Haruki #1

Uncategorized April 28, 2015

It has now been over four years since starting this project of capturing images of people from the Second World War, primarily in moments of quiet. Books and magazines for the past six decades have projected in both words and images, the brutality of war. It was never my intention to show any of that. It remains my clear goal.

When the touring exhibit of Ansel Adams’ photographs of the Japanese (American) internment camp Manzanar (Central Californian) came to the Palm Springs Air Museum in January 2015, along with it were images of magazine covers of the 1940s casting its anger at Japan in many forms. Some showed the Coke bottle thick round eyewear on bucktoothed Japanese men: the Emperor, Generals and fighting men. There were other more disturbing images, two in particular, of a Japanese soldier practicing bayoneting a blindfolded, bare chested Chinese man tied to the pole. The horrors of war in black and white. Thankfully those images are not what I walk by on my daily trip to my easel. I start my day with the expectation of wonder, both in painting and the conversations.

I am well aware of the bloody history between Japan, China and Korea that has gone on for centuries. I’m not going to delve into the specifics here but the awareness allows me, when talking to people of Asian culture, to first acknowledge (never guess) their heritage. How do the Chinese feel about seeing my paintings of Japanese Americans who were interned.? In finding out their heritage, it’s never to point fingers at one culture over another but  to let them to know that even though I’m painting, for the most part, non-confrontational images, I can’t expect them to necessarily appreciate them or forget the past.

Last year I’d read a book about Japan’s highest fighter pilot ace: Saburo Sakai in which he talks about the brutality he and his other Navy pilots endured in training. The culture of completely removing “self” from the human being to become a total fighting machine operating without conscience explained a lot when reflecting on the brutality the Japanese army showed toward prisoners.

Right now I’m reading Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale For The Time Being about a sixteen year old contemporary Japanese schoolgirl whose diary washes up, after the 2011 tsunami hit the main island of Japan, on a small island off the coast of British Columbia and into the hands of a woman writer. In the diary, young Nao, talks about her late father’s uncle, a kamikaze pilot whose notes to his mother, written in French to hide his true personal feelings from his fellow pilots and superiors about war and his destiny to fly his aircraft into an enemy ship. Haruki #1 as Nao refers to him, reveals the emotional agony he’s experiencing days before his suicidal mission: “Will I bravely hold my plane’s course steady, knowing that at the moment of contact, my body will explode in a ball of flames and kill so many of my so-called enemy, whom I have never met and whom I cannot hate? Or will cowardice (or my better human nature) rally one last time, just long enough to nudge my hand on the control stick and turn my plane off course, so that by choosing to end my life in watery disgrace rather than inflamed heroics, I will at the very same instant forever alter the fate of those enemy troops on the battleship, as well as their mothers and sisters and brothers and wives and children?”

It was a powerful moment reading the heartache of someone, though fictional but probably true more than history has recorded, who had no choice but to die for something he no longer believed in and in Haruki’s case, never believed in.  He had the soul of an artist.  In the end, he became just one more body added to the millions lost in that war.

As I’ve said, it was never my intention to show the brutality of war and the story of Haruki cemented not only that for me, but has provided more incentive to paint his image in the form of some real kamikaze pilot whose story I will probably never know but hope that in those final moments of his own life, betrayed the stereotype of the maniacal pilot intent on killing the unknown enemy, sacrificing his own life in the name of humanity. War, as they say, is an unnecessary evil. Sadly we are bombarded by the worst in humankind almost daily. But within the ranks of all our so-called enemies out there, I must hang onto the hope that there are some who, like Haruki, loathe what they’ve been commanded to do and find some way to disappear  within themselves, within their own humanity.

The Sleeping Giant: racism

Uncategorized January 25, 2015

It’s been almost four years since starting this journey and like most undertakings of such length, a lot is learned and acquired along the way.  What started as a tribute to the men and women in uniform during WW II expanded way beyond that when, in talking to many visitors in many states, it began including as many aspects of the war as possible.  And this meant people of color and non-white races.

