Events more than seven decades ago prompt this short Memorial Day meditation for Public Diplomacy.
On September 15, 1942, the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV-7), supporting the Guadalcanal campaign, was 170 miles southeast of San Cristobal Island in the Solomons. It was mid-afternoon on an active day of air operations — planes launched and planes recovered. At 14:44 hours, came the peril. A lookout called the alarm: “three torpedoes … three points forward of the starboard beam.”
The Japanese submarine I-19 had fired a salvo of six torpedoes at the American carrier. Three struck the Wasp, hitting the ship near the gasoline tanks and munitions stores. One hit the destroyer O’Brien (DD-415). Another hit the battleship USS North Carolina (BB-55).
It was a grim day for the Wasp. Fuel and weapons exploded. The fires overwhelmed the firefighting and damage control systems. The ship listed. Fuel from burst tanks and lines ran out onto the water and caught fire. Captain Forrest P. Sherman ordered “abandon ship” at 15:20 hours. Although 1,946 men were rescued, 336 were wounded in the action, and 193 died. Five more sailors were killed when I-19’s torpedo hit the North Carolina.
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When I was young, it was still common to encounter American veterans of the Pacific War who felt a hatred of Japan, developed in the brutal fighting on the sea and the islands. In his celebrated memoir of Peleliu and Okinawa, With the Old Breed, Eugene Sledge confessed that he was unable to shake off hatred of the Japanese after the war. It took a religious conversion for Louis Zamperini to recover emotionally from his years as a prisoner of war in Japan. In the 1990 movie Rising Son, Okinawa veteran “Gus Robinson,” played by Brian Denehy, refused to work for a Japanese company. The moving 2012 film with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, Railway Man, portrayed the long-lingering psychological scars borne by former British POWs who were slave laborers on the Thailand-to-Burma railway.
Many have commented that Americans have unsuitably short historical memories, not holding grudges long. Hatred of the British was palpable in the early decades of the American republic, but not much longer. In the years after the Vietnam War, emotions impeded the development of normal relations with Vietnam, but the bad feelings have largely dissipated, on our side at least.
In contrast, because of an unwillingness to own up to the brutality of its conquests in World War II, Japan’s relations with China, Korea, and Singapore are marked by tensions that seven decades later are still a legacy of the wartime hatred. There are many other cases of bitterness, suspicion, and distrust between nations and peoples who hold tightly to their memories of past wars.
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A little more than a year after the loss of the Wasp, depth charges from the USS Radford (DD-446) sank the I-19 with all hands.
When the I-19 left Japan on that final war patrol, however, 14 men who had participated in the attack on the Wasp were on leave, hospitalized, or transferred to other submarines. A postwar correspondence between these men and an American naval historian led, in time, to four of the Japanese submariners being invited to a gathering with veterans of the North Carolina on June 22-24, 1986.
Retired Navy Captain Ben Blee, who watched the attack on the Wasp from the deck of the USS Pensacola (CA-24), later served on the North Carolina. He related the debate among members of the USS North Carolina Association as they considered inviting crew members of the I-19 to join one of their reunions.
Yet, before any of us on either side could seriously consider meeting with our former adversaries, we needed to address gut-wrenching questions of principle. Foremost was the matter of loyalty to shipmates and others who gave their lives in that war. After all, nearly 200 Americans died and more than 400 were wounded, mostly on the Wasp, at the hands of the [Japanese submarine] I-19. Untold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Japanese were killed or wounded by the North Carolina’s guns. Could we, or they, in good conscience, make friends with some of the very men who had done the killing?
Having reflected on this questions countless times since the war, my own answer — and I am quite comfortable with it now — is that to go to our graves still seething with hatred would serve no good purpose. Our lifelong obligation to the dead will be far better honored if we do what we can to build harmony and goodwill in the world, in order that our children and grandchildren may be spared the violence and sacrifices suffered by our generation.
Captain Blee’s account of the reunion that included the Japanese submariners, “Enemies No More,” was published in the February, 1987, issue of the US Naval Institute Proceedings. It’s worth reading. Preparations were thorough. The schedule of events was carefully aimed to foster reconciliation and friendship. Keeping the media away was another decision that allowed the American and Japanese sailors to avoid posturing. Blee and his colleagues shaped the event so that respect for seamanship, daring, and skill on both sides was the theme that bridged the wartime hatred.
As he departed, one Japanese veteran said, “I humbly take off my cap before the broadmindedness and tolerance of the American spirit.”
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There is an enormous literature – literary, historical, psychological, and social science – on forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation between nations and societies. Every historical case is different. One side will be more reluctant, so gestures may not be reciprocal. Nationalism and politics can prolong distrust. Each circumstance calls for different approaches.
For Japan and Germany, the work of American cultural centers – first established during the postwar occupations to help build a new democratic culture in those two nations – and the U.S. Information Service laid important groundwork for friendship and reconciliation. We may generalize that the Public Diplomacy toolkit of exchanges, conferences, concerts, translations, broadcasts, films, plays, visitors, sister cities and sister provinces is available to all who hope to bring former enemies together.
Whether the initiative comes from government or from civil society, it begins with the sentiment Captain Blee so well expressed:
. . . to go to our graves still seething with hatred would serve no good purpose. Our lifelong obligation to the dead will be far better honored if we do what we can to build harmony and goodwill in the world, in order that our children and grandchildren may be spared the violence and sacrifices suffered by our generation.
Donald M. Bishop is the Bren Chair of Strategic Communications in the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Mr. Bishop served as a Foreign Service Officer – first in the U.S. Information Agency and then in the Department of State – for 31 years.