Older residents of what is now Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, still vividly remember the horrific warplane crash there and the dramatic events that ensued in the waning days of World War II.
With tensions running high among locals following the death and destruction, the captured American crew made it out alive thanks to the efforts of one Japanese local and the well-timed use of an English loanword, in what becomes a remarkable tale of wartime reconciliation.
It all started when area residents looked up and saw a bright light.
Shoji Matsumaru, 84, described the stunning, eerily beautiful sight of the fireball falling from the sky 77 years ago.
“It was not red, but almost like a rainbow with different colors,” he said. “But it seemed very pretty to me.”
A U.S. B-29 bomber was shot down over what was then Funaho village in present-day Inzai, located east of Tokyo, sometime between the evening of May 25, 1945, and early the next day. The warplane broke apart and plummeted to the ground.
Hiroyuki Okada, who served as interpreter for the captured bomber crew in 1945, now heads the Wadatsumi no Koe Kinenkan museum in Tokyo. (Mayuri Ito)
Matsumaru, who lived in the Muzai district of Funaho, saw one part of the plane rotating and spewing flames as it hurtled downward. He was 6 at the time.
The night the bomber was shot down, Yagoro Saito, 98, was trying to escape from the falling wreckage with his father and two younger sisters in the Tokami district next to Muzai. The tail of the bomber fell in a nearby field.
The blast of wind caused by the impact threw Saito’s father, Yataro, 56, to the ground and killed him. His first grandchild was born only a month earlier.
The B-29 was part of a bombing mission over Tokyo. According to a report put together after the war by the Legal Section of the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers (GHQ), plane parts fell in the Muzai and Tokami districts of Funaho village and three of the 11 crew members died. Two bodies were found in Muzai and the other in Tokami.
Seiichi Iijima, 93, lives in the Muzai district. He found one of the parts on the ground near his home the morning after the crash. The two dead crew members he saw looked as if they were asleep. No one attended to the bodies and before long, some villagers began striking the bodies with sticks.
Iijima felt sorry because he did not understand why anyone would try to hurt someone who was already dead.
Koichi Kawauchi, 88, lived in a neighboring village, but went to Tokami after he heard the plane has been shot down. He saw its tail in the field and noticed blood flowing from the ear of the dead crew member.
“You bastard,” he remembers thinking at the time. “How dare you carry out bombing attacks.”
The GHQ report said residents cremated the bodies found in Muzai and buried the remains at nearby Anyoji temple. The body found in Tokami was buried in a nearby cemetery.
In nearby Rokugo village, rumors spread that a U.S. airman was in the vicinity.
According to the memoir of one of the crew members, seven of the eight survivors were captured within hours after they had parachuted to the ground. The other managed to escape at first but was eventually captured.
The captured crew was taken to the village office.
POWER OF WORDS
Hiroyuki Okada, 93, a professor emeritus of Tokyo’s Hosei University, was still just a young student at the time at what is now the University of Tokyo, and his family home was in Rokugo.
As he remembers it, his cousin asked him to go to the village office on the evening of May 26, 1945, to serve as an interpreter because he knew Okada spoke English.
Okada remembers well what transpired next.
Villagers had gathered at the office bearing sickles and knives.
Many were furious and some shouted that the captured U.S. crew member should be beaten or killed.
The situation seemed dire.
When Okada arrived at the scene to serve as an interpreter, he felt the villagers might kill the surviving crew member at any time. He tried to de-escalate the situation by having the village official, the captured crew member and himself moved to a different room.
Okada asked the crew member for his name. He also asked him about the plane and his family. But the crew member was so afraid he could not answer, so Okada thought about how he could help him relax a little.
“War is about nations fighting each other,” he told him. “I hope you will talk because we, as individuals, are not fighting each other.”
After the March 10, 1945, Great Tokyo Air Raid, in which 100,000 residents are estimated to have perished, Okada felt strongly that Japan would lose the war. In junior high school, teachers called Okada unpatriotic because he called for an end to the government mandate that forced students to work for the war effort.
The Boeing B-29 bomber was dubbed the Superfortress (Photograph taken by U.S. military)
When he questioned the crew member, Okada asked him about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died the previous month, as well as his successor, Harry S. Truman.
The crew member said he respected Roosevelt, but knew little about Truman.
Okada returned to the room where the other villagers were waiting and explained what he had been told by the crew member. He told them the airman said he was hungry and asked a village government employee to give him steamed potatoes.
After giving him a potato, the villagers heard the crew member say, “Sankyu.”
They were stunned that the airman spoke to them in what they considered Japanese and some began laughing. The tense atmosphere melted away.
“To peasants, ‘sankyu’ and ‘orai’ (all right) were Japanese terms,” Okada said. “Those words were often used prior to the war. But during the war, Japanese were taught the United States and Britain were evil demons and Americans referred to the Japanese as ‘yellow monkeys.’ Each side considered the other to be nothing more than animals. But hearing ‘sankyu’ likely led the villagers to realize they were the same–humans.”
