Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, stood in the elevator of the New Otani Hotel in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. One sleeve of his crisp blue suit hung empty -- he had lost the arm fighting with the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team in World War II.
"All I know is that it's a good thing we won the war," he almost whispered. "Otherwise, some of these things might be coming back on us."
The first-generation Japanese-American was talking about the efforts in 2000 by some U.S. World War II veterans and residents of other Asian nations to sue the government of Japan for war reparations. They wanted compensation for forced labor in mines, shipyards and factories. War crimes were mentioned.
(Ultimately, they lost because it was ruled the 1951 peace treaty between the U.S. and Japan resolved all outstanding reparation claims.)
I was reminded of Sen. Inouye's comment -- and the space in his sleeve where his arm used to be -- this week while visiting Atwater High School. In Seth Medefind's 10th-grade classes, Pearl Harbor survivor John Rauschkolb, 88, told some 120 students about Dec. 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy." (That's often misquoted as "day," but President Roosevelt said "date" in his historic radio address.)
As a Navy signalman 3rd class, Rauschkolb was on the USS West Virginia when it was bombed and torpedoed in Pearl Harbor. Today, his grip remains as firm as when he cut and sewed signal flags for the ship's yardarm for semaphore and other commo at sea. He described swimming underneath the burning oil atop the water, pushing fire back as far as he could, till he escaped his ship. "I swear a lot," he warned the kids. "Sometimes it just slips out."
On the other side of the Pacific, Jiro Yoshida, a Japanese Navy Zero pilot during the war, was giving his own thoughts about the Greatest Generation's 9/11.
"In human history, 50 or 60 years is only a moment in time," he wrote in an e-mail. "But in my life, I have seen war and peace between Japan and the United States. In looking back it is hard to imagine our two countries once waged war."
Yoshida-san is an official with Unabara-Kai, a group of former Naval aviators from World War II.
In recent decades, he's been almost a one-man history book, traveling around America to conferences and reunions of fliers from both sides. He gives the Japanese perspective of the war, the airborne equivalent of Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima."
As his family's only son, he wasn't ordered to patrol the main battles of the Pacific. He defended the homeland for the emperor in the waning months of the war.
And somewhere in the middle of these two onetime enemies stands Don Oka, 89, a Japanese-American who was also at Pearl Harbor -- in the U.S. military.
His story may be even more poignant than that of the other old vets because two of his brothers fought on the Japanese side. One was in the Imperial Army, the other in the Navy.
Oka, who now lives in Southern California, remembers Christmas Eve 1944 when he was on Tinian Island in the South Pacific. (The Enola Gay, carrying the atom bomb for Hiroshima, took off from there eight months later.)
As an Army first sergeant, he watched the searchlights probing the sky for Japanese aircraft, lighting them up for the men firing the big guns. None of the Japanese planes made it back home. One of the pilots was his brother. He died somewhere over Iwo Jima.
The war that entwined the tales of these three men has been over for nearly 70 years. The U.S. has fought three major wars since then -- one tie, one loss, one win. Today, we're now fighting two more, Iraq and Afghanistan. Too soon to say what's going to happen in either place.
What's not too soon to say is what each of these three men who witnessed and survived the worst war in human history now all say, as one.
Their beliefs -- based on experiences that neither our new president nor the two ahead of him ever shared -- strongly suggest that Barack Obama should listen close and long to people who've been under fire and lived to talk about it.
If he does, and if he's as smart as people say he is, he'll think hard about sending even more Americans into harm's way in, say, Afghanistan. He'll think hard about bringing Americans back from, say, Iraq. He'll think hard about launching any military actions without understanding the risks and the costs and the goals.
I wish Obama could hear these three men in their ninth decade of life.
John Rauschkolb: "Nobody wins in a war. You have a victor, but nobody wins. War should never happen. They've got to get rid of the hydrogen bomb. It's got to be declared illegal, including for the United States. Some way has to be found to correct our differences without the use of war."
Jiro Yoshida: "War is stupid. It should be considered only after every other alternative, including every diplomatic effort, has been exhausted." Speaking of the kamikaze pilots: "The cream of our nation's youth was wasted by a flawed strategy that, in the end, didn't alter the final outcome at all. It makes me sick to think about that. How painful to accept on both sides that the war destroyed a large percentage of an entire generation."
Don Oka, on what he thinks about war: "I wish I knew. I didn't feel good. I felt bad. War is a terrible thing. We should never have it. Nobody wins, fighting a war. Innocent civilians die. I saw all the (Japanese) cities flattened by firebombing. I am against war from the beginning. I don't want to fight anymore."
Rauschkolb told the Atwater High School students that the ship shot out from under him, the West Virginia, was repaired and later rejoined the American fleet in the last year of the Pacific War. "I was proud of her," he recalls.
At a 2004 "Last Grand Reunion of World War II Naval Aviators" sponsored by the Japan American Society of Southern California, one Japanese veteran -- it wasn't Yoshida-san -- told the story of sinking a ship at Pearl Harbor. Then he fought over Guadalcanal where he was injured. He spent most of the rest of the war training other pilots. During the battle for Okinawa, he flew his first combat flight again. As he approached the island, he saw the same ship he had "sunk" at Pearl -- and at that instant, he knew Japan had lost the war.
Was it John Rauschkolb's old battleship?
No matter. What matters most is that these three men -- two on opposite and opposing sides, one caught culturally in the middle -- now agree on two beliefs:
War is hell.
Don't make war.
Listen to what these three men remember and believe.
Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427/2456 or email@example.com.
On Visiting the Kamikaze Museum
Raskolnikov's falling hatchet
is leaden in comparison.
Kant's approach to reason
an epistemological ratchet
sprung, out of sync:
I am. Therefore, I think.
Right and/or wrong don't apply
and become a shadow show
played like chess or Goh.
Their board is the sky,
the pieces themselves, themselves pieces
flung seaward, divine breezes.
in part for a marine biologist
astride a pure white horse,
his name unspoken, his force
as formidable as Christ.
He stands for country, honor, duty.
Death rides horseback, with sidesaddle beauty.
in part for their families:
those in Akita, Oita, Nagoya,
Gotemba, Niigata, Hirata,
and for those in the cemeteries;
in part for themselves and for one another,
sharing the hateful love of brothers.
of climbing in a metal grave,
toasting sake, adjusting straps,
starting props. lowering flaps,
three 'Banzais!' a final wave,
tilting skyward, minds both ahead
and behind, men both alive and dead.
Rainbows at the bottom of clouds,
waves bounding like dolphins below,
goggles mist and blood begins to flow.
They give the most that is allowed.
Minutes and decades behind them,
the sound of a candle is their hymn.
-- Michael Tharp,