Zenji Abe

Zenji Abe (Lem Robson / S&S)

Zenji Abe

Zenji Abe (Lem Robson / S&S)

Yoshio Shiga

Yoshio Shiga (Lem Robson / S&S)

Lifting his torpedo bomber off the deck of the carrier Hiryu before sunrise, Lt. Cmdr. Hirata Matsumura was certain he would never see dusk.

Matsumura led a skytrain of nine warplanes toward the American anchorage in the natural basin called Pearl Harbor, surrounded by 20 others who carried shafts of oxygen-propelled explosives off the Soryu and Akagi. He was fronted by high-level bombers and covered by a droning flock of darting Zero fighters.

Dawn sunlight flashed off his wing tips as he moved along, a sight Matsumura assured himself he would never savor again.

It was Dec. 7, 1941 on American calendars, but Dec. 8 in Japan. Back at Yokosuka, Matsumura had left his wife and infant daughter fingernail clippings and a lock of his hair. These were mementoes that would be placed beside his portrait in a family shrine.

With both dedication and indifference, Matsumura was willing to die.

"I was determined I would never come hack. If my plane was damaged, I would crash it into an American ship."

But Matsumura would live to embrace grandchildren. He would exult in life and yet feel guilt because his ashes were not beside those of classmates and comrades.

Ahead of Matsumura that morning, Lt. Yoshio Shiga exulted in the response of the peerless Zero, which could fly lightly over 1,000 miles, fight for 38 minutes and fly back easily with fuel to spare.

Without armor, it was light and fast. Later in a long war, firepower tore easily through the Zero, transforming it from soaring silver into dead, falling iron.

But this did not matter to Shiga, a warrior committed to mission, commanding the entire wave of first-strike fighters off the carrier Akagi.

He and his fellow pilots saw themselves as knights without armor.

Shiga discarded any thought of life or death. "I did not care. My concern was to win or lose the war. I would just fight."

Purge a pathway for the bombers, he had been told. Formidably outnumbered, Shiga would lead his Zeroes in a talons-spread assault on Hickam and Bellows Field, blasting grounded American fighters before pilots could sprint to cockpits. All would depend on the element of easy surprise.

Shiga thought of other lives, not his — those who flew the torpedo planes and slow bombers. If he failed, they would be picked off like game birds.

Shiga neither failed nor died, surviving with Matsumura to become a swivel-chair elder and grieve for the young lives that never grew old — as would Zenji Abe, who would come out of war as a reflective historian.

"How foolish of Japan to fight a war and be defeated, and to lose so much life. Look at all we have gained in peace," he said.

An Imperial Navy Academy alumnus like Matsumura and Shiga, Abe gave no thought to peace as he was roused at midnight from his bunk on the Akagi to man a Type 97 bomber that carried one bomb — a single 500-pound pod of explosive.

Around him, 59 other aircraft were being stocked with explosives. There was no excitement or song, as would be shown in fanciful films that recreated the attack. Abe felt only a sense-of-duty response.

"I wasn't sure I would return alive, but I felt no fear."

Abe thought little of death because he had lived close to it for months, watching five out of 24 young pilots killed as they practiced torpedo runs in Japan's Inland Sea. He knew it was the fatigue of constant training, much of this in foul weather that would have grounded commercial aircraft — no rest and few navigational aids. Survivors flew only on instinct and judgment, with the skill of experience.

It was all for something, Abe told himself. In a few hours, jubilant master planners in Tokyo would lift toasts, then proceed with the well-plotted seizure of oil fields in the Dutch East Indies and the wealth on other ground.

Japan would no longer suffer a poverty of natural resources, compelled to accept a thin and insulting dole from America and Britain. No punitive embargoes would choke Japan's industries or stall her southward advance.

The disabled U.S. Navy would not thrust in an interfering hand.

Taking off, Abe weighed chances of one-blow success, wondering how much one bomb would buy. He led the second echelon of 9 high-level bombers and knew the well-practiced drill — the torpedo bombers would attack first, breaking the hulls of American battleships anchored along Ford Island, followed by the bombers that would amputate the superstructures.

