As December 7 approaches, many remember how the last ‘good war’ began. I am reminded of the impact of how it ended, especially on one member of my family. And I am reminded of an act of kindness that taught me an unforgettable lesson.
It began with a quartet of swords.
My brothers and I grew up in the unrelenting sun and blissfully long days of Santa Monica, California. Blinded by the narcissism of youth, we hardly even noticed the four intricately decorated, six-foot long swords lining the wall of our den. When we finally asked about their origins, my father said he got them in Japan during the war and we all left it at that.
It wasn’t until 1973 that we learned the full story. At that time, my father—a successful businessman and political activist—was unexpectedly invited to visit China. It had just been “opened” and my parents and I became among the first to see it up close. But that’s another story. This one is about the side trip we made to Japan. And about those swords.
This would be my father’s first trip back since early 1945, when he spent a year as part of a Marine group administering various areas after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A Japanese language translator, he visited both those devastated cities. The memories of what he saw were not exactly repressed for the next 25 years—“I was in awe and shock,” he said—but went into a kind of seething hibernation.
He spent most of 1945 in the city of Kumamoto where, to prevent any renewed violence, the American command decided to confiscate all Japanese weapons of any kind. These would be stored in a series of warehouses and were never expected to see the light of day again.
That is when a young man from Tokyo came down to Kumamoto and asked to speak to the Japanese Language Officer, Captain Harold Willens. He explained that his father was an old man literally dying from remorse because he feared his Samurai swords—strictly ceremonial but also surrendered during the weapon collection—would be destroyed. They had been part of his family for 100 years and the son begged for understanding.
After several meetings, my father felt true sympathy for the young man and agreed to help. In the unlikely case that they would be found—think three football fields filled with mountains of materials—he promised to take the swords back to America. That seemed to satisfy the Japanese father and son, who claimed that just knowing they would be safe would be enough. The swords were eventually identified and made their way to our wall.
Fast forward to 1973 when, as we were preparing for the journey to China, my father passed the swords that had hung so silently for so long. Something lit up inside him and he became determined to return them to their proper place. This was not part of the bargain, not part of the original promise. It was not for money or publicity. It just felt right.
He recalled that he had kept their owner’s name somewhere. Then, through the mayor’s office in Kumamoto and the NBC news bureau, he made contact. He had the swords sent to a hotel in Tokyo and we had no idea what to expect when we arrived.
I will never forget walking off that plane and into the glaring lights of TV cameras. The story had obviously preceded us. That formerly young Japanese man—now a distinguished businessman close to 60—greeted us with a kind of emotion that I had not seen before—or since. I truly didn’t know a human being could bow so low.
The following day, it was arranged that the swords would be handed over from their American steward to their rightful owner on a national morning television program. My father remembered enough Japanese to tell the story in their native tongue. A country that had attacked us, gotten us into a world war, and to whom we had done incomparable damage—was weeping with gratitude. Those four swords seemed to accomplish what presidents and emperors had not.
Based on what he had seen first hand, my father spent the last 30 years of his life doing everything possible to halt the spread of nuclear weapons: he founded the Center for Defense Information, The Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, Business Executives Against the Vietnam War, Nation Magazine’s Circle of 100, and headed up the victorious California Nuclear Freeze Campaign. In the ‘90s, he stood alongside Mikhail Gorbachev as he paid to turn a Soviet weapons plant into a children’s clothing factory.
Today, as a returning student at Columbia University, I am studying World War II and Memory. I am grateful that my father’s own memory helped make this world a little safer. The wall in his den was eventually filled with photos of my children and those of my brothers, who all came to appreciate an amazing act of generosity and respect. I only hope others of their generation, in a country far away, are today looking up at four swords and feeling the same.
Rick Perlstein on the Enduring Cult of the Vietnam "Prisoner of War."