Real letters from Iwo Jima

Veterans Voices

Vietnam Veteran from Winchester awarded five Silver Stars for valor.

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (WDVM) — When Vic Voegelin left the U.S. Navy after the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War Two, the 19 year-old machinist’s mate was told not to talk about of the things he saw or did on that tiny volcanic island in the Pacific. That’s why he didn’t tell his wife about 108 letters and postcards he found outside a Japanese bunker until after they went to see Clint Eastwood’s movie, “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

Three ships headed to shore on D-Day
Vic Voeglin

D-Day, February 19, 1945 found Voegelin on one of three LSMs, Landing Ship Mediums, headed toward Blue Beach where the Fourth Marine Division was landing. Voegelin’s ship No. 64 was nicknamed “Lady Godiva.” She took several hits from a Japanese 40mm anti-aircraft gun that was dug in on a bluff overlooking Blue Beach.

“The ship took a hit just below the forward gun tub,” said Voegelin, “but the round didn’t explode as it ripped through the starboard side of the ship and came out the port side. But the shell shattered the ship’s beer supply that was stored below the forward gun mount.

On February 23, the day a Marine patrol raised two flags atop Mount Suribachi, Voegelin and a buddy went souvenir hunting behind Blue Beach as their ship unloaded supplies.

A shattered bunker near a sandy terrace behind the beach caught their eye. Inside the slabs of concrete, Voegelin found some personal items belonging to a Japanese naval officer; a porcelain tea cup, a pack of Japanese cigarettes and a wool blanket with the Japanese Royal Navy emblem emblazoned one corner.

On the way out of the bunker, Voegelin saw a piece of cord sticking out of the sand. Without thinking it could be a booby trap, Voegelin yanked on the cord and out came a canvas bag containing a lot of unmailed letters. Unable to read Japanese, he took the items back to his ship and stored them in his seabag.

When he returned to his farm in upstate New York, he put the items into a small brown suitcase and hid them in the barn. After he and his wife, Georgia, saw “Letters from Iwo Jima” he told her had found the “real letters” on a beach at Iwo Jima and showed them to her.

Vic Voeglin showing his souvenirs

Wanting to know who they were written by and whom they were addressed to, Voegelin called the Tokyo Broadcasting Service [TBS] in Manhattan to see there was any interest. There was, and TBS sent one of its correspondents to the farm where he determined the letters were written by Takishi Matsukawa, a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Navy, who was yanked out of Kobe University, trained as an artillery observer, and flown to Iwo Jima a few weeks before U.S Marines invaded what Japanese soldiers called, “Hell Island.

Kobe Matsukawa
Lt. Matsukawa

Less than an hour after a special report aired in Tokyo, an 88-year-old man from Kobe called and said the naval officer was his older brother who didn’t come home from the war.

The man’s daughter, Naoka Tamioka, told me her father’s family was never told her uncle died on Iwo Jima; only that he died in the Southern War Zone.

Two years after her father died, Naoka scattered a packet of his ashes on Iwo Jima near the beach where his older brother died; reuniting the brothers in spirit. But where did Lt. Matsukawa die and when?

Naoka with her father’s ashes

When I sent Voegelin a photo of a shattered bunker behind Blue Beach and asked, “Is this the bunker where you found the “Real letters from Iwo Jima,” he said the bunker looked familiar, but he couldn’t say for sure that it was the one where he found the real letters from Iwo Jima.

Acting on a hunch it was the bunker, I sent Voegelin a copy of the Landing Plan and asked him to mark an “X” on the map where he found the bunker. Later, when I laid a U.S. Navy survey map of Japanese gun positions, pillboxes and bunkers on Iwo Jima over the Landing Plan, the location of the only bunker behind Blue Beach was located where Voegelin put an “X” on the Landing Plan.

Further investigation revealed that Lt. Matsukawa was most likely killed on February 16, 1945 when USS Idaho, a battleship, moved into firing position off Blue Beach and unleashed a powerful broadside of high-explosive shells at the bunker.

USS Idaho

So as the late Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know the rest of the story…. Good Day.”

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