My day of reconciliation with an enemy pilot who air-bombed Tokyo: Lt. Cole and the author

By Fumio Matsuo, journalist



August 2005 (Excerpts)


Reunion of Doolitle's Raiders and overcoming 63 years of love - hate relations


As I expected, he had a large and magnificent nose.  "I've often been told I have a hawkish nose," said Richard Cole, pointing his index finger at his nose, when I met him at his home in the City of San Antonio in southern Texas in the United States.  Though he will be 90 years old in September, he looked healthy for his advanced age and sat with a straight back.


Just after 12 o'clock noon on April 18, 1942 -- when the mood of a successive series of successive battles had not yet hit Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941 -- I saw that nose from the playground of Toyama People's School (now Toyama Elementary School). I had just entered third grade and was still only eight years old. It being Saturday, when there was only a half-day of classes, I had just left the school building when suddenly right before my eyes a strange-looking twin-engine airplane I had never seen before came flying close to the ground from left to right, going west in the direction of Shinjuku and Okubo following the Chuo Railroad Line. The fuselage was painted a khaki color. The plane had two upright tails, and on the body was painted a blue-star insignia. The pilot's seat was in front, protected by a glass windshield, but I saw clearly the side of the face of a Caucasian crewmember seated to the left and facing the front. He was wearing a dark brown leather flight jacket, and the sight of his white face and high-bridged large nose burned into my eyes. Immediately after, a barrage from anti-aircraft guns turned the eastern sky black, as air-raid sirens screamed out. The attack on Tokyo by the B-25s of Doolittle's Raiders would go down in history as the first air attack on the Japanese mainland.


The airplane I saw was one of 16 B-25s that took off from an aircraft carrier on the Pacific Ocean. I later found out that the one I saw was the lead plane piloted by Lt. Colonel James Doolittle when I read a report titled, "The bomber in the first air bombing of Tokyo on April 18," written by war historian Kazutoshi Hando in the March 2005 issue of this magazine. Novelist Akira Yoshimura in an article wrote that when he was flying a kite on the clothes-drying platform of his house in Nippori, he observed a twin-engine plane flying at low altitude.  Investigation into his claim showed that what Yoshimura had seen was the lead plane. The route it flew was a line that extended from Yoshimura's home in Nippori across Okubo and toward Nakano. My school was near the Shin-Okubo Station on the Yamate Line, so there was no doubt I was along that plane's route. The time was about the same. So it was easy to figure out that the owner of the big nose whom I had seen in that plane 63 years ago was none other than Lt. Richard Cole, the co-pilot.


On my latest trip to the U.S., I was able to determine from detailed American documents and Doolittle's memoirs that I had seen his plane right after it dropped its bombs.


Life spared by a dud bomb


I, who was born in 1933, am in the generation that actually experienced the fierce air bombing by American aircraft.  As kids, we sang spiritedly "Get out Nimitz, MacArthur," under the slogan of "American, English devils." The encounter with the first air strikes by Doolittle's Raiders was only the prelude of what was to come.


In 1943, I was evacuated to Fukui City, and again at the end of 1944, I went to live at Zentsuji in Kagawa Prefecture where my father a carrier officer was stationed with the Army. One time, when I was working on a mobilized labor team, I was strafed by bullets fired without mercy from a machine gun on a Grumman F6F fighter attached to a carrier. At the end of March 1945, I sent off my father, who had been called upon by Kochi Prefecture to prepare for battle with the American on mainland Japan. While returning to Fukui Prefecture, things did not turn out as I thought when the ferry was attacked by a Grumman aircraft. When I landed on Honshu, Kobe and Osaka within the space of four months had turned into a fiery plain.


Then, when I was in sixth grade, on the night of July 19th, only 27 days before the war ended, 127 B-29s under the command of General Curtis LeMay launched indiscriminate night fire-bombing in Fukui City.  With the noise of bomb exploding and the sky being lit up like day around my family's house, my mother, younger brother, sister and cousins – a dozen of us – fled to the paddies in the suburbs. When we took cover in a sweet potato field at the end of a farm road, the sounds of large bombs being dropped continued, and muddy water from the fields fell like rain water on our air-raid hoods. There was a moment when our lives were saved, when a new type of bomb containing napalm and called the M69 fell 300 meters away but did not explode. The M69s that fell were sometimes defective. It fell into the paddy and only sent up a giant pillar of mud.


When we returned to the city after dark, we saw burnt bodies on the road and in the doorways of burnt out homes. The moat of Fukui Castle was filled with the bodies of drowned men and women. That night, 93.2% of the approximately 100,000 population of Fukui City suffered from the bombings, and 96% had their homes destroyed by fire. The dead numbered approximately 1,800 and the wounded approximately 6,000. It was literally a scorched-earth policy.


