Pearl Harbor survivor John A. Rauschkolb, 85, right, met former Japanese naval aviator Takeshi Maeda, 85, Sunday for the first time at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort. CLICK FOR LARGE
WWII adversaries meet face-to-face
On Dec. 7, 1941, 20-year-old Japanese Imperial Navy navigator Takeshi Maeda guided his Kate bomber to Pearl Harbor and fired a torpedo that helped sink the USS West Virginia.
In Pearl Harbor, U.S. Navy signalman John Rauschkolb, also 20, stood on the West Virginia's port side as a series of Japanese planes pummeled the battleship with five to seven torpedoes and two bombs. The West Virginia lost 106 men in the assault.
This week Maeda and Rauschkolb, now both 85, met face to face for the first time.
"He may have been shooting at me," Rauschkolb said as he shook Maeda's hand at a symposium on the 65th anniversary of the attack.
The Japanese veteran gripped Rauschkolb's arm with his left hand and briefly hesitated, as if he was searching for the right words. Then he said, "I'm sorry."
Overcoming the violent legacy of Dec. 7, Japanese who bombed Pearl Harbor and American servicemen who survived the attack are coming together in similar settings during a five-day series of Pearl Harbor attack anniversary observations in Hawaii.
A significant share of veterans from both countries say they respect each other as professional military men who fought for their countries. Now in their 80s and 90s, they don't want to live burdened with hatred and want to die with peace in their hearts.
Rauschkolb, who had to swim under burning fuel to escape bullets being fired at him from a Japanese Zero fighter, admitted "it's difficult to accept" shaking hands with someone who fired a torpedo at his ship.
But he never believed, even during World War II, in hating his Japanese foes.
Don Stratton, a USS Arizona sailor who suffered burns on 60 percent to 70 percent of his body, said embracing the Japanese who carried out the attack is out of the question.
"I don't stand beside them. I don't sit beside them. I don't shake hands with them," Stratton said. "There's a thousand men out there on that ship that lost 65 years of their life and I'm sure they would not shake hands with them."
Maeda has been trying to make amends since 1991, when he and a few other Japanese Pearl Harbor veterans flew to Hawaii for the 50th anniversary of the attack.
He's since become friends with dozens of Pearl Harbor survivors. When in Honolulu, Maeda always pays his respects at Punchbowl -- the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific -- where his friend Richard Fiske, another USS West Virginia survivor, was buried two years ago.
"War is between countries. It has nothing to do with us as individuals. We have no quarrel," Maeda said. "So when the war ends, of course you should make up."
Japanese dive bomber pilot Zenji Abe, 90, led the push for reconciliation when he visited Hawaii with Maeda and other Japanese veterans in 1991. He said he wanted to apologize for bombing Oahu before the Japanese government declared war.
Japan's aviators took off from their aircraft carriers that morning believing their government had already delivered the declaration, Abe said. Striking before doing so was dishonorable and went against Japanese traditions of "bushido" or the way of the samurai, Abe said.
"Even if you are executing an early morning attack, you may not hurt your opponent if he is sleeping. You must make him stand and then go at him with your sword. This is bushido," Abe said. The assault "violated our nation's ideals. I felt bad," he said.
To atone, Abe asked Fiske -- the West Virginia survivor who also became Maeda's friend -- to place two roses on the USS Arizona Memorial on his behalf each month.
Fiske continued the ritual for 12 years until he died in 2004.
John Di Virgilio, an expert on the Japanese aerial attack and a liaison between Japanese and American veterans, said about one-third of veterans in both countries have no interest in reconciling.
Another third have no problem doing so while another third are willing if someone mediates, Di Virgilio said.
Once they do, the results can be powerful, even cathartic. Veterans have told Di Virgilio they feel as though stones are lifted off their chests when they embrace former enemies.
"We are old now, and we just can't go on in life carrying that burden," said Herb Weatherwax, an Army soldier who lived through the Oahu attack and went on to fight the German army during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
"At least in my case," he said, "when I get those things removed from me, I feel free."