Doolittle Raider Lieutenant Robert L. Hite, captive. Tokyo, April 1942.
Stories can be powerful things. I’m struck by how so many of the stories we hear in the news are about what divides us—what makes us “red” versus “blue.” The ongoing stream of anniversaries of many WWII events could be an occasion to tell more stories that divide. But with the Doolittle Raid’s 77th anniversary coming up in a few days, I’d like to tell a story that demonstrates the power of forgiveness and of sacrificial love—Christ-like love—to overcome hatred and enmity.
This story gripped me so thoroughly it inspired my first novel.
December 7, 1941. President Roosevelt termed the day of the Pearl Harbor attack “a date that will live in infamy.”
“Do the war-mad… Japanese… think they can get away with this? Or are they intent on committing national hara-kiri?” the Philadelphia Inquirer demanded.
“Japan has asked for it,” the Los Angeles Times blared. “Now she is going to get it.”
An outraged America’s thirst for vengeance had to be slaked.
Two weeks after the attack, the President gathered his advisers in the Oval Office. He issued an ultimatum. The Japanese had to know the grief and horror our own nation had experienced at Pearl Harbor. The U.S. needed to bomb Tokyo.
The President was insistent that we find ways and means of carrying home to Japan proper, in the form of a bombing raid, the real meaning of war.
– General Henry “Hap” Arnold
But we lacked those “ways and means.” No airfield we could access was within bombing range of Tokyo.
Roosevelt kept the pressure on. At first the military brass was stumped, but through the following weeks an ingenious strategy emerged. The Army and the Navy would join forces. A stealth task force consisting of two carriers and their escort vessels would carry sixteen of the Army’s medium-weight B-25 bombers within range of Tokyo. In an unprecedented plan, the bombers would launch from the carrier U.S.S. Hornet. They would drop their payloads over Japan and, since they were too heavy to return to the carrier, fly on to landing fields in China.
There were a number of technical challenges. But General Arnold put Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, one of the world’s foremost aviation pioneers, in command. Solutions were found.
On April 18, 1942, just six months after Pearl Harbor, eighty volunteers took flight on their perilous mission to bomb Tokyo and three other cities on the Japanese main island. The mission, now known as the Doolittle Raid, was a brilliant military success. “U.S. Warplanes Rained Bombs on Leading Cities of Japanese Empire,” the papers gloated. But due to a number of unforeseen circumstances, the sortie left most of the airmen stranded in enemy-occupied China. Two crews—eight men—were captured by the Japanese.
If you saw or read Unbroken, you have a general picture of what these men experienced. But where Louis Zamperini was a prisoner for a little more than two years, Doolittle’s “lost crews” remained in Japanese prison camps
…for forty long months, 34 of them in solitary confinement. We were imprisoned and beaten, half-starved, terribly tortured, and denied by solitary confinement even the comfort of association with one another. Three of my buddies were executed by a firing squad about six months after our capture and 14 months later, another one of them died of slow starvation…. The bitterness of my heart against my captors seemed more than I could bear.
– Corporal Jacob DeShazer, I Was a Prisoner of Japan
April, 1942–six months after Pearl Harbor. Doolittle Raiders the morning after their capture in China. Lieutenant William Farrell (top left) and Corporal Harold Spatz (lower right) were executed by firing squad in China. George Barr (top center) spent months in mental hospitals upon his release. Jacob DeShazer is the glowering man on the lower left.
Of the eight Raiders captured, only four came home. George Barr, Jacob DeShazer, Robert Hite and Chase Nielson returned to the U.S. different men. Here’s how they expressed it in a joint statement:
We learned some basic lessons about democracy, religion and ourselves, which may seem strange since we spent most of that time in solitary confinement…. In the hundreds of lonely hours we spent trying to retain our sanity… one of the documents we remembered and recited to ourselves was the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
The meaning of those words really comes home to you when you are confined by a brutal enemy who totally reject the concept of individual liberty.
We were not what you would call religious men before we were captured. We went to Sunday school and church when we were kids… We memorized Bible verses and listened to sermons and said grace at meals. We knew the Ten Commandments. But we never really understood the meaning behind those words and the source of strength they represented in our lives….
We were given the Bible to read. We found in its ripped and faded pages a source of courage and faith we never realized existed. The verses we memorized as children suddenly came alive and became as vital to us as food.
We put our trust in the God we had not really accepted before and discovered that faith in His Word could carry us through the greatest peril of our lives. Our United States, when still a young nation, proudly proclaimed its position to the world in its slogan “In God We Trust.” It is the only nation on earth that has its entire heritage resting on the firm foundation of faith in a God who rules the world with justice and mercy….