As many of you know, this project started, as most things do, by one seemingly small thing. In my case a black and white photo of a pilot standing atop the wheel of his fighter.  And it grew.  The subject of that photograph and now painting, was not kind in his thinking of the Japanese.  But the simple and unsolicited outpouring of gratitude by a Japanese American woman wiped, as he said “decades” of resentment toward the Japanese people.

Today at the Palm Springs Air Museum where I’ve now been working for over a year, a white male docent -the title given to the volunteers who interact with the public, stopped by my easel and calmly said:”This (referring to my portraits) doesn’t make me happy.”  Pressed to explain himself, his issue was the lack of white men in combat, like his father.  Though pointing out several of such images to him, what came to light was his resentment of both non-white races and women.  After talking to him for five minutes, probing his point further, he simply said: “We’re free to disagree.”  The fact is no we’re not.  There is no room for disagreement  about this.  What I heard was racism at it’s “white”-washed ugliest.  Somehow it was okay to not accept that all of these portraits represent real people who contributed something to the war and that includes the Japanese Americans on the west coast who contributed by, for the most part, willingly going off to one of ten internment camps, scattering close to 120,000 of them far and wide.

Two weeks ago, two caucasian women stopped by to talk to me about the internment camps and mentioned that an older docent made the off-the-cuff remark alluding to the Ansel Adams’ “Manzanar” internment camp exhibit: “That’s where those monkey’s belonged,” he had told them.  Needless to say this man was dealt with immediately by the staff.  The credo is to all who work at the museum, there is to be no discussion of religion, race or politics. Sadly that rule is abused daily.

One of the most commented on paintings I have is of six black WACs, the 6888th Battalion (Postal unit) happily posing for the camera.  People love it.  I’m not going to count the number of paintings I’ve done of ethnic minorities.  My mission is not about reflecting the head count of the time period between 1940 and 1945.  It’s always been about the stories.  But bigotry, racism and sexism looms large among many of the docents.  I will add, the majority of voluneeters are absolutely wonderful human beings, many from that era who know that they were far from being the “greatest generation”.  It was if you were white.

One docent told me that when he was nine years old, he and a friend stood leaning on the wire mess fence and taunted the Japanese Americans staged at the Santa Anita horse racing track.  “I’m not proud of myself,” Paul said.  Like so many white people along the coast in particular, he was caught up in the mass hysteria and influence of his parents and elders.  What’s particularly troubling as a thirty year old friend said to me, “We never learned any of this in school.”  American textbooks reflect the war’s history as the United States winning the war and rescuing the survivors of concentration camps in Europe.  Occasional sidebars might mention what happened to the Japanese Americans.

Those Japanese American men who sought to prove their loyalty to the United States were put in (like the black troops) segregated units.  The all Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Unit (where the late Hawaiian Senator Daniel Inouye served and lost his arm) was the highest decorated combat unit in US military history.

When the Tuskegee Airmen returned from their tours in Europe guiding American bombers safely into Germany and back to England, the “Red Tails” as they became famously known for, after sailing home on troop ships, the ugliness of white America greeted them at the bottom of each ship’s gangway.  Two signs each with an arrow pointing in opposite direction stared up at them.  Whites.  Coloreds.

Daily, people are surprised (and mostly delighted) to read the truth behind Iva Toguri aka Tokyo Rose whose injustice was served by a Japanese hating journalist Walter Winchell (who later backed the anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt).

It is now over seventy years since D-Day and resentment toward Americans of non-white races is far from buried.   Today this white bigoted racist opened wide my eyes.  Hatred lurks in the shallows.   I have more reason than ever to fill the walls with more stories and images of people of all races who have valued stories to be told and remembered.  It is ironic, yet apt to quote the famous Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto who solemnly mused after the Japanese Imperial forces attacked Pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”   Today I became that sleeping giant against intolerance and ignorance.

