Thirteen-year-old Hideki Kaneshiro lives on the island of Okinawa with his mother, his father Oto, his older sister Kimiko and his younger brother Isamu. The war between Japan and America has now arrived on their doorstep with an American invasion imminent. To prepare, Oto and Kimiko were drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA): Oto to fight and Kimiko as a nurse in a hospital. Hideki, along with his mother and brother were ordered to evacuate to Japan. Hideki was with them as they were leaving Okinawa on a ship headed to Japan, but was grabbed by an IJA soldier who felt he was old enough to fight. Kimiko tried to protect him by stating that he was a coward.
Then on April 1, 1945, Hideki along with a hundred other boys is lined up outside his school as American artillery bombards the island. Hideki and his fellow students are graduating at 2 am in the morning, as the American invasion of Okinawa begins. Lieutenant Colonel Sana warns them about the Americans, who "...will hunt your grandparents down and burn them alive...torture your mothers. Butcher your brothers and sisters...Try to trick you too. Offer you food and kindness..." They are told they must be prepared to die a glorious death for the Emperor and each boy is given two grenades. Hideki ends up with two ceramic grenades, when Yoshio, the boy who has been bullying him, takes his metal ones. They are then sent into the countryside to attack the American troops when they land.
The boys first hide in a cave and then when they smell the American's cooking a pig, they decide to attack the camp. However this proves disastrous: one boy blows himself up with his grenade, another has his grenade explode in his face, while most of the boys are shot or blown apart. Terrified, Hideki runs through the forest until he comes to his haka, family tomb. There he finds his father, Oto, dying from a stomach wound. Oto tells Hideki that his mother and brother are dead and that he must find his sister Kimiko. He reveals that the Japanese hid the sinking of the ship by an American submarine and that the Yamato - the largest Japanese battleship was sunk weeks earlier by the Americans.
Hideki and his father are joined in the tomb by a Japanese soldier named Private Shinohara who crazed with fear, forces them from the safety of the tomb. Before he dies, Oto tells Hideki that he now understands that their ancestor, Shigetomo was in fact very brave. After the death of his father, Hideki sets out to find his sister Kimiko who he believes has been sent to the army hospital in Ichinichibashi. It is a journey that will cost Hideki much as he discovers there is no glory in killing. At the same time he grows to understand the reality of war and the true meaning of courage.
Meanwhile on what is code named "Love Day", Private Ray Majors along with 183,000 American soldiers and Marines of the Tenth Army lands on the beaches of Okinawa. Ray had gone against the wishes of his father, a World War I veteran, and enlisted in the Marines a few months earlier. Ray had hoped to go to Europe but found himself assigned instead to E Company, nicknamed "Easy Company" and sent to Japan. Their squad leader is Sergeant Walter Meredith and Ray's fox hole buddy is Corporal John Barboza, known as Big John, an "enormous guy from the Bronx, New York." He carries one of the squad's BAR, a Browning Automatic Rifle. They land on the beach and encounter no resistance from the Japanese.
Sergeant Meredith tells them they have to march east for half a kilometer to secure the area around the landing beach. At first everything seems eerily peaceful, with "Thatch-roofed farmhouses ...nestled among forests of pine and bamboo." But things change quickly when they stop at a farm to consider butchering a piglet and come under sniper fire, killing one of their soldiers. Ray's squad flush the sniper out, a boy who looks like he is twelve-years-old. To Ray's horror, Big John shoots the young boy as they cannot take prisoners.
After butchering and eating the pig, Ray's squad check out a cave that might hold Japanese soldiers. After Big John tosses a grenade into the cave, many Okinawan civilians flee, but terrified of the Americans, they choose to walk off the cliff to their deaths.
That night their camp is attacked by a lone Japanese soldier who Ray shoots dead. Sickened by having killed a man, Ray is deeply distraught. As they move from cave to cave, Ray is determined for his squad to stop tossing grenades into the caves since they may hold innocent civilians. Sergeant Meredith decides that they will start with smoke grenades. After Sergeant Meredith is badly injured, Big John becomes the new sergeant. They are then ordered to the front to replace the Army's 96th Division just as the war in Europe ends. But at the Battle of Kakazu Ridge, Ray makes a decision that forever changes things for both himself and Hideki.
Grenade tells the story of a young boy who discovers the reality of war and the meaning of courage during the American invasion of the island of Okinawa, The story is told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old Okinawan boy, Hideki Kaneshiro as well as that of an American soldier, Ray Majors. Gratz gradually weaves together the two storylines, having Ray and Hideki unwittingly encountering one another several times, until the two intersect in a brief but deadly encounter. But it is Hideki's journey that is the focus of the story.
Hideki's journey begins when he is sent into the forests of Okinawa with the instructions to kill as many Americans as he can and then to kill himself. Hideki and his family believe that he has been born afraid and that he is unable to show courage until the spirit or mabui of his ancestor, Shigetomo who had shamed the family with his cowardly act of surrender hundreds of years earlier, found peace. For Hideki the way to cleanse this shame is to bravely kill the American devils who have invaded Okinawa. When Hideki finds the flyers asking the Okinawans to surrender, he resolves not to surrender and not "to let the Americans or Shigetomo's mabui tell him what to do." However his first encounter with the Americans sees him fleeing in terror. He resolves not to listen to Shigetomo's mabui which he believes he carries inside of him.
