Pearl Harbor: Finding Forgiveness for Mitsuo Fuchida

In this story, which first appeared on the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Elizabeth Sherrill remembers a man she didn’t want to meet.

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- Posted on Dec 6, 2016

Mitsuo Fuchida, who led the attack on Pearl Harbor

As he entered the lobby of the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto, Japan, a small, erect man of 72, I felt myself stiffen. I had requested this interview because I wanted to hear for myself how it was that this one-time Shintoist had become a Christian. Walk over to him, I told myself. Hold out your hand. But my muscles had gone suddenly rigid.

This is the man, those tensed muscles told me, who led the Japanese planes over Pearl Harbor. Three young sailors from my hometown had died in that attack. It was now 1974, more than 30 years later. But in my emotions it was still December 7, 1941...

The awkwardness of refusing a handshake was averted as Mitsuo Fuchida stopped a few feet away and made a ceremonious little bow.

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I mouthed the introductory speech I had prepared and turned to the translator I’d hired. The man was staring at Mr. Fuchida with undisguised hostility. Next moment he walked away without a word.

Stunned, I asked the hotel for another interpreter. What could have been the man’s objection? Hadn’t Fuchida been Japan’s great hero?

With a new translator, we found seats in the nearly empty restuarant and I drew out my list of questions. Mitsuo Fuchida had agreed to the interview, I quoted from his letter, because of “love for America.” Surely a strange emotion in the man who had led the attack on us?

“Not strange,” he corrected me. “Impossible.”

That man, the man he had once been, had felt only hatred for Western nations: Britain, France, the United States, and the other colonial powers that dominated Asia. Hatred for the West was implicit in love for his country and its divine emperor. And above all, for Admiral Togo.

“I was almost four years old in 1905”—the translator kept pace with Mr. Fuchida’s staccato syllables—“when Japan won the war with Russia, the first time in history that an Eastern nation had defeated a European one. Everywhere people were praising a single hero. Togo!”

The admiral became the idol of Fuchida’s boyhood. When he learned to read he pored over accounts of Togo’s battles, especially the daring surprise attack with which he had bottled up the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, China. “Over my bed I kept Togo’s picture. I dreamed of becoming, like him, a naval officer.”

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By 1939 Fuchida had done just that; he’d risen to the rank of flight commander in the Japanese Navy’s Yokosuka Air Corps. He had also married and started a family. And all the while the country armed for what every Japanese knew was their god-appointed task: to drive the Western powers out of the East.

In 1941 the Japanese were ready. Their army and navy were overwhelmingly the strongest in East Asia; the colonial nations were involved in a war in Europe. Only one force could stop them: the powerful U.S. Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor. As it had been for Admiral Togo, the answer was clearly a surprise attack—this time from the air. Thirty-nine-year-old Mitsuo Fuchida was chosen to guide the First Air Fleet planes to the target.

A kimono-clad waitress placed tea in handleless cups on the low table in front of us. Mr. Fuchida drank silently, then resumed. “On December seventh the sky was overcast...”

Six Japanese aircraft carriers were stationed about 200 miles north of the target. In those days Japanese airplanes had no radar, and so they depended on visual contact. All night from the deck of the lead carrier Fuchida scanned the starless sky.

At dawn, despite the weather, he led the first wave of 183 airplanes into the leaden sky. His little three-seater climbed through the cloud bank. As they burst above it the sun stood on the eastern horizon, rays streaming seaward in a pattern resembling that on the Japanese flag.

To Fuchida it was a sign from the gods. He slipped on his goggles and slid back the glass canopy to search below for the break in the clouds that he knew must come.

At last, using binoculars to peer through the tiniest rift in the clouds, he caught a glimpse of coastline. He bent over his charts. Oahu! “Then suddenly there it was below us, Pearl Harbor, under an open sky!” Beyond and behind, the cloud cover stretched unbroken, but directly over the base the gods had drawn the clouds aside. The fleet was there.

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He turned to the radio operator behind him and sent out the signal to attack. For two hours, as the first wave of fighters and bombers, then the second, shrieked in beneath him, Fuchida directed the assault on the harbor and adjacent airfields. He returned to Japan on December 23 to find himself hailed as “the Admiral Togo of our day.”

For the next six months he led missions in the Solomon Islands, Java, the Indian Ocean: Each month the Rising Sun rode higher in the sky. Then one day in June 1942 he was on the deck of the aircraft carrier Akagi off a small island called Midway when American planes swooped from the sky. Several bombs hit the ship; there were fires and explosions.

