Etajima—Japanese Naval Academy
10 April 1934
“Mr. Watson, come quick!”
Lieutenant Commander James Watson grinned at the rather foolish joke of his old friend, Cecil Stanford, Lieutenant Commander, Royal Navy, as the two old friends raced toward each other and, in rather uncharacteristic manner, at least for a British officer, embraced heartily, slapping each other on the back, exchanging greetings, “Damn good to see you, old chap,” “My God, man, is that gray in your hair?”
James Watson stepped back slightly, hands still on the shoulders of his friend, looking into his eyes, delighted to be reunited with a comrade of old. The last time they had seen each other was right after the Armistice when their office was shutting down and James was returning back to the States. They had worked together in London during the war, a joint British/American code-breaking team, working on German U-boat signals and having precious little luck at their tasks.
And now sixteen years had passed.
Cecil had not changed all that much. Gray around the temples, with blue eyes that still sparkled with delight. Nose a bit swollen and reddened, evidence of his predilection to good single malt scotch (if he could find it here), but still stiff-backed, trim, double-breasted civilian suit looking a bit out of place, made incongruous by the open-faced black robes and hood dangling from his back that denoted an Oxford education.
James was feeling slightly uncomfortable this warm spring day with the high-button collar and dress whites of a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy, but formalities had to be observed, especially on this visit to what was the Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima, in Hiroshima Bay.
His entry onto the academy grounds had been greeted with all the proper formalities, honor guard to greet him. He had to climb the bridge of Chiyoda—a dispatch ship from the great Russo-Japanese war, incongruously set on firm soil at the edge of the parade ground—receive formal salutes, then was led to the office of the admiral-president of the academy who, in halting English, welcomed him “aboard” and thanked him for his willingness to address the cadets on American naval doctrine post–Washington Treaty.
The speech was a “cook up,” the usual platitudes about bonds of friendship, but he had been cautioned by his superiors to keep it brief, Japan was still deeply rankled about the 5-5-3 provision that limited the number of her capital ships to 60 percent of those of either England or America. The speech, at least, was a task for which he felt ill suited. His ship, Oklahoma, was docked in Yokohama on a courtesy call, and at the reception that evening his captain had revealed that James spoke fairly good Japanese, mentioned the academy at Etajima a few minutes later, and the “hint” to their Japanese hosts could not be politely refused. Though it was a bit more than a “setup” for James. His captain had been under orders to pull off the arrangement, that it might be worth the effort to have an American naval officer visit the academy and have a look around, perhaps hook up with an old English friend teaching there.
The speech was for later today. At the moment James was focused on Cecil and like old friends reunited they compared notes, exchanged names of old friends, some greeted with a sad shaking of heads about the mortality of all, and generally delighted in seeing a beloved friend once more after so many years. James did not pull out a photo of his wife. Another bond was both had endured tragedy, Cecil losing his family in an automobile accident right after the war, James, his only son to leukemia but a year back.
“So you’re teaching here now?” James asked, and with a touch of humor tapped the traditional mortar board hat of an English don. How incongruous, he thought, even as he spoke. Regalia of an English professor, offset against the background of flowering cherry trees and the white-caped waters of Hiroshima Bay beyond.
“Retired from His Majesty’s Service, you know,” Cecil said, “but this posting came up just as I was caught in the naval cutbacks, and friends at the Admiralty arranged it. Curious assignment, I can assure you. Lot to learn about these people. A lot to learn, indeed, even as I teach these lads proper King’s English and jump down on their predilection for Yankee slang. Blast all, but I wish films had remained silent. Your movies are quite the rage here in Japan, and they are all trying to imitate your gangster talk.”
James smiled and didn’t ask anymore. Just as his own visit was so “casually” arranged to this place, he could sense that there was more behind Cecil’s posting than met the eye.
“Glad though you got here early as I requested, once I learned you were coming,” Cecil continued enthusiastically, “give us a chance to talk before your speech, and also for you to have a look around before scooting off.”
“My ship departs day after tomorrow. I’ll have to catch the train back in the morning.”
Cecil looked past James and smiled.
“Ah, here’s one of the things I was hoping you’d get to see,” and Cecil gestured across the parade ground to an approaching column of cadets of the academy.
A chanting in the distance interrupted their reunion, growing louder, two columns of Japanese naval cadets, dressed in fatigue blues, came marching onto the parade ground at the double, running in that curious short step that seemed unique to the Japanese. White head bands adorned with the red circle of the rising sun were tied around the foreheads of some, while others wore the standard low-peaked cap.
“Glad you got here early as I requested,” Cecil announced. “Damn all, James, watch this; it’s an eye-opener.”
“What is going on, Cecil? They sound like a pep squad for a football game.”
“You know, our rugby.”
“Silly game you play. All that whistle blowing and stopping and regrouping. Have at it, by God, until one side or the other caves.”
“So that’s what we’re going to see?”
“Just watch. I really wanted you to see this. It reveals a lot about these chaps. They call it “botashi.”
He thought about the word for a moment, then shook his head.
“They claim I know Japanese, but I’m not that good yet.”
“Just watch for a moment.”
The two columns approached the parade ground, each several hundred strong, and at mid-field separated. There was a momentary pause, the two sides lining up in block formations, bowing formally to each other. They about-faced, then went to the opposite sides of the field.
At each end of the field a pole was going up, atop each pole a red pennant.
“Now watch carefully,” Cecil said, his voice edged with excitement.
The two sides gathered around the opposite poles; there seemed to be little debate, each side had one or two in charge, barking orders that James could not hear clearly.
On each side the teams seemed to divide into two groups, a couple hundred stepping forward a few paces and lining up, a hundred or so staying back, gathering tightly around the pole with the pennant atop.
