Decades after World War II, a few dedicated souls and the Rotary International Club helped a fallen soldier’s local family fill in the blanks of their history.
In 1941,the war was rapidly picking up pace abroad, and it was only a matter of time before the United States got involved. In May of that year, two days short of his 23rd birthday, Norman E. Stiffler Jr., of Commodore, joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, awaiting the inevitable conflict ahead.
Stiffler found himself operating as a right gunner throughout the Mediterranean with the 344th Bomb Squadron, 98th Bomb Group. With much devastation, in 1944, Stiffler’s family received word that he was missing in action, and after the war, they were informed he had died in a plane accident and his remains buried with other soldiers in Honolulu Memorial Cemetery in 1949. It was assumed that there was a defect in his parachute, and his family grew to accept the abrupt news with many unanswered questions, according to Stiffler’s great-niece, Mary Lewis, of Indiana.
“My Grandma went her whole life (to this point) thinking, ‘OK, my brother just died in the war,’” Lewis said.
But with five years between Stiffler’s death and his burial in Hawaii, there were still many missing details, and it wasn’t until last summer that the family received full closure.
Unknown to his family, on Nov. 21, 1944, Stiffler was riding in an aircraft on a mission to bomb a factory in Omura, Japan, when it was struck with anti-aircraft fire, consequently ejecting Stiffler from the plane and into the Ariake Sea.
His body floated ashore near Tara, in the Saga prefecture of Japan, tangled in the net of a fisherman who notified officials of an American body. They decided to bury Stiffler and send him home to American soil once the war was over. They built him a headstone engraved with his name in Japanese. When the war was over and his body was returned, the village kept a marker in place to represent Stiffler’s first grave. For 70 years now, the marker has stood in his memory. The Rotary International Club, Kashima district 2740, maintains it, and the village still holds a ceremony in his honor annually.
About 40 years ago, there was a land issue, and a committee formed to relocate the memorial. A member of the committee, Mr. Yonekura, had been trying to contact Stiffler’s family ever since, and finally succeeded last June with the help of an American living in Japan (Saga JET Programme ALT Tyler Mantaring). They contacted the 58th Bomb Wing Memorial in Maine, offering the details of Stiffler’s death and eventually getting in direct contact with family, whose questions were finally answered.
With this newfound closure and learning of his grave marker in Japan, Stiffler’s family was happy knowing he had left a lasting mark on not only their family tree, but also an entire village overseas. To the family’s surprise, the Kashima Rotary came up with the funds to host one of Stiffler’s family members to be present at the most recent ceremony, held on Nov. 21, 2014, and Lewis was honored to go, having a strong interest in Japanese culture and always curious about her great-uncle’s death.
“I’ve always had a fascination with Japan,” she said. “I even studied it for some time.”
Lewis’ grandmother has always wanted to visit her brother’s grave in Honolulu and was never able to, but Lewis was happy to help her get one step closer.
“The opportunity to see his first grave is fulfilling one of her wishes,” she said.
The memorial began with a detailed account of the events leading up to Stiffler’s burial and was followed by a traditional Shinto ceremony that consisted of offerings and flowers, a blessing and several speakers.
“It was incredible to be the one there to represent my family and see the sea where my great-uncle ended up,” Lewis said. “It was a very emotional time.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Yonekura passed away last September at the age of 90, never able to see the completion of his dedication to find and meet a member of Stiffler’s family. However, as per his wishes, he was buried next to Stiffler’s long-standing memorial.
Lewis was grateful for the opportunity to not only honor her family, but also learn more about the Japanese culture.
“They didn’t let me sit still,” she said. “They kept me on the go.”
Lewis visited the town of Arita, Japan, where all of the emperors’ china is made, and Nagasaki Peace Park, where she recalls the Peace Statue, depicting a figure that represents both God and Buddha as one. The left hand of the statue is pointed in the air to represent the atomic bombs dropped by U.S. forces, and the right hand is extended out as a sign of peace.
“It was incredible to learn more about the whole conflict my great-uncle was involved in,” she said. “The Japanese people want to demonstrate how far they have come since the war. They tried to show that they made my great-uncle and my family a part of their family, and the whole reason they’re doing this is to show peace.”
The Nishinihon Shimbun (below, click for larger version) and the Saga Shimbun also covered the event: