At dawn on April 1, 1945, hundreds of US warships and bombers swept over the island of Okinawa: a hurricane of steel and flame that began the deadliest single battle in World War II’s Pacific theater. A 23-year-old navy officer named Duke Wieden ran ashore with the third wave of troops to tend to the wounded on beaches US forces had code-named Brown 1 and 2. The Okinawans had known them as the village of Irei.
When Duke returned to his ship, he brought back a battered black photo album he had found on the beach. Containing portraits of families, pictures of movie stars, and snapshots of teens, it was a record of happier times in a town his countrymen had annihilated. He was visibly upset as he showed it to his best friend onboard.
A month earlier, Duke’s wife, Violet, had given birth to their first child. He’d never met his son. Maybe he never would. He had lost friends in combat, and it was entirely conceivable that some of the men in these very photos would kill him, too. But something about the album transcended battle lines to evoke visions of the family he hoped to create himself—one not so different from what was documented in these photos. Years later, his war buddy told his family that Duke swore to find the album’s owners and return it, one family to another.
The strength of that moment faded over the months to come, with kamikaze attacks, a typhoon, a second assault on Okinawa. After Duke returned home to Portland, he only let residual anger show in small ways. (He never did like the Japanese Garden.) Even so, he stowed the album in his navy trunk in the basement, and told his family not to open it in his lifetime.
One January morning seven decades later, my phone buzzed with a call from Thomas Lauderdale, the leader of Portland band Pink Martini (for whom I once worked). Lauderdale, an effervescent and connected social catalyst, got me on the phone with Priscilla Wieden, and then her husband, Dan—cofounder of the legendary ad firm Wieden & Kennedy, creator of the Nike slogan “Just Do It,” and son of Duke. The Wiedens had a tale to tell, and they thought it might interest the public radio program This American Life (for which I also once worked).
Shortly after Duke’s death in 2012, his youngest son, Ken, discovered the Okinawa album, its pages damp and moldy, photos stained and falling out. Spearheaded by Duke’s determined second wife, Carolyn, the family had taken up the search for the album’s owner, and after nearly two years of translation, dead ends, new clues, and dumb luck, they had succeeded. Now the Wieden clan planned to head to Okinawa to return it, departing in two days.
Considering time and expense, I suggested they take a recorder and document audio themselves. The ever-optimistic Lauderdale saw no such hurdles. “Priscilla,” he said, “just buy a ticket for someone to go with you.”
Which is how I found myself on the phone the following day with a group of Wieden & Kennedy producers, explaining who the hell I was, what we might need to document the story (Video? Check. Sound guy? We’ll hire one from Tokyo.), and that, should a radio show (or a magazine) want the story, the Wiedens would have no control over the finished product.
Less than 24 hours later, we boarded a Japan-bound plane. Right before the door closed, my phone buzzed again, this time with a text from my stepmother.
“Your granddad invaded and fought in Okinawa.”