Those principles heartened the soldiers of the Revolutionary War… They served to help us through some of our most doubtful moments….
Our buddies… died to perpetuate those ideals. We do not think they died in vain.
– Four Came Home (Carroll V. Glines, 1995)
One of the four, Jacob DeShazer, was so transformed by what he read in the Bible during those miserable hours in his cell that he rushed to get a Bible-college degree on his return home. In 1948 he went back to Japan with his new bride, Florence, as Christian missionaries. The Lord had revealed to him in prison that He wanted to give the Japanese people an object lesson on the meaning of forgiveness. Jake was that walking object lesson.
This time I was not going as a bombardier, but I was going as a missionary. How much better it is to go out to conquer evil with the gospel of peace! The strength and power must come from God, but God’s promise is, “I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it.” (Revelation 3:8)
– Jacob DeShazer on his return to Japan
Japanese people flocked to hear him. They peppered him with questions. At that time, the idea that one could hold anything other than implacable hatred for one’s enemies was completely foreign to their culture.
There are a number of remarkable stories from Jake and Florence’s sojourn in Japan. The most famous is that of Fuchida Mitsuo, commander over the air attack on Pearl Harbor. Celebrated as a hero in Japan during the war, its loss left Fuchida eking out a living as a subsistence-level farmer. This gave him time to ask the existential questions. “As I labored on the farm I thought of God, creation, the miracles of the seasons, the growing plants. These things never failed to awe me.” Impressed by DeShazer’s participation in the Doolittle Raid, he picked up a tract Jake had authored. It made him curious about the Bible.
Fuchida read the Bible. He found the answers he’d been seeking in Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). Fuchida recognized the forgiveness Jesus spoke from the cross extended even to a twentieth-century Japanese warrior. He knew he’d reached the end of a “long, long wandering…. This new element enriched my life—the knowledge of Christ.” (God’s Samurai, Prange, Goldstein and Dillon, 1990)
Fuchida Mitsuo describes his post-war life as a farmer and his decision to follow Jesus Christ
A few months later, the Doolittle Raider and the man who gave the infamous “Tora-tora-tora” signal that launched the attack on Pearl Harbor were speaking to crowds together, bringing to thousands the message of God’s sacrificial love for all people and the power of forgiveness through Jesus Christ.
Jake and Flo ultimately settled in Nagoya, the very city Jake had bombed during the war. Their thirty-year ministry in Japan bore fruit in twenty-three church plants and in many changed hearts.
In a fascinating parallel, Fuchida revisited Honolulu and handed out Bibles. He told one recipient, “I came with bombs once, but now I come with the Bible. Jesus Christ is the answer.”
In researching my novel inspired by the experience of Doolittle’s lost crews, I learned that Jake’s story is not unique. Due to his status as a Doolittle Raid hero, DeShazer’s return to Japan for missionary work was widely reported. But General MacArthur, commander during the U.S. occupation of Japan, recognized the spiritual void left by the demise of Japan’s prewar militarist ideology. He begged the major denominations to send missionaries. Thousands of people responded. Many of these were men who’d battled the Japanese across the Pacific then felt moved to serve them in ministry after the war.
U.S. Marine Robert Boardman gave his life to Christ while hospitalized in Australia after a brawl. In 1945, he took a bullet in the throat in the battle for Okinawa and spent a year and a half in the hospital. He returned to Japan as a missionary in 1951 and ministered there for 24 years. Upon his retirement, he wrote a book reflecting on the confluence of Japanese culture and Christian faith. About Fuchida and DeShazer, he wrote:
These men were once implacable, seemingly irreconcilable enemies. They were bound in cords of hatred and bitterness, willing to die in order to destroy each other. Christ dramatically and completely changed their wills and hearts….
Loving and forgiving are not natural tendencies. They are supernatural.
– A Higher Honor (Robert Boardman, 1986)
DeShazer’s vision was to see Japan become a “Christian nation.” While this didn’t happen, tens of thousands of Japanese individuals responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible was a bestseller in the years after the war, as was The Bells of Nagasaki, a memoir / philosophical treatise written by Japanese Christian convert and atomic-bomb victim Nagai Takashi.
It may not be politically correct today to speak of the Bible having something to say about conflict and division between nations, races and creeds. But only the Lord knows what impact the sacrificial devotion demonstrated by people like the DeShazers, the Fuchidas, the Boardmans and Nagais ultimately had.
Thank you so much for devoting your time and attention to this post! If you enjoyed it, you might consider checking out my novel, The Plum Blooms in Winter, which was inspired by another amazing incident from the former Doolittle Raider’s ministry in Japan.
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