No matter how many times I hear the drum rolls, see the flags raised, marvel to the stirring national anthems, listen to the mournful sobs of a solo trumpet playing taps; no matter how many times I experience all that, the result is always the same.
Not of hurt or pain. No, these are tears of appreciation, perhaps even love. They are tears of sadness, yes, but also tears of joy, as if somehow those two seemingly opposite emotions can be one and the same.
I’m speaking, of course, of my reaction to last week’s 75th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Surigao Strait, an epic World War II clash between two great naval forces that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific and paved the way for the Philippines’ liberation from Japan.
Two things were different about this year’s annual commemoration. First, it took place at the newly inaugurated Battle of Surigao Strait Memorial, a beautiful construction overlooking the historic battle site in Surigao City’s Punta Bilar. And second, for the first time ever, a uniformed representative of the Japanese government sat on the dais next to his counterparts from the US, Philippines and Australia.
“We must never again repeat the devastation of war,” said Cmdr. Michinori Fukuda, assistant defense attaché at the Japanese Embassy in Manila, looking utterly dashing in his starched white uniform. That sentiment was shared by virtually everyone who spoke. And it struck me how much can change with the passing of a generation.
My own closest association to World War II is through my mother, a German Jew who lost most of her family in the concentration camps of Europe. The only way she herself survived was by emigrating to Shanghai, China, where she spent nearly a decade living in a refugee camp controlled – rather cruelly, she always said – by the occupying Japanese. So you can imagine that, growing up, well, let’s just say that Japan was not on my short-list of countries to be loved.
I thought about that last week sitting at the Japanese Cremation Site near what is now Surigao Norte National High School. It is there that the remains of some 500 Japanese soldiers and navy personnel were disposed of, many of them killed in the American bombings of 1944.
“Some fell on the battlefields worrying about the future of their homeland,” Fukuda said, laying a wreath at a shrine erected to honor the dead. “Others perished in remote foreign countries after the war here.”
Listening to the strange guttural chanting of a Buddhist prayer offered on their behalf, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much these soldiers and sailors were like those of any other nation who perish in faraway places doing what they’ve been ordered to do. And it occurred to me then how right it was that someone from their own country was here to grieve with us now. For only when former enemies can grieve together are they truly free to move on.
David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.