One explosion left Fuchida with two shattered legs. From the Japanese light cruiser that rescued him he watched as his ship was scuttled and three other carriers sank. The Battle of Midway was Japan’s first defeat of the war.

Fuchida was hospitalized for months; then, on crutches, he was assigned to the war college. Classes were hurried: With less and less preparation, Japan’s young men were being rushed to the front. Still on crutches, Fuchida too returned to active duty.

During the summer of 1944 Japan was losing eight soldiers to every one lost by the Americans. “But though we knew the war was lost, no one spoke of surrender.” Until the atom bomb fell. Nine days later Japan surrendered, and a feeling of despair settled over Fuchida and millions of his countrymen.

Because of his family, Fuchida did not commit suicide as many officers did. Instead, he moved his wife and children to a farm owned by relatives and supported them by what he grew from the soil. It was a humbling comedown for a national hero.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, war crimes trials had begun. Some of those on trial had been accused of mistreating prisoners of war. The knowledge that fellow officers had brought such shame upon the nation was another crushing blow for Fuchida.

Although he’d had no contact with the prison camps, he was often summoned from his farm as a character witness. He was walking dejectedly through the Tokyo train station on his way to the court one morning when someone shoved a little leaflet into his hand: “I Was a Prisoner of War.”

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Something to do with the trials, he supposed; he put it into his pocket to read on the train going home. Sure enough, it was the account of an American soldier named Jacob DeShazer, who had spent nearly three and a half years in a Japanese concentration camp.

There it all was, the by-now hideously familiar story of kickings, beatings, starvation. And there was DeShazer’s very natural reaction: bitterness, hatred, helpless rage. Very much, Fuchida reflected to the click of the train wheels, like his own emotions since Hiroshima.

Now would come the part where DeShazer named his torturers and demanded revenge. But—what was this he was reading? DeShazer loved the Japanese? Rejoiced in the midst of suffering? The transformation had come about, DeShazer explained, through Jesus Christ. Fuchida recognized the name as one of the gods of the enemy. You could learn about Jesus, the leaflet went on, in a BOOK called the bible.

The next time he was called to testify, Fuchida went to a Tokyo bookstore and bought a Bible. And all alone in the little farmhouse he began to read. There was much he did not understand. But what he did understand, as the weeks went by, was that there were not many gods, siding with this nation or that, but one God who loved all nations. This God had come to earth not as an emperor, or a military hero, but as a humble workingman.

The more he read, the more Fuchida felt the horror of his past devotion—devotion to armaments, to war, to hatred of one race or another.

“Then,” Fuchida continued, “I came to the death of this carpenter, and read that He had prayed from the Cross, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’

“Why then ... Jesus had prayed for me!”

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That night in the farmhouse, Mitsuo Fuchida, who did not know a single Christian, asked God to forgive him and became a Christian himself. And without knowing it, following the pattern of believers, he began to tell others. Told them he’d found the answer to despair and defeat. Told them God had not come to lead armies, but to lead men and women out of hatred into love.

Word of the conversion of the nation’s hero reached the media, and the torrent burst. Hate mail, abusive phone calls, threats to his wife and children. He had betrayed his country, turned to the foreigners’ God. Even old friends turned away from him on the street.

“That man here today—the first translator!” I broke in. “That was an example?”

“That was nothing,” Fuchida said. “He only walked away.

Others had done worse. A young ex-lieutenant, a flyer named Yamashita, had come to his home. The moment they were alone, the young flyer reached into his shirt and drew out an ornate knife, the sacred dagger given to every kamikaze pilot.

“He pressed the point against my throat. He was crying. ‘I looked up to you all my life,’ he said, ‘and now I must kill you.’”

“What did you do?” I exclaimed.

“I told him the story I have told you—with the knife pricking my throat the entire time.”

“And at the end?” I asked.

“At the end he lowered the knife. Today Yamashita is an elder of the church in Amagasaki.”

Today...

I saw myself today too. Like Fuchida, like Yamashita, forgiven by God—but holding back the hand of friendship because it was clinging to the hatreds of the past. “We have a custom when we make a new friend,” I said, reaching out my hand.

As our hands met, the love that flowed through Fuchida’s grasp was, I believe, the love that was born in a stable long ago.

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