David G. Smith
It has been over 50 years since the end of the Second World War. Truly the war played a major role in bringing the United States to the place of world leadership it occupies today, so it is useful to remember some of the key events of the war and God’s hand in them, from the American perspective. Although a general war had been raging in Europe since 1939, the U.S. showed no inclination to get involved. President Franklin Roosevelt, who was more hawkish than most Americans, was limited to lending the British outdated naval equipment.
But the events which were going to bring the U.S. into war were occurring in Asia, not Europe. The Japanese had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and the rest of China in 1937. They conquered much of the Chinese coastline, but their war machine was using prodigious amounts of material, and a U.S.-led embargo on oil and steel was stymieing their plans for further conquest in China and then the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1941 the Japanese knew that further conquest of China would probably lead to war with the United States. After months of unsuccessful negotiations over the embargo and the China issue, however, the Japanese General Staff were willing to wait no longer. A quick, surprise strike at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii would disable the U.S. Pacific fleet and allow Japan to capture unmolested large parts of China, Malaysia, the Philippines and oil-rich Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), which could supply their war machine.
The attack was a complete surprise. It was specifically scheduled for Sunday in hopes of catching the island in minimal defensive readiness. Many sailors and soldiers were on leave or sleeping late. When the attack occurred at 7:55 AM, many sailors who were not sleeping in were on the decks for inspection or religious service. The carnage was great. An attacking Japanese plane dropped a torpedo at the battleship Arizona, then strafed the color guard standing at attention while the American flag was being raised to the tune of the ‘’Star Spangled Banner.’’ In a disciplined manner, the color guard and musicians held their positions until the last note faded, then they sprinted for shelter. Seven battleships were lined up on ‘’Battleship Row’’ (the Pennsylvania was nearby in drydock). The Oklahoma capsized, the West Virginia and California were sunk, and the Nevada was damaged and beached near the mouth of Pearl. Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania were all damaged, and ten other ships were sunk or seriously damaged. The Arizona sank with 2000 sailors on board, after a stupendous explosion of its forward magazine. Just eight days earlier, the official Army-Navy football game program had carried a picture of the Arizona with the words, ‘’It is significant that despite the claims of air enthusiasts no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs.’’ But pride goeth before a fall, and that fact would change for the Arizona on December 7th.1
As terrible as the results were, they could have been far worse. The two vital U.S. carriers stationed at Pearl were (providentially) on maneuvers at sea when the attack came. The oil storage tanks, which could have created a mammoth conflagration and placed Pearl in a severe oil shortage for the first year of the war, were unscathed. So too were the repair facilities, including the important drydocks. As a result of this, three of the battleships sunk on December 7th were later raised, and the drydocks at Pearl played a vital role in repairing the carrier Yorktown before the vital battle of Midway. The airborne leader of the Pearl Harbor attack, Mitsuo Fuchida, strongly urged making a second attack to disable these vital facilities. Minoru Genda, the strike leader of the carrier, urged the same, and even advised that the strike force should tarry in the area for several days in hopes of catching the returning carriers. But Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, in charge of the attacking fleet, demurred. He faced a dilemma military leaders have often faced (most recently during the Persian Gulf War): What to do when an attack succeeds beyond expectations and at very little loss to the attacking force? Japanese projections of casualties were as high as one-third of the striking force. As things stood now, he had a great victory, but it could be diminished by further losses. Nagumo chose to protect his fleet and aircraft and withdraw.
The attack succeeded in uniting U.S. public opinion against Japan in a way that a conflict over Southeast Asia or the distant Philippines never would have. This was a country in which, just months earlier, Charles Lindbergh’s ‘’America First’’ isolationist organization had millions in membership. Now outraged citizens chopped down a cherry tree on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and ‘’America First’’ ceased to exist within days of the attack.
