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Soldier's Diary Comes Home After 50 Years : World War II: Woodland Hills man this week will turn over the journal to the dead author's family in Japan.

November 27, 1994|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRANADA HILLS — Through three generations, the dead Japanese soldier's diary remained tucked away in Albert Elsbernd's bottom desk drawer, a mysterious journal in a complicated foreign script, a former enemy's thoughts on a war waged half a century ago.

Picked up in a battle-scarred building in the Philippines in 1945, brought home to a 14-year-old Elsbernd by a returning U. S. soldier, the indecipherable chronicle was treasured as a young boy's war memento. But years later, the book began to eat at Elsbernd, who came to see it as something that had to be returned to its rightful owners.

Now, nearly 50 years afterward, Elsbernd's mysterious war trophy is on its way home: With the help of his nephew Mark Elsbernd--a Woodland Hills manufacturing engineer for a Japanese-owned company--the leather-bound volume is finally being returned to relatives of Kazumi Nemoto, the Japanese soldier who wrote it shortly before he died.

In a private meeting Wednesday in the northern Japanese town of Samekawa, about 200 miles north of Tokyo, 38-year-old Mark Elsbernd will turn over the book on behalf of his uncle, ending a search that was aided by top-level Hitachi executives and the Japanese press.

"This world really is a pretty small place," said Mark Elsbernd before he left Woodland Hills on Saturday for Japan. "The fact this diary can be returned to the hands of this man's relatives is pretty fantastic. It shows that love of family can outlast the ugliness of any war."

Mark Elsbernd learned of the saga last month when he was contacted by his uncle Albert, a 64-year-old retired Cincinnati police officer, about the diary that Albert Elsbernd had kept in a bottom-drawer shoe box, tucked away with the car insurance papers, bank statements and pictures of the kids. Mark Elsbernd, an engineer for Dataproducts Corp., a division of Hitachi, contacted company executives in Japan, who took a special interest in the project and launched a search for members of Nemoto's family who could claim the diary.

The day following a Nov. 10 story in a Japanese newspaper, Hiroshi Nemoto--a 70-year-old nephew of the dead soldier--came forward from Samekawa.

Later pictured in a Japanese newspaper holding Kazumi's military photograph, the surviving Nemoto is the youngest of seven children who had long given up hope of collecting any more mementos of his dead uncle. He and his siblings are Nemoto's closest known living relatives.

"Friends of mine have joked that these people are going to be angry with me when I get over there," Mark Elsbernd said. "They say they're going to hang me from a tree somewhere. But the family is just so grateful that this book is being returned. The war is over. This is a matter between peaceful people, not soldiers."

Nemoto, a Japanese naval aircraft technician who would have been 70 this year, kept the diary for several months in 1945, translators said, logging not only personal data, but precise accounts of military movements and various aircraft records. Still bearing a 300-yen price tag, the book bore only three English words within its pages--"stainless steel plates."

The diary described Nemoto's sadness over his inability to get together with a brother during a military leave. It also included passages describing a malarial disease that killed many Japanese troops in the spring of 1945--perhaps killing Nemoto as well.

Its final entry was not long before Nemoto's death on April 24, 1945, at the age of 21, according to Japanese military records.

Shortly thereafter, the Japanese army withdrew from the Philippine village where the book was later found, according to the Elsbernd family. Discovered in a desk in an artillery-battered building, the diary was brought home by a boyfriend of Albert Elsbernd's older sister.

"I was just a kid with wild aspirations about war and battles and this book represented something of a fantastic mystery to me," Albert Elsbernd recalled.

"It was written almost entirely in Japanese, which gave it this great mystique. But it was something kept by a soldier, a real soldier, an enemy soldier. And that was breathtaking for me. So I kept it as a souvenir.

"As I got older and cleaned that shoe box out time and again, I never threw the diary away. I had this premonition that someday I would turn to it again."

Years passed. Albert Elsbernd himself fought in the Korean War, served nearly three decades on the Cincinnati Police Department and retired to a job as a security guard.

At night in bed, he would recall the way his own aunt grieved for her son, killed in Germany during World War II just three months after his 18th birthday.

"My cousin had been taken at such a young age that my aunt never had time to collect enough pictures, to have things she could look at and keep in his memory--and it broke her heart," he said. "I convinced myself that this book might make somebody in Japan feel good, maybe lessen another mother's pain of losing a son so young to war."

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