A somber ritual upon a mountaintop
By Tech. Sgt. Samuel Morse, 374th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 20, 2012
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan -- Hearing stories about World War II generally do not give the impression of internationally made friendships. But a single event during that war has inspired an annual ceremony commemorating human decency and respect.
On June 16, a group of 26 Airmen and other Americans from Yokota climbed Mount Shizuhata in Shizuoka, Japan, along with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers and Japanese civilians in solemn memory and rejuvenated friendship commemorating that event.
It was June 19, 1945, when the sounds of Boeing B-29 bombers were heard over the city of Shizuoka. The bombers were delivering their payload when the unthinkable happened -- two of the bombers collided mid-air and fell from the sky.
Fukumatsu Ito was in Shizuoka during the bombing raid and aircraft crash. Despite Japanese laws at the time stating that anyone found helping the enemy would be put to death, Ito and a few others ran to the aid of the downed aircraft. They managed to pull two survivors from the wreckage who later died as a result of their injuries. Out of respect, they buried the fallen Airmen.
"From the sheer human destruction of war, came the humanity that saw the survivors treat the deceased from both sides with the same respect and their enduring spirit directly lead to the rebuilding of this great nation," said U.S. Ambassador John V. Roos in a letter read during the ceremony by Lt. Col. Dylan Monaghan, U.S. Embassy mutual defense assistance office Air Force programs officer.
For those who died during the bombing raid, Ito erected not one, but two monuments on top of Mount Shizuhata in memory of the Japanese and Americans. He later began the annual B-29 memorial ceremony as a reminder of the power of humanity and compassion, even during a time of war. After Ito's death, the responsibility of organizing the annual ceremony was passed to Dr. Hiroya Sugano.
"I feel honored, especially at this event, being enlisted aircrew," said Staff Sgt. Andrew Schloemer, 459th Airlift Squadron helicopter flight engineer. "It hits a bit closer to home."
During the ceremony itself, the deceased are honored in both American and Japanese traditions. First, the Japanese and American attendees paired up to honor both monuments in the Japanese Buddhist tradition, burning incense and bowing to show respect. Then, the Japanese and American service members poured bourbon over each monument to share one last drink with their fallen brothers-in-arms.
"I just kept thinking about the men who lost their lives that day," said Schloemer. "I kind of pictured all of them standing behind me as I poured [the bourbon] there and said to myself 'rest in peace and thank you for your sacrifice.'"
It was a simple act, the attempted rescue and dignified burial of those who gave their life in service of their nation, which has put the name of Fukumatsu Ito into the history books, and gathers Americans and Japanese on the top of Mount Shizuhata each year.
"Until this event, I hadn't heard the story about the B-29 crash," said Schloemer. "It's a humbling story from beginning to end... It's just a good reminder of what's really important in life and that's respecting people for who they are."