A Preacher, a Pilot, and POWs

Here is another memoir, this time in the form of a sermon on forgiveness, from my 85-year-old father. He’s a former missionary to Japan and now an oft retired country preacher, so everything he writes ends up sounding like a sermon, just as anything I write ends up sounding like an academic essay.

On December 7, 1941, I was a senior at Franklin High School in Southampton County, Virginia. I remember that the principal assembled us in the school auditorium to hear President Roosevelt speak to the American people by radio. He announced the infamous attack by Japanese planes on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. He also declared war on Japan. I finished high school in June 1942 and entered Richmond College that fall.

My high school ended at grade 11, so I entered college when I was 17. My military draft board granted me a ministerial deferment, which required me to attend college all 12 months of the year, so finished when I was 20 years old. In all those years, I had never met a Japanese person and, to say the least, they were not depicted in a flattering manner in the news reels I saw during the war.

On August 15, 1945, I was pastor of the Lawrenceville Baptist Church in Brunswick County, Virginia. That day we heard that World War II had ended, and that night we had a prayer meeting at the church, during which I felt my first real tug to be a missionary to Japan. I remember one deacon prayed, “Lord, we have sent soldiers to Japan to defeat them in war; now let us send missionaries to lead them to Christ. That for me was a sort of call to go as a missionary, since I had not been called to go as a soldier.

I eventually arrived in Japan as a Southern Baptist missionary in August 1950. After two years of language study in Tokyo I was assigned to be chaplain of Seinan Jo Gakuin in Kokura (now part of the city of Kitakyushu), a Southern Baptist school for Japanese girls that ran from junior high school through junior college. Sunday attendance at church was required and we held frequent chapel services, at which different faculty members spoke. As pastor of Mt. Zion Church on campus, I was quite often asked to speak. Sometimes we had an outside speaker.

On one such occasion, I shared the platform with a speaker of the day who was famous in Japan as Captain Mitsuo Fuchida. It was he who led the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The reason he was speaking at a Christian school was that he had become a Christian and was by then well known in Japan as one who called the Japanese people to renew faith in themselves and in Christ. I remember well his message that day and on another occasion when I heard him give an expanded version of that same message. He was not a powerful speaker but his message was one of power. I shall attempt to give a brief version of the message he gave in Japanese, which lasted an hour and a half.

When the War in the Pacific, as the Japanese called it, ended in defeat for Japan, this came as a great shock to the Japanese people who had been told by their leaders, “We are winning the war on all fronts.” Mitsuo Fuchida was the only pilot still living who took part in that attack on Pearl Harbor. They had continued to fight an increasingly less victorious war, and one by one they had been killed in battle. Fuchida told of several very close calls he himself had experienced and said that he believed he had been spared to share the Gospel with Japan. He considered it to be their best, if not only, hope.

Mitsuo Fuchida had believed, as the Japanese people had been led to believe since childhood, that Japan had been especially chosen by the gods. Nihon or Nippon “Land of the Rising Sun”—as depicted on their national flag. They were taught to believe that one day Isanagi and Isanami (Mr. and Mrs. God) stood on the Bridge of Heaven and Isanagi dipped his sword into the ocean. When he withdrew it, the drops of water from it that fell back into the ocean coagulated and formed the Japanese Islands. Then, Mr. and Mrs. God went down to live on these islands and their children became the Japanese people. Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess, was the mother of the Japanese Imperial Family, the ancestor of Emperor Hirohito. All Japanese schools taught this as history until the end of the war. Since the meaning of kami in Japanese does not completely match that of the English word God, it is difficult to compare religious meanings, but even after the Emperor declared that he was not kami, there continued to be a sense that he remained the father of the Japanese family and the chief religious personage.

After the war ended, Fuchida returned to Japan a defeated and very depressed man. He loved Japan and wanted desperately to see her rise from the ashes of defeat and be a great nation again. One day he heard of some prisoners of war returning from America and he went to see and hear them. Of their many experiences, the one that impressed him most was the one they emphasized the most. It was their relating the story of a young American teenage girl who came to their prisoner-of-war camp every day to minister to them. She brought them small personal items they needed, and each time asked “Is there anything else I do?”

The prisoners did not trust her and believed that she was a plant sent to spy on them. But when she persisted, they did begin to ask her for toothpaste, soap, and so on, and she answered their requests faithfully. This went on for quite a while until the end of the war and they were released to come back to Japan. Out of curiosity, they asked her why she had been so kind to them, her enemies. She told them that her parents had been missionaries to Japan at the beginning of the war and had fled to the Philippines when their lives were endangered. When the Japanese conquered the Philippines, the missionaries hid in caves. When Japanese soldiers eventually found them, and discovered they spoke Japanese, they were accused of being spies and told that they would be killed. They answered, “We are prepared to die, but give us half an hour before we are killed.” They were granted this request and knelt to pray until the Japanese soldiers beheaded them with their swords.

When their daughter in the U.S. got news of this, she hated the Japanese. She said, “They went to Japan to share the love of God and were killed as spies.” Her hate began to consume her until finally she sought spiritual counsel and was led to remember the teachings and example of her parents. She read the Bible and came upon the verse in Luke 23:34 where Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” When she remembered the spirit of her parents, she was sure they repeated that prayer before they died at the hands of the Japanese soldiers.