“Get ready,” Cecil whispered, “this is all going to happen dreadfully fast.”
A whistle blew. James could not see from where, and it was on.
A thunderous shout went up from both sides and the forward teams charged with mad abandon, wild shouts, those with the headbands in the lead, waving their arms wildly, pointing to the other side. The field was perhaps two hundred yards across. Their speed was building with the charge, and James inwardly winced. These kids were about to run smack into each other.
He could feel the tension with Cecil, whose hand was now resting on his shoulder.
The two lines hit, and went right through each other. There were a couple of tackles, blows exchanged, but nearly all of them ran right past each other as if they didn’t even exist.
What the hell kind of offensive rush was this? James wondered, but he was now so focused on the game he didn’t have time to analyze.
Passing through each other, the offensive squads, with wild screams, charged at the poles of their opponents. The boys who were now obviously the defenders braced for the onslaught. Some even climbed on the shoulders of others, ringing the pole adorned with the pennant.
At nearly the same instant, the offensive charges of both sides collided with the defenders.
There was no strategy here. No feints, no flanking maneuvers, no organized squads moving to left or right, no diversions, just a head-on assault. The charges on both sides swarmed up onto the defenders.
And James could see there were no rules. Kicks, punches, judo throws, karate blows were the order of the day. Cadets with bloody faces staggered out of the attack even as their comrades, wild with excitement, pressed in. Cadets standing on the shoulders of others leapt into the air, crashing down into the wild melee.
The assault on the east side of the field surged up around the pole, shoving aside the defenders, kicking and punching. The flagpole started to waver back and forth as the attackers bodily tried to tear the pole out of the ground and bring it down.
But then, on the west side of the field, the charge pressed in with wild screams, some of the cadets wearing headbands at the back of the seething mass, shouldering those who showed the slightest reluctance into the fight.
Seconds later the flag atop the pole on the west was snatched down, the cadet who grabbed it waving it wildly while balanced atop the shoulders of a comrade.
Whistles echoed and, amazingly for James, within seconds the fight was over. Cadets first coming to attention, bowing to their opponents, then as one extending helping hands to those who were collapsed on the ground, too injured to move, or who had been trampled under in the battle. There was even some backslapping between the opposing sides, leaders of the two teams shaking hands.
“My God,” James whispered, “if that had been how we played Army-Navy games back in my day, every cadet in the stadium would have swarmed down on the field for one helluva donnybrook.”
Cecil chuckled loudly. “Definitely not a proper game of cricket.”
James looked over at his friend and back to the playing field where, victors and losers, all of them filthy, more than a few limping or having to be carried, began to form up, stretcher bearers loading up four boys who were not moving.
Cricket versus this, he wondered. A glimpse of national character, of how we fight wars?
“I’ve had boys show up in my English class a couple of hours after one of these, broken arm in a sling, eyes swollen half shut, and not a murmur of complaint, though I could tell the lads were in agony. My first week here, I tried to excuse one of them from class, told him to go to his barracks and rest, and he filled up with tears.
“It wasn’t tears of pain. I had humiliated him in front of his comrades, implied he didn’t have the guts to take it. A lesson about them I never forgot, and a mistake I never repeated.
“You know about their swim test?”
James shook his head.
“Every summer the entire academy camps out on an island for several weeks,” and he motioned across the bay, “wearing nothing but loincloths. The poor beggars get burned as black as an Indian and live just as primitively. On the last day they swim back here, and James, it’s a ten-mile swim. Good lord, man, that’s half the distance of the Channel in water just as cold.
“They go off in teams of a hundred. It’s considered a disgrace to leave a comrade behind. Many of these lads have just come from villages inland, and until they go to the island for the summer camp have never swum a stroke in their life; but they go like all the others.
“Ten miles, I tell you. They have sampans out there with officers on board to pull in someone who is obviously drowning, but if he is pulled in, that’s it. Pardon the pun, but he is washed out. Every year a couple of them die. They just quietly go under without a word, not wishing to shame themselves by calling for help, or they just collapse and die shortly after reaching shore from severe exposure. Believe me, when you witness that, the way they finally come staggering out of the ocean, sunburned from the island, damn near blue from the ocean, but still working as a team and not a word of complaint, you wonder just who these lads will turn into.”
Cecil looked down at his wristwatch. “Nearly tea time, or would you prefer something a bit stronger?”
James grinned. “Stronger, but I do have that speech after dinner, and it would not be proper for a serving officer to trigger a diplomatic incident, so let’s stick with the tea.”
the shimmer of moonlight across Hiroshima Bay held a haunting quality, actually reminding James of the old Japanese prints of such scenes as he settled back in his chair, Cecil bringing out the bottle of single malt they had both denied themselves hours earlier.
With a nod of thanks, James let him pour several ounces. They smiled and held their glasses up.
“For the King and President, God bless them,” James said, and without anymore fanfare he drained nearly the entire glass in two gulps, Cecil following suit.
“Well, is it fair to say your speech was a bloody disaster,” Cecil said, offering a weak smile.
James said nothing, looking off. His audience of cadets, to be certain, had been the model of politeness, attentive, eyes fixed upon him, chuckling good-naturedly a few times when he stumbled a bit on his syntax and pronunciation of Japanese, but he knew the talk had been a lead balloon.
The implication of the Washington Treaty, now over ten years old, the so-called 5-5-3 agreement, had been bald-faced in its intent. For every five capital ships allowed to the Royal Navy and the United States Navy, Japan was limited to three. The rational argument had been that both America and Britain had multiocean responsibilities, even in this period of alleged peace, while Japan’s natural interests were limited to the Pacific.
