|Omori POW Camp on Aug. 29, 1945Scott Downing, at right|
Stu Downing was walking to one of the many events the Japanese government had for his father, Scott Downing, and four other prisoners of war from World War II when he was handed an envelope. It was a letter signed by four Japanese high school girls.
“Dear Mr. Scott Dawning,
Good evening, everyone. Thank you for coming to Japan. We are students of Toin Gauken High School in Yokohama.
I’m so glad to participate in this meeting, but I am a little nervous too. We examined cruelty by Japanese this summer.
We found through our study what prisoners of war (POW) had to go through during the war. We pray from the bottom of my heart that your comrades’ soul may rest in peace. We wonder how you feel about your experience now. We were shocked to find out how little we knew about the past. We are now aware of what kind of damage ignorance can cause...”
This was Scott Downing’s fifth trip to Japan. The first was awful — three months as a beaten and abused prisoner of war 70 years ago. The second was somewhat redemptive — testifying at a war crimes trial of Japanese military officers two years later.
The third and fourth were sightseeing trips — in 1984 with wife Bitsy and in 1996 with Stu. This one, from Dec. 5 to 14, was one of healing.
“I feel great about the people,” said Downing, 96.
“They’re not bad people. It’s the soldiers I didn’t like.”
The trip was at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan. It was in conjunction with the U.S. State Department and the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (ADBC) Memorial Society.
There were four other former American POWs on the trip, which the Japanese government periodically [since 2010, this is the 7th] hosts for American prisoners. The goodwill trips are presented as one of reconciliation.
“It’s to heal any old wounds,” Stu said. “We’d like to think that time heals those wounds. I think all these men, including my dad, have forgiven, but they haven’t forgotten.”
“Seventy years,” said Scott, “is a long time.”
Shot down over Japan
Indeed, 70 years ago, First Lt. Downing, 26, was an experienced bombardier on a B-29. He was part of an 11-man crew on its 20th mission from the Tinian Islands to Japan.
This one was May 25, 1945. The objective was an industrial complex four miles southeast of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. A Japanese Zero fired on the B-29, setting fire to the right engine.
The crew of 11 tried to bail out. Three could not get out of plane. Downing did, landing 15 miles southeast of Tokyo. Villagers tied him to a tree for two hours, and beat him with sticks, shovels and rakes until the military arrived.
Thus began three months of imprisonment. He was first at the Kempeitai prison in Tokyo, home of the secret police where 19 prisoners were crammed into 8-by-12-foot horse stalls. If they talked to each other, they were beaten.
In fact, one of the former POWs on the trip, Donald Ryan of Florida, was among the 19 in the same stall as Downing. They didn’t remember each other because no communication was allowed.
They were given a rice ball the size of a golf ball three times a day and a cup of water. In July, they went three days without water.
Downing was interrogated by Japanese officers, blindfolded and threatened. He was beaten with a bamboo pole, threatened with decapitation with a sword at his neck, and had an officer repeatedly click a rifle bolt at his head.
Atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9 had B-29 pilots at other camps beheaded. Downing and others were set for execution when it was announced Japan surrendered Aug. 15.
Downing and others were take to Omori prison camp on Tokyo Bay, where conditions were only slightly better. Two weeks later, on Aug. 29, a U.S. minesweeper and a cruiser came into the bay to load up the anxious prisoners.
Returning to the B-29 crash site
On this trip 70 years later, Downing, who became a building contractor in Canyon and Amarillo after the war, visited the sites of the camps and the crash site where three crewmen died. Nothing clicked. So much has changed since 1945.
Downing did meet Hideo Onuki, 83, who as a 13-year-old boy witnessed the crash of the B-29.
“When I saw the crash, I thought, ‘Serves you right,’” Onuki told The Associated Press. “But now I feel that it was good for Downing to survive. I never thought I would actually get to meet him.”
The former POWs were asked questions by a Christian college class, and met for 1½ hours with Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan and daughter of the former president. [And met with Japan's Foreign Minister Kishida.]
“She was absolutely great with all the men,” Stu said.
The contingent was feted by the Japanese government at almost every turn with dinners and events. Only once did it turn awkward when an aide to the foreign minister suggested it was wrong for the U.S. to go on firebomb raids and drop the two atomic bombs.
Fiske Hanley, 95, of Fort Worth, one of the five POWs on the trip, took exception and mildly offered a retort.
“In a nicely worded way, he said had we not done that, the Japanese invasion was going to happen, and then 2 to 5 million would have died,” Stu said.
But that was only one uneasy moment in nine days of hospitality that was covered extensively by the Japanese press. Downing even got to experience a heated toilet seat in a Kyoto hotel.
“First time in 96 years,” he said.
And a far cry from his first trip. The return confirmed what he knew — that in war, evil most often lies with government and ideologies, and not with people. And time can change a lot.
“I’m glad I went,” Downing said. “I have a better feeling about the country. They’re more like we are. They think more like we do.”