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One man’s souvenir, another man’s heirloom

Fri, Sep 13th, 2013
Posted in Lanesboro Features

Orval Amdahl will return this heirloom samurai sword to its rightful owner from Japan on September 21, 2013. Photo by Jason Sethre

On August 9, 1945, an atomic bomb given the name of “Fat Man” was dropped over the Japanese city of Nagasaki. This was the second atomic bomb dropped on a major city in Japan in less than four days, as a measure of response to the Japanese attack on America at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Sixty-eight years later, there are many people today who remember what life was like back then, contending with the tension that created a dividing line between Americans and Japanese as two worlds collided on a global scale.

Orval Amdahl, a 94-year-old Lanesboro native and resident, remembers that day very well. He was on a ship out at sea waiting for clearance to hit the beaches of Nagasaki. Once the atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, “we were at sea until the geiger counters had cleared the area from fallout,” recalled Amdahl.

And then “the treaty had been signed in Tokyo before we got off the ship,” he said. As a member of the Third Battalion, Tenth Marines, Second Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, Captain Orval Amdahl hit the beaches of Nagasaki on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) with the rest of his unit.

The soldiers were told to leave their guns on the ship, since they did not want to pose a threat to the already shaken survivors of the atomic bomb. They wanted to merely occupy the area of Nagasaki.

Amdahl recalls walking the streets of Nagasaki and seeing eight story buildings turned to rubble and ash. In the beginning, only the Japanese men came out of what remained for housing at that time. The men kept their women and children hidden from the American soldiers, fearing what they might do to the Japanese. But, as there became a better understanding that the Americans were merely occupying the region, the residents of Nagasaki started to gain a sense of trust.

While in Nagasaki, Captain Amdahl was granted permission by his Lieutenant Colonel to enter any “Off-Limits” area and pass on and off the base at any time. And, while inspecting a Japanese naval shipping warehouse, Amdahl and his fellow soldiers found a huge pile of samurai swords. All of the soldiers grabbed a sword, resting safely in a scabbard. Most of the soldiers got their hands on a shiny metal scabbard and sword, but Amdahl climbed to the top of the pile and grabbed one samurai sword housed in a leather scabbard. And, with permission from the military, Amdahl was allowed to bring the samurai sword back to the United States as a “war trophy.”

If we fast forward to today, 68 years later, we’ll find a remarkable story that encourages peace and closure.

Return of the Sword

As Orval Amdahl has been oiling the samurai sword over the past 68 years, he probably never realized he’d be caring for his World War II souvenir in preparation to present it to another man as a cherished family heirloom.

Well, that’s what is taking place at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, September 21, 2013, at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory Visitor Center in St. Paul in an event appropriately named “Return of the Sword Ceremony.”

Orval Amdahl will be presenting the samurai sword to Mr. Tadahiro Motomura of Nagasaki, the son of the original owner of the samurai sword. As the oldest living male descendant of the Motomura family, Tadahiro is slated to be the keeper of the sword.

Amdahl’s journey to arrive at this scheduled ceremony has been blessed with a trail of chance encounters that led him to find the rightful owners of the samurai sword.

From Lanesboro to Nagasaki

The connection between Orval Amdahl and Tadahiro Motomura, two men whom have never met, came about when author Caren Stelson was researching World War II veterans who served in Nagasaki during the period of time in which Amdahl was stationed there.

Stelson found Orval Amdahl’s information at the Minnesota Historical Society, and she reached out to him to schedule an interview. During the interview, he showed her his samurai sword and scabbard.

Included with the scabbard was a flat piece of wood with Japanese writing that provided enough information to start connecting the dots.

Amdahl took the sword to an expert sword appraiser in the Twin Cities, and he found a wooden peg on the handle of the sword that told him who made the sword and when the sword was made. This samurai sword was made in 1941 and was handcrafted by the one of the best sword makers in Japan specifically for Tadahiro Motomura’s father, an officer in the Japanese military.

From there, Caren Stelson used her connections in Nagasaki to locate the family. Specifically, Stelson was well connected with a Nagasaki woman who was 12-years-old when the bomb was dropped on her hometown in 1945. Caren and her connections led to the discovery of the Motomura family.

In addition, Amdahl has received a flood of calls for interviews from local, regional and state-wide media. And, along the way, he has met a lot of interesting people such as the grandson of our 33rd U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Clifton T. Daniel, residing in Chicago, came to visit Amdahl at his home in Lanesboro, because he is working on a book relating to how people who were alive during World War II view each other today from America to Hiroshima to Nagasaki. Interestingly, President Harry S. Truman was in office when the decision was made to drop bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

While Amdahl is a modest small town man, his story has attracted attention on an international scale. And, there are so many reasons this connection and this sword have become a big deal.

St. Paul and Nagasaki have been sister cities since establishing the official Saint Paul - Nagasaki Sister City Committee in 1955. And, Tadahiro Motomura, Journal Nagasaki Executive Director, has been an advocate of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and their efforts to promote a peace exhibition titled “From a Culture of Violence to a Culture of Peace: Transforming the Human Spirit” -- hosted in 50 cities in 22 countries around the world.

Back in 1960, someone offered Orval Amdahl $60 for the prized samurai sword, and he turned that offer down. Then in the mid-1990s, he was offered $2,500 by another individual, and he turned that offer down, as well. Amdahl could have sold the sword and made good money, but he chose to hang on to the sword. And, it’s a good thing he did.

One man’s “souvenir” is another man’s “heirloom.” As Amdahl said during his interview, “I’m a believer in peace, and I wanted to strengthen our relationship with Japan; returning this sword to its rightful owner.”

As America and Japan continue to seek understanding and closure to a defining moment in the history books, Amdahl and Motomura will attempt to nurture that relationship in the direction of peace and friendship when the 1941 samurai sword changes hands on Saturday, September 21, 2013.

For more information regarding the event, readers can visit http://www.stpaulnagasaki.org. The event is free to visitors.


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8:11:35, Sep 13th 2013

gemstonelil says:
What a wonderful ending to such a sad time. And what a wonder full man to care enough for someone else, to let this person have such a memento from the past and their ancestor., I believe that this was always the way it was to be .Maybe Mr. Amdahl was meant to keep it safe until now.