Relatives tried to drown child before killing selves
Sumiko Goeku was barely 7 when her aunt carried her on her back into the ocean, summoned strength to tow her to deep water, then pushed her away and left her to drown.
One might easily conclude that the child's aunt must have had pure evil in her heart, or that perhaps she was psychotic, but the truth was that she no doubt was as terrified as her niece. Struggling back to shore, she believed that her own fate was as surely sealed, for there, waiting for her, was her husband holding a gun with two bullets.
Such was the hopelessness on the island of Saipan in June 1944.
When the insanity came, it came quickly.
Sumiko Goeku, who not only survived that horrific day but is now 80 and living a happy life as Sue Tucker in Lawton, doesn't remember much in great detail before the war. There are only flashes, she said. Her father, Chose, worked in a factory processing sugar cane. Her mother, Tsuru, who already had a touch of arthritis in her mid-30s, worked hard, too, caring for their five children: three girls and two boys. Sumiko was in the middle.
She remembers the island's lush mango trees and orange trees. She remembers just getting started in school.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, her father was called into the Army and soon was gone, Tucker said, never to be heard from again.
In the early days of the war, life didn't change much on Saipan for her family, which extended to include her aunt, Ushi, and her uncle, Zenu. Probably, most people, including many Koreans, Vietnamese and Chinese who worked in Saipan's sugar cane fields and factories, would never have known of the strategic value of the island, located within striking distance of American bombers to the Japanese mainland.
But the Japanese knew. In mid-1944, nearly 30,000 Japanese troops were there to fight to the last man to keep the island, which measures only 12 miles long by less than 6 wide.
After the battle started, the Goeku family, along with many others, fled to the interior mountains of Saipan, where they took shelter in caves. Short on even basic supplies, though, they soon became desperate. Tucker remembers waking up once to see her mother bloodied and resting against a cave wall. She'd been outside trying to find food. Not long after, Tsuru Goeku was killed, caught in crossfire after mustering strength and courage again to try to get even meager provisions for her children.
The children became separated. Tucker said she stayed with her aunt and uncle and after a time they, too, were forced to leave the cave.
The battle was a major defeat for the Japanese. While 3,426 Americans would eventually die in visceral, often hand-to-hand combat that took place between June 15 and July 9, nearly all of the Japanese defenders were killed. Only 921 were taken prisoner.
According to historynet. com, an estimated 20,000 civilians also perished. Near the end, civilians were encouraged to fight even with bamboo spears or to commit suicide rather than to be captured. More than 1,000 are known to have killed themselves by leaping from places later to be memorialized on Saipan as "Suicide Cliff" and "Banzai Cliff." Years later, Tucker said she went back to the island on the 50th anniversary of the battle. There, she met a woman who said she'd thrown herself off one of the cliffs only to survive by having her fall broken by a pile of bodies.
Sumiko Goeku also was a survivor only by the grace of God.
She was starving. In fact, only later would she learn that one of her sisters starved to death. A baby brother is said to have died at the end of a Japanese bayonet. Another survived, but with shrapnel wounds to his face.