Through the Looking Glass of an Old Soul: A Young Marines Lesson from the Wisdom of an Old Kamikaze

The North Pacific ushered in a cool ocean breeze as it met me gathering my thoughts on what feels like a life time ago. I was 20-years-old and half a world away from everyone I ever knew and loved. Part of me excited for the adventure I had embarked upon – filled with pride for rising to my country’s call in a time of war – and the other half completely terrified uncertain if the next 3 years of my enlistment would one day request the ultimate sacrifice. I shook away the thought and tried to focus on where I was because for the moment I was stationed in Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan and it was a time of celebration. I could hardly believe I had already been in the Marines for over a year and was about to attend my first Marine Corps Ball and the Marine Corps’ 230th, on November 10th, 2005. I couldn’t have felt more proud as I donned my dress blues and prepared for my first ball. It was there on that night I heard the words of a man who forever changed my outlook on life.

Masayuki Matsumuro was 76-years-old with a life story that few could compare. He served in a war that bore countless stories of bravery and men destined to legend. Unfortunately for Mr. Matsumuro he was on the losing side and neither destined to legend or stories of bravery, but that did not mean his life was any less important. For he would touch the lives of many in the years that followed that of World War II. As he guest spoke on that night, mine was one of those lives.

So many people are destined to know only the place in which they were born, too inundated with the pressures of every day life to really care about the world around them. They see the world in simple terms of us and them, me and you too quick to classify people in terms of generalizations and slow to learn from the teachings of the past. Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” This is one my favorite quotes because I use the lesson of these words in every day life. I try not to be too quick to judge anyone no matter their walk of life, I always try to understand them despite how foreign they appear and I constantly try to better understand myself. However this didn’t happen until the night I heard Matsumuro’s story.

Matsumuro was born March 17, 1929 to a wealthy family in the center of downtown Hiroshima. He was a middle child in a family of 11 and spent his youth admiring soldiers and the uniforms they wore. He recalled how everyone wanted to join the military in those days if only to don the uniform that so many wore with honor, but for him the dream was to fly. It was in April of 1943 that his dream finally came to fruition. He was only 14 years old and only 7 years into his education when he volunteered to join the Japanese Naval Aviation School in Osaka. It’s baffling that someone so young could prepare themselves to sacrifice so much even if it was in a different time in a world so different from ours.

The old man spoke of his past as if it wasn’t so long ago. He spoke of how the students day in and day out were taken up into the mountains for half a day training with gliders and the other half in classrooms learning the technical aspects. It would only take a year for Matsumuro to be selected to join the ranks of the Japan Special Attack Force, otherwise known as the kamikazes. For it wasn’t a real airplane that this 15 year-old boy was going to fly, but a piloted surface attack missile which the Japanese called Ohka. The Ohka had no engine and was powered solely by rocket fuel from the 1,200 kilogram bomb inside. The pilot had to find his target within a few minutes or die trying.

I was gripped as I listened to this weary man’s story about how he was so ready to give his life at an age that bared no resemblance of having lived. He wasn’t old enough to know the politics of the war he was fighting or to even know the love of a woman, but yet he was ready to make payment to his country with his life.

August 2nd, 1945, just 4 days before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Matsumuro took three days special leave to see his family. This was to be his last goodbye before his mission of no return. It was for them that he was ready to die. Ready to give his life to protect the ones he loved. Matsumuro spoke of the Japanese propaganda portraying the West as demonic people who were going to kill the men and rape the women and children. It was these thoughts that filled Matsumuro’s head as he grew firm in his convictions and made the best of his last few days.

August 6th, 1945, at 6 a.m., Matsumuro left Hiroshima for his mission. Just two hours and 16 minutes before the U.S. B-29 Super Fortress, named the Enola Gay, was about to change the world forever. Matsumuro soon arrived back at his training camp only to find news that Hiroshima was just hit with a special bomb by the Americans – the entire city was burning. A bomb named “Little Boy” had just stolen everyone and everything this man had ever known and loved; his family, his best friends, neighbors, school – everything had been turned to ash.

Eight days and one atomic bomb later, the war with Japan was over and Matsumuro was no longer destined to die, but the life he had known was over. The irony did not escape me as I thought about how this man was going to die for the life of his family, but instead was given life at the cost of theirs. It was a fate that could easily bring a lifetime of hate and resentment.

It wasn’t a life one would want to wake up to find themselves in. He had become an orphan filled with questions of what to do, where to go and what to eat. He spent the first three days under a bus stop near the place his home once stood. It was there he searched and searched trying to find answers, a remnant of his past. His search turned up nothing. It wasn’t until he went to city hall that he discovered he still had a sister alive in Osaka. He stayed with her and continued his search for three more months, but the bomb had completely erased everything it had touched.

The next two years were filled with hate and sorrow as he tried to continue his life and avoid the Americans who were now flooding his home. But not every collision can be avoided.

Things seemed to finally be going right in his life. He was soon to be married and start a family of his own, however he was going to be tested once more. For one fateful night as he was riding the train with his fiancé, a young American soldier made a pass at his wife to be. He kept showing her money and telling her to come with him as if she was nothing more than property. Matsumuro did what any man would have done when the honor of their loved one was called in to question. As the GI left the train, he followed and struck the soldier not considering the consequences that would follow.

For after he hit the soldier a U.S. Military Policeman came and took him away leaving Matsumuro with chilling thoughts of how this was to be the end of his life. It was in the throngs of the enemy that his eyes were finally open. It began with his treatment in jail. He was surprised at how they took care of him – feeding him three times a day with more food than he had ever been accustomed to in freedom. It wasn’t until the day of his trial that Matsumuro got the biggest surprise of all.

They gave him a Japanese captain to be his interpreter and asked his side of the story and when the soldier who accosted his wife spoke, he actually told the truth. He admitted to being drunk and wrongfully approaching Matsumuro’s fiancé. He apologized to Matsumuro and the next thing Matsumuro knew they were letting him go. The commanding officer and GI apologized and gave him lots of souvenirs and took him home in a jeep. It was then that Matsumuro found just how human the “evil Americans” could be. He later invited the soldier he struck to his wedding and they became lifelong friends.

Matsumuro recalled that in the years right after the war, everything was black and white. If it wasn’t for the soldier telling the truth, he would have surely died. It was because of that Matsumuro changed the views that were forced upon him during World War II and at last was able to forgive the Americans who destroyed everything he held dear.

To this day Matsumuro has devoted his life to shedding light on the importance of knowing the different aspects of the world we live in and how understanding different cultures could make peace that much closer. He is a member of the Japanese American Society, the Imperial Navy Surviving Aviator’s Association and has brought food and education to many of the impoverished children of Asia.

His story shows how ignorance and pain can lead to a life of hate on road of sadness. For if we only open our eyes to truth and forgiveness will we ever find peace and happiness in this world. It was this that I took away from that old kamikaze so many years ago. I am proud of that old soldier who despite his mistake decided to do the right thing and tell the truth on that day that completely changed Matsumuro’s life. For it gave him the opportunity to change mine.

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