Fifty years after trying to kill one another in war, a kamikaze pilot and the American sailors who had shot him down embraced, exchanged mementos and forgave.
“The enemy yesterday can be your friend today,” 71-year-old Kaoru Hasegawa told the surviving crew of the USS Callaghan on Saturday. “At certain times, man has to fight against each other and nations against nations and peoples against peoples, but when the war is over, they become friends.”
Hasegawa, who spent a year researching war records to find the men who had shot him down and then plucked him from the water, spoke slowly through an interpreter. When he had finished, about 100 gray-haired survivors of the U.S. destroyer applauded.
“To come all the way from Japan to do this,” said former gunner Leo Jarboe, “means a lot.”
The emotional reunion came on an ominous anniversary.
On July 29, 1945, two months after Hasegawa had been shot down, another kamikaze pilot made it past the gunners in a bomb-laden biplane and sank the 2,000-ton ship.
It was the last of 32 ships sunk in the last battle of World War II - the 11-week invasion of Okinawa.
The sinking, only 45 minutes before the ship was to be relieved and sent home, killed 47 of the Callaghan’s 325-man crew.
“Well, the war ended 50 years ago, and I think it is time to put all that stuff behind us,” said Robert Thatch, who was a 20-year-old boilermaker on the Callaghan a half-century ago. “I believe in forgiveness.”
Hasegawa, now president of a large paper manufacturing company in Osaka, was commanding three “Ginga” bombers on May 25, 1945, against the U.S. task force bombarding an island east of Okinawa.
The other planes either were turned back or shot down. But Hasegawa’s craft, armed with a 1,760-pound bomb, pressed on, drawing a bead on the cruiser San Francisco to make a suicide run.
The battleship West Virginia began firing as Hasegawa’s plane started its approach. The Callaghan gunners whipped their guns around and joined in as the bomber crossed the Callaghan’s bow.
“Within less than 30 seconds, it was all over,” Thatch said. “We had him in the water.”
Boats were sent from the Callaghan to pick up survivors - a standard practice for friend or foe. Hasegawa was brought aboard unconscious. He said Saturday he had expected to be executed.
Hasegawa awakened on the Callaghan and was transferred to the battleship New Mexico, where he tried to kill himself before being sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Hawaii.
Last week, Hasegawa visited the Navy Memorial in Washington. He laid a wreath there and donated $10,000 to the memorial fund in appreciation to the Callaghan’s crew.