In March of 2015 I (Liberty) traveled to the Island of Iwo Jima for the 70th anniversary of the battle with a wonderful group of veterans including veteran James "Jim" Skinner. For one week I had the privilege of talking with him every day and hearing his wonderful stories from his childhood to his triathlons at 90 years of age. One morning we sat down and he showed me pictures from his wartime scrapbook. Pictures of his buddies during the war, girlfriends, training, military life, etc. As we walked through these pictures, he told me stories of hand to hand combat with the Japanese on the Islands of Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima, and showed me a photo taken moments before he killed for the very first time. He spoke frankly to me of the roughness and brutality of his war; a war in which many of his experiences caused him to hold bitterness toward the Japanese 70 years later.
Last week I received the painful news that Mr. Skinner passed away on May 24th, 2 months after our trip, and just two days after his 93rd birthday. It was a privilege to have spent that brief time on Iwo Jima with him.
A few days before our March trip to the island, our group learned that we were to meet one of the last surviving Japanese soldiers from the Battle of Iwo Jima, Tsuruji Akikusa. A pervading theme of this "Reunion of Honor" was forgiveness. After listening to the words of our trip leader, Lt. Gen. Snowden, Mr. Skinner resolved to put aside his bitterness to the Japanese and shake hands with Mr. Akikusa. Afterward, I asked him how he felt meeting his former enemy. He told me that he felt great peace in his heart to have reconciliation and forgiveness with a former enemy before he died. He had been bitter towards them for 70 years, and it was time to let go. For me to see this complete change in him over the course of a few days was one of the most beautiful signs of redemption and forgiveness I have ever witnessed.