My first experience with America thus was as a target for such indiscriminate bombing. I can never stop dwelling on it. In my recent travel, too, when I met the large-nosed Lt. Cole, I was again that child in the field.


The thorn must be removed


There were a total of approximately 510,000 non-combatants, in other words, civilians, killed by the indiscriminate night bombing raids against 67 cities across the country, including my own Fukui, and by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There has never been a proper ceremony for the repose of the souls between the two countries. I continued to be insistent about doing something about that. I recall asking myself whether I had the resolve or not. Even General LeMay himself, who was responsible for masterminding the tactic, made this remark after the war: "If America had lost the war, there is no doubt that I would have been tried as a war criminal."


The number of civilians who were indiscriminately bombed in Germany were much less than those in Japan, so why have Japan and the US yet to make their equivalent of a "Dresden Conciliation"? I thought deeply about the difference with Germany's case.


At the annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, the Enola Gay, which dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, is on display, and at the military aircraft museum in Dayton, Ohio, Bock's Car, the plane that dropped the other atom bomb on Nagasaki, is also on display – both completely restored and in shining condition. But if you look at the explanatory placard under the aircraft, in neither case will you find mentioned anywhere the facts that there were approximately 140,000 victims at Hiroshima and approximately 70,000 victims at Nagasaki. One cannot call what is written on each placard as fair.


In order to further solidify the friendly relations between Japan and the US, in which the activities ranging from the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq and the baseball successes of Matsui and Ichiro are become more and more common, we must make efforts to remove this "thorn" from the relationship. 


[Introduced by a mutual friend, the author arranged to meet Richard Cole in the United States] Having received an introduction from Mr. Yotaro Kobayashi [President of Fuji-Xerox], last September I called Mr. Cole to arrange a meeting. "I welcome it," he said, joking, "If you don't come quick, I'll be in Heaven." I said I wanted to come on April 10. He responded: "I understand. Just at that time, starting on April 13 and continuing for a week, there will be the annual reunion of Doolittle's Raiders, which has been going on since 1945. Why don't you come with me?" I accepted for there never would be another chance to join a victory-of-Japan event of this kind. Mr. Cole then said another unexpected thing:  "In nearby Fredericksburg, there is the Admiral Nimitz Museum. That is the place where he was born. I will take you there."


Admiral Nimitz immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack was picked by President Roosevelt over 28 others to command the Pacific fleet. Until the invasion of Japan, Chester Nimitz was the supreme commander of the US Navy, including the Marines. He was the fleet admiral who signed the surrender document on board the USS Missouri. He was the Nimitz that I as a boy over 60 years ago used to sing, "Get out, Nimitz, MacArthur!"


Nimitz respected Admiral Togo


With Mr. Cole driving, we went north by car for about 45 minutes to Fredericksburg, which is a town of former German immigrants. The main street is lined with German restaurants. The Admiral Nimitz Museum is right in the middle.  After the admiral died at the age of 81 in 1966, the hotel built by his grandfather was restored by local good-will contributions. In 1969, by resolution of the Texas state assembly, it was launched as the Admiral Nimitz Memorial War Museum, and now on nine acres of land, an exhibit area was built thanks to contributions from the elder President Bush, and it is managed by the State of Texas' Parks and Wildlife Division. In 2000, it was renamed the National Museum of the Pacific War. It is the only museum of its kind in the United States, in other words, a museum dedicated to the war between the US and Japan.


When I entered and looked around, I realized why Mr. Cole had wanted to take me there. First, there was a real B-25 on display. There was even a mannequin in the co-pilot's seat that resembled Mr. Cole. It was fitted with a dark brown flight suit of the kind I had seen Mr. Cole wearing.  There was neither a muffler nor goggles as another eyewitness had reported, and Mr. Cole said no such garment nor goggles were worn on his aircraft.


One more thing that Mr. Cole pointed out to me was that the contents of the exhibits were not tilted toward the United States but were balanced to give fair consideration to Japan, as well. The vice curator of the museum who came out to explain also stressed that the history and actions of both Japan and the United States in the war were given balanced treatment. From the over 18,000 documents, pictures, and artifacts in the collection, approximately 1,000 were on display on rotation.


One hundred years before when great sea battles were fought in the Japan Sea, Admiral Nimitz, then a young naval officer, visited Tokyo in a port call.  During his visit, he had the chance to directly talk with Admiral Togo.  I learned that he had great respect for Admiral Togo. About eight years before his death, Admiral Nimitz had contributed to a collection of essays on Feb. 1958 on restoring the battleship Mikasa. He contributed his fee for the article as the first contribution to the restoration fund. There also is a "peace garden" in the museum dedicated to the two admirals and built from a contribution from Japan. There is also a recreated Japanese building erected on the grounds that had served as a guest house during Admiral Togo's earlier command in Maizuru.


