KOGA, Ibaraki Pref. – To Zenji Abe, 89, a former dive-bomber pilot, Pearl Harbor was a place where he headed to risk his life to defend his country. But more than 60 years later, it has turned into a place where he can nurture ties with American friends who had once been his foes.
He can clearly recall the day when he joined the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941. The spry white-haired veteran spoke about his experiences in an interview at his home in Koga, Ibaraki Prefecture, where he lives with his wife.
“I put a photo of my (former) wife holding my 6-month-year-old son in my uniform’s inner pocket. . . . I didn’t feel fear, or such excitement as ‘I’m going to beat the Americans!’ Instead, I thought it’s just like (an) exercise,” Abe, then a 25-year-old lieutenant and squadron leader, said.
Taking off from the Imperial Japanese Navy aircraft carrier, Akagi was part of the second wave of planes.
The raid crippled the U.S. Pacific Fleet by sinking or severely damaging eight battleships, including the Arizona — a symbolic figure of the largest U.S. naval loss in history.
“I nosedived from an altitude of about 3,000 meters and practically a 60-degree angle. It was like plunging headfirst and I released a 250-kg bomb,” Abe said, adding that he was “lucky” that he survived.
The attack on Pearl Harbor prompted the United States to formally enter World War II, which ended with Japan surrendering on the deck of the USS Missouri following the August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Abe, now one of the remaining Japanese witnesses to the Pearl Harbor attack, said it was decades before he actually learned that Japan’s declaration of war was made after the attack.
“I was shocked and mortified to know that. To conduct a successful mission, the attack had to be made in an unexpected way to the enemy, but delaying the declaration is immoral and against the Bushido spirit,” he said.
Such feelings have continued to haunt Abe as he has become engaged in reconciliation efforts between Japanese and American veterans.
Though not all Pearl Harbor survivors welcomed former Japanese soldiers attending ceremonies marking the attack, the reconciliation movement gradually started after about half a century had passed.
In 1991, Abe met in Hawaii with Richard Fiske, who had been a bugler on board the USS West Virginia, one of the battleships that was sunk in the attack. They became “special friends” despite their backgrounds.
Abe promised he would send Fiske, who was a volunteer at the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, some $500 each year and asked him to lay two roses at the memorial on the last Sunday of each month, one for him and one for Fiske, and to play taps on his bugle.
Fiske kept his promise for more than 10 years before he died in April 2004, Abe said.
Based on his experience, he stressed the importance of spreading peace by working together for understanding.
“During the war, we Japanese did not know about Americans, and they also did not know about us. We just conducted our mission as soldiers and there was no hatred there, though the government tried to teach us to have such feelings. It’s just that our paths of our lives happened to cross in Pearl Harbor on that day,” Abe said.
Though modest about his war record or contributions on seeking reconciliation, Abe happily remembers when he was thanked by a man from Chicago at an event marking the 60th commemoration of the attack.
“The man told me he lost his father in the battleship Arizona. He said he had had hard feelings about his father’s death for the past 60 years, but after hearing my words and apology, he felt as if it was cleared.”
As if to get beyond his sorrow over Fiske’s death, Abe expressed his resolve to keep visiting Pearl Harbor and other areas in the U.S. to continue holding exchanges with the people, possibly until the 70th anniversary of the attack.
“It is also to say sorry, but it is becoming more about seeing my friends who look so happy when I visit there,” Abe said.
Abe, who has been attending ceremonies marking the attack every year since the 50th anniversary, except when he had cancer surgery three years ago, plans to attend this year’s Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration to be held Wednesday to mark the 64th anniversary at the Arizona Memorial.
“When I visited the memorial before, I saw oil droplets bubble to the surface of Pearl Harbor above the Arizona, which remains underwater. They moved my heart as they are like the grief or grudge of the 1,177 people killed on the ship,” Abe said.
Believing the Pearl Harbor attack was futile and a diplomatic failure, Abe questions the responsibility of Japanese leaders, including wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, who led Japan to defeat.
“The wartime leaders at that time told people to commit suicide if we were captured. They should have committed seppuku when the war ended, as they had the responsibility for causing the suffering of so many people. Their attitudes were immoral,” Abe said.
In June 1944, Abe crash-landed on the Northern Mariana island of Rota during a mission. He hid in a cave for about one year until he was taken prisoner of war. He stayed in a POW camp on Guam until November 1946.
He also voiced concern about the current state of Japanese society, in which people seem to have lost their moral compass, referring to incidents that have recently made headlines, including children killing their parents and architects designing defective buildings.
“I believe Japan and the world would have changed for the better if the Pearl Harbor attack did not happen, and the relationship between Japan and its neighboring countries would have been different if wartime leaders had acted morally,” he said.