STANDISH – As the 71st anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor nears, I recall a spring day in 1970 at the University of Maine when my future husband and I were privy to an eye-to-eye look into history.
Spring semester of 1970 unfolded in a landscape of cultural and political change that would also leave behind a permanent wake.
While Kent State became a metaphor for a society politically and generationally divided, the box office released its own contribution to the social milieu, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
Literally translated “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!,” but also an abbreviation for the words for “Torpedo Attack,” it was the code that Zero leader Mitsuo Fushida radioed back to his commander upon a successful surprise strike on Pearl Harbor in honor of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s birth year, 1902, the Year of the Tiger.
Interestingly, American moviemakers collaborated with Japan in creating the cinematographic masterpiece that revisited the Dec. 7, 1941, attack known here as the “Day of Infamy.”
The movie emerged as a respectful homage to truth and national interest. And it was its historical treatment, i.e., its relative accuracy, that perhaps best defined it.
The story was Pearl Harbor, not contrived subplots with human protagonists swirling around in a later version more properly called “Twister in the Air.”
But it was in the flesh, not on the silver screen, that we came to meet the director of Pearl Harbor himself, Commander Minoru Genda, otherwise known as the “Operational Planner” of the two-phase stealthy attack on the sleepy island of Oahu.
On tour in the United States for the first time since Pearl Harbor, Genda privately appeared at Orono’s University of Maine at the behest of two Annapolis historians in the History Department.
Military historian Clark Reynolds and History Department Chairman Robert Seager arranged for Genda to visit Reynolds’ War and Society class, a small, advanced seminar in which my fiance Bill was a student; I was invited to tag along.
Wiry, craggy, and with military bearing, Seager was an autocrat, a striking contrast to the national images of college administrators hunkered down in their offices under student siege.
But even Seager thought a room change prudent so as not to incite the wrath of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), who correctly viewed Genda as a militarist.
Reynolds and Seager’s guest speaker was not the garden — victory or otherwise — variety. Taking our seats in a circle, we were introduced to a sharp-eyed, commanding gentleman who was a member of the Japanese Diet at that time. Seager prefaced his remarks with: “This was the planner of Pearl Harbor.”
It was like meeting the devil incarnate, stripped of horns and pitchfork and appearing very much like the fallen angel.
It was also a chilling and splendid moment with history. This was, more than any other single living human being, the one responsible for what happened on that tragic Sunday morning in early December three decades earlier. It could be argued that he was also responsible for the months of bloody Sundays that followed.
Somehow the man did not match the carnage. Somehow the polite but not-too-kindly-looking strategist seemed to defy the cataclysm he created.
In conversational style, Genda recounted how he planned two of the greatest Japanese offensives in World War II, the two-pronged attack on Pearl Harbor followed by the disastrous-for-the-Japanese Battle of Midway in June 1942.
He proved to be disarmingly candid in his analysis of the two air strikes on Pearl Harbor that morning: That the Japanese Zeros made a mistake by not hitting the oil fields was his unabashed post-mortem.
He seemed to regret it.
When Genda finished, there was a question-and-answer session, and one young lady asked the unthinkable: If the Japanese had had the A-bomb first, would they have used it against us?
Her tone revealed her thoughts: No country would have acted as heinously as the United States, for God’s sake!
I’ll never forget the imperious look Minoru Genda shot her.
“Of course,” he replied with casual coldness. He could have added, “How silly of you to ask,” but he didn’t need to.
At the close of class we had the opportunity to personally meet Genda. Although courteous, he was reserved, even remote.
I concluded that he probably didn’t smile very much. But the firm handshake will always remain with me, and although he was the vanquished, Genda was still a force to be reckoned with decades later.
This was the real tiger.
Karen Marks Lemke, Ph.D., of Lisbon Falls is a faculty member at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish.