WWII enemies find forgiveness, friendship
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
For more than 20 years, World War II ate at Richard Fiske's gut and soul.
Advertiser library photo Dec. 6, 2000
Richard Fiske, left, said a common sense of sorrow led to friendship between him and Zenji Abe.
Advertiser library photo Dec. 6, 2000
He was with the 5th Marine Division in February 1945 in the battle for Iwo Jima, an 8-square-mile Pacific island that exacted a huge human toll: 6,800 Americans dead and more than 19,000 wounded. Of 20,000 Japanese defenders, only 1,083 survived.
For years Fiske was filled with hatred for the Japanese, for what he'd seen and for what had been done. It literally wrenched at his gut, leading to a life-threatening ulcer and operation in 1965.
But Fiske, 79, found his way back. And so did his unlikely future friend, World War II Japanese pilot Zenji Abe.
Like other veterans, Abe, who flew a Type 99 dive bomber in the second wave of attacks on Pearl Harbor, is returning to O'ahu this week to reflect, reconcile and atone on the 60th anniversary of the "Day of Infamy."
"To pay tribute to the memory of those 1,177 (USS Arizona) war deaths," Abe said.
Abe, 85, and two other Japanese pilots will give their perspective on the Pearl Harbor attack at a 60th anniversary panel discussion tomorrow at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa, one of 26 sessions planned for the conference "A Day to Remember, A Time Not Forgotten."
The Zero Fighter Pilots Association also is holding a reunion here, yesterday through Saturday. Approximately 50 veterans and their families are expected to attend.
Retired Air Force Col. Earl Okawa, president of the Japan-America Society of Hawai'i, said the aging veterans from both sides of the war are coming for the 60th anniversary of the attack for the same reason.
"This is perhaps the last hurrah a last chance to pay respects to fallen comrades and maybe reach out and reconcile with former enemies," Okawa said. Estimates are that 1,100 to 1,400 World War II veterans die each day.
For veterans like Abe and Fiske, it will be a chance to meet again in peace. Abe dropped a 550-pound, delayed-fuse bomb on the West Virginia, but it failed to go off.
In 1991, on Abe's third trip to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona, he gave Fiske $300 and asked him to lay two roses at the memorial each month one for him and one for Fiske. He also asked if the former bugler could play taps. Fiske has been doing so ever since.
"This is my way of saying I'm sorry," Abe told Fiske at the time.
Abe has returned almost a dozen more times. A friendship developed over the years, and Fiske now considers the Tokyo resident and retired senior managing director of the UBE Plastic Co. a "wonderful person" and part of the family. The two veterans write to each other regularly.
The duty they performed as soldiers and the shared horrors of war have overcome old differences and made for a common bond that has only strengthened with the passage of time.
Abe said he felt "no special fear or excitement" as he took off from the deck of the carrier Akagi during a second wave of attacks against U.S. aircraft carriers that were believed to be in Pearl Harbor. The United States was a wealthy and strong nation, but Abe felt Japan could match those qualities with fighting spirit.
Fiske, a retired Air Force master sergeant, doesn't feel that Abe bears any particular guilt, any more than he himself does.
"He said he was sorry, but he said it was a time of war and that's how I felt about it. I don't feel guilty. I'm very, very sorry, but when you go to war, you do what you have to do."
Reconciling wartime hatred is not as easy for everyone even after 60 years.
Fiske's turning point came during a bedside talk with a Tripler Army Medical Center doctor in 1965, after he pulled through the ulcer operation.
"(The doctor) came over and said, 'I can cure your stomach, but I can't cure your head,' " Fiske said. He recalls "crying like a baby" when he realized how self-destructive he'd been.
John DiVirgilio, who helps organize veteran get-togethers through the World War II American and Japanese Veterans Friendship Committee, said about a third of them find it within themselves to shake hands with their former enemies. Another third "are still trying to find some kind of permission within themselves to reconcile." And the final third keep in so much hatred that they can't beat it.
The first big reunion on O'ahu was organized in the early 1990s. DiVirgilio, who lives in Kailua, said 20 American and 20 Japanese veterans attended. For VJ Day in 1995, there were 222 Japanese veterans and 450 Americans.
"A lot of American veterans, when they meet Japanese veterans, say, 'Oh my gosh, this guy is just like me,' " DiVirgilio said.
Some say they "feel like a 19-year-old, without the feeling of sin and hate and ugliness of war just to shake hands," said DiVirgilio, who will moderate a panel discussion tomorrow at the Hilton.
Getting to that point is far from easy.
"You should see the hands coming together the trembling," he said.
About 200 Japanese veterans and family members had been expected for the 60th anniversary events, but Japan's economic downturn has meant many cannot attend, DiVirgilio said. A total of 50 veterans and relatives from the Zero Fighter Pilots Association are expected to make the trip.
The association strives for strong relations with the United States and to build friendships as part of the healing process for veterans.
A ceremonial handshake between Japanese World War II aviators and Pearl Harbor survivors is scheduled at the conference kick-off at 7:45 a.m. today at the Hilton.
On Thursday, nearly 60 Japanese veterans and family members will join with American World War II pilots at Hickam Air Force Base for a panel discussion, wreath-
laying ceremony and buffet lunch at the Tradewinds Enlisted Club, where veterans will be encouraged to shake hands and sign a friendship canvas.
Fiske and Abe, meanwhile, will reflect on Dec. 7, 1941, on Friday from 11 a.m. until noon at the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center.
Fiske said his friendship with Abe is an example of a reconciliation that's important even 60 years later.
"We still have Pearl Harbor survivors here that have that animosity, and it's no good. It almost killed me," Fiske said. Veterans who have reached out say, "My God, I don't want to go to the grave with this."