The Japanese airman makes his final preparations. He boards the cockpit of his aircraft, acutely aware of the responsibility that has been placed upon his shoulders. As his plane lifts off the aircraft carrier, followed by hundreds of his compatriots, the course of world history is about to be changed forever.
Commander Mitsuo Fuchida flew on towards Hawaii. His mission: to lead the first attack wave on the U.S. Pacific Fleet berthed in Pearl Harbor. But never could the slightly built 37-year-old have imagined that the course of his life would one day take him back to the very country that he was about to strike with such brutal force.
December 7, 1941: “A date that will live in infamy.” So said President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to a hastily convened joint session of Congress, just a day later. The 32nd President of the United States was referring to the Japanese attack, which had left 2,403 Americans dead, and a further 1,178 injured. It was the event that provoked America into joining World War II.
The attack itself had begun at 7:48 a.m. local time, when two waves of Japanese air strikes were unleashed on the unsuspecting American fleet. At the head of that first wave, consisting of 183 aircraft of varying kinds, was Fuchida. Having only been made commander two months before, it was a great honor for the career airman to be leading such a significant assault on Japan’s enemy.
In fact, just moments before, it was Commander Fuchida’s flare which had signaled the attack order to the wave of fighters he was leading into combat. Fuchida was also responsible for informing his onboard radio operator to report back the now-infamous message “Tora! Tora! Tora!” which can be roughly translated as “lightning attack”. It was confirmation that the assault had been a complete surprise to the Americans, and later became the title of a film depicting the events.
Commander Fuchida, as he was then, was therefore at the absolute heart of the operation. Having been in the Japanese navy since 1921, he had risen through the ranks, also gaining formidable experience of combat in the Second Sino-Japanese War. Bombing became a specialty of Fuchida’s, and he even became an instructor in the horizontal art in 1936. Further promotions saw him take on the position of commander by the time the attack on Pearl Harbor came around.
That assault on the U.S. Pacific Fleet was far from the only significant event in which Fuchida was involved during World War II. In fact, his military exploits make for compelling reading Just over two months after Pearl Harbor, Fuchida was the leader of the first wave of aircraft that raided the Australian city of Darwin. At that time, it was the largest-ever attack by a foreign power on Australian soil.
Less than two months later, Fuchida was again at the forefront of a major airstrike. This time he led an assault on important British Royal Navy positions in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. At the time, Ceylon was the home of the British Eastern Fleet. That particular attack led British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to declare the event as the war’s “most dangerous moment”.
Fuchida’s was a military career that took in some of the most notable Japanese incursions of the war, and he found himself front and center almost every time. Unsurprisingly, having been involved in so many deadly attacks, each time running the risk of death, injury or capture, Fuchida’s luck eventually ran out. Indeed, he was wounded while still aboard Akagi, the Japanese aircraft carrier to which he had been assigned.
Fuchida’s injuries – two broken ankles to be precise – were sustained during the Battle of Midway, which has also gone down as one of the war’s most iconic clashes. Taking place near an atoll of the same name in the middle of the Pacific Ocean from June 4 to June 7, 1943, Midway saw the United States inflict what would turn out to be insurmountable damage on the Japanese fleet.
Midway was a crucial victory for the U.S., a victory that Craig Symonds, a naval historian, has described as “one of the most consequential naval engagements in world history”. It was a turning point in Japan’s war: four of the aircraft carriers that had been at the heart of the attack on Pearl Harbor were sunk. And from a personal perspective, it changed the course of Fuchida’s campaign too.
Fuchida sustained his injuries when he was thrown to the deck of the Akagi as bombs struck the ailing carrier. The irony of the man who led the first attack on the U.S. fleet being wounded on board a ship under a deluge of American bombs should not be lost. In fact, Fuchida was lucky to survive that attack.
Sent home to convalesce, that was it for Fuchida in terms of active foreign service. He spent the rest of the war as a staff officer in his homeland, but continued to rise the Japanese naval ranks. In October 1944 he was promoted to captain, the highest position he would achieve. But as his own personal career was advancing, Japan was in the final throes of losing its war with the United States.
The Japanese-American conflict had of course begun so violently with that attack on Pearl Harbor, an assault in which Fuchida had played such an integral role. That same man saw himself involved in some of the most seminal events of World War II: Pearl Harbor, Darwin, Ceylon, The Battle of Midway. Yet now Fuchida was to only narrowly avoid the event that was to bring Japan’s war to a catastrophic end.
On August 5, 1945, Captain Fuchida arrived in the city of Hiroshima – an important center of Japanese military activity – for a conference that was set to last a week. However, that same day, Fuchida was summoned to return to Navy Headquarters back in Tokyo. It was a call that almost certainly saved his life; a day later, a nuclear weapon nicknamed ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on the city from an American long-range bomber.
The atomic bomb detonated above Hiroshima had a devastating impact on the city, initially killing an estimated 70,000 residents, with radiation later accounting for many more. The final death toll stood at anywhere between 90,000 and 166,000 people; if accurate, the latter figure represented nearly half of the city’s 345,000 inhabitants. Such devastation had never been seen before.
Incredibly, Captain Fuchida was ordered back to Hiroshima the day after the bombing to report back on the damage that had occurred (it was estimated that 70 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings were flattened or left irreparable after the bomb). Being sent back to the heart of where the bomb had struck, although it wasn’t known at that time, was akin to a death sentence, due to the radioactivity following the blast. Indeed, all of the captain’s party died from radiation poisoning.
All of the party, that is, except Captain Fuchida himself. In fact, the military veteran suffered no adverse effects at all. It remains an enduring mystery as to why he was the only member of that group not to succumb, and tallies with the airman’s career of narrowly surviving some of the most dangerous events of World War II.
Fuchida’s naval career was nearly at an end, for when the Americans invaded and then occupied Japan in November 1945, all Japanese military personnel were decommissioned. Fuchida had been in the navy for over 25 years, and had seen over 20 years of active service. He had been badly wounded, promoted several times, involved in some of the war’s seminal moments, and had served his country admirably.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was a central part of his distinguished navy service. Not only had Commander Fuchida, as he was in December 1941, led the very first wave of Japanese aircraft to sweep down on the U.S. Pacific Fleet moored in the harbor, but he had actually been an important figure tactically.
Fuchida’s instrumental involvement in proceedings had come about because he was attached to the overall commander of the fleet, Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo. Fuchida was thus charged with coordinating the whole attack from the air. This elevated his position to one of a tactical mastermind of the strike, although he was not responsible for the decision to attack Pearl Harbor itself.
Fuchida’s vital role would have made him one of the most hated figures in the eyes of his enemy. Indeed, with anti-Japanese feeling running high in the United States after the deadly attack, a number of homeland measures were enacted by the U.S. Government against the Japanese. One such measure saw all Japanese Americans, many of whom had been born in the United Sates, interned in camps for the duration of the war.
As well as outrage at the attack itself, the United States Government and its citizens were equally angered by the apparent duplicity of Japan, which had continued to engage in diplomatic relations right up to the point of the attack. One consequence of that act was to promote severe mistrust of the Japanese, and any Americans who identified culturally with Japan.
Meanwhile, losing the war triggered a mixed response in Japan itself. Some refused to accept it, others simply went about their day-to-day lives. Some military personnel took their own lives, believing their sense of honor to be at stake. Others wept openly at events. Fuchida himself was left bitter, not least by the fact he had been ordered to testify at war crimes tribunals, which he believed to be simply an exercise in ‘victor’s justice’.
An integral tenet of Fuchida’s thinking, both as a member of the Japanese military, and now as a decommissioned citizen, was the Japanese code of Bushidō, which can loosely be defined as the code of honour or chivalry adopted by the legendary Japanese samurai. The Japanese military adopted this code as part of their basic training for new recruits, and Bushidō can even be used to explain such behaviors as those of kamikaze pilots, who willingly gave their lives in battle.
There are many positive elements to Bushidō – or “The Way,” as it is also known – such as the samurai virtues of sincerity and loyalty. However, it was also identified as one of the main motivations for the cruel behaviour of Japanese prison guards towards prisoners of war (PoWs). According to “The Way” those who surrender are not deemed worthy of respect, and should therefore be treated with contempt.