So, she prayed and found the strength to forgive the ones who killed her parents and believed that if they had known the Christ her parents believed in, they would never had done such a thing so she began to prepare herself to go to Japan as a missionary to carry on the work her parents had done in Japan. However, she was in high school and knew that missionaries have to complete college, and usually further training, before being appointed as missionaries. She didn’t want to wait that long and asked how she could be a missionary until then. Well, there were Japanese prisoners of war very near her and she began to minister to them. The soldiers were so impressed by her story that they stressed it when they related their experiences to Fuchida and others. Fuchida thought they had made up this story, that it could not possibly be true, but he could not forget it.

Later, Fuchida was summoned to Tokyo to testify in the war crimes trials. He led the attack on Pearl Harbor so he would know the exact time of the attack. This was important to establish whether or not Japan’s representatives at the time lied in their assertions to the United States at the time that the attacks were planned and underway. As Fuchida came out of Shibuya train station in Tokyo, he passed a young American man who was handing out Christian tracts. He took one and read on the front this title, “I was a prisoner of the Japanese.” This made him remember the story of the Japanese prisoners in America.

The man described in the tract was named Jacob DeShazer, a gunner on one of the planes that took part in one of the first air raids on Tokyo under the command of General Doolittle. DeShazer’s plane was shot down and he and the rest of the crew were captured by the Japanese. They were brought to Tokyo and paraded through the streets, experiencing the hate and derision of its citizens. They were kept in a small dark prison cell, about 6 feet square, with one small window near the top. They were kept in total isolation, having interpersonal contact only with the Japanese guards, who were especially chosen for their hateful treatment of prisoners. Day after day Jacob lived in this darkness and isolation until he was about to lose his mind. In desperation he tried to think of anything from his past that could help him, and he remembered going to Sunday School as a child and hearing stories from the Bible. He asked the guards for a Bible and, after many requests, they finally brought him one, telling him he could keep it for three weeks.

Jacob awoke each morning as the light came in through the small window of his cell and he read the Bible as long as daylight allowed, and he committed to memory many verses. One impressed him especially. It was the verse telling of Jesus’ prayer asking that those who conducted his crucifixion be forgiven, Luke 23:34. So, Jacob DeShazer prayed for help and found peace and comfort there in this prison cell as he accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior. He learned from the Bible that to become a Christian one has to change, especially to change in his relationship with other people. The only persons Jacob had contact with were the hated prison guards, so he realized that he had to change in his attitude toward them. He began to respond to their hate with kindness, and they began to respond by treating him less hatefully. Jacob decided that the reason these guards treated him so hatefully was that they did not know the Christ he had come to know and that had wrought such change in his life. So, he prayed, “Lord, if you will help me to survive this I will come back to Japan as a missionary to tell the Japanese about Christ.”

Jacob lived in these conditions until the end of the war. I remember news reel scenes of the starving POWs who were released to come home to the United States. Jacob came back to America and, after he recovered his health, he went back to finish high school, attending with much younger kids who must have wondered about him. He was there to prepare for college so he could go back to Japan as a missionary. When he finished college, he still did not speak Japanese, so he wrote out his testimony under the title “I was a prisoner of the Japanese,” then had it translated into Japanese so he could take it to Japan to share with people who had once hated him and held him a prisoner. By divine providence, Jacob DeShazer was standing outside Shibuya Station handing out copies of his tract when Mitsuo Fuchida came by and took one.

Fuchida read again of the Book and of the verse in it, Luke 23:34, that he had heard made such a difference in both the young girl in America who ministered to Japanese POWs and in the life of this young man who had been a POW of the Japanese. He still found it hard to believe, but he was desperate to find a message of hope for the land that he loved. If this message were true it was just what Japan needed. So he bought a small New Testament and began reading it. He sought spiritual guidance and found Christ as his personal Savior.

At that time Eleanor Roosevelt was visiting Japan, and Fuchida heard the chant, “Americans may forgive Pearl Harbor but we will never forgive Hiroshima.” So Fuchida began to tell of his journey from being a leader in one of the most hate-filled wars in history, to being a leader in Christian love, building up a cycle of love instead of hate. In his words, “We hate, and are hated in return, and then we hate more, and we have all seen where that can lead.” But, he says, “We love, and we are likely to be loved in return, which begins the cycle of love.” He said in a message I heard him deliver one night in Okayama, Japan, “I have participated in the cycle of hate for much of my life. For the rest of my life I want to begin the cycle of love as often as I can in as many places as I can.”

During the first part of his 90-minute message, he told of how he was trained as a pilot and chosen to lead in the attack on Japan. His demeanor showed the arrogance he had felt during that part of his life. Then, he paused, leaned forward and said, “Then one day I met Jesus Christ. I learned for the first time in my life that I, Mitsuo Fuchida, am a sinner and I must repent.” He said he learned that repentance of sin means turning 180 degrees and walking in the opposite direction. He told how he had done that and it was one of the best definitions of repentance and best examples of its application I have ever experienced.

Fuchida came to America and spoke at the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He spoke in many places and always told of the testimony of a young American girl whose faith has been the first evidence he had heard of the power of the Christian faith. I don’t remember the name of the girl but her parents were American Baptist missionaries at the beginning of the War. She later appeared on the platform with Fuchida when he gave his testimony in the U.S. In Japan, Mitsuo Fuchida and Jacob DeShazer met and shared their testimony and their life together in Christian witnessing. I had the joy of meeting DeShazer at Lake Nojiri in Japan, where missionaries come to vacation in the summer. I heard Fuchida on three occasions and he visited my home for a meal in Kokura while he was at Seinan Jo Gakuin.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan, nationalism, religion, U.S., war

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.