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Sakai. Photo via Stevens, Jr.
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War and Forgiveness

The unlikely friendship between a fighter pilot and his victim’s son

War and Forgiveness

The unlikely friendship between a fighter pilot and his victim’s son


During this holiday season, with war rumbling across the planet, it’s good to remember that even sworn enemies can, in time, find deep and lasting peace.

Spring 1942. The Allies were reeling from the ferociously successful Japanese assault upon East Asia and the Western Pacific. From his new base in Melbourne, Australia, U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur requested “sufficient men and sufficient material”—two aircraft carriers, a thousand aircraft and three divisions of troops—to counterattack.

Such demands sounded ludicrous in Washington. Having entered the war with the world’s 16th-largest army and with much of the Pacific Fleet wrecked at Pearl Harbor, America had no such resources. There was also a lot more more “what” than “why” in MacArthur’s dispatches, with few details on what the general planned to do with all those men, planes and ships.

Both U.S. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall decided some fact-finding was in order and dispatched three officers to take a look. Marshall chose Lt. Cols. Francis Stevens and Samuel Anderson. Roosevelt’s choice was somewhat unusual, but it cured one of his many headaches.

His name was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The day after Pearl Harbor, Johnson—then a young Navy reservist and New Deal activist—volunteered for active duty. A great many Americans did so that day, but this man was also the U.S. representative for the 10th Congressional District.

FDR feared that if one member of Congress left for the front, soon all of them would, leaving the government hamstrung. His nifty fix was to send Lt. Cmdr. Johnson to Australia as his personal eyes and ears, then to issue a directive prohibiting sitting members of Congress from serving in the armed forces.

The three officers met up in transit across the Pacific and resolved to work as a team. They would look over MacArthur’s headquarters together and get close to the fighting together. When that day came, Stevens and Johnson found themselves getting ready for an air strike on New Guinea.

Johnson had claimed a choice seat aboard a B-26 Marauder named Wabash Cannonball, but found Stevens sitting in it when he returned with a camera he’d forgotten. After Stevens jokingly told him to find another airplane, Johnson boarded a different B-26 and the bombers took off on their mission.

At the target airfield near Lae on the northeast coast of New Guinea, Japanese navy Petty Officer 1st Class Saburo Sakai was being photographed with some fellow pilots when the air-raid siren sounded.

Already one of the Emperor's top aces, Sakai would ultimately achieve a total of 64 kills. As the American warplanes rumbled in towards their target Sakai and the other pilots of the Tainan Kokutai flew their Zeros up to meet them.

Johnson’s plane turned back with engine trouble but Wabash Cannonball did not, and was shot down by Sakai. And that was about as much as Stevens’ son, Francis Stevens, Jr., knew for a long time—that his father had been shot down and killed in a B-26 over New Guinea during World War II.

At left, Johnson and Stevens, Sr. At right, Sakai. Photo via Stevens, Jr.

A son’s quest

Francis Stevens, Jr., attended West Point—and began a quest to learn more about his father’s death. After his inquiries at the Air Force’s huge archive turned up nothing, young Stevens saw a photograph of a B-26 under attack over water in a magazine. The publication directed Stevens to the article’s author, Martin Caidin.

Caidin was a respected aerospace writer and historian later famous for writing Marooned and The Six Million Dollar Man. After Caidin informed Stevens that the photos were not those he sought, Stevens and his sister prepared to hire Caidin to track down pictures of their father’s plane.

The Army wanted Stevens to teach English at West Point and footed the bill for grad school at Columbia. In January 1964, Stevens checked in with the First Army Headquarters on Governor’s Island and was startled to learn he was to immediately phone the White House.

The White House told him to call Caidin at once. The author was waiting for Stevens at a hotel not three blocks from the phone booth the young officer was using.

Stevens and his wife were welcomed by Caidin and another writer, Edward Hymoff, who were then engaged in writing an account of the first sitting congressman to serve in wartime and the only one to see combat—the mane who now occupied the Oval Office.

Caidin assured Stevens that he would never have accepted money to search for his father, and showed him the documentary evidence Stevens had spent years looking for. They included photos of Wabash Cannonball’s demise and a long letter written by the man who shot down the warplane, Japanese pilot Sakai.

Stevens decided then and there to meet Sakai some day.

That day came 23 years later in 1987. Now-retired Col. Stevens read an article in a Tacoma paper about an airshow in Yakima where Sakai was to be the guest of honor. When a phone call to the airfield went unanswered, Steven and his wife drove four hours to Yakima in hope of an impromptu meeting.

Sakai’s bodyguard found Stevens’ reason for wanting a meeting so implausible he grudgingly agreed to inquire. Shortly thereafter Francis Stevens, Jr. met the man who had killed his father.

Through his interpreter, Sakai apologized for the death and said he bore the American airmen no malice. Stevens responded in kind; both men were soldiers, he said, doing their duty. It was a powerful moment. More were to follow.

The next year, Sakai accepted the Stevens’ invitation to stay a night at their Tacoma home before the Yakima Air Show. The Japanese ace asked the American if he had any of his father’s possessions and Stevens produced a West Point sweater, which the younger Stevens had also carried with him to the academy.

Sakai spoke a Shinto prayer over the sweater, and then explained through his interpreter that his prayer, from one warrior to another whom he had slain, would elevate his father several levels in Heaven above his own merits.

Sakai next brought out the pilot’s helmet and silk scarf that he had worn the day he shot down Stevens’ father. The helmet and goggles still showed the bullet scars from the two head wounds Sakai sustained in combat over Guadalcanal.

When Stevens spoke of his daughter, then attending the Air Force Academy, Sakai became deeply moved and tore a tiny scrap of cloth from the scarf. He gave it to Stevens as a talisman for his daughter, who continued the warrior line of the Stevens family. That a woman would carry on the tradition delighted Sakai.

Stevens and Sakai remained great friends until Sakai’s death in 2000. Stevens and his family treasure their memories of a great warrior and a great man, and of what came of that bright hot fight over a tropic sea so many years ago.

May we find such common ground with our present enemies and come to such an understanding. Unlikely, perhaps, but then the human heart is like that.

Stevens, Jr. and Sakai. Photo via Stevens, Jr.

I am indebted to Col. Francis R. Stevens, Jr. for permission to re-tell his story. Stevens wrote about his father and Saburo Sakai in a 2006 article for Air & Space Power Journal. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.