That night, the B-29 crew member slept on a futon laid out at the village office. He was eventually turned over to the military police.
Okada said that with the persistent bombings of the main islands, the villagers could not be faulted for feeling the U.S. Army Air Forces members who carried out the bombing should be killed.
But Okada thinks he knows why the surviving crew member was spared in the end.
“It was the accumulation of coincidences: The one Japanese person there who could speak English was an anti-war boy, the airman threw away his weapon and the villagers mistakenly believed ‘sankyu’ was Japanese.”
POWS ABUSED AFTER CAPTURE
One of the eight surviving crew members, Scott Downing, wrote about 100 pages on his war experience in a 2001 self-published book titled “A Ball of Rice and a Cup of Water.”
In his memoir, Downing included an entry by the crew member who said, “Thank you.”
The airman said after the plane crashed, he threw away his gun before the local Japanese found him. His watch and ring were taken from him and, although he had no idea what the Japanese would do to him, he felt relieved when he received the prepared potatoes.
“I thought that these people aren’t going to kill me. I ate my potatoes,” he said.
According to Downing’s account, he was captured by villagers, tied to a tree and beaten with sticks and shovels. He was then turned over to the military police.
The GHQ report based on questioning of locals concluded “there is nothing to indicate that any atrocity was committed on crew members of this plane. The case is closed.”
Downing wrote about other POWs who died after they were denied medical care, even though some had begged for it.
He recalled military police throwing rice balls on the floor and the POWs scrambling like animals to scrape them up. And he told of the spread of infectious diseases due to the unsanitary conditions of the prison cell.
He said even those who survived the brutal conditions of the POW camp died after the war.
Scott Downing stands in front of part of the B-29 bomber he was a crew member of during a 1947 visit to Inzai, Chiba Prefecture. (Provided by Stuart Downing)
In other parts of Japan, captured U.S. air crew members were physically abused, even killed, and some Japanese were eventually punished for war crimes.
Some of their circumstances were strikingly similar to the story of the downed B-29.
According to a historical account published by the Chiba prefectural government, a U.S. plane crashed in June 1945 in what is now Tako. A crew member was poked with bamboo spears and taken to a school ground in what is now Katori, where he was beaten and killed by Japanese soldiers and locals.
Some of those responsible for the atrocity were sentenced to hard labor after the war.
Fate had something else in mind for Downing.
RECONCILIATION AFTER 70 YEARS
In 2015, Downing was invited to Japan by the Foreign Ministry on a program for former POWs on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
He visited Inzai at that time.
Isao Arai, 87, of Yokohama researched the various locations in Japan where B-29 bombers crashed. Arai wanted to explain to the visiting former crew members the situation at the time their plane crashed.
He visited Inzai residents to gather testimony. But many were hesitant to speak. Arai continued his research with the cooperation of Shoshin Ichijima, 83, the head priest of Senzoji temple, which also administers Anyoji temple where the remains of two crew members were buried.
Ichijima had heard from locals that the dead air crew members were buried headfirst. But when they found out U.S. occupation forces were coming to collect the remains, the residents dug up the bodies and cremated them.
Prior to the visit of the former crew members, Ichijima inquired about the burial with another resident who admitted to what took place.
Ichijima said, “I believe some people did not want to talk about what happened because they still had the sense they might be blamed (for what was done to the bodies).”
He met with Downing in 2015. When Downing spoke about the abuse he suffered as a POW, Ichijima replied, “But all of you killed more than 100,000 people in the air raid.”
Shoshin Ichijima, the head priest of Senzoji temple in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture (Mayuri Ito)
Ichijima was only 6 during the war, but he still remembers the sky in the direction of Tokyo turning bright red after the bombings.
But he also felt resentment that he held had to be abandoned along with the feelings held by each side of being enemies or friends. He accompanied Downing to Anyoji and conducted a Buddhist memorial service for the three dead crew members. Ichijima asked his son to chant a sutra in English.
“After 70 years, the former crew members stood where their comrades died,” Ichijima said. “I can never forget that valuable fact.”
Downing shook hands with Saito, whose father was killed by the falling plane part. That was the first time Downing realized a local resident had died in the incident. He also shook hands with the son of the resident who tied him to a tree.
Two years later, Downing died at 98. His son, Stuart, 69, accompanied him on that 2015 visit.
“He has always felt very comfortable with the citizens of Japan and only hated the treatment he received upon capture,” Stuart said. “He was extremely happy with the Japanese people when we returned in 2015, and he was treated very well.
“My dad’s message is that he had forgiven all the Japanese people in the military that abused him and had nothing but praise for all the citizens of Japan.”
When asked about the many Japanese civilians who were killed in the air raids, Stuart said his father never spoke much about the general population that he was bombing.
“I imagine he knew he was following orders from his commanders,” he said. “If attacked, I would be a good, patriotic soldier and defend my country. I believe anyone would.
“I know he regrets they lost their life as a result of the fire bombings.”