The double-forged carbon-steel sword, elegantly curved and razor-sharp in the style of those used by Japan’s ancient samurai, began its life as a weapon of war and symbol of military power and prowess.
On Saturday, completing a 68-year-old circle beginning in the ashen desolation of Nagasaki and ending amid the fragrance of flowers in St. Paul, it will be transformed into an even more powerful instrument of reconciliation and peace. Its long journey was aided in no small part by serendipity.
“It’s just the energy of this sword. This sword wants to go home,” said Minneapolis writer Caren Stelson, who played an integral role in helping a World War II veteran reunite the sword with the family of the Japanese soldier who owned it.
That 94-year-old veteran, Orval Amdahl, who lives in a farmhouse on a hillside overlooking a picturesque town in southeastern Minnesota, will hand over the sword in a ceremony to Tadahiro Matomura, 68, a newspaper executive from Nagasaki, whose father had carried it with him as he fought in China and Burma. Amdahl had come to Nagasaki in 1945 as a Marine Corps captain — he was on a ship preparing to invade Japan at Nagasaki, but instead he arrived there just days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 9, killing an estimated 70,000 people.
A ceremony at the Como Park Visitors Center adjacent to the conservatory there — part of International Peace Day — also represents one more tie between St. Paul and Nagasaki, which have one of the longest sister-city relationships in the nation, dating to 1955.
“I think something like this goes a long way toward peace and understanding,” said Amdahl, who had been frustrated over the years in efforts to locate the sword’s owner until a chance meeting with Stelson.
‘One of the lucky ones’
Amdahl’s journey to Nagasaki, and the sword he would eventually bring back to Lanesboro, began at St. Olaf College in Northfield. He was to graduate in the spring of 1941, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but he had already been given a low draft number — meaning a call-up was imminent.
“A recruiter came for officers’ training, and a bunch of us signed up to go to officers’ training at Quantico” in Virginia, he said.
But the call-up to Quantico didn’t come until April of 1942. Then it was off to intensive boot camp and officer training. Before shipping out to the South Pacific, he married his sweetheart, Marie.
After 25 months overseas, he returned to the United States in time for Christmas of 1944, hoping his stint was done. Instead, he went back to Quantico to learn field artillery.
“We were loaded, heading for Japan, when the bombs were dropped,” he said.
Amdahl was aboard an LST — which stands for Landing Ship, Tank — essentially a huge seagoing, motorized barge that opens at one end to let out men, supplies and vehicles used in beach invasions. Their landing point was to be Nagasaki, but the ship was held at sea for a few days. Only later did the men aboard learn why: Nagasaki was hit by a massive bomb. When the gate on the LST dropped, the men were stunned at the utter devastation they witnessed.
“Put it this way: I’m glad the bomb dropped, because after seeing the situation in Japan, I’d have never gotten through it,” Amdahl said quietly. “I was just one of the lucky ones who came through it.”
It’s estimated that millions on both sides would have died in the invasion, and Amdahl would have been in the first wave. “We came in as occupiers instead of invaders,” he said. “It made a lot of difference in how we handled things.”
A special find
Like many other soldiers and sailors, he had permission to take a sword home as a memento.
The swords were part of the bushido samurai warrior code instilled in Japanese forces. The swords were believed to hold deep spiritual and symbolic meaning, said Bill Rannow, a Minneapolis dealer and collector of historic military items. “It’s basically a 3-foot-long straight razor,” he said, designed to slash through limbs. It was a standard sidearm for Japanese soldiers. Thousands ended up in the United States and it’s rare to find their owners, he added, and rare for Japanese to want them back.
At first, the swords were destroyed, but the Japanese requested that they be saved. Amdahl’s sword, he said, was among hundreds amassed in a warehouse near Nagasaki.
“I have no idea how many swords were in there, it was just one huge pile,” Amdahl said. “It was over 8 feet piled up. … And I saw this leather-covered sword way up in the pile.”
What drew his attention was the scabbard, wood bound in heavy leather. “I figured that would be a cavalryman’s sword, and I’m interested in horses. So I crawled up there. I picked it out.
“Mine happened to be a beauty,” he added. “I got a work of art.”
But as the years sped by, Amdahl became more interested in returning the sword, even as he took meticulous care of it.
Two wooden tags with Japanese script were attached to it, which Rannow said were “surrender tags” attached in hopes that the weapons would be one day returned.
After a few tries, Amdahl had given up hope of finding its owner.
Until Stelson arrived. She was researching a book on Nagasaki for young adults, and her quest for firsthand information took her to Lanesboro. In the course of conversation, Amdahl mentioned the sword, then brought it out of the closet.
“He said: ‘I want to give this back in peace, with honor,’ ” she said.
Stelson started some detective work. “I didn’t have much hope,” she said. But within 24 hours, through a friend in Nagasaki, she had found the family.
The tags bear the name Tadasaku Matomura, who died eight years after the war. His son, Tadakazu Matomura, was the one who used the sword in battle, and he died in 1986. Tadahiro Matomura, who will be in St. Paul on Saturday, is his son.
A letter from Tadahiro Matomura to Amdahl, translated from Japanese, expresses his deep gratitude, although it says he knows little of his father’s war experiences.
“I never expected to hear about the sword 67 years after the war,” the letter says. “Moreover, never did I dream that it had been taken care of wonderfully in America. Thank you very much for having taken care of it for a long time.”
Stelson marvels at all the pieces that fell into place to make the reunion a reality.
“It’s not really about the sword. It’s about peace and friendship between our two cities and between our two countries,” said Stelson, who is hoping to finish her book in time for the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. “We absolutely realize the symbolism in this exchange.”