Zenji Abe, the enemy who became a friend
By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Rod Ohira
It was a memorable moment when three Pearl Harbor survivors accepted an offer from a former enemy fighter pilot who participated in the Dec. 7, 1941 attack to shake hands on a live national TV show in 1991.
The pilot was Zenji Abe, a frequent visitor to Hawai'i who dedicated his life to reconciliation and peace between American and Japanese veterans in the years following the 50-year commemoration of the attack that drew the United States into World War II.
Abe died April 6 in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, from a heart condition, according to an Asahi Shimbun newspaper report. He was 90. His funeral was held Monday in Ibaraki.
"All members of our family appreciate your friendship and thoughtfulness to our father," Kyoji and Naomi Shin wrote in an e-mail to Daniel Martinez notifying him of Abe's death.
Martinez, National Park Service historian for the USS Arizona Memorial, recalled it was not a token gesture by Abe in 1991 when he put his hand out to the three survivors on the "Today Show," which was being televised from the Visitors Center at Pearl Harbor.
"I admired the bravery it took for him to come to Pearl Harbor and extend his hand in reconciliation and the courage of the three survivors to take his hand," Martinez said. "I believe that was the turning point for many veterans ... the event that led the way."
"It took 50 years for that to happen because the war was so bitter," added Martinez, who developed a close relationship with Abe after meeting him in 1991.
Abe was short in stature but a big man in heart and courage, Martinez said.
"He was a warrior as an enemy in World War II who became a man of peace and reconciliation, and a friend to the park," Martinez said.
It was on his third trip to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial in 1991 that Abe met the late Richard Fiske, who in 1941 was a 19-year-old Marine bugler aboard the battleship USS Virginia that was hit by nine Japanese torpedoes and two aerial bombs.
Abe flew a Type 99 dive bomber in the attack and dropped a 550-pound, delayed-fuse bomb on the West Virginia; it failed to detonate.
Fiske, who fought at Iwo Jima in 1945, had been a volunteer at the Arizona Memorial for nine years when they met.
Their story of how once-bitter enemies became close friends is told in the book "Pearl Harbor Warriors" from letters from the two men to author Dorinda Makanaonalani Nicholson and her granddaughter, Jennifer.
In one letter, Fiske told Abe that "yesterday's enemy is today's friend" and invited him to come to Hawai'i.
In another letter to Nicholson's granddaughter, Abe wrote: "Children can learn from the mistakes of the past and maybe teach their countries how to spread peace. It is most important we work together to understand each other."
A most-chronicled gesture between the two men involved Abe giving Fiske $300 and asking him to lay two roses at the Arizona Memorial each month for the Japanese and American troops who died, and for him to play taps. Fiske fulfilled the request for 12 years on the last Sunday of every month until his death.
'IT WAS A TIME OF WAR'
Abe explained to Fiske the unique request was his way of saying, "I'm sorry."
"He said he was sorry but he said it was a time of war — and that's how I felt about it," Fiske once told The Advertiser. "I don't feel guilty. I'm very, very sorry, but when you go to war, you do what you have to do."
Abe retired from the Japanese military as an admiral and from civilian life as senior managing director of the UBE Plastic Co.
He wrote his memoir on the attack on Pearl Harbor in a book titled "The Emperor's Sea Eagle," which was published in Japan. It was translated into English and is available at the Arizona Memorial Museum.
Yoshitaka Yamada of the Consulate General of Japan's office in Honolulu met Abe last December. "It's very important to know history, especially from a person who can tell you how to contribute to peace and healing," Yamada said.
Reach Rod Ohira at email@example.com.