However, when Hideki kills Ray, his perspective changes. "But now that Hideki had done it, now that he had actually taken another human being's life, he felt a great yawning emptiness inside. A shaking sadness came over him, and he wept. He didn't care about being brave anymore. Or defending the Emperor. Or fighting the Americans. He just wanted to undo what he'd done. To take it back." Killing Ray Majors is so devastating to Hideki that he wonders "How would he ever be the boy he was before? How could he go on?" Looking at the soldier, Hideki realizes he isn't much older than he is and that he looks more like a boy than a man. When he looks at the picture of the boy and his father recovered from the soldier's pack Hideki notes, "They didn't look evil. But what did evil really look like, after all? Evil was what you did, not how you appeared on the outside."
Hideki's view of the Americans whom he has been told are monsters and the Japanese soldiers all of whom he meets, are violent and cruel, begins to change. In the American medical tent, Hideki is treated kindly, given medication and had his wounds tended to; he sees their kind side. Hideki begins to understand that the Americans are like the Japanese, both are monsters when fighting doing terrible things when they are afraid. But when they are not fighting, they are kind, they are like Hideki. When he and Kimiko are finally safe behind American lines, Kimiko questions him as to why he is carrying photographs of American and Japanese soldiers who have destroyed their island. Hideki points out to his sister, that in the photographs there are no soldiers, only ordinary people "Look. There aren't any soldiers here. There are brothers and fathers and sons, surrounded by the people they love and the people who love them back. I'm honoring the men they were before they came to Okinawa. Before they became monsters."
Kimiko recognizes that the war has changed Hideki, that he is more confident and brave. Although Hideki denies it, his actions prove otherwise: he helped the Miyagi family surrender to the Americans, and at great risk he helped Kimiko rescue a group of Okinawa children whom the Japanese were going to use as human shields in an attack. When Hideki tells her he was scared, Kimiko explains, "....being brave doesn't mean not scared? It means overcoming your fear to do what you have to do. A real coward would have run away and never looked back. Fear isn't a weakness. Anybody who's never been afraid is a fool."
His experiences help Hideki reconsider his view of his ancestor Shigetomo and his label as a coward. "His ancestor Shigetomo, wasn't a soldier. He was a farmer. So why had Hideki and his other descendants expected him to fight back against trained samurai warriors? There was never any chance he could have fought the Japanese and won. It would have been suicide." Hideki's comprehension of what his ancestor experienced frees him from the shame. But he still must work though killing the American soldier - a heavy burden for any thirteen-year-old boy.
The events in the novel take place at the beginning of the invasion code- named Operation Iceberg, which commenced on April 1, 1945.While the war in the European theatre was winding down, the Pacific War would still have several more months of fighting. The Americans, drawn into war with Japan when they bombed Pearl Harbor on December have worked their way across the Pacific, capturing islands. By 1945, they were ready to invade Japan and needed the airfields of Okinawa to accomplish that goal. Expecting fierce resistance at the beach head from the Japanese on Okinawa, instead American troops encountered abandoned beaches. The Japanese plan was to draw them well into the island, and then fight to the death, knowing that if Okinawa fell, Japan would lose the war. The Americans faced heavy fighting along the Shuri Line, near the Shuri Palace, at Kakazu Ridge and along a series of ridges. Eventually the Japanese retreated to the southern end of Okinawa where they made a last stand. In the end, the Americans defeated the Japanese on Okinawa but at a great cost to both sides: the Americans suffered 49,000 casualties, the Japanese lost 110,000 men. It is estimated as many as 150,000 Okinawans lost their lives.
Gratz doesn't shy away from portraying the brutality of war, the fear ordinary men turned soldiers experienced, the terror of battle and in particular the cruelty of the Japanese army. Throughout the novel, the Japanese soldiers are portrayed as willing to do almost anything to kill Americans, mostly because they did not view Okinawa as their own land. The civilian population on Okinawa was forced to fight, women and children had explosives strapped to their bodies, and were used as shields by the Japanese soldiers. This ruthlessness left the American soldiers with almost no choice but to kill civilians along with soldiers or risk being killed themselves.In turn they threw grenades into caves and used fire as a weapon. Through the eyes of Hideki the reader sees the devastation the war has wrought on his beautiful homeland and his people who have no quarrel with either the Americans nor the Japanese.
Grenade is set during a battle that likely many young readers have never heard of, nor studied in history classes. But the Battle of Okinawa was the bloodiest of the Pacific War and the Japanese resistance combined with heavy losses on both sides likely contributed to the American decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan later in the summer of 1945.
Gratz provides readers with a map and a detailed Author's Note at the back both of which help readers understand the events in the novel better. Grenade is a thought-provoking story that begs to be read.
Grenade by Alan Gratz
New York: Scholastic Press 2018