Forks in the Road

Uncategorized November 14, 2014

It has been six days since witnessing, in Montreal, Basil LeBlanc’s celebration and validation by the Canadian Grenadier Guards, a unit he served with in World War Two.   This was not an easy journey for a man who for over seventy years kept buried a secret that had been haunting him his whole life.  For a man whose first words to me were: “I don’t talk about ‘it'” -“It” referring to World War Two, this was a remarkable journey of redemption.

When I met Basil in late September 2013 it was at a weekend WW II event in Stow Massachusetts where, for two days, I had some of my artwork on display.  Working at my easel, Basil approached, speaking that line which was immediately followed  by “because if I do, I tear up” whereupon he pointed to a glistening left eye, ready to spill its content.

Since that day, I have wondered many times, why this happened.  Why our encounter took place.  That first meeting led to his proclamation to his sons David and John who’d come to my easel to retrieve their dad: “I’ve said more to this man than anyone including me wife… and I don’t know why.”  Last weekend in Montreal, we rehashed that day and the events since that first led to my painting his portrait to now, over a year later, him standing before a younger generation of company commanders to receive recognition for his war-time service in 1944-45.  Why did this happen?  Of all people to paint, why Basil? I had no clue what would unfold a year after asking to paint his portrait.  All I knew was in my heart, his image should become part of this portrait tour.

Two weeks after slipping my business card into his son John’s hand with the request to send me a photograph of his dad, I received a heartfelt handwritten letter from Basil along with a wonderful photo of himself as a nineteen year old Grenadier.  The jauntily affixed beret cocked off his forehead at an angle became a funny note of contention.  Basil, after seeing a jpg of the painting in progress, emailed “god forbid this painting ever ends up in Canada, I’ll be whipped.”  That youthful expression of cockiness had to be addressed.  With a few brush strokes the beret was brought back to the proper regimental look: parallel to the eyebrows, two fingers width.  That was a prophetic statement of concern because of course, now in Montreal along with Basil, the portrait was being unveiled as part of the ceremony.

“I don’t know why,” I kept saying to people, curious as to how it was we were all standing around at the Grenadier Guard armory awaiting Basil’s ceremony.  “Why” had I chosen to paint Basil LeBlanc’s portrait?  Was there some sort of divine intervention as many have suggested?  I don’t know.  The full ramifications of our joint journey together wouldn’t come out until later that day when in his acceptance speech, Basil revealed the painful story of guilt that had haunted him for seventy years.

We had been joking on the drive north from Massachusetts, the profound sayings by Yogi Berra, former Yankee baseball player and manager.  “If you come to a fork in the road, take it” was one that I recited.  It made me realize the portrait journey I am on, at times feels Quixotic and Berra-esque.  Since starting this journey over three years ago, it is, in fact, all about taking those forks in the road.

This past weekend gave me more time with Basil.   I learned more about his upbringing in remote Amirualt’s Hill Nova Scotia where electricity and plumbing were things of the future.  When the depression hit “we did not have to fall down as far as many did as life [for us] was not too ‘high on the hog’.”  Though living in the United States for the past sixty years, Basil’s strong Canadian roots emerge with each sentence.  The nasal resonance was music to my ears.

Life was all about those forks in the road, never looking back thinking a choice was the wrong one.  The choices we all make are why we are where we are and only in looking back can we piece the connections.  “What if’s?” are a waste of time.  “What IS!” is that fork we have chosen.

What led us to coming to Montreal was not revealed until Basil himself stood at the podium to receive not just his war time medals but what he’d come for especially: his “wound stripe”.  Henry Gourdji, the retired commander who’d organized this gathering, in an email, told me that the most meaningful part of this event came when Basil heard he’d be receiving his “stripe”.  Henry did not reveal why but did say that Basil cried.

