Across years, across miles, sword returning home

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2013 - 7:07 AM


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

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  • Orval Amdahl, owner of the Japanese sword that he is returning to the...

  • Orval Amdahl, owner of the Japanese sword that he is returning to the grandson of its owner after he had brought it home after World War II. The sword will be returned in a ceremony in St. Paul on Saturday marking International Peace Day. Photo: Jim Adams / Star Tribune 9/17/2013

  • Returning

    the sword

    When former Marine Capt. Orval Amdahl hands over a Japanese sword to the grandson of its original owner, he will close a 68-year-old circle. Amdahl brought the sword home as a memento after serving in the occupation of Nagasaki after World War II. The ceremony will symbolize continued peace and friendship between the United States and Japan, and the close sister-city ties between St. Paul and Nagasaki.

    When: 9:30 a.m. Saturday

    Where: Como Park Visitor Center, 1225 Eastbrook Dr., St. Paul

    Who: Amdahl, of Lanesboro, Minn.; Tadahiro Matomura, of Nagasaki. Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of former President Harry Truman, is writing a history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and will be the keynote speaker.

    Fact: St. Paul and Nagasaki have been sister cities since 1955.

    Jim Anderson

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