Indeed the Pearl Harbor attack, as awful as it was, was almost a favor to the U.S. fleet. The very effectiveness of the Pearl Harbor attack was proof of the lethality of air strikes from carriers. The brunt of the attack was taken by the almost obsolescent battleship fleet. Their destruction would convince the U.S. planners that to get back in the war, they had to concentrate on their undamaged carrier forces. Planning, strategy, tactics, and construction schedules were all changed to support fast carriers. The day of the battleship was over.
The attack at Pearl Harbor brought the immense strength of the United States into the war on the Allied side. Roosevelt had long desired greater U.S. participation in the war, but had been stymied by American isolationism. Now the Japanese had handed him all the justification he needed. Hitler helped, too. His treaty with the Japanese was purely a defensive one and there was no obligation to support the Japanese in their aggressive attack on the U.S. But, perhaps carried away by the success of the attack, he declared war on the U.S. as well, after the U.S. Congress had declared war on Japan. In the Providence of God, this enabled Roosevelt and Congress to declare war on the Nazis and adopt a ‘’Europe First’’ strategy which enabled Russia, Britain and America to defeat Hitler before he was able to completely carry out his plan to exterminate the Jews from Central Europe.
What might have happened if there had not have been an attack on Pearl Harbor? The U.S. might have still gotten involved in a limited war with the Japanese in the Pacific, but Roosevelt still would have had difficulties convincing the American public to send their soldiers to fight in Europe. December 7, 1941 was also the apex of the German advance towards Russia. Within days they would be reversed. While British and American aid to Russia was greatly appreciated (as was the opening of a Second Front in France later), it was probably not necessary. They were going to win the war anyway, and without Pearl Harbor, the Iron Curtain might have extended south from Belgium instead of the advance of Communism being halted in central Europe.2
Ultimately, both Germany and Japan suffered crushing defeats, in large part through American involvement. But the story does not end there. ‘’To everything there is a season,’’ and after the time for war, there is a time for peace. It was soon after the war that Mitsuo Fuchida, the lead pilot at Pearl Harbor, became a Christian. After the war, he had testified in war crimes trials in Tokyo, and the proceedings disgusted him. He did not understand concepts like mercy towards a defeated foe, so he assumed the Americans were guilty of the same atrocities towards prisoners of war and occupied areas that they were accusing the Japanese military leaders of. He determined to collect evidence of American atrocities towards POWs, and he began to meet boats of returning Japanese POWs to collect atrocity stories. But what he discovered surprised him. When he met a group of 150 returned POWs at a receiving camp near Yokosuka, he spotted a pilot, Kazuo Kanegasaki, whom he had served with and who was believed to have been killed at the Battle of Midway. He told Fuchida that while prison camp was no picnic, they had generally been well treated. But Kanegasaki and the other POWs had been very touched by the volunteer ministry of Peggy Covell, an 18 year old American girl. She had volunteered to help with the POWs, arriving shortly after the war’s end, and did a great deal to make their stay more bearable, becoming a friend to many of those incarcerated. One of the Japanese finally asked her, ‘’Why are you so kind to us?’’
Covell’s shocking reply was, ‘’Because Japanese soldiers killed my parents.’’
Her parents had served as missionaries in the Philippines before the war. When the Japanese captured the Philippines in late 1941 and early 1942, they retreated to the mountains of the north, where they continued their ministry. When Americans recaptured the Philippines, it was the Japanese who retreated to the north, and there they discovered Covell’s parents. They assumed that the small portable radio the missionaries had was actually a secret communications device and executed them as spies. When Covell found this out after the war, she was filled with animosity and hatred towards the Japanese, but then she meditated on her parent’s selfless service toward the Japanese (they had been missionaries in Japan before they went to the Philippines). She became convinced that her parents had forgiven their executioners, and felt she must do the same, so she volunteered to assist Japanese POWs.
This story was almost incomprehensible to Fuchida. Japanese society considered revenge as a beautiful outcome. Forgiving your executioners was unheard of; instead, a Japanese man about to be executed would pray to be reborn seven times, to exact revenge each time. Children were also supposed to devote themselves to avenging their wronged parents.