On Saturday, November 8th at 2:30PM, Basil took the podium now decorated with his ribbon rack and clenched in his left hand was a small piece of green wool with a silver stripe on it.  A fork in the road juncture lay before him.  Basil took the fork.  The significance of that stripe before this moment only two others knew: Henry and Basil’s wife Jeannette.  It could have stayed within that small trio.   Instead Basil stood firmly at the podium and while at first praising the hard work and dedication of all the medics who helped save lives, revealed the pain of seventy one years ago when a young corporal medic asked Basil if the mangled fingers on his right hand were self-inflicted.  Stunned by his wound, stunned at the sight of his commanding officer being carried past,  complexion green and missing a leg, Basil had no response.   And it seems, neither did the Canadian Grenadier Guards when the war ended. The silence was misinterpreted by Basil as acknowledgment that the Guard believed the medic.  Basil was too upset to pursue the issue which haunted him almost daily his entire life.  It seems the paperwork at the Guards has simply fallen into a void.

“Now I feel whole again,” Basil told me afterward.  Since our meeting over a year ago, our paths keep reconnecting, our forks in the road rejoin.  I am too simple a person to understand why we met, why this happened.  I am just a connection to something larger than life.  And with each impending fork in the road, a choice will be made.  And to quote Yogi Berra again: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.”

First there’s gravel, then you die.

Uncategorized September 8, 2014

As ominous as that sounds, it was actually a funny line a friend said to me the other day about walking the Grand Canyon trail as a ten year old, fearful that any minute she’d slip over the edge and fall to her death.  At one particular spot, she focused on the loose gravel.  Doom!  Her step-father not having much patience, badgered her.   “First there’s gravel, then you die,” was her thought.

I realized the profundity of that statement as a metaphor for so many of us each time we come to some crossroad and hesitate.  What propels some forward and yet holds others back?  A few years ago I’d watched a documentary about people who choose to live, in this case, surviving a ship’s sinking.  Interviews with the survivors, not surprisingly, showed they were people of action and yet not all from the outside, appeared to be born leaders.  In this particular case, after the crew abandoned this luxury liner off the coast of South Africa, it was the lead singer of the rock band headlining the cruise, who called in the mayday distress and helped passengers into the rescue baskets of the South African Coast Guard.  He talked about how some people resigned themselves to their fate, sitting covered in a blanket on a chair, the thousand yard stare frozen on their faces.   First there’s gravel…

Men and women going off to war, in the second world war, went off naive and full of bravado and determination.  In The Great War, later known as World War One, “shell-shock” was the term applied to soldiers who’d lost the ability to function, the incessant earth-shattering pounding that literally blew up the world all around them, body parts flying, drove some to madness.  In World War Two, talking to many veterans, it was the same thing. The horror of war.  Don’t want to talk about it.  But some do.  Last week talking to a docent on his 91st birthday, he talked about a C-47 landing with wounded troops onboard.  The cargo door opened, Robert climbed up and was hit with the stench pouring out -a wave of blood and feces.  “My GI boots slipped on the slime rolling down the aluminum floor.  I made some stupid comment to the nurse who’d flown in with them.  I was eighteen,” he said. “She looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Soldier.  You need to get on with your job and help me remove these men.  She had shamed me into growing up in that moment.”

Robert went on to talk in quite angry terms about the futility of war.   “DAMN IT!” he said. “Doesn’t anyone learn from war?  How many times do we have to waste so many lives?”  He was sitting at a table with four other men, one a combat bombardier in that war, the others younger.  All remained quiet.  I looked at their faces.  None wanted to respond.  It was uncomfortable for them to hear this.

There’s a lot of gravel left out there on the trail.  My friend Kat who’d uttered that statement obviously made it past that dangerous spot.  She still faces many questionable paths.  I laughed at her ten year old wisdom because she’d synthesized fear so clearly.  We all can relate.  We all have fears.  Ironically on the drive to the airport today, Kat in back, her husband Malcolm driving, we encountered flash flooding and standing water of close to a foot.  Cars sat, unmoving.  We made the command decision to move forward slowly, seeing beyond the deepest part and finding our way onto higher ground.  No one in our mirrors had moved.  I chuckled, recalling Kat’s line and blurted out: “First there’s gravel, then you die.”  Kat laughed.  The two made their flight and took off under clear skies.


Uncategorized August 26, 2014

Negative and positive, the yin-yang of electrical energy.  Without each, there would  be no power for lights, toys, automobiles, a myriad of tools in our every day lives.  Why is it that within the human race, even on the lowest level, the pull from one polarity to another, instead of supplying power, exhausts it?

One doesn’t have to dwell on the politics or the events in the world.  I see it around me daily.  I was wondering if it was simply a product of aging. Certainly as one elder spokesman said to me: “Aging is not for the faint of heart.”  And yet I have met so many positive people in their eighties and nineties.  Smiling when asked how they are, the running response from many elder docents at the Palm Springs Air Museum is: “Still on this side of green (grass).”   “Better than the alternative.”  Positive energy.

Recently I’ve found myself saturated by negative energy from some individuals who seem to find life in a bi-polar lane, cruise-control on.  Those surrounded by them, myself included, do what we can to distance ourselves.  Unfortunately in two incidents, I found myself confronted in such a way as to pounce and clamp down on that energy flow, if only to staunch it temporarily.

Today was a normal  back-to-painting day at the museum, with the exception that to escape the summer heat, I’ve found sanctuary in the cool of the museum cafe.  On Mondays the cafe is closed.  Settling into work, I was approached by a docent, one I’ve known now for close to eight months.  Asked how his weekend at the museum went, I heard a litany of complaints about how visitors, were touching the aircraft.  “I lectured a child about not touching the plane when suddenly the boy’s father told me that the website says the aircraft are to be touched.”   The man was right.  I was surprised by such negative comments and deflecting it, I informed him that the director prides the museum as being unique in this way.  He claimed no such knowledge.  “This is why we have a restoration department,” the director has said many times.  If someone accidentally punches a hole in a wing or something, we will fix it.  The docent’s reaction was swift.  “I guess then I need to consider leaving.”   Suggesting focusing on talking about the history of any plane, he informed me that no one was interested.  For him, his job was about policing the place.

I’d just returned from a weekend air show in which it was all about letting the public climb inside the WW II cargo plane, the C -47, buckle in and pretend they were paratroopers ready to jump.   We encouraged two young boys, sons of a pilot who flies some of our aircraft, to give tours and they did with confidence and maturity.  Positive energy.

And then, this morning, the negative energy.  I worked through the day, feeling my own energy draining.  My polarity was off.  The power was dwindling.  Too much negative drain left me wanting.  As the three o’clock hour passed, I cleaned my brushes, closed the work box and readied for tomorrow.  With music still playing through my earbuds, I turned to leave and saw a young woman thirty feet away outside the cafe fencing, looking at my painting on the easel and then turned to me, smiling.  I smiled back, expecting her to retreat.  Instead she held my gaze.  Doffing the earbuds I approached her.  “What is it you’re working on?” she asked.  “Do you paint?” I returned the unanswered question.   Alisa, a twenty year old art student visiting with her family, began talking about her art.

Inviting her inside the cafe, we sat down and talked about what she’d been learning the last couple of years.  I told her about my career and how I ended up at this musuem.   Alisa pulled up photos of her work on her phone.  “My first oil was this,” she said pointing to a human skull as a still life.  Suddenly teacher me, felt humble. “Oh my god,” I said. “You are really good.”  Lights, shadows, brilliant color illuminated this piece.  An accountant father, children’s clothing line mother, talented siblings, Alisa, the youngest bravely chose art as a career.

This young woman had talent.  Positive energy was flowing from her.  I flashed to the drain I’d experienced earlier in the day and felt flow coming back into me.  We talked artists, sharing my favorites with her: John Singer Sargent, Diego Velasquez and N.C. Wyeth.  We talked career options but mostly stuck to the “have fun and enjoy it while you can” approach.

The family wondering where she was, Alisa answered her cellphone with “Be there in a few minutes.”  I knew the conversation could go on. Doesn’t it with artists and writers?  Walking her to the lobby, I met her family.  Smiles, a hug and promise to share more work, we parted company.  I thought how the universe seemed to know what I needed to complete my day.  A young bright face, full of positive energy took my negative energy and restored power.   I work in public to give back.  I listen. I coach. I share stories.  The response refuels.  Today I recognized there was not a spark left inside me until a young, talented artist wandered in and  brought my charge back to normal.


A Kiwi Lost

Uncategorized August 13, 2014

A couple months ago, researching images related to World War Two, I ran across a curious photograph of what I had perceived to be an American pilot leaning on the tail section of an American plane, the F6F Hellcat.  Being at an air museum for eight months, one gets to know airplanes.

What struck me was both the intensity of the man’s face and the unique feature of a beard.  Saving that image for another time, I continued my line-up of images.  I would periodically return to my laptop and open up that shot. What was also unique was that it was in full color.  It wasn’t the hand tinted images that were typical of the early 1940s.  Color film had been invented in 1939 but the ease and use of it took time and so for most of the war, black and white film captured most of the images world-wide.  Staring back at me with windblown red hair and beard, was a grizzled pilot, older than his years. A pilot full of wisdom and experience.

What was also unique was there was no identity, no clue as to who he was.  Two weeks ago I started painting his likeness.  Because our beards are similar in length, many visitors thought we were related.  In my gut, I felt something but what, I wasn’t sure.  Somehow though, this photograph seeped into my psyche.  As I worked on the painting, the connection grew.  I knocked it out in three days but was reluctant, like all the other paintings to date, some ninety-five of them, to take it off the easel. I tweaked it. I stared at it.  And I asked: “Who are you?”  I refused to remove it, making way for something new.

What I started piecing together, regarding the wearing of the beard, was that it was either so late in the war that US Navy restrictions were lifted and combat missions weren’t going to high altitudes, therefore no longer requiring oxygen masks or… what?  Someone suggested he could be British.  A lead perhaps.  I researched and found that this pilot was part of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the British Navy where an arrangement had been made with the US government to loan/lease American aircraft, specifically the Corsair and the Hellcat.   That made sense. The Royal Navy allowed beards on their sailors so it made sense it would continue the courtesy to their pilots.  But there were no clues to pilots names.

More research led to a museum in England dedicated specifically to the Fleet Air Arm.  I sent a copy of the photograph asking for their help.  “A needle in a haystack,” they wrote back the next day but I stayed positive.  After all how could such a great photograph, in this day and age with technology at hand, go unaccounted for.  More research, more nibbles.  And then this morning, came a reply from the museum.  It wasn’t full confirmation but the link attached slowly peeled back this man’s identity.

What I was reading was a blog specifically dedicated to finding this man’s identity. I was not alone!  Their search had started in March 2011 and a fascinating verbal sleuthing began at the top of the page.  Slowly, excitedly I scrolled down, reading each word, fascinated by the little tidbits.  Links led to more sites and deeper into the mystery, more concrete answers pouring out. And then I read what was the most heart-breaking story. I was not prepared.

“The Palembang Nine” was an article about nine pilots flying with the Royal Navy.  One pilot, Second Lieutenant John “Jack” K. Haberfield was listed at the top.  A New Zealander!   A Kiwi.  He had been stationed on the carrier HMS Indomitable 1839 Squadron flying the Pacific Theatre, all clues that matched what the museum’s contact had relayed to me.  And the story continued.  This is what I read:

Haberfield, a New Zealander, had enlisted with the Fleet-Air-Arm in August 1941 at the age of 21. He left his home town for service overseas, where he piloted a range of planes, largely orchestrated for carrier-based raids. The last squadron he served was with the 1839 Squadron and the Pacific Fleet, where he piloted Hellcats from the HMS Indomitable.