It was an asinine agreement, James always thought. Though like many he had real reservations about Japan’s ever-increasing Imperialistic goals, nevertheless, she had indeed been a loyal ally, especially to England in the Great War. Bound by treaty, Japan had declared war on Germany when the show started in 1914, swept the small German enclaves out of the Pacific, and then dispatched a squadron of ships to help Britain in the Mediterranean. At war’s end she had aligned herself with her allies in the expedition to occupy part of Siberia during the Soviet revolution, until all had withdrawn in 1921. Those with a sharp eye toward the geopolitics of East Asia argued that a closer alliance with Japan should be sought as a counterforce to Soviet expansion into China.
There had been several serious bumps in the situation between America and Japan, dating back to of all things the racism of the city of San Francisco, which had banned Japanese students from their public schools back in 1905, immigration laws that essentially banned Japanese from settling in America, to the current diplomatic flurry about the takeover of Manchuria. But in general, a broad-thinking Occidental could see the potential of actual cooperation, if handled adroitly.
The Japanese were as anxious about expanding communism as were most Americans, and the Soviet Union was right on Japan’s back doorstep. With this Stalin now firmly in control and apparently drenching his tortured nation in yet more blood, Japan could be seen as a potential counterforce in the region.
But the 5-5-3 treaty had thrown a monkey wrench in the works for the time being. James felt as if he were navigating through a mined channel as he delivered his talk, having to adhere to policy, not able to mention the Soviets by name, and trying to emphasize points of agreement, all done in a language he had learned from his wife, a Nisei, half-Japanese, whom he had met when stationed in Hawaii right after the war; thus his knowledge was more colloquial than formal, and he knew he was making mistakes.
The whole thing had been a bloody embarrassment, not a single question asked by the cadets afterward, a sure sign they had been ordered to behave thus.
The obligatory reception afterward had been polite but relatively short, the various staff of the academy quickly begging off, claiming papers to correct, reports to write, and given the cool reception to James’s speech, Cecil had finally led him out on the excuse that their American guest had endured a most exhausting day and needed to ship out come morning.
“So, how is it here?” James asked. “I mean really?” He paused and looked around a bit cautiously.
Cecil laughed and shook his head. “We can talk freely. No one is listening. They would see that as underhanded and rude to a fellow naval officer to try and eavesdrop or wire my place. Really, on a personal level most of the blokes here have a love of His Majesty’s Navy, more than a few of them serving alongside us during the last war. We can talk.”
“The lads are a delight to work with, best I’ve ever seen. Our navies could use a dose of them, and that’s no mistake. Most come from the back country, curious, same way you have so many in your navy from the Midwest. Entrance exams are brutally competitive, and as you know more than a few have committed suicide when not accepted.
“They endure eighteen-hour days with no letup. Usual range of subjects, but strong emphasis as well on either English, German, or Russian. Of course that’s where I come in.”
“English is the most popular, and it does make me wonder is it because their navy is patterned after ours because we helped them build it, even supplied their first ships,” he sighed and took a drink, “or is it because they think the next fight will be with us.”
“What I would wonder,” James paused and instinct actually made him stand up, walk to the edge of the veranda to look over the porch, before settling back down.
“Gave him the night off.”
“All right, old friend,” Cecil asked, “out with it.”
“Just that some higher-ups remembered you and I worked together in the war. I was asked to come down here and have a chat with you and see what you think. You have your ear to the ground. What do you think?”
“Ah, so you might say I was sent here to spy?”
“Dirty word that,” James replied, imitating Cecil’s clipped style of speech when stirred, “let’s just say, observing.”
“But first you,” Cecil said, and he reached over, putting his hand on James’s knee.” I’m so sorry about your son, James.”
James nodded, unable to speak. It had been a year now since his son had died. He knew that if he started to talk about it, he would break down. He coughed shyly, motioning for a refill of his drink, and the two old friends smiled.
Both could be defined as spies, though their specialty was a new field, of radio signal intercepts and cryptology. It had been their job together in the last war, but in peacetime more than a few of the higher-ups were of the old school that “gentlemen did not read gentlemen’s mail” or for that matter intercept their signals and try to decode them, especially if the other gentleman was allegedly an ally. It was a specialization that was a guaranteed slow track for promotion.
Cecil looked off, the crescent moon touching the horizon on the far side of the bay. The campus was quiet, lights out having already been sounded.
He sighed. “It’ll come,” he said softly.
“They think they’re us in a way.”
“Well, we bloody well ran riot over the world for a couple of hundred years. Plant the flag, build the Empire, assuage any sense of guilt by spreading the gospel and calling it the white man’s burden, but it was imperialism plain and simple; and now that’s done, we see ourselves as being proper gentlemen having done the right thing in spreading our civilization.
“You could say we did in a way, but still, it was a grab and we made the most of it.
“You Yankees did the same, though to a lesser degree. They were too polite in there tonight to ask the question, but just what the bloody hell was America doing in the Philippines anyhow?”
“We got stuck with it,” James replied a bit weakly, “after beating the Spanish.”
“And made sure of supplies of rubber, manila, even your busboys for your navy.
“So these chaps see it as the same. Remember, they are the only, the only non-European nation to have successfully resisted European encroachment. Remember, they thrashed the old czar good and proper back in ’05, and frankly we all cheered them on when they did it. So now they want, as the kaiser used to say, ‘their place in the sun.’”
“Manchuria,” James said.
“Oh please, stand corrected, dear friend. Remember, it is Manchukuo now.”
“Still it was a grab.”
“Who would you rather see have it? Them, that insane Chinese warlord who was terrorizing the place, or the Soviets who were just itching to grab it?”
James nodded slowly in agreement.
