In a brief ceremony Wednesday in an isolated town in northern Japan, a San Fernando Valley man returned a 50-year-old diary, which his uncle treasured as a war souvenir, to the family of the Japanese sailor who wrote it.
Mark Elsbernd, 38, a Woodland Hills manufacturing engineer for a Japanese-owned company, presented the diary to Hiroshi Nemoto, a 70-year-old nephew of Kazumi Nemoto, who died in the Philippines during World War II.
Since 1945, the leather-bound volume had been tucked away by Elsbernd's uncle, Albert Elsbernd of Cincinnati, until the elder Elsbernd decided that it should be returned to its rightful owners.
"It was an emotional day," Mark Elsbernd said, following a three-hour meeting that included a tour of the village of Samekawa, about 200 miles north of Tokyo, and of the village's war memorial to its dead sons.
"I couldn't believe the warm feelings I got from the family. And I thought to myself 'It's over. The diary is finally back in the place it belongs.' This world really is a pretty small place."
The diary was found in a desk in a shellfire-pocked building in the Philippines in 1945 and brought back by a U.S. soldier who gave it as a war memento to his girlfriend's little brother--Albert Elsbernd, then 14.
Now 64 and retired from the Cincinnati Police Department, Albert Elsbernd recently decided that the diary, which he never managed to translate, should be returned to the author or his family. For help he contacted his nephew Mark, an engineer for Dataproducts Corp., owned by the Hitachi corporation of Japan.
Mark Elsbernd 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.
Kazumi Nemoto, a Japanese naval aircraft technician who would have been 70 this year, kept the diary for several months in 1945--logging not only personal data, but precise accounts of military movements and various aircraft records. The diary also included passages describing a malarial outbreak that killed many Japanese troops--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.
The search for Nemoto's family was taken up by a high-ranking Hitachi executive, Hiroshi Gonmori, now 70--who as luck would have it also served in naval aviation in the Philippines. Gonmori initiated a search of military records and contacted the Japanese press.
Nemoto's nephew Hiroshi saw a Nov. 10 story in a Japanese newspaper and called the paper to identify himself.
Nemoto, the youngest of seven children, is a municipal official in Samekawa who had long given up hope of collecting any more mementos of his dead uncle.
Mark Elsbernd agreed to return the diary on his next business trip to Japan.
Elsbernd said he could feel his heart beating Wednesday when he finally came face-to-face with Nemoto.
"He bowed to me, and I bowed back," he said. "Then we shook hands. I smiled. He smiled. Then I gave him the book. I told him. 'Sir, this diary belongs with you, not us.' "
Nemoto then offered a tour of the village, including the burial ground that includes a monument to the Japanese soldiers from Samekawa.
"After the day was over," Elsbernd recalled, "I felt like I knew the man."
Added Katsuhide Kato, a Hitachi executive present at the ceremony: "This day is part of the history of World War II. A final chapter. Many people died in that war. But this was a happy day."