As a veteran of the Japanese Navy, Fuchida was steeped in the traditions of Bushidō, and this would explain his continuing animosity towards the United States at this time. However, an encounter with an old navy colleague was to have a profound effect on the retired airman, and would change the course of his life forever, eventually leading him to the land that he had once attacked.
Fuchida’s experience of combat in World War II had come to a close at the Battle of Midway. Many Japanese personnel had been killed, captured, or declared missing in action as a result of the battle. Fuchida was convinced that the Americans had treated Japanese PoWs in the same manner as their American counterparts in Japanese prisoner of war camps, and in his desire to prove this, he went to meet some returning prisoners at Uraga Harbor in 1947.
To Fuchida’s immense surprise, there he found Kazuo Kanegasaki, who had been his flight engineer at Midway. Kanegasaki was thought to have been killed, but instead he regaled Fuchida with a tale of how he had been captured, but then not mistreated at all. Fuchida – a firm believer in Bushidō – received this news with even greater astonishment.
Kanegasaki then explained how a young woman by the name of Peggy Covell had treated the Japanese prisoners with affection and deep respect. This despite the fact that her own parents – Christian missionaries – had been killed by the Japanese on the Philippine island of Panay. The news came as something of a revelation to Fuchida, and it ultimately transformed his life.
The reason Fuchida was so bewildered by the story was because it contradicted everything that he knew from “The Way.” Bushidō taught revenge against those who had wronged you. Covell should have wanted death for the Japanese as the murderers of her parents. Why would this young lady then show respect and kindness to the prisoners at the Americans’ mercy?
Unquestionably, this realization tugged hard at Fuchida’s moral code, and from that moment on he began to seek answers. His fascination was further piqued the following year when he was handed some literature relating to the American airman Jacob DeShazer. DeShazer had been captured by the Japanese during the war, and tortured. This experience triggered an “awakening to God”.
DeShazer’s experiences, coupled with the story of Covell’s kindness, were perhaps the catalysts that led Fuchida to seek out the Bible. It was reading the Christian holy book that prompted the military veteran to become a Christian in September 1949. Less than a year later, Fuchida met DeShazer.
“Looking back, I can see now that the Lord had laid his hand upon me so that I might serve him,” Fuchida later said about this time when he found God. But this religious awakening inspired something more. Fuchida felt compelled to share the story of his unique path to Christian conversion.
And where exactly did Fuchida what to share his message? None other than the in the United States, the land of his former mortal enemies. It was then that Fuchida traveled to the U.S. and established the Captain Fuchida Evangelistical Association in Seattle, Washington. The warrior had headed back to the scene of his greatest battle as a messenger of peace. It was quite the return.
Fuchida set about preaching his Christian message by sharing his story of conversion. In later years, he even wrote an autobiography which emphasized the unlikely journey he had made. “I remember the thrill that was mine when, in one of my first [evangelistic] meetings, I led my first soul to Christ in America. And he was one of my own countrymen,” the ex-airman said in his book, From Pearl Harbor to Calvary.
Fuchida was to return to the United States again when he toured with a missionary organization that was close to his heart. The Worldwide Christian Missionary Army of Sky Pilots was exactly as named, and it, too, acted as a vehicle for Fuchida to preach his story of learning to love thine enemy.
As well as missionary work, Fuchida spent his post-war years writing books about his war experiences. He penned works named Midway: The Battle that Doomed Japan, the Japanese Navy’s Story and For That One Day: The Memoirs of Mitsuo Fuchida, the Commander of the Attack on Pearl Harbor. In them, he used his considerable personal insights to tell the story of two notorious events of World War II from a unique perspective.
Captain Mitsuo Fuchida died on May 30, 1976 due to complications brought about by diabetes. He was 73 years old. His had been a full life: one he had spent as an airman, an author, and a Christian evangelical. Born in Japan and at the forefront of the Japanese war effort, he was to eventually spend time preaching a message of peace in the country he had once helped to attack.
It is an unlikely story worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. The sworn enemy who learned to love his foe. For Captain Fuchida it had once been the way of the samurai, and a thirst for revenge, but this was replaced by a different sentiment altogether. As Fuchida said, “Christianity has opened my eyes, and I hope through Christ to help young people of Japan learn a great love for America.”