“You have to remember that there is a big, deep argument underway in this country. The army sees itself as a continental force and is focused on defeating the Soviet Union and conquering China. The navy sees itself as a Pacific power and has focused on defeating you Americans ever since the end of the World War One.”
“They don’t let me sit in the courses where they discuss strategy and planning, but it is clear from conversations with both students and faculty that they have been consistently thinking about war with America here at Etajima for over a decade. They think objective reality about resources will force a conflict sooner or later, and they are determined not to be dictated to and dominated by you Americans.
“England had its advantages when this new age started. We had mountainsides of coal, plenty of iron, the building blocks of empire. But by God if ever there was a spot on this earth not to start an Empire from, it’s Japan. Smaller than Britain, not counting that frozen northern island of theirs, and yet half again the population, barely 20 percent of the land worth trying to farm, no coal, precious little iron, and yet in sixty years they’ve tried with success to leap onto the global stage.”
“So let them have Manchukuo, if that’s what they want to call it,” James said.
“Ah, but there’s the rub. Did you Yanks stop at the Mississippi? What about all that land you took from Mexico and then Spain back in ’98. You called it Manifest Destiny and maybe it was. Well, these folks think they have a Manifest Destiny as well.”
“And that is, in your opinion?”
“A unified Asia.”
“Under their dominance of course.”
“If it was us, would we want it any other way?”
James shook his head.
“And there is the race question. They do ask the logical question, why is Southeast Asia run by the French, the East Indies by the Dutch, you in the Philippines.”
“So that will lead to war? Damn all, it would be suicide in the end,” James replied.
“There are far bigger worries for all of us. They might have Manchuria, or whatever they call it, but I dare say the Soviets would love payback for 1905. This little corporal in Germany is getting downright bothersome. Why not play on our side?”
He said it with passion because there was a personal reason behind this as well. His wife was a Nisei, half-Japanese, a wonderful racial mix so typical of Hawaii where they had met when he was stationed there in the early twenties. Her father was Portuguese European, her mother Japanese, and Margaret had inherited the best of both in terms of intellect, beauty, charm. He had to say, as well, that he was one of the lucky few, truly blessed with a mother-in-law whom he outright adored. His own mother had died giving birth to him, his father remote, distant, and James sensed deep down resentful of a son who had cost him a wife. So he had grown up with a sense of being alone, until Margaret came into his life and with her a mother who took him in as if he were her own son as well. The thought that Japan was emerging as an enemy, it was hard to swallow in a way. How could the people who had given him such a wonderful family ever truly be an enemy?
Cecil motioned to James’s tumbler, and he nodded agreement for a refill.
“Oh, there are many in their government, and in their navy, who would fully agree,” Cecil continued, while he poured the scotch. “But it gets strange, to Western eyes. It has to do with race, with the gods, with an image of destiny, with their own individual submersion into a greater whole, a submersion that disdains individual worth for the greater good of the family, of the race, of this mystery of destiny. In some ways each as an individual sees himself as nothing more than a mote of dust tumbling on the wind, and that wind is national destiny. Of himself he is meaningless, but a hundred million such specks of dust, driven by the wind of national destiny, can blast down a castle wall, reshape mountains, change the world.”
“You are beginning to sound like some of those mystics from your India.”
“That’s another problem right there, and believe me, they are quick to point to it and ask if it is alright for England to be in the Raj, then why not they in China, bringing order out of chaos the same way we did a hundred years ago.”
“Good points,” James said softly, “but damn all, there are rumors about the brutality of their occupation of Manchuria: executions of civilians, beheadings, torture.”
“Dare I mention what we did in our not-so-distant past? How we put down the Sepoy Rebellion, or what about your Wounded Knee?”
“I know, I know,” James said, sadly, “but this is the twentieth century.”
“Exactly their point, and they want a part of that; and our arguments, when pitched on moral grounds, well, they feel they have the counter. Valid or not, it is their own self-justification, and though we might disagree we must understand that is how they see it.”
They had been speaking in low tones and therefore the knock on the door was startling, both standing up, falling silent. James felt a moment of paranoia, wondering if Cecil had been incautious.
Cecil went into the house, James following, drink in hand, trying to act casual, though on reflection he realized that their conversation had been completely innocent, just mere speculation, no secrets exchanged or actions agreed upon that might offend their hosts.
The house was a curious anomaly, actually a touch of England in a way. The school had been laid out with advice from the British navy; and as a result several of the buildings, those used by Western instructors and visitors, were European in design, complete to a print over the fireplace of a naval action from the Napoleonic Wars.
With the houseboy off for the evening, Cecil opened the door himself and a smile creased his face.
“Lieutenant Fuchida! A delight to see you!”
Standing behind Cecil, James caught a glimpse of the visitor. It was a naval lieutenant, trim, sporting a narrow, dapper-looking mustache, body lean, and like nearly every naval officer he had met here, obviously in excellent condition. He was a bit tall for a Japanese, and at the sight of James he came stiffly to attention and saluted.
Custom was, James being indoors and with hat off a salute was not necessary, but he returned it anyway.
“Lieutenant Mitsuo Fuchida, may I present Lieutenant Commander James Watson of the United States Navy.”
James stepped forward to the doorway, and Fuchida, stiffly formal, bowed slightly, hesitated, then shook James’s extended hand. His grasp was warm and firm. Cecil guided their visitor in and held up his glass as a signal.
“If it is your Scottish whiskey, a pleasure,” Fuchida said, with a smile.
Again an uncomfortable moment of silence as Cecil filled the glasses again and held his up.
“To the Emperor,” Cecil said formally, and Fuchida, smiling, held his glass up and turned to the north, facing toward the Imperial Palace as he sipped his drink, then turned back.
