by Sylvania AdVantage Staff

Richard A. Rajner with his book, ‘Hiroshi’s Story: The Journals of a Japanese Soldier in Vietnam, 1941-1968.’

The 2010-2011 Veteran’s Writing Workshop, a collaborative effort between Lourdes University and the Sylvania Branch Library, provided the catalyst for Richard Rajner to write “Hiroshi’s Story: The Journals of a Japanese Soldier in Viet Nam, 1941-1968.” Rajner volunteered for the draft in 1966, spent some time on the Korean DMZ, then served three tours in Viet Nam, earning more than two dozen decorations. “When one of the Workshop’s in-class exercises asked us to write a paragraph about the most memorable pair of hands we had ever seen, I wrote about the scarred hands of a wounded enemy soldier who indicated he wanted to surrender,” recalled Rajner. “To signify a willingness to surrender the Vietnamese would press their hands together in a prayer-like manner, then bow forward. This particular enemy soldier did just that, then reached under his leg, grabbed a grenade, and threw it. The impact of those few moments never faded, and my paragraph narrated that memory. That paragraph became the foundation for “Hiroshi’s Story.” A few weeks later another veteran asked if I had considered writing a novel based on my experiences.”
While serving as a reconnaissance sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division, Rajner discovered evidence of an imminent attack on Phu Loi Base Camp. Forewarned, the American units manning the defense inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy force. In a subsequent sweep of the battlefield, Rajner found two journals in an enemy soldier’s backpack, both of them written in Japanese. “It might have dead-ended right there, but I spent my first two months in Vietnam working in a battalion intelligence office, and by chance my boss was a Japanese-American master sergeant who was fluent in his ancestors’ language. When I showed him the journals, he shared an obscure fact: that five thousand Japanese servicemen had remained in Vietnam at the end of World War II; almost all of them volunteered to serve with the Viet Minh. Then he told me that I happened to shoot one of the last survivors that morning. He also offered to translate the journals.”
The transcripts gave Sergeant Rajner deep insight into the experiences of one of those five thousand Japanese volunteers. For twenty-eight years, Hiroshi Watanabe had recorded every significant event: his 1939 enlistment, a posting to Manchuria, World War II service in Vietnam, shifting his allegiance from Emperor Hirohito to the Vietnamese Independence Movement, followed by years of hardship in jungle camps. Private Watanabe’s journals also contained many brighter moments: furloughs to Saigon, an arranged marriage to a Vietnamese war widow that was filled with love and happiness, the camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, and his long-term assignment to duty as a soldier-farmer, a reservist who raised rice and vegetables that helped feed the rebel units operating in the Thu Dau Mot District.
Although this is Rajner’s first work of fiction, he is a late-blooming, but experienced author. After five years of military service, he entered a building trades apprenticeship program and began a career as a steamfitter. Later in life, he returned to college, earned graduate degrees and taught Anthropology and American History at the University of Toledo. During this period, he wrote a number of popular, scholarly, and history-for-hire works — “everything from encyclopedia entries to a 315-page labor history.” When wounds forced him into retirement in 2005, he began writing his memoirs, then branched out when the historian for an infantry battalion that served in Vietnam asked him to contribute a piece or two for their website’s war stories. “Pump Station Eight” and “Ambush at An Lac” were his first two personal accounts about clashes with the enemy. Within a year or two, he was helping other battalion veterans polish their own stories. Since then, he has written more than three dozen, including a short story titled “Leadership,” which was published in “In Our Boots,” an anthology produced by veterans who participated in the Workshop.
“Elective writing is my favorite. There are no deadlines, and I can write in my unconventional fashion. Unlike many authors, I do not set aside any scheduled time to write; I only write when it feels comfortable and the outline is firmly embedded in my head. For example, if the battalion historian asks for another story, I’ll go to the big box of Vietnam artifacts I keep in storage, and rustle around until one object or another catches my interest. I’ll take it out and place it where I’ll see it frequently, making mental notes each time I pass. I might have a thought or two at 2:00 a.m.; if I do, I get up and write it on a 3×5 card. Then, when all things fall into what I consider order, I do one or two sessions at the computer, and the short story is finished. “Hiroshi’s Story” took about two years to complete once I sat down and committed myself to the project — even then, I refused to impose any deadline upon myself”
Published by Austin Macauley, “Hiroshi’s Story” is unique. No other American author has ever attempted to tell the story of the five thousand Japanese who stayed behind. The journal entries flow easily as the protagonist reveals hundreds of facts about life on the other side of the battle lines. What was it like to be an anti-aircraft gunner during World War II? Or a rebel infantryman based in a carefully-camouflaged jungle hideaway? A battlefield casualty? A warden for French prisoners-of-war? A weapons repairman? A soldier-farmer? A married reservist whose only military goal was to survive the next call to active duty? Through Hiroshi Watanabe, the author answers all of these questions and many, many more. “Hiroshi’s Story” is available at Gathering Volumes in Perrysburg, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other bookstores throughout the country.
Currently, Richard Rajner and his wife, Katherine, are editing the final chapter of his next book, a collection of short stories inspired by his wartime experiences.