Photo/IllutrationOld jars, bottles, spectacles and toothbrushes found on Guadalcanal island, Solomon islands (Gen Hashimoto)

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Editor's note: Dec. 7 marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the start of the Pacific War in 1941. This is the final installment of a three-part photo series, which follows Japanese and U.S. footprints of the war that remain on and around the Pacific islands today.

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GUADALCANAL, Solomon Islands--Volunteer Takanori Yamato unearthed the brownish skeletal remains buried about 30 centimeters beneath the clayish earth more than 73 years ago when this island became a desperate battleground for survival by imperial Japanese forces.

“I think he was funerally buried as the bones are not scattered about,” said Yamato, 28, an occupational therapist, who joined the remains-recovery team during his stay here as part of a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) effort.

Two more sets of remains were discovered nearby. They were identified as being of imperial Japanese soldiers from buttons found among them. A small glass bottle that may have held medicine was also found by the skull of one of the soldiers.

The three bodies were buried with their heads pointing north. Despite the dire situation they were facing on Guadalcanal, their comrades took the time to follow Japanese burial customs.

“I imagine it was the best thing they could do to show their respect,” said Kankoh Sakitsu, 44, the leader of the volunteer team and a Buddhist monk of the Nichiren Sect.

Sakitsu donned a priest robe and stole. Then, he sat on the ground in front of the remains and chanted a Buddhist sutra in a prayer for their souls in the middle of the thick tropical jungle.

He repeated the ceremony every time remains were found. Some were in fragments, seemingly haven fallen victim to the fierce bombardment from U.S. forces.

“Starvation island” is the name by which Guadalcanal became known after thousands of Japanese soldiers died by starvation, not by American fire, in a series of battles here that began in August 1942.

Just over 15,000 sets of bones of Japanese soldiers have been recovered from the island, but about 7,000 remain unaccounted for.

Seventy-one years after the end of the World War II, groups of war veterans, bereaved families and volunteers from Japan are still on a mission to recover all those remains from the island's dense jungles.

Members of All Japan Solomon Association, an organization made up of veterans who fought in the Solomon islands area, their families and supporters, and the Japan Youth Memorial Association (JYMA), a NPO for Japanese war dead recovery projects, have been searching for the remains of Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal in recent years.

BETWEEN HOPE AND DESPAIR

On Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. forces in a surprise attack captured an air base that was under construction by imperial Japanese troops, marking the start of the bloody and protracted battle of Guadalcanal.

Japanese leaders sent in thousands of reinforcements to Guadalcanal without securing control of the skies as they underestimated the strength of the U.S. side. Their intention was to retake the island by sneaking up on the enemy through the thick jungle foliage.

In November 1942, the transport ship Kinugawamaru, along with three other ships and four destroyers, attempted to deliver supplies to the beleaguered Japanese forces.

“It was the turning point between hope and despair for all the troops,” said Junpei Gomikawa, a World War II veteran who served in Asia, and the author of “The Human Condition,” which director Masaki Kobayashi based his acclaimed trilogy of films on.

Gomikawa described the desperate Japanese supply mission, which failed when Americans bombarded the ships, in his novel on the battle of Guadalcanal.

“Objectively speaking, no hope was left ahead for the Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal island,” the book said. “The military leaders were only serious in covering up the defeats ... they never managed correcting their poor practice of evaluating the opposition based on assumptions that were convenient to themselves.”

The reckless operation, which ignored the logistical challenges amid the harsh jungle environment, failed to sustain the troops, who started starving in virtual succession in the order they arrived on the island.

Kashichi Yoshida, a veteran who survived the Guadalcanal campaign, described the final moments of his comrades in his book of poems of his experience on the island.

He wrote how swarms of flies that constantly annoyed the Japanese soldiers. Fanning them away was to no avail. Their faces were covered black by flies to the extent that no wrinkles were visible. The flies feasted on skin, and fed on the flesh...

Guadalcanal was formerly called “Ga-to” (Gua-island) for short in Japanese. After the failed supply operation, the Chinese character “ga” for starvation was used to refer to the island.

During World War II, 2.4 million Japanese died overseas in total, and of those, the remains of 1.1 million individuals remain unaccounted for, according to the government.

In April this year, a law to speed up the recovery of war dead remains was enacted. The next nine years have been designated an “intensive search period.”

However, in the meantime, with the passing of time, those who had been waiting for the return of the remains of their loved ones grow more elderly and the memories of those who were involved in the war are fading.

(This article was compiled from reports by Yasuji Nagai, a senior staff writer.)