“And the honor of your visit?” Cecil asked. “I didn’t even know you were here.”
“I came down from the Koyshu Naval Station to talk with the final-year cadets about choosing aviation,” Fuchida said. “When I heard Commander Watson was here, I decided to come a bit early to hear his talk. And, of course, to see you as well, my old friend. I was a student here in 1921, and any time I can come back to Etajima I love visiting. The world seemed so young and innocent back then.”
“And what did you think of my talk?” Watson asked.
Fuchida smiled and motioned to one of the chairs on the veranda, and the three sat down.
“What I expected,” Fuchida said. “Of course you have to follow your orders on such things as I would.”
“So, as we Americans would say, it did not scour with you.”
“American slang,” James said, “it means that the dirt sticks to the plow rather than dig a good furrow.”
“Scour,” Fuchida said with a smile, “I’ll try and remember that. No it did not scour as you say.”
Fuchida chuckled and the manner of his soft laughter made James warm to him.
“The treaty, on all sides, was by and about politicians. I think if they had left it to us naval people, a fair accommodation would have been made. Realize that we Japanese are proud. That treaty says we are not of the same class as you on the world stage.”
James said nothing. For the truth was, they were not, though they wished to be. Beyond that, if their aspirations of Imperialism were landward, Manchuria and anyone could guess that sooner or later they would turn to that trouble-wracked insane asylum of China. So why the need for a deep ocean navy equal to that of the West? And yet he could see the issue of national pride.
“So, still flying?” Cecil asked, changing the subject.
Fuchida nodded excitedly. “I was training some of the new pilots for Akagi. A beautiful ship, but at the moment I’m landbound, helping to train new pilots on shore,” and he shrugged and sighed, “keep your nose down in the turn, go around, let’s do it again.”
And then he chuckled, the other two joining in at the lieutenant’s obvious frustration with breaking in new trainees. No matter what the field, it could be frustrating in the extreme.
“I heard your carrier pilot program is the toughest in the world,” James said quietly. “I’d be curious to compare some of your young men with those on our Saratoga or Lexington.”
“An interesting challenge,” Fuchida replied eagerly. “I’d like to try my hand at your new Devastator monoplane.”
“I can see what I can arrange,” James said, knowing it was a lie. The fact that Fuchida even mentioned the new torpedo bomber meant he was current with American naval development. No one would ever clear a Japanese pilot to “try his hand” on it.
“I flew down here,” Fuchida replied with a grin. “I can give you a flight back up to Tokyo tomorrow if you wish, save you the train trip.”
Absolutely startled, James could not reply for a moment. He hated to admit that he had never flown and frankly the prospect terrified him.
“Capital idea!” Cecil exclaimed. “By God, my friend, how come you never offered a flight to me?”
“Because you never asked!” Fuchida laughed.
Though scared to death at the prospect, how could he keep face and refuse, James now realized.
“You can stay to hear my talk. We can enjoy a lunch together, and I’ll have you back to your ship on time.”
James could only nod in agreement, and Fuchida smiled with open delight. “A deal then, as you Americans say.”
James did not even bother to ask Cecil for a refill of his drink; he poured a few more ounces for himself.
“Your question about our training program,” Fuchida continued. “Yes, our program is tough but fair. I wash out three quarters of my students before they have even finished primary training. Better to frustrate them at the start and keep them on the ground then have them wind up killing themselves and destroying one of our precious frontline planes in the process. Three quarters more are grounded or transferred to be bombardiers and navigators, while in advanced training. To fly and land off the pitching deck of a carrier, I believe you have to be born with the instinct, and my job is to find those with that instinct and spare the lives of the rest.”
“So you only graduate a hundred or so a year,” James replied.
“You have been studying us, haven’t you,” Fuchida replied, now a bit wary.
“It’s just that everyone’s carriers seem to be terribly expensive. By the time you are done, the pilots are literally worth their weight in gold. And as of yet, these new ships have yet to prove themselves in battle. My captain on board the Oklahoma says he can swat down carrier planes like flies as he closes in, and one salvo of fourteen-inch guns will end it, with the enemy carrier going straight to the bottom.”
“Do you believe that?” Fuchida asked, a bit of a defensive note in his voice.
“Just what my captain says,” James replied noncommittally.
“Give us another five to seven years,” Fuchida announced proudly, and his voice was now eager, “you and us. The crates we fly now are not much better than what we all used in the last war. But your Devastator is a step forward. When a plane can lift off with a ton of weaponry, fly at two hundred miles an hour, and strike a target three hundred miles away, then your battleship admirals, and mine, will have to sing a different song.”
“That American chap, Mitchell,” Cecil interjected. “That’s what he said after his planes sank that captured German battleship and look what happened to him.”
“That was stupidity. A shame how you Americans treated him,” Fuchida replied. “He should have been decorated, not dismissed.”
James did not reply to that one. The Billy Mitchell incident was still a bit too hot to talk about. It was evident that the destruction his planes had wrought had been something of a setup, sinking a captured and condemned German battleship that was anchored in place and not maneuvering. Mitchell had gone outside the reservation with his outspoken opinions to the newspapers; but then again, maybe this eager pilot was right and progress would overtake the beloved ships of his navy. It was hard to imagine, though, that the old Oklahoma could ever be threatened by a crate made of canvas and wood, puttering along at a hundred miles an hour.
“I’m curious as to how you two now see naval aviation and what your admirals are doing with it,” Fuchida asked, as he motioned for a refill of his drink, which Cecil quickly complied with.
Cecil and James looked at each other. If this was an attempt to pump information it was done poorly.
