan with an old photograph: a torn, grainy picture of a Japanese boy. For Tim Ruse, 28, and for the Japanese people who greeted him, the photo offered a way to pluck from a dark chapter of history one act of compassion. It was a photo of the child who helped save his grandfather’s life.
Now they had to find that child.
The image was one of two photographs Carl Ruse clutched 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 — cheeks hollow, his gaze hard and haunted — and the second of the boy.
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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 war memorabilia. Tim Ruse had interviewed his grandfather about his war experience, including surviving the grueling Bataan Death March and his subsequent experience at a prison camp in Japan, for a high-school assignment, but it wasn’t until he went through those boxes that his fascination with his grandfather’s history was rekindled. Ruse and his wife, Meagan, were expecting their first child, 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, head of the Sleep Disorders Center at Georgetown University Hospital, who spent hours writing and scanning letters and photographs.
At the heart of the story was the photograph, which the grandfather carried in his wallet all his life. The child, a factory worker’s grandson, had helped keep Carl alive during his final year of forced labor at the Yokkaichi-Ishihara Sangyo prison camp in Nagoya, Japan. Despite the language barrier, the two became unlikely friends, and the boy slipped extra food to the starving prisoner when he could. Carl never knew his name.
Ruse is convinced the child’s gift was far greater than 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,” said Ruse, noting Carl returned without the weight of bitterness and hatred that scarred many other survivors.
Ruse contacted Kinue Tokudome, founder of the California-based nonprofit group US-Japan Dialogue on POWs, to ask if she could help find the boy.
Tokudome thought it would be impossible, but found the story of the Japanese boy and the enemy POW beautiful, she said. She contacted a Japanese newspaper in the Nagoya area in central Japan, site of the prison camp. The paper published a story about Ruse’s search in September.
Tokudome’s phone rang a few days later. The Rev. Shigeya Kumagawa, head of a Catholic school in Nagoya, had read the article and wanted Ruse to share the story with his students.
So much death
It was Ruse’s first journey overseas. Tokudome joined Ruse and his wife and brother for part of the trip in November.
Ruse brought a copy of each of his grandfather’s two photographs from Japan.
Kumagawa told Ruse he had lost much of his family to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; many relatives survived the initial disaster only to die afterward of radiation. 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 U.S. planes firebomb Nagoya, incinerating the homes below. Carl, who had broken his leg in an earthquake, could no longer work and had withered to 80 pounds, 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.”
The Japanese media trailed the U.S. visitors as Ruse told 1,500 students at Kumagawa’s school about how one child’s compassion changed his grandfather’s life. Cameras also shadowed them when they visited the Yokkaichi factory and stood 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.
Employees at the Yokkaichi factory examined the photo and said the boy was probably one of the few teens who had worked there, but they didn’t know his name or how to find him.
As the trip was ending, Kumagawa’s school received a call from a man who believed the boy was his brother.
More cameras were flashing at a hotel where Ruse met Takeo Nishiwaki. The 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 he had given food to a prisoner there.
Ruse wanted to believe he had found the boy, though he knew it was impossible to be certain. Still, there was finally a name: Fumio Nishiwaki.
Takeo Nishiwaki showed Ruse a photo of his brother, taken around age 18. It looked like the same boy, only taller, slimmer.
Takeo Nishiwaki returned the next day, as the travelers were preparing to leave. He had called his brother’s widow, who said she had seen the photo on the news and was sure it was of her late husband.
No cameras were in sight this time as Takeo Nishiwaki bowed farewell. “I’m going to go to the cemetery, and I’m going to tell my brother that we met,” he told Ruse.
Before Carl Ruse left Japan, he carried the extra food dropped from the U.S. planes to the boy’s family. It was then that the boy, as a gesture of thanks, pressed his photograph into Carl’s palm.
The moment echoed, more than 60 years later: As Tim Ruse and Takeo Nishiwaki parted, Ruse took copies of the photographs his grandfather had carried out of Japan and handed them both to the man.