Haberfield had gone missing during his last raid on Palembang, Sumatra on 24th January 1945. The following letter from the Commanding Officer of the 1839 Squadron, addressed to Haberfield’s mother, accounts the incidents that led up to his disappearance:

“We made an attack against the oil refineries at Palembang in Sumatra: our squadron was escorting some of the bombers & Jack (Haberfield’s nickname) was leading a section. Over the target we were attacked by Japanese fighters and a fierce fight developed, during which it was on possible to see what was happening in a small part of the sky & there were aeroplanes everywhere. Jack’s wingman saw him attack an enemy fighter and followed it down in a steep, fast dive, then lost sight of him. He was not seen again after that. Several pilots reported having seen aircraft crash into the ground, but none could say with certainty whether they were our own or the enemy’s.”

Commanding Officer Shotton

The story continued:

The oil refineries in Palembang was a critical source of oil for the Japanese,which became the reason why the Fleet had targeted Palembang. Unfortunately the raid was at the expense of the nine men who, like Haberfield, had gone missing.

The whereabouts of the nine men had remained unknown throughout the war. It was only after the war ended, that British authorities began to investigate the disappearance of the men in 1946.

Investigations began in Palembang; where the men were last seen. It was discovered that the men were kept prisoners in Palembang Prison until February 1945, when they were transferred to Singapore and housed in Outram Gaol.

In Singapore, Japanese Major Katooka Toshio informed British investigating officials that the men had been shipped to Japan for interrogations but never made it as the ships were attacked and sunk by Allied bombings in March 1945. The investigating officer believed that he was telling the truth but it was revealed later by General Atauka, Chief of the Juridical Department for the 7th Army, that the nine men were illegally executed after the war on 15th August 1945.

Upon discovering this, investigating officials were prepared to arrest Major Toshio and Captain Okeda (the officials responsible for the men’s execution). However before that could have been done, both men committed suicide. The following was written by Major Toshio before he committed suicide:

“We took nine prisoners from Outram Road in a lorry to the beach at the northern-most end of Changi and executed them with Japanese swords.  The bodies were put in a boat prepared beforehand and sun in the sea with weights attached.  Now that the responsibility must be borne out publicly I hereby pay for my deeds with suicide.”

I sat back, tears in my eyes.  AFTER the war!  August 15th they were executed  -nine days after the bombing of Hiroshima, six days after Nagasaki.  ONE DAY AFTER JAPAN SURRENDERED!   I spent the day numb.

I had had visions of connecting with this man.  I was connected to him on so many levels.  For years I’d been haunted by a black and white photograph in Life magazine’s book on World War Two.  It showed an Australian pilot, blindfolded, kneeling, a samurai sword held high by a Japanese soldier, seconds before its downward thrust.  This was not supposed to be the fate of my “Jack”.

I had taken three days away from the air museum.  Returning today, I approached my easel, eager to be reunited with my Kiwi friend.  As some friends have already responded with kindness to this news posted on facebook, I will continue honoring him.  Someone I work with posed a poetic thought: “He died before you were born.  Is it not possible he’s come back to life through you?”  I cannot know such things. But I know I will wear this beard for a long time in Jack’s honor.


Uncategorized July 30, 2014

Fifteen months on the road.  Fifteen months of almost daily contact with the public in relation to this tour.  Fifteen months of opinions right, left, up and down.  What has probably stunned me more than anything is the readiness of so many people to dismiss another person for their ideology, religion, -any number of reasons.  Why?  Many times it’s fear of the unknown, fear of change.  Fear of understanding because “you” don’t look or act like me.   I sit and listen because that’s part of my journey.  I listen.  And ponder.

Since starting this tour in my hometown of Amherst Massachusetts, I’ve joked that I’m like the Lucy Van Pelt character in the Peanuts comic strip, sitting behind a crate on a sidewalk, sign overheard: “Psychiatric help.  Five cents”.  People want to sit down and talk about their lives, mostly related to the Second World War.  Sometimes not.  Most of the time, it’s relating a story about a loved one.  If, however, it’s something veering into the ugly, a quagmire, unlike Lucy, I don’t offer advice.  Nor do I take the nickel.

