WWII airmen get annual honor at bomber crash site in Japan
By GARY BROWN | The Repository, Canton, Ohio | Published: June 15, 2020
(Tribune News Service) – The memory of Cpl. John William "Bill" Cameron, an Army airman from Stark County, lingers 75 years after he was lost his life over Japan during the last days of World War II.
Cameron was a gunner on a B-29 during a bombing raid on June 19 and June 20, 1945.
His plane went down during the 15-hour mission from Guam to bomb the industrial city of Shizuoka, Japan, according to his nephew, Ted Hall.
"There were 137 B-29s on this raid from the U.S. Army Air Force 314th Bombardment Wing, with the 29th Bomb Group," Hall said. "There was a firebombing attack and most of the city was destroyed with an estimate of 2,000 people killed."
Hall said 135 B29s returned to Guam after the raid. Two were lost when they crashed after colliding during the bomb run.
"Bill Cameron was one of the 23 servicemen that were killed in the crash."
Cameron, who had gone to Lincoln High School in Canton, joined the military following his graduation in 1944.
"He was a kind and devoted student and family member," said Hall, who never had a chance to meet his uncle. "He did very good in school, but like so many in the 1940s, he wanted to get in on the fighting and do his part in winning World War II."
Cameron, a waist gunner on his B-29 bomber, had flown only a handful of missions before his fateful trip.
The details of Cameron's loss played out on the pages of The Canton Repository in a series of items published in the newspaper.
Initially, on July 25, 1945, Cameron was listed as "Missing In Action" in the Repository's Honor Roll column. The War Department had notified Cameron's mother by letter that his plane had not returned to Guam.
Cameron's father, the superintendent of the open hearth at Republic Steel in Canton, had died of cancer at 43 in October of the previous year.
"The last time Bill was home on leave was for his father's funeral," Hall said.
A brief item published in the paper on May 10, 1946, changed Cameron's status to "Killed In Action."
It was not until three years later that the remains of Cameron and his comrades were memorialized.
"The crews were listed as MIA until after the war, when it was discovered that their bodies had been cremated and buried in urns with dog tags and hidden in the mountainside area of Shizuoka City," Hall said. "This was done by Fukumatsu Itoh, a devout Japanese Buddhist. Mr. Itoh, upon reaching the crash site, initially discovered two of the American airmen still alive, but they died shortly after his arrival."
Hall said that the man who found and cremated the bodies "was condemned by the people in his community for his act of compassion." But his act led to the bodies of the airmen being laid to rest.
"Identifications were made after the war when the remains and dog tags that were found," said Hall. "The ashes from both crews are buried in Louisville, Ky., at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
"The service was held on March 11, 1949, and Bill's mother, my grandmother, Bernice Cameron; my late mother and father, Harry and Laura Hall; and my brother, John Hall, who was almost 2 years old then, attended the service. The late Rev. John Barker from Calvary Presbyterian Church in Canton, also attended with the family."
It was decades before the family could come to terms with Cameron's tragic fate.
"When I was growing up, the death of Bill was not discussed at length until we made a trip to Zachary Taylor Cemetery in 1978," Hall recalled. "The emotional wounds for my grandmother, Bernice Cameron, were deep, having lost her husband and son both within a year."
The "Blackened Canteen"
Hall's son, Peter Hall, completed extensive research in 2013 about the crash. He found that on every June 20 a memorial ceremony is held atop Mount Shizuoka.
"This memorial service began shortly after the war when Mr. Itoh erected two memorials, one for the citizens of Shizuoka City who died in the bombing raid and one for the 23 airmen killed in the two B-29 airplanes," said the elder Hall.
Hall's son also discovered that Itoh found a canteen at the crash site. This "Blackened Canteen," Hall said, "has become both a remembrance of the crash and the center of a memorial service" still being held decades after the crash.
Each year, Itoh would hold a prayer service at the crash site. He would pour bourbon whiskey from the canteen onto the two memorials in honor of all who were killed -- Japanese civilians and American servicemen -- during the 1945 bombing raid.
Hall said that a Japanese man who was 12 years old at the time of the bombing, Dr. Hiroya Sugano, "witnessed Mr. Itoh's display of courage and benevolence, and was given the 'Blackened Canteen' in 1972 before Mr. Itoh's death."
Sugano continued to coordinate the annual memorial service on Mount Shizuoka, which is attended by Japanese and American military personnel and Buddhist clergy.
In 2009, Sugano and the late Jerry Yellen, a World War II veteran who wrote a book about the bombing run entitled "The Blackened Canteen," dedicated an additional memorial on the top of Mount Shizuoka. The monument carries the names of the 23 servicemen lost in the two B-29s.
"Dr. Sugano also coordinated a similar 'Blackened Canteen' memorial service every Dec. 6th for the past 19 years at the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, as a part of the annual Pearl Harbor remembrance," Hall said. "This canteen has become a symbol of the healing after World War II by the Japanese and Americans, as it represents international friendships and commemorating human decency and respect."
A family remembers
The ceremonies have eased the family's mourning through the years, but they have not filled the loss.
"From our family's perspective, we wondered if it was Bill's canteen," explained Hall. "Or what if he was one of the two men Itoh found alive? We'll never know."
Part of the tragic nature of the crash was that it occurred only weeks before the end of the war.
At the same time, members of Cameron's family feel honored that the memory of the crash is kept alive.
"With all the struggle and strife in the world, the whole purpose of this is to promote understanding," said Hall. "There needs to be forgiveness. There needs to be acceptance. And there needs to be peace."
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