Healing the wounds of war: A lesson for us all

By KATHY SOLE | Columnist

On April 11, 1945, five months before the end of World War II, a wartime action and subsequent act of compassion took place onboard the USS Missouri (BB-63), the battleship that later served as the site of the Japanese surrender that ended the war between the United States and Japan. A similar incident took place in Japan two months later, on June 20, 1945.

These two incidents are not widely known. However, they hold an important lesson for all of us today, not just in international conflicts, but in the struggles we face in our relationships with others in our lives.

In April 1945, the USS Missouri was participating in the Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific. The battleship’s captain, William McCombe Callaghan, had lost his older brother, Rear Adm. Daniel Callaghan, earlier in the war. Adm. Callaghan was standing on the bridge of his ship, the USS San Francisco (CA-38), when it was hit by a Japanese shell in 1942.

As Capt. Callaghan commanded the Missouri three years later, the sound of a plane pierced the sky as a Japanese kamikaze pilot steered his Zero fighter toward the battleship. As the ship’s guns fired, the pilot descended in a death dive, intending to smash into the Missouri and detonate a 500-pound bomb attached to his plane. The plane’s left wing caught the side of the ship and hit the hull, sending a fiery wave of debris onto the deck. But, in what historians call a miracle, the bomb fell off the plane before impact, and the Zero made only a small dent in the ship’s deck and started a minor fire. The kamikaze pilot was the only casualty, and his remains were found in the wreckage.

Missouri crew members prepared to wash the debris and the remains into the sea, but Capt. Callaghan intervened. He ordered the enemy’s remains be brought into the ship, and he scheduled a burial ceremony for the next day.

Some members of the ship’s crew were angry and bitter about the ceremony, in which Callaghan ordered that a Japanese flag be sewn overnight by a Missouri crew member and the pilot’s body be placed in a canvas shroud and covered with the flag. Six pallbearers slipped the flag-draped shroud into the sea, while the crew stood at attention and saluted the fallen Japanese airman. A volley of rifle fire and the playing of “Taps” ended the ceremony. Callaghan explained to the crew that they were honoring the unknown pilot for his fearlessness, loyalty, and the shared sense of duty, honor and sacrifice of a fellow warrior.

Three months later, in June 1945, two United States B-29 bombers collided mid-air and crashed into the Japanese countryside, after dropping bombs on the city of Shizuoka, Japan. The bombing raid resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 Shizuoka residents and all 23 crewmen aboard the two U.S. planes.

Surviving residents of Shizuoka ran to the crash scene, and one of them was a city councilman, Fukumatsu Ito. Ito pulled two U.S airmen from one of the planes alive; however, they died shortly thereafter. Ito also found and retrieved a blackened canteen from the wreckage. The fire that followed the crash appeared to have seared the handprint of the canteen’s owner on its bent and blackened surface.

Ito insisted on giving the American crewmen a proper burial alongside local residents who perished. Many angry townspeople, who had lost family and friends in the raid, condemned Ito’s act of compassion. He bore their anger and hatred silently and established an annual tradition of visiting the gravesites near the crash date and conducting a simple ceremony. He would offer a silent prayer and pour bourbon from the blackened canteen onto the ground, as an offering to the spirits of both the fallen Japanese and Americans. Eventually, two monuments were erected on the site, and a joint U.S. and Japanese memorial service is held there each year on the anniversary of the crash.

Before his death, Ito passed the blackened canteen to Hiroya Sugano, who witnessed the annual ceremony for the first time when he was only 8 years old. The ceremony profoundly influenced Sugano, and he promised to carry on the tradition after Ito’s death. He has done so annually since 1972. On the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1991, Dr. Sugano also established a tradition of holding a remembrance ceremony every December on the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii. It continues to the present day.

The blackened canteen has become a symbol of peace among former enemies, and it represents hope for a future of peaceful understanding between peoples. I was privileged to see the blackened canteen and to learn these stories at a symposium held at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor in 2016, at the 75th anniversary commemorating the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“The battered canteen, which rose from the ashes of a wartime tragedy, has since become the inspiration for peace,” said Lt. Col. Gary Meyers, USMC, ret. “Its blackness and distorted shape represent the inevitability of conflict. It will always be there. Yet, its presence represents eternal hope for a future of peaceful understanding and reconciliation between former enemies. It is a symbol of the good that can arise from tragedy and it is also a symbol of the courage and determination of one man …”

This year, as we remember Pearl Harbor Day and approach the holiday season, we continue to witness conflicts and political and racial divisions at home and around the world. We may also experience personal estrangements or separations within our own circle of friends and family. It may be difficult to see a path through all this conflict to healing and peace. However, the lesson of the two similar World War II incidents is that by recognizing our shared humanity, values, and interests, we can find forgiveness and heal even the bitterest hatred and division.

Finding a way to rise above our differences and mend broken relationships certainly would be admirable goals for the coming new year.

— Kathy Sole is president of the Kingston Historical Society and is a regular columnist for the Kingston Community News, a Kitsap News Group newspaper. She covered the 75th anniversary ceremonies at Pearl Harbor for Kitsap News Group.