[Note: Nationalgeographic.com does not research or copyedit dispatches.]

Dispatch #6: November 16, 2000
“On another important mission”

By Priit J. Vesilind, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Senior Writer

WE DO NOT find the midget submarine, but we revisit a crucial incident of the Pacific war that few people remember. We know now that the campaign against Japan actually began 45 minutes before the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, and that an American destroyer, the U.S.S. Ward, fired the first shot.

Group Shot It’s safe to speculate that had the U.S. high command in Hawaii taken the Ward’s urgent report more seriously, or processed it more quickly, many lives may have been saved. Of course, Will Lehner points out, there might have been worse damage had the battleships been alerted: “They may have been sunk in the channel, sealing off the rest of the U.S. Navy for months.”

The Japanese midget submarines were a failure; they did virtually no damage to the American fleet. But the nine submariners who lost their lives were deified as war heroes in Japan. Propagandists claimed, erroneously, that one of the midgets had actually torpedoed and sank the U.S.S. Arizona.

Sixty years after the attack, very little is taught in Japan about the war against the European allies. Unlike young Germans, few young Japanese have studied, much less accepted, that their nation must bear grave responsibility for the most destructive war in history.

The cultural differences between Americans and Japanese may seem merely quirky today, but prior to the Second World War the gap of understanding between the two peoples amounted to mutual racism.

Says Daniel Martinez, historian at Pearl Harbor’s U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, “We demonized each other. Americans saw the Japanese as short, bandy-legged, and near-sighted, inferior human beings—Japs. And the Japanese promoted racial purity. They thought that America’s diversity in nationalities made us the mongrels of the world. But that’s the greatest mistake anyone could make, that diversity is our weakness.”

“How do you feel about the Japanese now?” I ask Will Lehner, who went on to suffer through two more shattering years of the Pacific campaign. He was still on board the U.S.S. Ward when she was sunk by a suicidal Japanese kamikaze pilot while on anti-submarine patrol in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.

“I still don’t know,” he answers. “I spent six months in a Veterans’ hospital when I got home from the war. It took me seven or eight years before I could sleep through the night. I would wake up thinking I was still there. I was shell-shocked, disoriented. I went from a 240-pound [109-kilogram] football player in high school to 150 pounds [68 kilograms].”

Lehner, whose gift of gab and good humor has endeared him to everyone on the expedition, suddenly looks his age. “I still can’t get over it,” he says, voice trembling a bit. “I won’t even drive a Japanese car.” And yet here he is with his arm around Kichiji Dewa, a man who had plotted to kill Americans, as many as possible.

The old Japanese submariner, who served on one of the mother submarines that brought the midgets from Japan, does not see this expedition as a failure at all. He has come once again to Pearl Harbor from Japan, on another important mission—to round out his life and seek peace. And it seems like the 80-year-old Dewa-san, as everyone calls him, grows stronger every day. His sea legs, fragile at the start, now propel him up and down the ladders. Two weeks ago he sat stoically in a lawn chair and feared to rise.

Final ceremony This morning, Thursday, November 16, our last day on the water, Dewa-san appears on deck with a framed photograph hanging around his neck. It depicts Saburo Nakajima, one of the researchers who developed the midget sub. Nakajima-san died last year and was a friend. Dewa also carries a green bottle of Sake, the Japanese rice wine, and a small sheaf of writing.

He is surrounded by his Japanese colleagues, Katsuhiro Hara and Makoto Uchino, the young man who has served as translator, as well as his new mates, Will Lehner and Russell Reetz.

“Shinshu kenjo!” Dewa-san shouts as he pours the sake into the sea. “I give away the sake from the gods!” A strong wind whips the wine into froth in the bright sunlight. Dewa-san clasps his hands in the Buddhist fashion and closes his eyes toward the sea. Wrapped around his knuckles are brown prayer beads.

Next he tosses the text, full of large, carefully inked characters. What does the text say? I ask Uchino. He finds it hard to translate. “It is a Buddhist text,” he says. “It’s to do with your mind. It says you must make your mind neutral, a void. No anger, no sadness, no joy—neutral.”

No anger, no joy. Just acceptance.

Subscribe to NGM
U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii

Photograph from Corbis

[an error occurred while processing this directive]