BY: PATRICK KERKSTRA
Section: B1 Cover Story
Harry M. Akune's World War II experience began in the Colorado Amache Relocation Camp in
1942. It ended 54 years later at his home in Gardena when Akune learned he had been
inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
In between is an incredible story of war, almost
reckless bravery and acceptance by a nation that branded him and 130,000 other Japanese
Americans sent to internment camps as potential traitors.
As events today remember and honor veterans, those looking for personal memories of war
can find Akune's saga online at www.thedropzone.org along with the stories of a number of
other Southern California veterans.
"I needed to share these wonderful stories I've been hearing
for years," said Patrick O'Donnell, the historian who put the site together.
"And rather than put it in some obscure book that no one would see, I decided to put
O'Donnell's site is a self-described "online oral history
project" that chronicles the World War II battle exploits of dozens of U.S.
paratroopers--such as Army Specialist Akune who actually wasn't supposed to be a
Akune was trained as an intelligence specialist who would
interrogate Japanese prisoners and translate documents. But in February 1945, Akune's
superiors decided that his skills were needed in an airborne assault on the rocky terrain
of Corregidor, an island fortress guarding the strategically vital Manila Harbor.
That jump nearly killed him.
Akune was almost laughably ill-equipped to make a landing on that
small, treacherous island. He had almost no training, and due to a mix-up at the air base
earlier that day, Akune's equipment was been misplaced. He was armed only with a carbine
and a single 15-round clip, and he did not have a helmet.
During his landing, Akune nearly impaled himself on a bomb
shattered-tree, slid down 50 yards of torn granite on his back and walked into a line of
waiting American rifles that nearly mistook him for a charging Japanese soldier.
"I found out later this guy, Sgt. Richard Harley, was the one
that held the guys from firing," Akune said. "Boy, did he cuss me out for
charging up there and scaring the hell out of them."
Once Akune finally made it to the command post, his intelligence
discoveries proved critical to the assault on the island, and according to Akune's
commanding officer, saved hundreds of lives.
Then there's the story of John Lindgren, who late at night on Feb.
19, 1945 found himself on that same rocky island in the Philippines, cut off from the rest
of his platoon and no more than 20 yards away from a group of elite Japanese Imperial
His head was bleeding from grenade fragments embedded in his scalp.
His commander, lying just a few feet from him, was dead--shot in the head.
He was alone, pressed against a sheer cliff, listening to the sounds
of war around him and looking up at the brilliant magnesium flares launched by the
Japanese Navy in the bay below that turned night into noon.
Lindgren was terrified.
Fifty-three years later, the Laguna Hills resident still recalls the
events of that night with perfect lucidity. Every emotion, every sound, every sight
remains as potent and crisp as the day after combat.
"My platoon was very badly hurt," Lindgren said. "It
was just a small platoon, 21 men, and five of them were killed there. These were young
men, 18, maybe 20 years old."
To remember the dead and that terrible night, Lindgren made a
pilgrimage back to Corregidor two years ago. He spent the night alone beneath the same
cliff that he pressed against in fear five decades earlier.
"It was very windy and very cold," said Lindgren, who is
77 and a grandfather of seven. "I looked up at the sky, remembered the names of the
guys in my platoon and just really thought about things. I'm not sure what else to say
about it--it was quite an experience."
The lasting personal relevancy of the war is clear when talking to
most of these veterans. Akune's war, for example, wasn't really completed until his
induction into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1996.
"My thoughts in the internment camp were on what the future
offered," Akune said, explaining his decision to help the same government that locked
him up. "Without the chance to disprove what people thought of us, the future was
very bleak. We would always be second- and third-class citizens."
That transformation to respectability was personally completed for
Akune when he was honored for his actions on Corregidor.
For men such as Akune and Lindgren, O'Donnell's Web site is another
way to keep in touch with a chapter of their lives they can never forget. Veterans read
about old friends, swap stories and even take part in e-mail virtual reunions.
"You do not forget experiences like war," Lindgren said.
"And you shouldn't."
PHOTO: Harry M. Akune, who was in relocation camp when World War II
started, became a military intelligence officer. His work on Corregidor
proved critical to the assault on the island.
PHOTOGRAPHER: AL SEIB / Los Angeles Times