Five two-man submarines, little more than glorified suicide craft, would do the piecework on any remains.

But ahead of the battleships, there was another priority target — the carriers believed to be on the other side of the island. Japanese planners were about to prove, far ahead of Americans, that naval aviation would win maritime battles — not the ponderous warships that turned broadside to batter each other with big guns.

Beneath all three officers and many others, dense ocean gave way to lapping surf and white beach, then green coastal hills and the long channel into the harbor.

Passing the landmark called Diamond Head, Matsumura felt a stir of nostalgia and pushed it away.

There had been that wonderful world trip in 1936, just after his graduation, when the cruiser Yagumo stopped in Baltimore and New York. Matsumura had traveled to Washington, savoring the gift-from-Japan cherry trees along the Tidal Basin.

"America was wonderful and I liked Americans — friendly, open-hearted and very frank. I never thought or imagined we would go to war." On the way back, there had been Hawaii. Diamond Head had been magnificent then. Now it was only a far-below milestone on the route to a war.

Shiga looked down and saw parked American fighters, as helpless as nesting sparrows, about to be savaged by descending hawks.

"Hickam Field was sleeping calmly. It was very peaceful."

All three were gravely disappointed to find no carriers among the behemoths below.

There wasn't a visible enemy fighter or a puff of anti-aircraft fire. Nothing — total surprise.

Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida, leading the overall mission, fired a flare to signal other aircraft to proceed with the layered attack plan. When the plane closest to his didn't waggle its wings in response, the flustered Fuchida assumed his flare hadn't been seen and fired another — a signal misread by the whole assault group. Two flares meant the Americans were alert and ready by their guns. Forget the slow master plan and descend en masse, attacking as a combined force.

Shiga's strafers struck hard, raking the long expanse of airfield and taxiway, blowing away a few fighters that tried to struggle up and B-17 bombers that were roosting outside hangars. He flew into the glittering teeth of ground fire, knowing that American sparrows would turn into falcons if they got at slower planes in the assault force.

"I prayed the torpedo bombers would quickly shoot their torpedoes. Those planes were very slow. I prayed quick, quick, quick."

Shiga was astonished by the fast response of American gunners, many of whom fought in their underwear. Tracers streaked at the attackers and Shiga saw one, a dive bomber over the harbor, stung by fatal fire. It crashed into a moored warship — the first loss in a long war, Shiga noted.

"I cried in my mind."

But he need not have worried about the bombers and torpedo planes, which had the sky to themselves and easily unloaded their explosive freight.

The line of warships was sundered by leaping flame and black smoke flowed in a southward drift.

The strike that was supposed to be launched in neat phases was a tangle of aircraft — dive bombers mixed with torpedo planes and the slow, exacting Type 97s towed by Abe.

Denied a carrier, Matsumura had doubled: back over the channel, expecting intense fire from both ships and gun pits ashore. But if any was aimed at him, he failed to notice. Intent only on toggling his torpedo at a target, he selected a "large, Maryland-class battleship," dropping to 65 feet to give his, projectile careful purchase and soften the impact that could sink it.

Would long months of costly experiment pay off? As Japan and the United States moved into close-to-war crisis and the Pearl Harbor strike was planned, there was open doubt that torpedoes would run through the shallows off, Ford Island.

Researchers at the Yokosuka base had fitted them with fins like those on a tarpon, hoping to steady the propelled explosive on a straight course.

Around Matsumura, torpedoes were exploding down the anchored line of outer battleships, the Oklahoma and West Virginia, before others that were shielded from torpedoes but blazing from bomb hits. Matsumura felt his torpedo drop loose and kept his eyes on a straight, true wake as it sped toward the broad hull.

Then he was high and turning eastward and his navigator, Takeo Shiro, told him he had scored a dead-center hit. Matsumura saw the geyser that was "like dark blood from a ruptured artery.

This. was the West Virginia, whose captain. had been wounded by bomb fragments and was dying on his bridge.

Abe, turning over the inner line of battleships, was well aware that he was being shot at. Gusts of impact rocked his bomber. He has no orderly memory of what happened, yet recalls being coldly exact as he chose a large iron nugget for himself — the bridge of what he thought was the Arizona.

