Rifle pawn shop owner to return Samurai sword obtained in battle of Iwo Jima back to Marine’s family

Tradesman Pawn Shop Gun Store owner Edward Wilks demonstates the proper way to display and present a Samurai sword.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

In Edward Wilks’ store sits an authentic Samurai sword used by a Japanese soldier who tried to behead a U.S. Marine.

The sword, forged from Japanese steel circa 1941, has been in his Rifle pawn shop, Tradesmen Pawn Shop Gun Store, for more than a decade. But after 14 years of delicately curating the blade, Wilks is giving it back to the family of the Marine who defended himself during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

A long tale precedes how and why Wilks has had the sword for so long.

A pilot, Wilks said he was flying one day in 2006 when he had to make an emergency landing at the Rifle Airport due to a cracked oil pan. After he safely landed, Wilks said he encountered a mechanic who knew Wilks was a collector of Japanese steel.

Tradesman Pawn Shop Gun Store owner Edward Wilks holds the Samurai sword used during World War II at his shop in Rifle.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

That mechanic, said Wilks, told him his father had manned a gun post during the Battle of Iwo Jima when he heard a Japanese war cry behind him. Turning around, the Marine spotted an enemy soldier quickly advancing with the same slender Samurai sword that now sits in his shop.

The Imperial soldier swiped at the Marine, who ducked out of the way. Locked in combat, the Marine then took his sidearm and killed the Japanese soldier.

Tradesman Pawn Shop Gun Store owner Edward Wilks applies powder on the blade with a Japanese polishing stone which helps preserve the sword.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

That’s how the Marine obtained the sword.

“That’s what you did back then,” Wilks said of why the Marine took the sword. “(It’s) a reminder of how quickly he almost lost his life.”

The Japanese practiced a similar tradition.

Japanese Kanji writing on the Samurai sword indicates the authenticity of when the sword was made and who made it.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

“In the principal and concept of mortal combat, had (the Marine) not survived, his head would have been cut off and that man would have taken an article of his clothing and taken it home to his family,” Wilks said.

Fast forward to 2006. The sword, a relic of an ancient culture inscribed in Kangi, or, rather, Japanese writing using Chinese characters, needed to be restored. The Kangi denotes who made the sword and the Japanese province in which it was created.

So, Wilks said, the mechanic soon brought it to his shop.

Tradesman Pawn Shop Gun Store owner Edward Wilks holds the Samurai sword used during World War II at his shop in Rifle.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Months passed, and the mechanic never came back to retrieve his father’s sword. Wilks, meanwhile, would spend the next 14 years trying to locate the mechanic so he could give it back.

On Monday, Wilks received a call. It was the mechanic. Through a series of contacts, Wilks had somehow finally reached a person who knew him.

“My elation came when he called and I heard his voice again,” Wilks said.

Now, Wilks plans to give back the Samurai sword to that very mechanic whose father survived the Battle of Iwo Jima.

But why so eager to give back something worth that much? The item itself is worth $2,500-$3,000. In fact, if Wilks shipped it back to Japan for further polishing, he said that figure would’ve been more like $6,000.

Tradesman Pawn Shop Gun Store owner Edward Wilks speaks about specifics of the authentic Samurai sword used in World War II.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Moreover, the family history of the blade, created during the modern Japanese Showa era, is priceless. Wilks said that although during WWII the Japanese military issued a standard blade to its combatants, some families made a mission to go further.

“Other families would have had a real sword maker make a sword for their family which they would’ve passed down to their soldier son,” Wilks said. “He could have carried it with him in battle.”

In other words, Wilks said, sword collectors would never dream of keeping something like that to themselves. And traditionally, such swords aren’t actually displayed with the handle or the protective sleeve that envelops the blade when it’s idle.

“You would have displayed the blade with nothing else,” Wilks said. … “The blade has the soul.”

In addition, there’s ancient tradition to be followed.

“There is an honor code with Japanese swords and Bushido,” Wilks said. “I do study Kendo. I do study Japanese martial arts. And the first rule is this — we are not owners of these swords, simply custodians for the next generation.”

There’s also a duty of connecting people to their own history.

“It’s the preservation of history and honor,” Wilks said.

A sword preservation kit sits on the counter at the Tradesman Pawn Shop owned by Edward Wilks in Rifle.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Wilks said the mechanic, who opted to remain anonymous for this story, receives this family heirloom, he has a plan. Wilks was told he plans to hang the Samurai sword above a photo of his father taken during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

“He said it will go to his child,” Wilks said. “It will carry on for generations.”

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