Fuchida laughed softly. “I’m not spying on two who more than a few have said are themselves spies. It’s just that I knew Commander Watson here witnessed the use of Saratoga and Lexington in your war games. In a way they are sister ships of Akagi and Kaga, since all were converted from being battle cruisers after the treaty was signed. Just wanted to catch up with you, Cecil, and hear what Commander Watson has to say.”
James could sense a genuineness in this man. He was blunt, direct, and obviously filled with professional curiosity. And it was indeed curious, this relationship between sailors of what might be opposing nations. Between hostilities they would often openly talk about doctrine, publish articles each other had read in their respective journals, chat at conferences, and do as the three of them were now doing.
“Oh, I guess I could say the usual,” James replied. “Though I am not up to speed on such things. That Panama War game was several years back. You undoubtedly have read the journal reports on it. The red team carrier slipped through at a flank-speed run, launched before dawn, and claimed they had blown the locks of the canal by dropping flour bags on them. The judges ruled otherwise. I was onboard Maryland at the time and didn’t see it. So there is no way I can claim to be an expert.”
“But do you think the attack was valid.”
James hesitated. But there was something about Fuchida that was so damn disarming, his open, almost boyish enthusiasm about the subject.
“On our side it is the usual debate,” Fuchida said. “The battleship admirals claim that their ships were, are, and will always be the deciders of battle. Those who were at Tsushima think the carrier was nothing but a scout ship, to locate the enemy fleet, then to serve as fire-direction control for the battleships once they’d closed to firing range.”
Watson chuckled. “Same here. Though remember, I’m signals, not a flyer.”
“And are you trying our codes?” Fuchida asked good-naturedly. “You delivered your speech in Japanese, and I must say it was fairly good.”
“Just have a knack for language,” James said noncommittally. “The Japanese is just sort of a hobby. My wife is half-Japanese, by the way. Her mother was born in Japan, so let’s just say it’s to get on the good side of my mother-in-law.
“How do you two know each other?” James asked, changing the topic.
“Oh, my friend Mitsuo here and I go back a bit. He comes by on a regular basis to talk to the cadets about aviation and then to practice his English on me.”
“And steal some of his scotch,” Fuchida replied. “I will say that any talk you might hear about conflict between us and you, our navies I mean, push it aside. We see our descent from the traditions of His Majesty’s Navy. Remember, the founder of our Imperial Navy, the Great Togo,” and as he said the name he bowed ever so slightly, “long ago trained in England. So there is a brotherhood there.”
“And as for us?” James asked quietly.
Fuchida turned to look at him.
“The Pacific is a vast ocean, my friend. There is room enough for both in their proper spheres of influence.”
Fuchida chuckled and looked down at his nearly empty drink, making a motion, and Cecil poured out a few more ounces. The bottle was now well more than two thirds’ empty, and James wondered just how many his friend still had in reserve out here.
“The Philippines, I can see what was almost the accidental placing of it in your hands after your defeat of the Spanish. I actually do believe your American idealistic claim that you wish to decolonize as soon as practical, though your big businesses might object.
“But realize, if Japan is to survive in this modern world it needs the same resources your nations already have at your fingertips . . . steel, coal, rubber, various metals, and now, increasingly, oil for both ships and airplanes.
“Let me ask you, Cecil, would your government willingly give up its oil holdings in the Middle East?”
Cecil chuckled. In the old days of Admiral Fisher and the naval reforms prior to the war, seizing and holding secured oil, infinitely more efficient than coal to power a battleship, had been a cornerstone of his policy and, by extension, the British government’s.
“We make it fair enough for the locals, and we did bring some semblance of order to the region,” Cecil replied.
“Fair enough for you,” and he now turned to James, “but it is no question, you Americans are swimming in oil. For Japan, there are a few small wells in the far northern islands, barely a trickle of a few thousand barrels leaking out of them. So there alone we are vulnerable. Nearly every drop of oil that powers our ships we must purchase and at a premium from one or the other of you or the Dutch in the East Indies.”
“So you would like to secure these resources?” James asked.
Fuchida smiled. “Trade is better of course,” he replied. “And, dear friends, don’t quote me, I’m just a naval lieutenant trying to get those above me interested in flying.”
“But of course,” Cecil replied smoothly.
“I cannot speak for policy,” Fuchida continued, “but I think it fair to say that if wiser heads prevail, on both sides, the three of us can find far more in common than what might divide us. There are, of course, the Soviets to contend with; and remember, they are not at your back door, but they are most certainly at ours.
“Though Stalin has backed away from the more radical talk of the International and Trotsky has fallen, still they export their disease into China with this new revolutionary leader there, this Mao. Imagine China as Communist, and you and I might find ourselves side by side trying to block them.”
“I would think that the Nationalists have him well in hand,” James said.
Fuchida shook his head.
“Give it five years,” he replied. “You Westerners do not understand the Chinese as we do. Remember, we have had two thousand years of dealing with them; you have not. Oh, you have your sentimental visions of them from your missionaries; but China can only be ruled by one central authority, and for now, the thought of any democratic rule, the line that the Nationalists parrot to you in order to receive aid, flies in the face of their history.”
“So you will go into China?” James asked.
“I did not say that,” Fuchida said forcefully. “And besides, even if that did happen, it would not be a naval affair, it would be the army, and they are a different breed.”
He fell silent and James registered something in his manner and speech. A hint of disdain in his reference to the army.
“Another?” Cecil asked, holding up what was left of the bottle.
Fuchida hesitated, making as if to stand up to leave.
“Come on, my friend,” Cecil said. “I don’t have to teach tomorrow, I look forward to hearing your talk, then seeing the two of you off in your plane. Besides, I want to hear about your insanity with this flying. Bad enough getting off the ground, but from the deck of a ship?”
Fuchida smiled and held his glass back up, and there was something in the gesture that made James smile.
