Scott Farrell comments:
Even in the most fearsome times of warfare and battle, like the naval fighting that occurred between Japan and its enemies at the height of World War II, the spirit of chivalry has a crucial function — not, as some might claim, to provide any sense of comfort or courtesy to the enemy, but rather to facilitate the sense of reconciliation and diplomacy that must eventually be established if war is ever to come to an end. This real-life story of two true World War II heroes and the men they served with and fought against is a fine example of how the balm of chivalry can help heal wounds that might otherwise fester for generations.
British war veteran Sir Samuel Falle, one of 422 officers and sailors of the British Navy rescued by a Japanese warship during World War II, visited Japan and placed flowers on the grave of the ship’s commander last Sunday.
Falle praised the commander’s brave decision to save the men as an example of Japanese chivalry. His story could help change the negative image of the Japanese military during the war and promote reconciliation between former English prisoners of war, many of whom bear anti-Japanese feelings, and the Japanese.
On March 1, 1942, the British Royal Navy destroyer Encounter and its heavy cruiser Exeter were sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy off the coast of Surabaya, a port in what is now Indonesia, in the northeastern Java Sea. About 450 British officers and sailors were left drifting in the water under the scorching sun.
The next day, when the men had been pushed to their limits due to fatigue, thirst and fear of shark attacks, the Japanese destroyer Ikazuchi found them by chance while patrolling that sector of the ocean. Commander Shunsaku Kudo made the decision to rescue all the officers and sailors, despite being in danger of submarine attacks, thus saving the lives of 422 British sailors.
The deck of the Ikazuchi, which had 220 crew members, was filled with the rescued British officers and sailors, who were covered in heavy oil from the water, but the crew members treated them as friendly forces by washing them and giving them clothing and food.
“I remember to this day that they gave me a green shirt, khaki trousers and a pair of tennis shoes. Then, we were given hot milk, corn willies and biscuits,” said Falle, former lieutenant of the British Royal Navy and a former ambassador to Sweden, at a press conference Sunday after paying his respects at Kudo’s grave in Saitama prefecture north of Tokyo.
According to the 89-year-old man (pictured right) – who was in a wheelchair but whose mind was keen – Kudo came down to the deck and addressed the British sailors in English, saying, “You are the honored guests of the Imperial Japanese Navy. You fought very bravely. We respect the English Navy, but the English government foolishly made war on Japan.”
“He treated us with all the chivalry possible as the commander of a small destroyer and it was a remarkable experience that has lived with me throughout my life. I can still see him standing there and addressing us,” said Falle.
In 2003, Falle visited Japan to offer flowers at Kudo’s grave, but could not locate the site. Later, Japanese journalist Ryunosuke Megumi discovered where his grave and his relatives were located, and upon hearing this, Falle decided to visit Japan again. Megumi introduced the story in Japan in 2006 by publishing a book, Save the Enemies, describing Kudo’s decision and the rescue.
“I actually expressed my gratitude in person at the grave of Commander Kudo,” Falle said, after the reunion at Kudo’s gravesite after 66 years.
The next day, a memorial ceremony for Kudo and a welcoming ceremony for Falle, hosted by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense and the Japan-British Society, were held at the Grand Prince Hotel Akasaka in Tokyo.
“I am sure that Sir Falle’s visit to Japan will help in strengthening ties with Britain and bringing about reconciliation between former English prisoners of war and Japan,” said Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone.
In fact, Kudo’s decision to conduct such a large-scale rescue operation during a battle at sea, where Dutch and U.S. submarines were swarming, is noteworthy. A Japanese carrier had been attacked and sunk by an enemy submarine the day before in that area of the sea.
Some crew members jumped into the sea to save sailors who could not grab or climb a ladder or a rope by themselves. Moreover, the Ikazuchi searched for all of the survivors in the surrounding area and went wherever survivors were found.
Falle, who had imagined that the Japanese were cruel and strange, felt like he was dreaming and even pinched his arm, as he described it in his autobiography, My Lucky Life, published in 1996.
Kudo, who never told anyone, including his wife, about the event, passed away at age 77 in 1979. The heartwarming story would have been buried in history without Falle sharing publicly about his extraordinary experience.
Kiyosumi Tanigawa, the former navigating officer of the Ikazuchi, aged 92, explained the reason that Kudo did not talk about the operation even after the war.
“Under the right circumstances, with no enemy airplanes, ships or submarines, we took for granted saving enemies who had lost their combat capability and who were dying,” Tanigawa said. “I guess that Kudo might not have thought that he had accomplished a great achievement.”
Tanigawa also explained that the Japanese Imperial Navy did the same thing during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. The story became famous by chance because Falle brought it to light, he said.[quote1]
“Kudo was a well-tempered and silent man of worth, and a quick decision maker,” according to Tanigawa.
After experiencing life as a prisoner of war of the Imperial Japanese Army for three-and-a-half years until the end of the war, Falle started working for the British Foreign Ministry. He continued praising Kudo’s decision at commemorative events in Indonesia and the United States, as well as in England. When the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the war in Surabaya was held in 1992, he spoke at the ceremony, praising Kudo as a model of chivalry. He also submitted a report on his experience titled Chivalry to the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1987.
In April 1998, one month before an official visit of the Japanese emperor to England, former prisoners of war who had been oppressed by the Japanese Imperial Army demonstrated, demanding compensation from the Japanese government and requesting an apology from the emperor.
During World War II, about 60,000 prisoners of war of the Allied powers, including British soldiers, were forced to work to build the Thai-Burma Railway. Over 10,000 died during the operation from malnutrition, malaria or cholera under poor living conditions and a shortage of food. Some have harbored strong anti-Japan sentiments ever since.
To soothe the demonstrators, Falle, through letters to the editor of the Times, called on them to give the emperor a warm welcome and promoted reconciliation with Japan by sharing his experience of Japanese chivalry. His story was printed in the newspaper on April 29, 1998, and helped ease the tide of anti-Japanese sentiment.
“I was very impressed by his attitude that he cannot die until he pays his respects to Kudo and his family for his brave action,” said Kichio Kudo, the adopted son of Kudo’s niece. He came from Yamagata prefecture in northern Japan to see Falle, representing Kudo’s relatives.
“Falle has exemplified the spirit of chivalry more than Kudo did,” he said.
© 2009 Hiroyuki Koshoji
This article was originally published by UPI Asia in a Dec. 11, 2008 report.