Today I was thrown by comments from one of the volunteers I have come to know over the past several months.  When World War II ended he was only four years old.  But he remembers growing up hearing stories from his father about the war and much of it laced with hatred toward a former enemy.  This man, in his early eighties, told me about his love of airplanes, building static and flying models, many of them from the World War II era.  It’s a hobby he’s done all his life. “But,” he continued.”I can’t bring myself to build either a Japanese or German plane because of all the Americans they killed.”  Since he leads many tours for children around the museum, I know he takes an educator’s role seriously.  But this sudden revelation of a huge barrier caught me off guard.   “Have you read A Higher Call?” I asked, the story about a German fighter pilot who decides to spare the lives of an American B-17 crew in their severely crippled aircraft, struggling to make it out of Germany back to their base in England.  The remarkable end to the story was that decades after the war’s end, the bomber pilot and German pilot finally met.  And became friends.  This volunteer had not read the book.  The conversation ended with a phone call from his wife and a quick wave “see you later.”

It’s not my position to tell someone they’re wrong or what to do.  I kept thinking of what would go through this man’s mind if he actually started building one of these enemy planes.  Would he find understanding and solace?  Many do not want to consider that path.  There is safety in anger and prejudice because sometimes simply it has become part of the fabric of that person’s being.  I hate, therefore I am.

Iva Toguri aka Tokyo Rose.  Demonized for decades, finally vindicated by President Gerald Ford in 1978.  But the hatred toward her lingers in much of the public perception.  The other day, a busy day at the museum, a man walking by seemingly on a mission, praised my paintings.  Then, stopping in front of Iva Toguri’s portrait, let loose a barrage of epithets that threw me.  “And if my father (WW II era) saw this, he’d rip it off the wall!,” this man finished, visibly angry.

Like a patient teacher with a little flair for the dramatic, I stood in front of him, wagged my finger and said: “With no disrespect to your father, his information is all propaganda -not true.”  A barrier had been thrown between us, but I kept chipping away, not with anger, but with facts.  In the end, this man thanked me for enlightening him.  That’s all I can do.

Shortly after arriving in Amherst in May 2013,  nasty comments deriding my exhibit for “glorifying war” started appearing in my guest book.  Within weeks, I realized these comments were coming from people under the age of thirty who believe naively in the 70s hippie lingo “Make love, not war”.  These young people put up a barrier to knowledge, remaining self-righteously smug and ignorant. They did not want to learn about history.  They saw themselves as right.  I was wrong.  All I wanted was for them to sit down with some veterans from World War Two and actually listen.

That said, I was recounting today to someone my age, the remarkably thoughtful suggestion from a young woman under the age of thirty and from Amherst.  She had read Tim O’Brian’s book The Things They Carried urging me to read it.  Tim O’Brian served in Vietnam.   I had read some of O’Brian’s other books on Vietnam, but this one was the most gut-wrenchingly honest books about what combat does to people.

The push-back I got from my work reflected the Rip Van Winkle mindset that for many in that town, still exists.   It was a haven of anti-war protests like most of the college and university towns and cities around the country in the 1970s.  It still is.  The acronym SNAFU came about in World War Two but applied to the Vietnam War as well: “Situation Normal. All Fucked Up.”  It applies to all wars.

I thanked that young woman for her suggestion.   She was born long after the war had ended and yet there was a worldliness to her that exceeded her age.  I think of her often when confronted by those with decades-old prejudices.  She became a model for me in understanding something about truth.  Why do we feel anger toward something that’s different?  Is it fear?  Or are we so set in our ways, we don’t want to listen to the truth because we need the anger as an anchor, a center?  They say that truth will set us free.  I truly believe that.  I try to listen and learn every day.  But I won’t be sucked into someone else’s anger, their barrier toward tranquility.  Naive?  Maybe.   I’m not here to change the world.  Well,… maybe I am.