Within a minute, loosened up a bit by a few more sips of scotch, the Japanese pilot was talking animatedly about the future of naval aviation, dreams of new designs, of planes that could cruise at four hundred kilometers per hour, how the battleship was obsolete, as proven by the now disgraced Billy Mitchell, and all three were soon sharing the usual complaints about the hidebound nature of battleship admirals lost in the past.
And as the hours slipped by James found, at first, an admiration for this young man, so dedicated, so intellectual and visionary. Perhaps it was fueled by the scotch, perhaps by sentiment, but it was not all that long ago that he and Cecil had been like him, though their passion was code breaking.
With the coming of dawn another bottle had been consumed, the three were trading songs, at first traditional ballads of their respective branches, and from there descending into bawdy chanties that seemed to be amazingly universal in their plots and themes, no matter what the language.
11 April 1934
“hung over or not, my friend, I think it’s time you saw what we can do!”
James, strapped down in the backseat of the open cockpit American-made Stearman biplane, wanted to beg for mercy.
The flight, well so far, had been relatively uneventful, even though he did vomit within five minutes after they had lifted off from the grass strip, leaving behind Cecil and several dozen cadets who had attended Fuchida’s animated lecture about the future of naval aviation.
He tried to conceal what was happening in the backseat of the plane as he clutched the paper bag, losing his breakfast and the very, very light lunch he had all but avoided in anticipation of the flight.
But Fuchida had heard the wretching noises, in spite of the howling of the wind around them, and chuckled through the voice tube . . . “still hung over?”
James could only groan, he was indeed hung over, and when finished vomiting, embarrassed, he didn’t know what to do until Fuchida had told him to just simply toss the bag over the side.
He had leveled out at seven thousand feet, flying by dead reckoning along the east coast of Japan, and James, after a few more queasy moments, found that with the higher altitude, the cool, actually cold air, and the steadiness of the pilot’s hand, his stomach had settled down. After a half hour he was no longer clutching the sides of the cockpit with a death grip, and after forty-five minutes, had even at last taken up Fuchida’s offer for him to handle the stick and rudder.
And he was hooked. A scattering of cumulus clouds were forming, the warm air rising up from newly plowed fields below, and Fuchida had guided him through first circling one, then popping through it. At the final second before entering the billowy mass, James had nearly panicked, it looked so solid, and then he had burst out laughing as they blew through the other side a few seconds later. The second time he had actually piloted the plane into the next cloud, before they leveled out and continued on their heading to Tokyo.
Japan from the air was stunningly beautiful. The rich greens of early spring, fields of cherry, plum, and peach orchards startlingly brilliant in their multihued splashes of color. Small farm and fishing villages neatly laid out, the spine of the mountains of the central highlands, the highest peaks still capped with snow. He had hoped to see Fuji, and his friend had pointed out the direction, but it was capped in clouds. Ahead, he could see a distant haze and the outline of the bay. Tokyo was not far off now.
“Hang on!” Fuchida cried, and a second later the plane went into an aileron roll. As it tipped over and went inverted, James could not suppress a gasp of panic as they hung upside down, shoulder straps digging in, then easing as the roll continued and only seconds later leveling out.
He felt a queasiness returning.
“Like it?” Fuchida asked.
“Yeah, sure,” James gasped.
“Then another one!”
This time James could feel the stick, which he held lightly, slap over hard, nose down a bit, the rudder petals shifting as Fuchida fed in opposite rudder. And the plane snapped over in a blur, ground and sky inverting, and then rolling back out.
“Now you do it?” Fuchida announced.
“You do one. It always feels better when you are in control. Come on, James.”
He swallowed hard, the nausea building, again that terrible first warning, cold sweat breaking out.
“Push the stick over to your left and then push the right rudder as you begin to roll, that will keep you from just going into a banking turn. Keep the nose down as you roll, then reverse slightly, pull the stick back a little when inverted, that will keep the nose down, then forward again as you come out of the roll, then level off.”
James said nothing, the sweat beginning to soak him.
“Yeah,” was all he could gasp.
He didn’t budge the stick for a moment until finally he felt it nudge slightly under his hand, Fuchida up forward urging him on. He had to take the challenge and did as ordered, pushing hard over to his left, working the rudder, feeling Fuchida guiding him there a bit, adding in a little more, and the plane rolled through onto its back. For a second he panicked, feeling as if they were about to just simply fall upside down, but the roll continued and several seconds later they were leveled back out . . . and he felt a pure rush of joy!
“Damn, that was great!” he shouted.
“Another one then?”
This time he felt more confident and once the roll was completed, he could not resist leaning forward and slapping Fuchida on the shoulder, the pilot laughing.
“I’ll take you on as a student and have you flying off carriers in six months!”
“If only,” James replied.
Their four rolls had dropped them down a couple of thousand feet so he could now see Tokyo Bay clearly ahead.
“We’ll soon be over the bay, so no playing around, but I want to show you something,” Fuchida announced.
And James found the nausea was gone and at this moment he wished they could just continue to stay up here, to float through the sky, the roar of the engine now a wonderful harmonious sound.
“Recognize anything” Fuchida asked.
James looked around and found that he could easily see the vast sprawl of the city just half a dozen miles ahead, smoke from factories, not sure but perhaps a glimpse of the Imperial compound, and then the harbor itself filled with hundreds of ships, half a dozen passenger steamers, dozens of cargo ships, even the dot of sails of sampans and there, in the naval yard, his own ship, the Oklahoma.
Fuchida banked slightly and lined up on the battlewagon and throttled up, the pitch of the engine going from a steady reassuring hum to a loud roar, the wind shrieking in the wires and support struts.
