On December 7, 1991, a few of the 765 Japanese fighter pilots who attacked Pearl Harbor returned to Pearl by invitation, to visit the Arizona Memorial. The hope was that both the Americans and the Japanese who were present that day at Pearl could find some sort of peace and closure to the horrific events that happened that day. Some American sailors extended hugs and hands in friendship to their former enemies while others simply could not.
One of those present at the Memorial that day was Master Sergeant Richard Fiske, who served aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia. The trauma of December 7, 1941 weighed upon him heavily all his life. In 1965 he was hospitalized for ulcers. Looking back, he said,
"You have no idea of the hate that I had. And I'm sorry about that because that's not my way. But I had so much hate, I saw so many of my friends get killed, that I was in the hospital for 3 ½ months with bleeding ulcers."
After his surgery in 1965, his surgeon had a talk with him about how his memory of the event would affect his long-term recovery. Fisk said,
"He closed the door and said 'Let's talk.' We talked for about an hour and when the doctor left, I was crying. It seemed like a tremendous weight was lifted off of me. And I think at that particular time, I became a human. That was the day I became a human. All of that hate, I realized, was not hurting the person you hate. You're just hurting yourself."
Years later Fiske would meet and become friend with a former adversary, Zenji Abe, one of the pilots who dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor. The men remained good friends until Fiske's death in 2004. Abe and 45 of his former comrades would later return for the 60th anniversary memorial in 2001.
It begs the question: How is this possible? How can two men who were once sworn enemies, whose people killed one another by the thousands, in brutal combat, become such good friends? The answer is simple: it was time. Time to move on, to forgive, to heal. In order to regain some sense of who they were, to take control of their lives, they had to find peace.
Both men acknowledged one of the truths of war, that it's not personal, it's just...war. Unfortunately in the battle of ideologies between governments, men who have nothing to do with those differences, are killed trying to defend them. The Japanese pilots were doing a job, as military men, following the orders of their commander-in-chief. The Americans were doing the same when they fought back. It's the lot of war...that men are forced to do things they would not do under normal circumstances. When you take that oath to preserve and defend, you have to go all the way, even if it is at odds with your personal beliefs. You have to believe in the greater good. You just hope to hell what you're fighting for is worth it.
It must have taken great strength for the former adversaries to meet for the first time at that memorial and make amends. Those who were able to do so must have felt a great burden lifted, perhaps even that peace that for so long, evaded them. I can only imagine the level of hate that Richard Fiske and all who served with him, who survived that ordeal, must have felt that day and years after. I can only imagine how that hate affected their daily lives, their relationships, and their own personal well-being. It is not a simple task to forgive and make amends and put the past where it belongs. If it were easy everyone would do it. Men like Richard Fiske who found the strength within themselves to forgive their former adversaries must have felt a great burden lifted. To find friendship in the midst the ruins of hate is truly a wonderful gift.
I believe the most important lesson of Pearl Harbor is about forgiveness. As cliche as it sounds, I do believe out of everything bad comes something good. We have been given the opportunity to extract the good from this horrible event in our history. In addition to loss of life, the biggest casualty of war is the loss of humanity. The good thing is that men like Richard Fiske and Zenji Abe have shown us it can be restored.