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Home > Family History > USS Neosho > Aftermath > Seattle Times Article

 

 

War and peace: Former foes are now friends and in-laws

By Ray Rivera
Seattle Times staff reporter

 

Note:  This article was printed in the Seattle Times on the 60th anniversary

of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 2001.

 

 

One was a U.S. sailor, a veteran of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea. The other was a junior officer in Japan's imperial navy, training as a kamikaze pilot. Sixty years later, any bitter feelings have long since washed away.

 

It started as a faint rumble.

Below decks on the USS Neosho, an oil tanker moored along Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, Fireman 3rd Class William Leu had just come off night watch. He had been in the Navy six months, assigned to the boiler room. He was 19 and already knew it wasn't the fun job he had signed up for.

The drone grew louder.

Nearly 4,000 miles away, in Hokkaido, Japan, news of the attack was greeted with joy. Yoshiichi Sato was a 16-year-old student thinking of college. He and his classmates were as surprised as anyone to learn their country had attacked the United States so boldly.   "The feeling was, 'We did it!' " Sato recalled. "We went through school in a closed, militant society, so there was no way of developing a different point of view."

The bombs sounded like thunderclaps. General quarters sounded at 8 a.m. and Leu scrambled to his battle station. "I couldn't believe what was happening."

As smoke billowed, he thought about his parents. He had gone to Ballard High in Seattle until he was 16, when his parents moved to Skykomish. He wondered if he would ever see his parents again.

The Neosho was moored between the battleships USS Oklahoma and USS California. Less than 10 minutes into the attack, the Oklahoma rolled heavily to her side. Sailors plunged off its deck into the oil-slicked sea. Three battleships down, the USS Arizona exploded into flames. Capt. John S. Phillips ordered the Neosho crew to cut the bow lines. Slowly, the giant oiler backed away from dock, barely clearing the capsized Oklahoma.  Threading torpedoes and bombs, the ship reached safety at Merry Point across the channel without losing a man. It was the only fleet oiler left in the mid-Pacific, according to news accounts at the time.

For the next five months, it crisscrossed the Pacific to refuel the fighting ships, often without escorts, which couldn't be spared for an oiler.  On May 7 exactly five months after surviving Pearl Harbor the ship took seven direct hits from Japanese dive bombers in the Coral Sea. Leu drifted five days in a crowded life raft alongside the burning ship. British planes spotted the wreckage, and five days later the USS Henley picked up 123 survivors.

Sato was studying economics in Shanghai when he interrupted his studies to join the military. It was 1944. He was sent to flight school at a base near Nagoya, about 12 hours south of Tokyo by train. He and his 500 classmates practiced on gliders to conserve fuel and took turns on the only motorized fighter available.

"We were told that the war was going as planned, that we were winning victory after victory," Sato said through an interpreter from his home in Tokyo. "But when we heard news of the great fires burning in Tokyo in the spring of 1945, and heard of (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur's victory in Saipan, we had a gut feeling that was not the case."

Training continued, slowed by the lack of planes and fuel. They would take the plane up 50 meters, turn it around and land. They knew they were training for one mission, to be kamikazes suicide bombers. They didn't question the orders and didn't fear them.

"There was no explanation, and no explanation was necessary," Sato said. "Even though we'd heard about the less-than-successes in the Pacific, I remember talking to my colleagues, and we were ready to do our part to protect Japan."

On Aug. 14, 1945, after the United States had dropped its atomic bombs, Emperor Hirohito announced the empire's unconditional surrender. Sato and his classmates heard the news from solemn commanders.  "We were told, 'Go home, get on a train and go home,' " Sato recalled. Some of the pilots, refusing to believe the news, ran out to the tarmac in anguish to continue training. "My personal reaction was, 'Well, this is the beginning of the rest of my life.' "

After the war, Leu came home to Skykomish and took a job as a railroad engineer. Like many returning servicemen, his hardened feelings toward the Japanese lingered.

If Sato felt bitterness, there was no time to dwell on it. People were starving, industry and agriculture were devastated, the atomic bombs had wrought colossal destruction, but the country had to move on. He returned to college, this time at Tohoku University. He also began to acquire a new respect for the United States. "They brought food and changed our political system from one of militarism to one of democracy," Sato said. "In just seven or eight years, there was a tremendous change in the Japanese mentality. It was a very important step in the postwar era."

Sato married and became an executive with Mitsui Petrochemicals, often traveling to the United States on business.

In 1972, Leu's son, Bob, came to him with a request: He wanted to spend his senior year in high school in Japan as an exchange student.   "I was real anti-Japanese after the war and it took a long time to get over it," the elder Leu said. "But I didn't hesitate. In fact, I was all for it."

Bob Leu thrived in Japan, completing high school, college and landing a job as a public-relations executive for United Airlines' Pacific Rim division. On New Year's Eve at the end of 1986, friends set him up on a blind date with an administrative assistant for a Japanese multinational firm. Her name was Kazue. She was Yoshiichi Sato's daughter.  A year later, they married; a second ceremony was held a few months later in Index, where their fathers met for the first time.

"I always wanted a son, now I have a great big one," Sato, who speaks some English, told Bob's father. Leu returned the compliment, saying what a wonderful person Sato's daughter was.

The men became friends, golfed together, but while they each knew the other had served in the war, they never spoke of it. Fourteen years later, they still haven't.   "I didn't want to discuss the war with a person on the side that lost," Leu said. "I didn't think it was appropriate, and I didn't think he would want to discuss it."   Sato, interviewed by phone from his home in Tokyo, said he also didn't feel it was appropriate because he had never been in battle as Leu had.

Today, Leu is in Hawaii to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, as he was for the 25th and 50th anniversaries.

Sato has no plans. There, Japanese commemorate the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks the way Americans commemorate Pearl Harbor, he said. Their memories remain but the wounds are healed, replaced by respect for each other and love for their children.

"He's a great person, and his daughter's a great person," said Leu. "I'm so glad we didn't meet during the war."


Copyright 2003 The Seattle Times Company

 

Table of Contents:

U.S.S. Neosho  (AO-23)

U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) Home Page

 

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Pearl Harbor Attack  (December 7, 1941)

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Bill Leu Interview:  Pearl Harbor Attack

U.S. Navy Action Report:  U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942)

The Battle of the Coral Sea:  Summary

Battle Action:  April 30 - May 4, 1942 

Battle Action:  May 5 - May 7, 1942

Battle Action:  May 8, 1942

The U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea

May 7, 1942:  The Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting For Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

List of Survivors & Casualties

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942 - cont.)

Bill Leu Interview:  Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Coral Sea

Action Report of the U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of the U.S.S. Sims

U.S.S. Helm Report

Other Ships at Coral Sea

The U.S.S. Sims (Neosho's Escort)

The U.S.S. Henley (Neosho's Rescuer)

The U.S.S. Helm (Rescued Life Raft)

Coral Sea Scrapbook

S.F. Examiner Article, July 10, 1942

 

Aftermath

President Bush's Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

Obituary of Captain John S. Phillips

 

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

 

Sources & Further Information

The current page is shown in bold.