December 3, 2012

Maine Voices: Pearl Harbor mastermind's visit a chilling face-to-face with history

Before a UMaine class in 1970, Minoru Genda's reserved manner belied the destruction he'd caused.


LISBON FALLS - As the 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.


The 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 film world released its own contribution to the social milieu, "Tora! Tora! Tora!"

Translated "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!," the movie's title referred to the code that Zero commander Capt. Mitsuo Fushida radioed back to his commander upon a successful 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 as "a date which will live in infamy."

The movie emerged as a respectful homage to truth and national interest. And while "Tora! Tora! Tora!" was artistically brilliant, it was the historical treatment, i.e., relative accuracy, that perhaps best defined it. The story was Pearl Harbor, not contrived subplots with human protagonists swirling around in a later version of "Twister in the Air."

But it was in the flesh, not the silver screen, that we came to meet the director of Pearl Harbor himself, Lt. Cmdr. Minoru Genda, otherwise known as the "operational planner" of the two-strike stealth attack on the sleepy island of Oahu, Hawaii.

On tour in the United States for the first time since Pearl Harbor, Genda privately appeared at the University of Maine at the behest of two Annapolis historians in the History Department.

Military historian Clark Reynolds and 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 group Students for a Democratic Society, which 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 Battle of Midway in June 1942.

He proved to be disarmingly candid in his analysis of the two airstrikes on Pearl Harbor that morning: His unabashed post-mortem was that the Japanese Zeros had made a mistake by not hitting the oil fields.

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 atomic bomb first, would they have used it against us? Her tone belied her thoughts -- no country would have acted as heinously as the United States had, for God's sake!

I'll never forget the imperious look 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 Minoru 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.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" This was the real tiger.

Karen Marks Lemke is a resident of Lisbon Falls.


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