Despite the fact that many of his countrymen would consider Peggy Covell as weak lacking in devotion to her parents, Fuchida quickly forgot about his mission to confirm American war atrocities. Instead, he interviewed every ex-POW he could find who knew of Peggy Covell, to make sure the story was true. Fuchida was a zealous researcher; he found out from sources in the Philippines that Mr. and Mrs. Covell had been forced to their knees by their captors and had prayed together as they were about to be beheaded. Fuchida was intrigued — what had they prayed just prior to their execution? He wanted to know.
In early October 1948, as Fuchida headed for the morning train, he came across an American passing out tracts. Entitled (in Japanese) I was a Prisoner of Japan, it caught his attention. It had been written by an American sergeant, Jacob DeShazer, who became a Christian while in a Japanese POW camp. Fuchida read it on the spot and on the train, he saw an advertisement for a book with the same title as the tract. When he debarked, he headed for a bookstore and bought it.
The story engrossed Fuchida. DeShazer had been consumed with hatred for the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, and he volunteered for a ‘’dangerous mission.’’ The mission turned out to be the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in 1942, America’s first offensive response to Pearl Harbor. (This attack would providentially goad the Japanese into making their ill-fated attack on Midway Island.) DeShazer, however, was captured after his plane crashed in Japanese-occupied China, and he was sent to a POW camp in China. Truly, though, God does use the ‘’wrath of man to praise Him.’’ DeShazer was consumed with so much hatred he nearly went mad, and he began to wonder why so much hatred existed in the world. He began to read the Bible to find out. He memorized much of the New Testament, became a Christian, and promised God if he survived the war, he would return to Japan as a missionary.
The Doolittle raiders were men who had Fuchida’s respect for their daring and audacious raid on Tokyo. Fuchida determined to buy a Bible to understand this brave man better. In fact, on his return trip, as he was heading towards the bookstore where he bought DeShazer’s book, he came across a Japanese man selling New Testaments. Fuchida bought one, but it was nine months before he would open it.
In June of 1949 Fuchida saw a newspaper column in which one of Japan’s most famous novelists (who was a Christian) urged his readers to read the Bible. He told them, ‘’Please read only thirty pages anywhere in the Bible, and undoubtedly you will find something that will touch your heart.’’ Normally, Fuchida just glanced at the headlines, but today he was reading through the whole paper and this article convinced him to pick up his Bible. He read two to three chapters each day, thoroughly considering each point before he moved on. And each hour he would review in his mind what he had learned in that day’s reading. Fuchida found the miracles difficult to understand (although in later years he would consider them to be a cornerstone of the faith), but he was attracted to the moral message. In September, he read the story of the crucifixion for the first time in the gospel of Luke. It touched the deepest part of his heart. When he read Jesus’ words, ‘’Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,’’ (Luke 23:24), he realized this must have been what Peggy Covell’s parents were praying right before their execution.
By the time he finished the Gospel of Luke, Fuchida had become a Christian. He found that the more he read, the more he could accept the New Testament in its entirety. But he had no Christian friends, and openly declaring himself to be a Christian would bring much reproach. Christianity was considered the ‘’occupation religion’’ in Japan, as MacArthur’s fine work in trying to bring missionaries to the conquered nation had the unintended effect of associating the missionaries in peoples’ eyes with the more odious parts of MacArthur’s occupation policy. Some saw it as an attempt to weaken Japanese national identity. What was Fuchida to do?
The next step Fuchida took was to write to the name and address on the back of the little tract about DeShazer he had been handed on the way to the train station. The minister whose address was listed there, Timothy Pietsch, was handling outreaches all over Japan, so did not get back to Fuchida for nearly six months, but in the spring of 1950 he wrote Fuchida, suggesting they meet in Osaka. There Fuchida met with Pietsch and Glenn Wagner, head of the Pocket Testament League in Japan. After some initial misunderstanding and discomfort because they did not realize Fuchida had already become a Christian, Wagner told Fuchida that to grow he must read the Bible, pray, and bear witness to his new life in Christ. This last step Fuchida felt was impossible. But after Wagner told him that after he read the Bible more, he would want to witness, Fuchida realized he was just being cowardly, and told the two men he was ready to bear witness that day.