Details started to become evident, even the white dots of sailors up on deck.
“You still strapped in?” Fuchida asked.
And with that his stomach felt as if it were up in his throat as Fuchida pushed the nose over into a dive, again a moment of panic, but James rode it out, stunned by the acceleration of speed, the size of his ship growing. They were heading down at a 60-degree dive for the bay below, and though he trusted the pilot, he did wonder for a second if they would just simply plow into the ocean. At what seemed the last possible second he felt as if he were being shoved down into his seat as they pulled several Gs coming out of the dive, leveling out a scant fifty feet above the harbor, racing straight toward the Oklahoma.
They were less than a mile out, and within seconds the battleship seemed to fill the world before him, becoming larger and yet larger. He could see some of the sailors on the deck turning, looking, pointing.
“Can’t get too close!” Fuchida shouted, “your captain might not approve!”
And he yanked back on the stick, plane soaring back up and then banking over sharply so that James was looking straight down at the deck, five hundred feet below.
“That’s what a torpedo attack would be like!” Fuchida shouted.
James could not reply, startled by the moment. He had been caught up by the sheer exhilaration, even contemplating how he would boast to his comrades later that he was aboard the plane that buzzed them, but now he saw it differently.
He could imagine twenty, thirty such planes coming in at the same time and the thought was frightful. And in that instant he knew that the pilot Fuchida was right, and all the admirals were dead on wrong. This crate he was in was the future, not the guns down below.
It took years to build a battlewagon and tens of millions of dollars, and millions more just to keep her afloat each year. The plane he was in, how much? Ten thousand at most. The pilot far more expensive than the plane. If twenty such planes could break through, armed with torpedoes, the only thing that could stop them would be other planes, if they reacted fast enough. If not, the battleship was as good as dead.
Their conversation of last night, Fuchida’s animated lecture of this morning, he was right. Planes would continue to improve, become faster, more agile, have greater range, be more deadly, while the battleship had reached its climax, nothing could be added to it to make it more efficient other than to just make it bigger, with bigger guns, but what use were those guns against planes? And a bigger ship would simply be a larger target to hit from above.
He said nothing, looking aft as they raced off and then the engine throttled back, speed dropping. They were coming down, and he saw the landing field, a broad open grass plain with a paved strip in the middle.
Nose pitched up, speed dropping, strange for a second, he thought with nose up they should climb but then realized it was actually the throttle that controlled climbing and dropping, by pitching the nose up with the throttle nearly closed, Fuchida was bleeding off speed and the plane was dropping.
The ground came racing up, he braced nervously, and then ever so gently there was a slight lurch, and they were down, rolling straight down the center line of the landing strip, slowing more, then taxiing over to a hanger, and then silence as the engine shut down.
Fuchida, already unstrapped, stood up, then turned to look at James, flight helmet pushed back, goggles off, grinning.
“What do you think?” he asked, and again there was that boyish enthusiasm.
James unsnapped his harness, taking off goggles and helmet, and, a bit shaky, stood up. Fuchida was now out on the wing, extending a hand to help him out, for which James was grateful, his back more than a little stiff. He backed down along the wing and alighted on the ground, knees feeling a bit weak.
Several enlisted men were by the plane, and Fuchida ordered them to refuel and for someone to find a staff car to take their guest back to his ship.
“You didn’t answer me?” Fuchida said, putting his hand on James’s shoulder.
“The flight, it was beautiful,” he said, hesitating a bit.
“Your stomach feels fine now?”
“You seem troubled, my friend.”
James nodded, unable to hide what he was thinking, that moment when the joy of flying had changed to something else, the realization of the game they were playing at and all the frightful implications of this machine of canvas, wood, and gasping engine.
“I see your point now,” James said quietly.
Fuchida nodded, understanding, and he seemed troubled as well.
“You showed me something I never really understood until I was out there with you.”
“And your report to your admirals?” Fuchida asked.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken you on this flight. Maybe I’ve made you a convert.”
“I honestly hope we will not be enemies some day, Commander Watson,” and he spoke formally now, using James’s official title as if speaking to a superior.
“What could be gained by either side?” James replied.
“But we are professionals and must answer to our orders when given.”
“A war between us?” James replied. “Hard to imagine.”
“Yes. I hope you convey that in your report as well. Do not underestimate us, that is always a fatal mistake for any country to do. Do not misread us.”
“Nor should you underestimate us,” James replied forcefully.
Fuchida did not say anything for a moment, then nodded in reply.
“I will remember that as well.”
A small car, an American Ford, came onto the field and rolled to a stop by the plane, the driver getting out. One of the ground crew having already fetched James’s overnight bag from the small cargo hold while another helped him out of his leather flight jacket, James a bit embarrassed that it was stained with the remnants of his breakfast.
He started to hand over his goggles and helmet.
Fuchida smiled and shook his head.
“Keep them as a souvenir of the flight.”
James grinned and nodded his thanks.
He truly liked this man, in fact something had happened in the plane and the night before. Drink with a potential enemy and you might find common ground and that he had done last night. Flying had done the rest. This man loved his work, not just as a warrior, but he could sense the joy Fuchida felt as well, and he had shared that as they had soared over cherry and peach orchards in bloom. They had shared the joy of the moment and in that found yet more common ground. The diving attack on the Oklahoma had changed things back.
James looked at him and felt he had to be honest with this man.
Fuchida formally saluted him and James returned the salute, then they shook hands.
“I’ll pray you never have to do for real what we did out in the harbor, my friend,” was all he could say and then he got into the car and went back to his ship, there to write a report of all that he had observed, a report he knew would just be simply filed away and forgotten as he slipped into retirement and was forgotten as well.
Copyright © 2007 by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen. All rights reserved.