Japanese Officer Recalls Mission With Remorse

December 07, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

KOGANEI, Japan -- Half a century later, Lt. Cmdr. Zenji Abe's long-ago assignment brings a stream of American reporters and cameramen to his door.

They sip strong coffee and talk history amid the aircraft photos and World War II books that fill his modest 10th-floor apartment in this Tokyo suburb.

"I wasn't excited at that time, and today I don't feel that I did anything glorious for my country," he said.

"I was trained as a naval officer, and I knew what my duty was," he said. "But in those months, I felt that something very big was happening, that Japan was heading into an extremely dark time."

Over the next few years, he was to experience the darkness in very personal ways.

But on the morning of his assignment -- Dec. 7, 1941, in America and Dec. 8 here because of the time difference -- the prospects for his task were bright. A dense cloud blanket gave way to open sky and a line of surf breaking against Oahu Island two miles below.

Zenji Abe was a pilot, a 25-year-old Imperial Japanese Navy flight lieutenant. He had trained for the attack on Pearl Harbor for two months, sailed two weeks across the Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier Akagi and flown above dense clouds for two hours as part of the 163-plane second attack wave.

His job was to drop a single 551-pound bomb.

"Tora, tora, tora"

"Commander," the navigator's voice came through the pilot's headset, "Tora, tora, tora."

Tiger, tiger, tiger. The navigator had heard the fleet command reporting the coded message that the first wave of the attack on Pearl Harbor had succeeded.

No time now, though, to think about the first wave's success report. No time even to contemplate how close he was to the moment when he would plunge his Helldiver into a screaming descent.

"Almost as soon as I heard the navigator's words, anti-aircraft bursts were all around me, and right at my altitude," he recalled. "My first time to fly under fire, and it was like an electric shock down my back."

Moments later, as then-Lieutenant Abe eased out of the dive at 1,300 feet, the navigator would announce that their bomb was exploding against a disabled but still immense craft they had aimed for on Battleship Row.

The Imperial Navy would say later in a citation that the battleship he hit was the Arizona, already listing on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, sunk by an earlier wave of carrier-based torpedo planes and bombers. It became the tomb of 1,102 Americans.

That night, newsrooms in Tokyo were at work on stories that would occupy the entire four-page editions of the next day's papers.

The basic facts would be strikingly similar to those U.S. readers would find in their newspapers. But what President Franklin D. Roosevelt would call "a date which will live in infamy," the Asahi newspaper's opening sentence called "the most brilliant achievement in the history of warfare."

Only a single paragraph, buried deep in a smaller article, gave any clue of what was ahead.

"The navy's achievements have not secured Japan from air raids completely," the paragraph cautioned. "The Japanese people should keep on protecting themselves from air raids. The war has just started."

It was the only outward hint of what virtually all senior Japanese officers understood well -- that Japan faced defeat and probably devastation if its new, bigger and vastly richer enemy chose to retaliate.

Unlike Germans under Hitler, whose shrill rallies whipped up mass hysteria for his attacks, the few Japanese who responded publicly to the news greeted it with prayers to Hirohito, the god-emperor.

"Old women knelt outside the palace praying respectfully," Asahi reported. "Some students screamed 'banzai' as loud as they could."

Already at war for half a decade in Manchuria and China, ordinary Japanese were long used to heavy sacrifices: sons dying, food and cloth rationing, shortages of heating fuel. Few could respond to the news with much more than another day of making do.

Prisoner of war

As for Zenji Abe, the darkness he had felt coming down on his country back in 1941 touched him with personal firmness before war's end.

By Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese officers surrendered aboard the battleship Missouri, he had spent more than a year as an American prisoner after being captured on Guam.

That December he came home to a nation devastated and starving.

"You couldn't find anything but ashes and cinders," he said. "I was in shock. And I was physically weak -- four years of Spartan life at the naval officers' school, four years of a hard war, 15 months as a prisoner."

Now, after 46 years of peace, his first son is dead of cancer and hisfirst wife is dead of caring for the dying young man. Long retired at age 75, he says he finds "some happiness now" with a second wife. But he is troubled that his country refuses to look squarely at the history it sent him to help make.

"Japan is so determined to sweep history under the rug," he said, "that I never talked about World War II publicly until these last two years."

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