They took Fuchida to an open air outreach in the business section of Osaka. When the Americans were sharing, fewer than forty Japanese would stop to listen. But when Fuchida, ‘’hero of the Pearl Harbor attack’’ was introduced, the crowd swelled rapidly. Hundreds gathered, rush hour traffic was stopped, and even the police who came for crowd control listened in. Fuchida shared how he had been a man of war, but now he wanted to work for peace. ‘’But how can mankind achieve lasting peace? True peace of heart, mind and soul can only come from Jesus Christ.’’
This was the beginning of Fuchida’s successful new career as an evangelist. He followed it up with an auditorium meeting at Osaka, in which he shared his story and how the example of Peggy Covell had affected him. Close to five hundred Japanese came forward, and the rally was reported on by almost all the major newspapers in Japan. Unhampered by the issues of culture, race, and politics which limited the success of Western missionaries, he saw hundreds come to the Lord in Japan by the end of his productive career.
Another approach that Fuchida took was significant to his success. He thought it was important to work within the existing cultural framework. While he did not compromise his message, and felt Christianity would prevail over Shintoism and Buddhism in the free marketplace of ideas, he also considered it important not to needlessly antagonize his countrymen, and to show them that a Christian could still be a good Japanese citizen. He himself did not consider Christianity to be an abrogation of the Shinto religion, but rather its fulfillment. ‘’It was like having the sun come up’’ was how he described his own conversion. He used Shinto concepts like hakko ichiu (‘’all the world under one roof’’) and shikei doho (‘’all nations are brothers’’) to preach against Japanese egocentrism and xenophobia and to preach peace through Christ. Like Paul at Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-34), and undergoing the rite of purification in Jerusalem (Acts 21:20-26), Fuchida was willing to work within the cultural context he was ministering in.
Still, Fuchida paid a price for his witness. Not only did he turn down a lucrative offer from the Japanese government to reorganize the Self-Defense Air Force, he also once faced down an angry ex-kamikaze pilot who came to his house to accuse him of betraying Japan. The kamikaze pulled a knife, but rather than resist, Fuchida simply told him he could kill him if he wanted to, but that becoming a Christian had not made him less of a lover of his country. Several years later Fuchida saw his would-be attacker in one of the churches where Fuchida was speaking. This man too had become a Christian.
Fuchida also visited Europe and the United States spreading his message of peace and reconciliation through Christ. Space will not permit us to recount all the tales of his evangelistic endeavors, but perhaps this humble story will suffice as an illustration.
During his evangelistic travels, Fuchida did not forget to ‘’remember those in prison, as if you were in prison with them’’ (Hebrews 13:3), and he liked to make prison visits, where possible, during his visits to Japanese towns. In one town, Fuchida discovered that a hardened group of twenty condemned murderers had not been permitted to attend his earlier lecture at the prison. Fuchida resolved to see them also, and he was granted just one hour. There was no time for war stories here. Instead, he shared everything he knew about Jesus’ love for sinners. Recalling the crucifixion account in Luke which had been so pivotal in his own conversion, he told them how Christ had died for them, crucified with a thief on his right and left, and how He had assured the repentant thief that that very day he would be with Him in paradise.
Every man in the room accepted Christ and asked forgiveness for their sins. Then they formed a group they called the ‘’Calvary Club’’ to help them stay true to their new-found faith and hope.
Later the prison director communicated to Fuchida the end of the Calvary Club. ‘’Before,’’ he wrote, ‘’the guards had to drag condemned men to the gallows, but the members of the Calvary Club walked to the gallows like men, upright and straight, praying every step of the way, ‘Christ, be with me today in Paradise!’ ‘’
Fuchida died on May 30, 1976. His biographers write of him, ‘’Undoubtedly, Fuchida would have considered his whole life worthwhile if he had recruited just one soul for Christ. And he counted his converts in the hundreds.’’ He had gone from being a vital part of Japan’s attack on the United States to a vital part of God’s offensive into the hearts and minds of Japanese. To God Alone Be Glory.
