"We have awakened a sleeping giant and instilled
in it a terrible resolve."
Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto
upon bombing Pearl Harbor by surprise
and embarking upon war with the United States
Only in his early twenties at the time, Japanese
fighter pilot Takeo Tanimizu was said to have shot down 32 enemy aircraft
in the Pacific theater of operations during the Second World War. Night
after night, year after year, he flew his Mitsubishi Zero aircraft against
his American counterparts in support of a government gone militaristically
berserk. I can still hear my father - a young child in a WWII American
environment which demonized "the Japs" - protesting bitterly for my inclusion
of Takeo Tanimizu into my heroes section. "What, are you doing," he
would say, "eulogizing an enemy of this country with American blood
on his hands? You must be crazy!"
However, I stand by my decision. I include
Tanimizu not for his undisputed prowess as a fighter pilot nor for his
efforts to further the blatantly cruel government of Imperial Japan.
I admire Tanimizu for his humanity and for his sense of deep regret over
having killed so many men during his remarkable military career - read
on further and you will see what I mean. It was only the war that made
Tanimizu and his American counterparts adversaries, Tanimizu says: "They
were the enemy, so if you didn't get them, they would get you." Moreover,
Tanimizu also showed compassion as a fighter pilot, once zooming in low
and throwing his life preserver to U.S. Marine Captain Harvey Carter
of Glendale, California, who had just been shot down and was swimming
in the ocean. Although he served his Emperor to the best of his abilities
and survived the war and eventually lived to a ripe old age, Tanimizu
all through the rest of his years was to lament his actions and pray
nightly at the small Buddhist altar in his home for the souls of the
men he had killed.
Tanimizu flew one fateful mission against
the Americans that connected emotionally with him only five decades later.
On August 31, 1944, in the dead of night he jumped into his aircraft
and attacked a formation of 11 B-24 bombers based at the 14th Air Force
field in Liuzhou, China who were on their way to bomb the Imperial Japanese
Navy base at Takao - what is now Kaohsiung, Taiwan. In the ensuing action,
Tanimizu shot down one American aircraft and badly damaged another. The
damaged bomber ultimately made it back to China
where it crashed into the side of Maoer mountain in the Guangxi province.
There it remained disappeared from history for more than 52 years until
October 2, 1996, when peasant farmers found the wreckage while hunting
for medicinal herbs. U.S. military specialists were eventually able to
identify the bodies of Lt. George Pierpont and his crew and fly their
remains back to the United States for a proper military burial.
Five decades later, living quietly in Osaka,
Japan after suffering a mild stroke, Tanimizu was overcome by emotion
when he learned of the discovery of the remains of the dead men in the
Chinese countryside. "I did fight American planes over Takao," Tanimizu
said through tears during a telephone interview, "I know one crashed
into the ocean, but I don't know what happened to the other." However,
with the new information Tanimizu clearly recognized that he was responsible
for the deaths of those men so many years ago. An old man at 76 years
of age, in response to being asked if he had any words for the families
of the men he killed, Tanimizu replied sobbing into the telephone, "I
can't say anything. The only thing I can say about the people who were
found after 50 years is to pray that their souls find happiness in the
The Second World War in the Pacific theater
of operations was a war bitterly fought by both sides. It was a war of
professionals, and little quarter was asked for or given in the oceans,
skies, and jungles of Asia by the marines, sailors, and airmen who bitterly
fought each other there.
United States Marines Land on Tarawa
20 November 1943
"The flame-thrower, waiting
for him, caught him in its withering stream of intense fire.
As soon as it touched him, the Jap flared up like a piece of
Fortunately, the hatred that existed during wartime was not to last.
Perhaps there was no single American who did more to defeat Imperial
Japan in war than American Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, yet this same man
devoted considerable care and time afterwards to help build friendship
and understanding between the two former enemies. "Japan was a very worthy
and tenacious foe," claimed Nimitz many years after he signed the instrument
of Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, "and after
we gave her a good drubbing there was no reason to pour salt into the
wound." Japan subsequently emerged from defeat to become a fast ally
of the United States, helping to cement an alliance that was to provide
stability in Northern Asia for the greater part of the twentieth century.
I myself - in opposition to my father - grew up in a time when Japan
was a friend of the United States. While growing up I ate Japanese food,
met the people, practiced their martial arts, etc. and have had a warm
feeling towards that country all throughout my life. I am not unique
in this experience, and the two cultures have broadly cross-pollinated
each other over many years. Trade squabbles notwithstanding, it is indeed
difficult to imagine the United States and Japan ever going to war again.
If only the bloody conflicts that tragically arise between nations could
have more individuals such as Chester Nimitz and Takeo Tanimizu, perhaps
old wars would beget new ones less frequently!
Let us keep the image of Takeo Tanimizu in
mind in this world where so many of us are called upon to kill perfect
strangers for the "good" of our countries. Nobody can change the past,
but with a palpable sense of humanity and moral responsibility we can
with humility look backwards on past deeds with sadness, acceptance,
and forgiveness - this last being the most important. Forgiveness!
Admiral Nimitz accepts Japanese surrender in 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.