Abe felt his plane lighten as his single bomb fell free.

Was his the bomb that shattered boiler and magazine, raising the spectacular splash of smoke seen in grainy newsreels? Abe, on a never-look-back mission, heard only the ecstatic, single-word testimony of backseater Chiaki Saito: 'Hit!"

Avoiding the sudden pullup that could blacken his senses and cause him to crash, Abe kept on his straight-ahead course. When the dark carnage was far behind him, he collected his follow-along flight. One plane was missing.

Shiga's war was over in 20 minutes, but he sorrowfully counted two missing lives. The pilot of one Zero had been clawed down by ground fire, crashing his crippled aircraft into a hangar. Another collided with an American plane trying to take off from Bellows Field.

Matsumura lost nobody, but felt helpless as his flight swung over the outer mouth of the basin. American destroyers were vengefully savaging the miniature submarines and Matsumura had nothing, neither bomb nor torpedo, to help them.

He could only lift a sad salute and fly back to the Hiryu.

Matsumura was both chagrined and grateful for the feel of life, pledging to die another day.

Abe and his comrades returned to the Akagi, somber because lives close to theirs had been forfeited. No more would die that day. .

Higher heads, cautious because American carriers were loose, ruled out a second strike.

Shiga never saw another day of combat. Posted back at Yokosuka, he tested improved models of the Zero and helped develop the sophisticated Raiden and Shiden fighters, late-in-the-war entries that failed to stop the American bomber offensive on. Japan. Now 77, he is president of a firm that manufactures police gear.

Abe fared. far worse, losing nine pilots during a sham assault on the Aleutians that was meant to lure Americans away from an attack on Midway. It did not. The Japanese lost four carriers at Midway and Abe counted far fewer classmates and career-long friends after the battle.

He was captured by U.S. Marines and imprisoned on Guam until after the war. Abe would later lose a young son to cancer and a wife who died of illness and grief.

Matsumura's life was saved by a killing disease.

On Rabaul, a Japanese base in the Bismarck Archipelago, he fell sick with what he thought was a chest cold. Doctors in Japan told him he had tuberculosis, confining him to a hospital until 1948.

Had he stayed in the war, Matsumura reflects, he would have been compelled to join Squadron 653, which flew Zeroes stripped of guns and loaded with explosive — motor-powered bombs built to crash the long decks of American carriers. Not a man in the unit survived.

When Matsumura came out of the hospital, still weak and sick, he saw a city full of foreign uniforms. He again felt overdrawn on life.

"I wanted to die then, as I should have before."

But he went to work for the Japan Public Housing Corporation, helping to rebuild his conquered and destitute country.

Shiga and Matsumura will stay in Japan as veterans of both nationalities gather at Pearl Harbor to mark the fifth decade since the first shots. Abe leaves in late November, first to be filmed by NBC for the "Today" show, then to meet Dec. 6 with veterans and historians. One, Walter Lord, wrote "Day of Infamy," considered by many the definitive work on the Pearl Harbor attack.

Abe may or may not go to the Dec. 7 ceremony at the Arizona Memorial, in company with President Bush. And, he has nothing to say about the feelings of Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi, who said the Japanese should stay home unless they publicly apologize for the long-ago assault.

Traveling to Texas last year for the opening of Nimitz Memorial Hall, Abe met retired Brig. Gen. Kenneth Taylor, one of two pilots who managed to get into the air to oppose the raid. Between them, they dropped seven Japanese planes — possibly the one missing from Abe's flight.

Color prints of blazing planes falling before Taylor's guns were thrust at Abe. At Taylor's side, he signed them all, buying a square meter of Stonewall, Texas and a certificate naming him an Honorary Longhorn.

The 75-year-old Abe thinks often of that turn-of-history day, but doesn't dwell on it.

"It was only a rapidly turned page in my life, with darker chapters to follow."

On Pearl Harbor Day as on all days, Matsumura will ponder painful memories.

"I feel sorry now to have lived to the age of 78. This was an unthinkable thing. I feel sorrow for those who died."

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