Two men who fought as enemies in World War II meet over dinner 70 years later
Early on the morning of October 9, 2014, 88-year-old Jonah resident Stiles Byrom took the ribs he’d been marinating overnight from the refrigerator and put them on the grill to smoke for ten hours. That evening, he and his wife, Marge, packed up the ribs and headed to their son Mark’s house in Georgetown, where Mark and his wife, Jan, had prepared the sides and dessert to round out a traditional Texas meal.
When Stiles arrived, he gave a big hug to his great-granddaughter, Ellie, and her parents, Emily and Joshua. Then he turned to the other guest in the room, someone who, decades back, when Stiles served in Japan in World War II, was the enemy. But now he was family.
Stiles crossed the room, shoved out his hand, and gave a Texas welcome to Naomasa Kunisawa, who’d come all the way from Japan to see his great-granddaughter Ellie. Naomasa bowed in return.
Thus the paths of these two men joined, and a friendship began.
A Good ol’ Sailor Boy
“When I was in the Navy, and I had a sailor cap on the back of my head, the prettiest head of hair, and the white bellbottoms, I was just about the cutest sailor in the entire United States Navy,” Stiles jokes.
Stiles was born and raised in Georgetown, back when the city had only “4,000 people in it” and folks “walked everywhere.” Stiles signed up for the Navy in September 1944. He was deployed to the Pacific Theater aboard the destroyer USS Hudson and later took part in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The crew of the Hudson escaped death several times by dodging or destroying Japanese kamikaze attacks. They also suffered heavy damage when they helped to stabilize an American aircraft carrier, the USS Sangamon, after it had been attacked by the Japanese and was ablaze. But the crew made it home after the war ended in 1945.
Stiles went on to attend Southwestern University, where he met Marge, and the two married after he graduated in 1951. He then worked for Texaco, and they raised their family in El Campo and Sinton. When Stiles retired from the oil business, the Byroms moved back to live on their farm in Jonah, and Stiles now calls himself a “gentleman farmer.” They frequently visit their son and daughter-in-law, Mark and Jan, whose Georgetown home is a meeting place for the Byroms’ four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, one of whom is Ellie.
A Dignified Captive
Naomasa Kunisawa was drafted into the Japanese military academy in the middle of his university studies. He left his homeland on an old, poorly-maintained merchantman ship, the Kan-eimaru, and set sail to Bangkok, Thailand, in September, 1944. After a four-month trip that should have lasted two weeks but was delayed by a typhoon, American air strikes, and malfunctions, the crew arrived in Bangkok. Captured by British and Dutch soldiers and placed in a labor regiment for a year, Naomasa remained in Thailand until Japan lost the war.
Naomasa led his platoon, which was tasked with making practice fields and accompanying the British soldiers on guard duty against local scavenging raids. The platoon excelled, particularly at making practice fields, with such skill that during tea time one day, a British commander said, “Give the tea to the Japanese soldiers who prepared those practice fields.” They served the Japanese first, and then British military men drank from the same cups—without washing them.
After returning to Japan, Naomasa got very sick with tuberculosis of the lungs. He stayed in a sanitarium, at the point of death, for three years. After an unexpected recovery, he passed his exit exam to graduate from college and went to work for the public utility department, a job that sometimes took him to General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters on business. There, he worked with Americans to reestablish Japan’s electricity department, then moved to a government organization that provided financial assistance to small businesses.
Naomasa married Kazuko, a 31-year-old woman from Kochi, and had two daughters. He is now retired, and his wife passed away last year. Skilled in calligraphy and painting, Noamasa takes his sketch pad with him on trains and bike rides, capturing what he sees and then going home to fill in the color.
The Paths Meet and Marry
Stiles and Marge were surprised when they learned that their granddaughter Emily was engaged to Joshua, a Japanese-American man she had met at Texas A&M, where they were students. Joshua, it turned out, was Naomasa’s grandson. Stiles and Marge talked about the fact that Joshua’s grandfather had fought for Japan in World War II, and Stiles came to a conclusion: “Japan surrendered, and we celebrated our victory. But all glory is fleeting. We had to go on. . . . We went on. As far as having any animosity or ill feelings, I really have none. Both sides suffered many losses of life.”
Joshua took Emily to visit Naomasa in Japan two years after they married. The 84-year-old shared his love of calligraphy with Emily and gave her paint brushes. But he also sent back gifts for Stiles: a bottle of sake and several oil paintings that he had painted.
When Stiles heard that Naomasa planned to travel to Texas in October 2014 and wanted to meet him, he decided to return the favor of the gift of sake and buy Naomasa some Texas beer.
Mr. Kunisawa Comes to Texas
Stiles presented a case of Shiner beer to Naomasa on that October evening when they finally met face to face. Naomasa brought several paintings of the scenery around his hometown of Kochi on Shikoku Island for Mark and Jan and for Stiles and Marge. Stiles told him, “Arigato”—Japanese for “Thank you.”
“During the war, I would have never imaged something like this happening, but it’s really wonderful,” Naomasa said in practiced English.
Over the dinner table, the two men shared jokes about marriage and bragged on their grandkids and mutual great-granddaughter. Ellie, a three-year-old with a serious demeanor, dark wavy hair, wide almond eyes, and a complexion somewhere between her father’s and her mother’s, hurried to finish her dinner so that she could play with her cousin, unaware, for now, that her existence represents an unexpected weaving of two complicated strands of history.
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