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Japanese journalist, U.S. WWII veteran urge countries to heal the wounds of war

Retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole, left, and Fumio Matsuo pose together in front of a B-25 Mitchell bomber at the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on March 23, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Chiaki Kawajiri)

Eighty-three-year-old journalist Fumio Matsuo, a strident advocate for "true" Japan-U.S. reconciliation, very nearly didn't survive the war that caused the emotional scars between the two nations that he has spent decades trying to heal.

    Matsuo was a third grader when, on April 18, 1942, a United States Army Air Force B-25 Mitchell bomber roared over his elementary school in Tokyo. It was one of the 16 planes in the Doolittle Raid -- the first American aerial attack on mainland Japan of World War II.

    Matsuo heard the B-25 before he saw it. He had just run out into the schoolyard when the growl of the engines began to build. He would never forget what he saw next: a khaki-skinned warplane nearly scraping the landscape. And at the copilot's controls he saw a man's face, the first white person Matsuo had ever laid eyes on. The plane streaked overhead, and was gone.

    Matsuo experienced many U.S. bombing raids during the war, but one attack about a month before Japan's surrender stands out. He had evacuated to Fukui, but this regional city, too, was in the U.S. bombing campaign's crosshairs. Fleeing a night raid by B-29s, Matsuo and his mother found themselves on a dead-end country lane. There was a terrible noise of a falling bomb, and then they were being soaked by a sudden downpour of muddy rice paddy water. But there was no explosion. Matsuo and his mother had been spared by a faulty bomb.

    Matsuo soon decided he wanted to learn more about what kind of place the United States was, a thought that spurred him to become a reporter with Japan's Kyodo News wire service. All through his 50-plus-year career as a journalist, including a stint as Kyodo's Washington bureau chief, Matsuo kept a close watch on the U.S. He eventually poured his observations and experiences into a book, starting it out with a story about a boy in a schoolyard and a B-25, and the first American he ever saw.

    What followed could only be called serendipitous. A friend who read the book told Matsuo that the Mitchell copilot was still alive. One thing led to another and, in 2005, Matsuo found himself face-to-face with the U.S. airman he had last seen behind the cockpit glass of a B-25. His name was Lt. Col. Dick Cole, retired. The first thing they did was ask if the other had been hurt "in that war." Afterwards, Cole called regularly to ask how his friend Fumio was doing.

    Matsuo long thought that, despite their alliance, there remained a "thorn" in U.S.-Japanese relations -- a legacy of the vicious war between the two countries. For Japanese people, there remains the memory of the U.S. atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the area bombing of many other Japanese cities besides. Americans, meanwhile, cannot forget the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Hoping to heal this rift, Matsuo called in his articles for the leaders of both countries to hold reciprocal memorial services, and pushed both governments to act.

    In May 2016, then U.S. President Barack Obama visited Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, giving a speech, meeting A-bomb survivors and laying flowers at the cenotaph. Then in December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did the same at Pearl Harbor, paying his respects at the USS Arizona Memorial. One of Matsuo's lifelong desires had been fulfilled. And it moved him to try and meet Cole in person one more time, close to the 75th anniversary of the day the American flew his plane over Matsuo's school.

    In late March this year, Matsuo voyaged to Cole's San Antonio, Texas home. Cole is 101 years old now, and retains the respect of his country as the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raid.

    Matsuo and Cole ventured out to the National Museum of the Pacific War in nearby Fredericksburg, Texas, Matsuo holding the older man's hand in a gentle grip. There is a B-25 on display here, just like the one Cole flew during the war. Cole is a little hard of hearing now, but he remains sharp. It turns out he became a Japan expert through serving a stint in the country after the war, and he talked a lot about Japan-China relations.

    Cole spoke of how he had been welcomed enthusiastically on visits to China, but noted that Japan didn't seem very well liked among Chinese people. He wondered if things were all right between the two countries, and Matsuo answered that he wondered the same thing. Matsuo now believes that, with the wartime wounds separating Japan and the U.S. finally healing, it was now time to seek reconciliation between Japan and other Asian countries. Even when countries have a history of war behind them, people can reconcile if they put in the effort.

    When the two men parted, Cole said to Matsuo, "See you again" -- another moment Matsuo will remember for the rest of his life.

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