TSUKUBAMIRAI, Ibaraki Pref. — Wilma Cook remembers how hard her father tried to discover what happened to her brother, 2nd Lt. Eugene Cook, when his B-29 bomber crashed in Japan during an air raid in March 1945.
She was 22 at the time, and the only thing the family knew was that he was “missing in action.”
“We figured that the plane crashed because it never returned from the mission. We knew that,” Cook said.
But her father, William, then president of Prudential Insurance Co., kept searching.
“He wrote to all the relations of the 12 men. He interviewed people. . . . He did everything he could,” Cook said. “It made a very big difference in my parents’ life. My father was never quite comfortable after that. He was always searching, thinking he might turn up.”
About five years ago, Cook, now 82, got hold of some research on B-29 crashes conducted in 1998 by Hidesaburo Kusama, a professor at Aichi Gakuin University. Cook learned that her brother’s plane crashed in the village of Itabashi, now the city of Tsukubamirai, Ibaraki Prefecture, and that the villagers treated three survivors out of the 12-man crew.
On Thursday, she and her husband, Robert, who assumed her family name upon marriage, attended their first memorial service for her brother at a monument Kusama built to the 12 airmen at the crash site in 2001.
“It’s really wonderful that his sacrifices perpetuated in the place he died in Japan,” Cook said of her brother, who was the copilot. “He was the only son (in the family), so he was the best one of all. He was a really fun guy.”
So what did she manage to learn about Eugene’s fate?
Eugene was 27 when he died, leaving behind a wife and daughter. His plane, Tall in the Saddle, was one of about 300 B-29 bombers that participated in the Great Tokyo Air Raid on March 10, 1945, which killed more than 80,000 people. The plane took off from Guam.
According to a book written by Kusama, when the plane crashed, the villagers found nine of the crew dead in the woods and buried them, placing a wooden cross atop the mound. The remaining three were taken to a shelter and handed over to military police.
One was executed, and the other two were held as prisoners of war in Tokyo, only to die in subsequent air raids, the book said.
One or two years after the end of the war, however, Eugene’s remains were returned home to Sacramento, Calif., Cook said. But since the U.S. War Department did not provide details about what happened to him, her father, until he died in 1951, kept searching for clues about his son, she said.
Kusama, however, learned that the remains of the nine airmen who were buried in Itabashi were exhumed by the Allied Occupation in November 1945, and that Eugene was the only one they could identify. This meant he died in the crash.
Now, 61 years after the war, Cook stood gratefully with Kusama and his wife, Yoko, who invited them to fly from Michigan to the place where her brother died.
“As a result of his research . . . our family found out what happened to my brother when he died. He has done a lot of healing to us,” she said. “This visit was sort of a thanksgiving to Dr. Kusama. I thought that it was such a way to reinforce (the) connection between Japan and the United States.”
Kusama, who plans to publish a book next year on monuments to B-29 airmen who died in Japan, said Cook’s visit indicates that both Japanese who experienced the U.S. firebombing and families of U.S. airmen killed in Japan are gradually learning to forgive each other.
“After more than 60 years have passed, the survivors seem to have come to think that we are all human beings and understand that the current peace has been built on the sacrifices of such people,” he said.
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