Documentary reunites former war enemies

Canadian premiere of film at Hope Cinema on March 27

Eva Wunderman and Tsuchida Kiyokazu check out one of the caves on the island of Peleliu

Eva Wunderman and Tsuchida Kiyokazu check out one of the caves on the island of Peleliu

A new one-hour documentary by local filmmaker Eva Wunderman explores the different perspectives of former Second World War enemies.

She reunites U.S. tank commander Lee Smith and platoon leader Bill Cumbaa with Japanese survivors Tsuchida Kiyokazu and Shinji Karasumaru 60 years after the battle of Peleliu in Micronesia. Now in their 80s, they relive their tragic time on the island, sharing secrets and personal stories.

“I wanted to show how people from different cultures can become friends and understand each other if they get to know one another,” said Wunderman.

“We have wars all over the world right now and I think a lot of it has to do with cultural differences. If we can just get to know each other’s reasons for doing things or understand each other, it certainly would help to minimize the aggression and war.”

On Sept. 15, 1944, U.S. forces landed on the southern invasion beaches of the small island of Peleliu. Almost 10,000 Japanese lay in wait in an elaborate system of tunnels, caves, pillboxes, and fortifications. Sixteen thousand men and three month later, the U.S. forces finally defeated the Japanese defenders, some sealed inside their fortifications by armored bulldozers where they still remain.

The return to Peleliu takes the veterans on an adventure into the jungle where remnants of their fighting remain undisturbed. They share their painful past and learn how time has changed them.

“When I came to the island, I tried to keep them apart and not knowing their former enemy was also on the island,” said Wunderman. “It was extremely touching to see them meeting each other. They spent a lot of time together going back to places where they could actually ask each other questions and they did become really good friends.”

Eric Mailander, an expert on the battle of Peleliu, guided the men to find various locations on the island now overgrown by jungle.

Remnants of the war lay scattered throughout the island, everything from hand grenades and machine guns to airplane wreckage. For the first time, Cumbaa enters “The Monster Cave” which he, 60 years ago, commanded his men to assault and torch. Smith is amazed when he finds his tank “Lady Luck” at the place where he was forced to abandon it in 1944.

Mailander guides Karasumaru to the last command post where his brother ended his own life. Inside the cave, he conducts a personal and intimate traditional ceremony in honour of his brother. After some searching, Kiyokazu is able to enter the cave where he lived for more than two years after the war ended. Now in his 80s, he testifies about a crime he kept a secret all these years when his commander shot and killed his comrade for wanting to surrender. Wunderman captures Kiyokazu crying for his friend at the site where he was forced to bury him just days before they were able to return to Japan.

Each day brings new discoveries and the story accelerates when the two sides meet their “enemy.” With the help of Koichi Saito, an interpreter whose inlaws live in Hope, the men share memories still fresh in their minds. Mailander and the native chief of the island help them locate and excavate a cave. When they finally get through, they are able to shed some light on the remains of the soldiers that were trapped inside the sacred site.

The documentary Once Were Enemies was shot in cinema verité style over three weeks. As the expedition on the island unfolds on film, flashbacks of archival footage from the battle in 1944 are juxtaposed to bring the reality to life.

Once Were Enemies will premiere in Canada at the Hope Cinema on March 27 as part of a documentary showcase hosted by the Hope Film Club. Doors open at 7 p.m.

The club’s monthly events continue to be a success, attracting between 60 and 120 people to each show.

Hope Film Club donates most of the revenue from these events to the Hope Cinema, as part of an ongoing fundraiser to help pay for the new $50,000 digital projector installed last year. So far, the club’s events, general donations and sale of coupon books have raised $14,000.