* * * * *
David Smith has a Masters degree in history from the University of Virginia and has written numerous historical articles from a providential perspective.
The account of Mitsuo Fuchida’s life was based exclusively on God’s Samurai: Lead Pilot at Pearl Harbor, by Gordon W. Prange with Donald Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon (Washington: Brassey’s (US), Inc., 1990).
1 Walter Lord, Day of Infamy, (New York: Henry Holt, 1957), pp. 70-71, 220.
2 I am indebted to the now out-of-print Ballantine Book, Midway: The Turning Point for this idea.
Another Japanese Hero of the Faith: Chiune Sugihara
David G. Smith
Another Japanese hero of the Second World War was diplomat Chiune Sugihara. Born on January 1, 1900, Sugihara’s father had wanted him to become a doctor, but he wanted to study literature and live overseas. His father threw him out after he deliberately failed the entrance exams to study medicine, and he worked a number of odd jobs before answering a newspaper ad for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. When he discovered the ministry wanted Russian speakers, he went back to college and learned Russian. It was there he also converted to one of the Orthodox branches of Christianity.
In the fall of 1939, he was sent to establish a Japanese consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania. His official role was to serve as a diplomat and also to spy on the German and Russian military forces in the area. He would play a key role in assisting thousands of Jews to escape death at the hands of Hitler’s henchmen. After the conquest of Poland in 1939, the Germans began to persecute Polish Jews and send them to the concentration camps. Many Jews fleeing from the persecution passed through Kaunas. One morning in late July of 1940, Sugihara found more than one hundred Polish Jews waiting outside the Japanese consulate. They were seeking transit visas to travel through Japan to the Dutch West Indies (Indonesia).
Sugihara had already heard rumors of Nazi atrocities toward the Jews. Yet the Germans were a valuable ally the Japanese did not want to offend. Three times Sugihara requested permission to issue the visas, three times he was turned down.
Sugihara was no stranger to taking courageous stands. In 1934 he had resigned a position in Manchuria because of his outrage over Japanese atrocities against captured Chinese. This time, however, he had a wife and children to think of. Nevertheless, he decided to risk his life and career to issue the visas. He told his wife, ‘’I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t, I will be disobeying my God.’’
Soon the Russian army annexed Lithuania, and Sugihara was ordered to close the consulate and leave by the end of August. Each visa application required several paragraphs of writing, and Sugihara wrote them out longhand so that no other consular official would be required to risk their careers. He wrote the visas everyday, opening the consulate early, skipping lunch and working late. At night, his wife would massage his aching arms. Even after he left the consulate, he left a notice of the hotel where he was staying, and continued to issue visas from there. He continued to write visas until the moment the train carrying him to his next diplomatic assignment left the station. It was estimated later that he saved over 10,000 Jews, although it is not known whether they all reached the safety of the Dutch West Indies or perished elsewhere.
When the war ended, Sugihara finally returned home in 1947, only to be fired by the Foreign Ministry. He believed this was due to his actions in issuing the visas. Then a rumor started that he had profited financially from issuing the visas (in fact, he had even stopped collecting the usual fee early on). Reputation is extremely important in Japanese society, and he lost both his career and lost face in a short period of time. For awhile he had to sell light bulbs door-to-door (many Japanese were reduced to destitution by the end of the war), but his wife said he never complained.
In 1964, Sugihara was finally located by some of the Jews he had aided and he began to receive some belated recognition. In 1985, shortly before his death, he received Israel’s highest award, ‘’Righteous Among Nations,’’ which other Gentiles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust have also received, including Oskar Schindler and the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
(This account of Sugihara’s courage is based exclusively on Matthew Robinson’s article ‘’World War II Rescuer Sugihara: Diplomat Solved Moral Dilemma with an Act of Courage,’’ published in the Investor’s Business Daily on June 20, 1996, page 1.)