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The British officer stopped, saluted the waiting party and stood aside. Jim, for the first time in his life was facing two Japanese soldiers, a general and his aide de camp. Only the general bore a sword, his aide with head bowed stood a pace back. The general did not seek eye contact, looking unblinkingly into the middle distance. Jim remembered clearly, the lined, brown face, the steel wired rimmed glasses and the total lack of emotion.
From schoolboy books, Jim recalled that much hackneyed expression ‘the inscrutable face of the Orient’, this was, indeed a prime example. Remembering his orders, Jim stifled any impulse to acknowledge the enemy soldier’s presence. Suddenly, the defeated warrior snapped his right hand up in a salute and with his left hand holding the scabbard, uncoupled it from his belt with his right. With a smooth movement, he swung sword and scabbard horizontally up in front of his body. He thrust both arms out and stepped forward, his sacred and ancient sword borne before him. He bowed deeply and half raised himself to offer the sword. Jim was nudged and stepped forward to take the proffered weapon.
Immediately the general bowed fully, stood up, took a pace back and bowed again. His face was still totally impassive. This was the nadir of any Japanese soldier’s life, he could sink no lower into the depths of disgrace and shame. For reasons, which only those men who had fought the Japanese or suffered in their hands, can fully understand, Jim had been ordered to show total indifference to their plight.
The two Japanese soldiers saluted, about turned and marched off with their escort into captivity. It was now officially all over.
Jim was told to keep the sword and back in his quarters, he barely had time to look at his prize before being interrupted by his batman with the news that he was to attend an urgent O Group. The sword lie on the bed, its scabbard scarred and discoloured, the magnificent handle stained with sweat, grime and something else.
With the cessation of hostilities in SEAC, there was a logistic nightmare of tsunami proportion. Combat units with their supporting arms stood down and preparations made to ship allied veterans home after five years of jungle warfare. There were governing bodies to be set up, starving populations to feed and thousands of Japanese prisoners to be coped with. In this organised chaos, things like swords were forgotten.
Eventually, Jim was repatriated and rejoined his family in Mumbles. After so many years away, his immediate priority was to get his life back on course. He wasted no time and ex-Squadron Leader Jim Kostromin, ever the entrepreneur, ventured into pastures new. He converted the old radio shop into a restaurant- “K’s Restaurant”. With wife Vi in the kitchen, Jim attending the ten or so tables, in the cosiest of settings,- it could not fail. The food was simple and superb. With the war over, summer visitors were rediscovering Mumbles and Jim developed a profitable sideline, manufacturing his own unique blend of ice cream- “K’s Ice Cream”- later awarded a national diploma of excellence. They prospered! The wheel had turned a full circle; Jim was back home and on course again!
I became a satisfied and regular customer at “K’s” (why, oh, why are there no longer any lovely, unpretentious, eating places like this?) and one evening, in the mid fifties, I was sitting in the closed restaurant having a cup of tea with Jim. He was scanning a copy of the Telegraph.
“Good Heavens!” exclaimed Jim, “I’ve got one of those!” He pointed to a picture of a Samurai sword, which was in the news for some reason or another.
This was the first mention I had heard of his bounty and he filled me in with the details of his extraordinary encounter in the Burmese jungle. Naturally, I wished to see this exotic weapon and a few days later, he obliged. Even in its battered scabbard, it was impressive. Carefully he withdrew the sword. Its tooled steel blade still gleamed and it still sported a razor like edge.
There was a lot more to a Samurai sword than Jim had ever realised. The Telegraph article had imparted a few facts. The sword was probably several hundred years old. It was hand forged with the blade being hammered and turned over repeatedly on itself many, many times by an incredibly skilled craftsman. Years went into the making of one blade. Grinding, tempering, polishing and engraving, were each separate crafts as was the manufacture of the handle. The sword was handed down from generation to generation, carrying with it the honour of the family’s ancestors. It was, undoubtedly, the most precious possession that any Japanese warrior carried . There was one more fascinating gem of information, namely, that locked within the handle was the history of the sword.
Jim carefully removed a bolt at the top of the long handle and with difficulty slid it off. And, sure enough, there it was! A long, narrow, partly discoloured ribbon, covered with characters, was tightly coiled around the shank. Jim partly unwound it and here, indeed, was history. There were dark stains in parts that were better not investigated. The handle was replaced and it was obvious that memories had come flooding back to Jim of that day in the fetid jungle.
A number of years later, Jim spoke to me, again of the sword. He felt that he had no right to keep such a treasured belonging. He wrote to the Japanese Embassy saying that he would like to restore it to its owner or his family. The letter was acknowledged with grace and appreciation, saying that a member of the Embassy staff would be calling him. Sure enough, within a week the telephone rang and an appointment made for someone to call.
An immaculately dressed young Japanese turned up punctually, treating Jim with profound respect. They drank tea but little time was wasted. He thanked Jim for his gracious gesture and went on to explain a little of the Samurai tradition. To all intents and purposes, after the captivity of the General, he ceased to exist. He never returned to Japan but just vanished. In handing over his ancestors’ sword he had disgraced himself and all that the sword stood for. All records of him were expunged and his family kept no relics of any sort. In effect, he had never existed. If the sword should materialise, now, on the doorstep of the family, it would create a catastrophic dilemma.
He thanked Jim again for the charitable gesture and departed. So, Jim tucked the sword away along with the memories of that fateful day in the jungle.I do not know what happened to that charismatic weapon, I can only hope that it is now in the possession of Jim’s son, Paul, who left Mumbles as a young man, for the sophisticated world of merchant banking in the Metropolis. If he has it, I hope that he treasures it, not for its sanguineous, cryptic past but because of the incredible fact that a Mumbles man, his father, actually took it in surrender on a battlefield.
Jim never pretended to be a warrior but that cannot detract from his extraordinary participation in this rare and bizarre ceremony.
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