When Tony Kuo (郭大同), a retired high school English teacher in Chiayi City, decided a few years ago to translate his late father’s handwritten war-time “recollections” of his life as a civilian conscript in the Japanese Imperial Army when he was in his early 20s, he took on a challenge: translating into English the notebooks his elderly farmer father had used to write down his memoirs in Chinese and Japanese and then finding a local print shop to turn out readable copies of a small but important part of Taiwanese history.
He also wanted to honor his father, Kuo Tien-lu (郭天祿), a Kaohsiung banana farmer who passed away in 2001 at the age of 84. The elderly Kuo first began jotting down his wartime memories when he was 76.
Spotlight on history
The memoirs, titled The Peaceful Gunfire (和平戰火) in English, shine a revealing spotlight on a seldom-told chapter of Taiwan’s wartime history, especially of Japan’s conscription of Taiwanese men to work and wage war in southeast Asia.
“My father’s diary, written much later after the war, after he retired from farming in Kaohsiung, is a slice of life that I wanted to make available for historians, academics and anyone else who might want to read this,” Kuo said in a recent interview with the Taipei Times. “My father was sent to Japan-controlled Indonesia. He left by ship in 1943 and came back by ship in 1946, a year after Tokyo surrendered.”
Conscripted to work for the Mitsui Company as a rice warehouse laborer, the senior Kuo, a native of Kaoshiung, shipped out from Taiwan on July 29, 1943, according to his diary notations. Although the war ended some two years later, he was not able to make it back home until 1946 due to bureaucratic problems.
In writing down his memories in old age, the elderly Taiwanese banana farmer was able to recollect such detailed memories as US air raids over Japanese bases where he was stationed, a near fatal bout with malaria that saw him pass “black urine,” sightings of so-called “comfort women” aboard a Japanese troop ship and a one-night, unhappy visit to a local brothel in the former Dutch colony of Indonesia.
Don’t mention the war
The younger Kuo said that his father seldom spoke about the war. “The first we learned about all this was when he presented us with the diary he wrote in his old age,” Kuo, 57, said.
Kuo’s father was not a soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army, but was conscripted as a civilian worker for a Japanese company connected to the war effort in southeast Asia. After leaving Kaohsiung by ship in 1943 — the first time he ever left Taiwan — the 21-year-old spent 10 months in New Guinea. As the only son of a widowed mother, he spent a lot of his time there thinking about his mother back home and writing her letters which he never knew if she received until he got back home three years later.
“I sometimes missed my hometown very much because my mother had always been plagued with chronic asthma, and I was worried about her,” he wrote in one of his diary entries, adding: “Here in New Guinea it is March and we have summer all year long here, but in Taiwan, it is winter. How is my mother’s health? I have written about 10 letters home already, but I never know if she received them. And I never receive any mail from her since I am at one of the frontlines of the war. So getting mail from home is impossible.’’