Issue 16.3: June/July 2013

Pearl Harbor Revisited

Story by Paul Wood


“History is written by the victor,” said Churchill (or somebody). In 1941, after its devastating air attack on US forces in Hawai‘i, Japan appeared destined to write the history of the Pacific War. Of course, that didn’t happen—and schoolkids like me learned an American version of the story of the Pearl Harbor attack: US ships were bobbing peacefully when the Japanese struck for no apparent reason.


Now a fascinating document has come to light, a book that stands to prove Churchill wrong. Published in 2007 in its original Japanese, it is the memoir of Mitsuo Fuchida, the commander and fighter pilot who designed and led the Pearl Harbor assault. For That One Day has sold at least a hundred thousand copies in the native land of its author. Now, co-translated by a resident of Hawai‘i Island, the book has become available for English-language readers. A retelling of history from the Japanese vantage point, it offers a different perspective on what led to the attack, including the transfer of the US war fleet from San Diego to Hawai‘i. In 1941 Japan apparently felt it could harass the United States for a couple of years and then force a favorable peace treaty. They were, we know, fatally wrong about this.


“A lot of my family members and friends were really upset when I started working on this translation,” says Waimea’s Douglas Shinsato. “After all, the Pearl Harbor attack killed over two thousand Americans. But Fuchida attacked because that was his duty.”


In fact, former Commander Fuchida, who died in 1976, exerts very little effort in defending his country. Far from it. He writes with admiration of his American opponents, of Doolittle’s surprise retaliation on Tokyo, also of Nimitz, Pruance, Halsey, of US daring (and luck) at Midway. Even more surprising, he castigates the blockheadedness of his own superior officers, especially Admiral Yamamoto (“mediocre”), and Japanese reluctance to embrace aerial warfare.


Fuchida realized well in advance of its official surrender that Japan would lose the war. And he was in Hiroshima the day before the United States dropped the atom bomb. Some duty called him away, or he would certainly have been annihilated. He returned the next day to witness hell on earth. When the emperor surrendered less than a week after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Fuchida heard the broadcast on the radio: “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable.” Fuchida wept. He thought, “I will stake my life for this single purpose.”


His next steps are the last you might expect from a Buddhist commander: He read the Bible, was baptized in 1950 and, on Thanksgiving in 1952, made his first speaking appearance in the United States, part of a Billy Graham crusade. Why the conversion to Christianity? Ironically, it was the story of an American, a crewman from Doolittle’s daring raid on Tokyo who was captured and who later converted and forgave his captors, that inspired Fuchida. For the remainder of his active life, he served as an evangelist advocating forgiveness and love and the cessation of all war. Of his final years he remarks, “I certainly have achieved the state of mind where there is no distinction between living and dying.”

Hawai‘i readers will be fascinated by his account of visits here to honor the war dead, including his own fallen airmen. He gives a quick account of the little-known “Ni‘ihau incident,” in which the stranding of a Zero pilot on that island resulted in a bizarre double suicide. He tells of meeting his old enemies, Doolittle, Nimitz, Eisenhower and ex-President Truman, who said, laughing, “Captain, as far as Pearl Harbor is concerned, we were both guilty.” Fuchida resists any interpretation of this remark. But his extraordinary life brings to mind another quotation by Churchill (or somebody): “When you’re going through hell, keep going.”