Japanese village honors US airmen killed in WWII
Buddhist priests pray in front of a memorial at Seiganji temple in Ora, Japan on March 20, 2013. The memorial was dedicated to 23 WWII servicemembers who lost their lives after crashing near the temple Feb. 10, 1945.
ORA, Japan — Many Japanese would prefer not to dredge up the painful history of World War II, especially the American bombers that rained fear and destruction from above. But a small rural community is not only dredging up those memories, it is honoring the crews of two B-29s that crashed here.
“Once we were enemies and now we are friends,” Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Allen told a somber ceremony Wednesday at the Seiganji temple, during which a stone cenotaph engraved with the names of the 23 men of “Slick’s Chicks” and “Deaner Boy” was unveiled.
The B-29s were part of a massive U.S. air raid that crippled a Nakajima Aircraft Co. factory in nearby Ota on Feb. 10, 1945. The planes were bounced by Japanese fighters shortly after the raid, causing them to collide in mid-air and plummet to the ground in heaps of fiery, twisted metal.
The crews remains were cremated by the Japanese and held in the now-abandoned temple near the crash site until after WWII, when they were exhumed and returned to the U.S.
Nobuo Kizaki, the temple’s 80-year-old chief priest, remembers the fiery crash well.
“I felt sorry for them,” he said, acknowledging that not all Japanese shared such sympathy for their country’s enemies.
“The feelings [among the Japanese] varied back then,” Kizaki said. “But now we can share the same feelings of peace.”
For WWII researcher Isao Arai, it’s not hard to feel sympathy for the men who died: “Think about it as if it were your family.”
Arai, 78, didn’t witness the crash here but saw another B-29 go down in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1945 when he was a boy. Since retiring, he has devoted much of his time to researching B-29 crashes in Japan with the aim of helping family members of the deceased American fliers.
“(They) want to visit the crash site but they don’t know where it is or how to find it,” Arai said. “I want to tell people that there is a person who can research and may be able to help you find out what happened to your father or grandfather.”
Nancy Samp, who attended the memorial dedication, is among them, even though she doesn’t hold much hope that she’ll ever find the remains of her father, 2nd Lt. Robert Jeffries.
The 27-year-old father of two was a B-29 bombardier who was part of the attack on the Nakajima plant in Ota. Ten of the Tinian-based B-29s that participated in that raid never returned, and Jeffries' plane went down over the Pacific Ocean.
Samp, 70, of Oceanside, Calif., also decided to come even though her father was not a member of either of the crews that were being memorialized.
She found the ceremony, which she addressed, comforting.
“It meant something that (the Japanese) acknowledged it,” said Samp, whose father’s death profoundly changed her life.
Her mother was so grief-stricken that she abandoned Samp and her younger sister in an orphanage in Michigan. Samp said her paternal grandparents became recluses after their son’s death but would bring their granddaughters home every Sunday for dinner. Samp’s grandfather would take out a book to teach the girls how to read, having them recite four words over and over again: “Japan is an island.”
“He didn’t want us to forget our father died in Japan,” Samp said, adding that the memorial in Ora “would be something my grandparents would be really happy about.”
Stars and Stripes Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.