The aspect of America's defeat by Japan is also fairly recorded, and when one presses a button, a radio message from General Wainwright talking about the surrender of the US forces at Corrigador Island in the Phillipines. But I got the impression still that the museum belonged to the victorious country because of the display of a small Japanesesubmarine which was captured by American at Pearl Harbour made as part of campaign to sell war bonds in the 48 states, the proceeds of which went to repair damage from the attack of Pearl Harbor.


Bombardier was a missionary


Four days after meeting Mr. Cole in San Antonio, I headed to Mystic, Connecticut, to link up with the annual meeting of Doolittle's Raiders, in which Mr. Cole would participate. The beautiful port of Mystic is 160 kilometers south of Plymouth, Massachusetts, known as the landing place for the Mayflower. Stars and stripes flags welcoming the visitors flew everywhere in the town. I was escorted by the citizens welcoming committee and introduced as "the eight-year old Japanese boy who looked up and saw Mr. Cole's nose 63 years ago." In a little while, two actual B-25s flew over as a memorial flight. I was told that Mr. Cole had been the pilot in the lead plane. It was a beautiful sight, the bright and shiny silver fuselage of the B-25s flashing by in the sun.  I even now recognize that "menace," the fuselage that was camouflaged in khaki to disguise its appearance.


The oldest of the nine former crewmembers assembled there was 92, and the youngest was 85. They were accompanied by wives, or else children and grandchildren. The only one who came alone and remained most firmly in my mind was Mr. Cole. Painful to me were the presence of two of the nine who had been taken captive in China by the Japanese Army. Though they escaped being sentenced to a firing squad, they were moved over 40 months until the end of the war to different Japanese prison camps in Shanghai, Nanking and Beijing. Former Lt. Robert Hatch (85), the co-pilot of the number 16 plane (which bombed Nagoya) and former Lt. Chase Nielson [phonetic] (88) of the number 6 aircraft (bombed Kawasaki) were there.  Nielson's left leg was lame, so he walked with a cane. After the war, Nielson testified as a sold witness in court on the abusive treatment he and others experienced from the prison officers. But he now refused to talk about that experience. He just repeated in Japanese that he had "had enough, thank you." Hatch had been terribly tortured by the Kenpeitai troops after his capture, but he told me: "The worst the situation became for the Japanese side, the better our treatment got."


I, too, was called to the podium to say some words. When I spoke of my spoke of my experiences the hall was quiet. I told them that when I had seen Mr. Cole's big nose from the school yard, it was still a peaceful time. After that, I talked about how we received Gen. LeMay's nighttime firebomb attacks by B-29s, and how my life was spared when a dud bomb did not go off. I indicated how sorry I was for the terrible suffering Hatch and Nielson had received in Japanese prison camps. But I asked them not to forget our experiences at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I told them that after the war, we had become America's democratic partner. I ended my remarks by saying that we now can both enjoy sushi and hamburgers, and received a burst of applause. 


After the meeting, one old man came up to me to say, "It was good that you brought up Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am a survivor of Guadacanal. The Japanese soldiers were really brave." He shook my hand vigorously. He walked away before I could even ask his name.


Struck speechless by General LeMay's decoration


That evening, I asked Mr. Cole if there should not at least be mention of the number of dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the board that explained the Enola Gay and Bock's Car. I queried, indeed, from the point of view of the American tradition of fairness, wouldn't this be an obvious thing? Mr. Cole thought awhile about my proposal and replied this way: "I am not against what you just said. It is important to inform the younger generations about the horrors of war. Atomic weapons should never again be used. However, in the United States, there is a deep-seated view that the decision by Truman to drop the bombs contributed  [by shortening the war] to reducing the overall loss of lives on both sides. How do you compromise on that point."


Continuing, I brought up the so-called "Dresden conciliation." I asked if there shouldn't be a ceremony for the souls of the victims, removing the "thorn" that has existed from the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. How about President Bush making the first gesture by visiting Hiroshima and laying a wreath at Peace Memorial Park? I said that such would be possible since President Bush has the support of the conservatives in the United States. When I stated my case, Mr. Cole was speechless for a while. He eventually replied: "I would like to discuss your idea with Paul Tibbett (pilot of the Enola Gay) when I next meet him. He is the same age as I am. What he thinks is essential, since he and I did the same work in the war. But unless the Japanese side does the same thing as the President in laying a wreath, reaching closure with the past may not be possible."


What surprised Mr. Cole even more was my statement: "Actually, the Japanese government 41 years ago presented General LeMay with its highest decoration." He was dumbfounded, saying, "Is that so? It's hard to believe." When he asked me for what reason the general was so decorated, I replied, "The reason was for his training of the Air Self-Defense Force." Mr. Cole remained speechless.


After this exchange, I returned to Japan still fixed on this issue. I returned just as the news broke that anti-Japanese demonstrations were breaking out in China.



© Fumio Matsuo 2012