Share story

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) — Sumiko Goeku was barely 7 when her aunt carried her on her back into the ocean, summoned strength to tow her to deep water, then pushed her away and left her to drown.

One might easily conclude that the child’s aunt must have had pure evil in her heart, or that perhaps she was psychotic, but the truth was that she no doubt was as terrified as her niece. Struggling back to shore, she believed that her own fate was as surely sealed, for there, waiting for her, was her husband holding a gun with two bullets.

Such was the hopelessness on the island of Saipan in June 1944.

When the insanity came, it came quickly.

Sumiko Goeku, who not only survived that horrific day but is now 80 and living a happy life as Sue Tucker in Lawton, doesn’t remember much in great detail before the war. There are only flashes, she told The Lawton Constitution. Her father, Chose, worked in a factory processing sugar cane. Her mother, Tsuru, who already had a touch of arthritis in her mid-30s, worked hard, too, caring for their five children: three girls and two boys. Sumiko was in the middle.

She remembers the island’s lush mango trees and orange trees. She remembers just getting started in school.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, her father was called into the Army and soon was gone, Tucker said, never to be heard from again.

In the early days of the war, life didn’t change much on Saipan for her family, which extended to include her aunt, Ushi, and her uncle, Zenu. Probably, most people, including many Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese who worked in Saipan’s sugar cane fields and factories, would never have known of the strategic value of the island, located within striking distance of American bombers to the Japanese mainland.

But the Japanese knew. In mid-1944, nearly 30,000 Japanese troops were there to fight to the last man to keep the island, which measures only 12 miles long by less than 6 wide.

After the battle started, the Goeku family, along with many others, fled to the interior mountains of Saipan, where they took shelter in caves. Short on even basic supplies, though, they soon became desperate. Tucker remembers waking up once to see her mother bloodied and resting against a cave wall. She’d been outside trying to find food. Not long after, Tsuru Goeku was killed, caught in crossfire after mustering strength and courage again to try to get even meager provisions for her children.

The children became separated. Tucker said she stayed with her aunt and uncle and after a time they, too, were forced to leave the cave.

The battle was a major defeat for the Japanese. While 3,426 Americans would eventually die in visceral, often hand-to-hand combat that took place between June 15 and July 9, nearly all of the Japanese defenders were killed. Only 921 were taken prisoner.

According to, an estimated 20,000 civilians also perished. Near the end, civilians were encouraged to fight even with bamboo spears or to commit suicide rather than to be captured. More than 1,000 are known to have killed themselves by leaping from places later to be memorialized on Saipan as “Suicide Cliff” and “Banzai Cliff.” Years later, Tucker said she went back to the island on the 50th anniversary of the battle. There, she met a woman who said she’d thrown herself off one of the cliffs only to survive by having her fall broken by a pile of bodies.

Sumiko Goeku also was a survivor only by the grace of God.

She was starving. In fact, only later would she learn that one of her sisters starved to death. A baby brother is said to have died at the end of a Japanese bayonet. Another survived, but with shrapnel wounds to his face.

For days after they fled the cave, Sumiko and her aunt and uncle survived only on spoonfuls of rice and tiny amounts of rain water collected on leaves. She was shoeless, and her feet were so bloodied and bruised that she could no longer walk. Her uncle carried her until he could carry her no more. That’s when he decided that all of their lives had reached an end. He’d found a gun, Tucker said, and if it would have had three bullets they might all indeed have perished. But there were only two, so the uncle told his wife to carry Sumiko out into the ocean and let her drown.

Fate had a different ending in store. Waves carried the frightened, struggling little girl back to shore, and when they saw it, her aunt and uncle somehow found it within themselves to try to hold out a little longer.

“Probably an angel sent me back,” Tucker said.

As it happened, time was running out on the battle for Saipan. Sumiko and others soon were taken in by American troops and settled into a refugee camp, where they would remain until the end of the war.

For years afterward, Tucker said her mind was foggy as to all that happened during that terrible time. As memories started to come back, though, she traveled to Okinawa, where her aunt was living by then, and her aunt talked to her about the tremendous pain and heartbreak and her own decision to commit suicide.

“She said ‘I couldn’t take it,'” Tucker said. “She just put her head down and cried. She said that me being washed back to shore saved her life, too, and my uncle’s.”

After World War II, the little girl was sent to live with another aunt and uncle in Okinawa. There, she would grow up to become a barber and eventually met and married an American soldier. He brought her to the United States in 1957, settling for a time in Ohio before eventually rejoining the Army and being posted in New Jersey (where she became an American citizen in 1962), Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and finally at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. After they divorced, Sumiko, who by then was known simply as Sue, raised their three children: Sumi, Sam and Selena, in Lawton, working first as a barber at a shop called the Opera House on 4th Street and later opening her own place, Sue’s Barber Shop, on Gore Boulevard, which she ran from 1972 to 1996. It was there that she met her husband, Carl.

Between them, they have 26 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom they get to watch out for while their parents are at work.

“I call myself rich,” Tucker said. “Just look at the kids.”

Her life is rich in other ways as well. She and her husband are regular bowlers in a senior league at Thunderbird Lanes. They laugh that their team is called the Recycled Teenagers. She also gardens, quilts and is active at their church, Western Hills Church of Christ. In the past she was a member of an Okinawa Society Club, learned to Hawaiian dance and was a volunteer for Meals on Wheels.

She’s a tiny woman, standing only 4 feet 10 inches tall, but after surviving those nightmarish days of the war she has tried to live in a big way.

“I really think God was looking after me,” she said. “I’m grateful.”


Information from: The Lawton Constitution,