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My Father and I and Saburo Sakai

July 2024
10min read

Half a century after his father’s death, he struck up an extraordinary friendship with a man who had been there

My quest began sometime shortly after World War II. I was a young boy when my maternal grandfather told me the story of how my father, Lt. Col. Francis R. Stevens, had been killed in the skies over New Guinea. In the spring of 1942 Dad was assigned to OPD, Operations Division in the War Department, what Col. Red Reeder, who replaced Dad a few months later, referred to as General Marshall’s command post. Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, was concerned that he was not getting a clear enough picture of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s activities in the Pacific Theater. MacArthur’s dispatches kept calling for more of everything—more troops, more equipment, more supplies—but they provided precious little in the way of information about what he planned to do with all this added capability. The general’s approach appeared to be that if he didn’t tell higher headquarters what he was planning to do, it couldn’t tell him to stop. So General Marshall decided to send my dad and a highly qualified Air Corps officer, Lt. Col. Samuel E. Anderson, on a fact-finding mission to figure out what MacArthur was up to.


At about that time the commander in chief of all U.S. forces was having the very same problem with the Pacific Theater commander. And President Roosevelt had another problem to deal with: a protégé named Lyndon Baines Johnson, a congressman from the great state of Texas, who had reverted from his status as a commander in the Navy Reserve to active duty. Johnson was champing at the bit, eager to get an assignment to a combat theater. Roosevelt was not at all happy at the prospect of his representatives and senators heading for the front. Moreover, being politicians, once one of them did it, the rest would feel compelled to follow. So FDR solved both problems by sending Johnson on temporary duty to Australia for the same mission on which Marshall had sent Dad. While the young congressman was away, the President promulgated an edict that prohibited members of the House and Senate from active service: They could serve in Congress or they could serve in the armed forces, but they could not do both.

Halfway across the Pacific the three men met up with one another. Once they realized that they were there for the same purpose, they decided to combine forces and continue on as a team. They visited MacArthur’s headquarters together and they resolved together to get as close as they could to the front. So they made a side trip to southern New Guinea to take part in a bombing mission over a Japanese base. It was on this mission that my father was killed when a Japanese Zero fighter shot down his plane.

My grandfather concluded by adding that he believed that there were pictures of the action buried away in some Air Force archive. I did not give this much thought. Then, one day some seventeen years later, out of West Point and stationed overseas, I was reading a magazine called Man’s World in a German barbershop. It contained an article entitled “The World’s Greatest Air Combat Photos,” which included a series of pictures showing a twin-engine bomber, like my father’s, being shot down over a body of water and going in. I wrote the magazine and asked if the editors could identify the date and location of the photos in question. They wrote back promptly to say they couldn’t but offered the name and address of the man who had put the article together, one Martin Caidin.

I wrote to Mr. Caidin; he also replied promptly, saying that these were not the pictures I was looking for. The letterhead indicated that Martin Caidin was a professional historian (as indeed he was, as well as the author of Cyborg , which inspired the television show “The Six Million Dollar Man”), and I decided to ask his help in finding the pictures.

When Johnson tried to reclaim his seat, Dad told him he’d have to find another plane.

By that time I’d received orders to proceed to New York City to attend Columbia Uni- versity, with the goal of obtaining a master’s degree in English literature, preparatory to an assignment as an instructor in the English Department at West Point. Since Caidin lived on Long Island, I decided to wait until I arrived in New York, when I would be able to meet him face-to-face.

January 1964 found Nancy, my bride, and me in the heart of Manhattan at a coffee shop on Park Avenue. Having just arrived at this, my new duty station, I decided I should check in with 1st Army Headquarters on Governors Island, which would be responsible for me during the year and a half that I’d be attending Columbia. When I got through on the pay phone to the appropriate office, I was told that they were most happy that I’d finally called in, because the White House had been trying to reach me. I was to phone the office of the defense adviser to the President immediately.

I dialed the number given me, and reached a very pleasant woman in the White House who instructed me to call a number in New York City and ask for a Martin Caidin. Now this was curious indeed. Still operating from the pay phone in the Park Avenue coffee shop, I soon found myself talking to Caidin himself. He said that he was in a hotel less than two blocks away and asked if I could come right over.

My wife and I arrived to find Caidin and a writer named Edward Hymoff, dressed in T-shirts and baggy pants, in a spacious suite, whose walls were covered with printed sheets, photographs, pieces of paper with notes scribbled on them, and other scraps of data. It turned out that the two of them were holed up here for the duration, not to emerge until they had completed the history of the brief military career of the first sitting congressman to serve in uniform in World War II and the only one to see combat, the man who had been with my father the day he died and who was now—with the murdered John F. Kennedy less than two months in his grave—the nation’s new President.

As soon as I had introduced myself and my wife, I told Caidin of our earlier correspondence and of my plan to contact him to ask that he find the photographs, he took me up to one of the paper-covered walls to show me:

• A series of pictures of my father’s plane being shot down (the very photos that had been the object of my quest).

• A picture of the man who had piloted the Japanese Zero that had fired the fatal burst, a famous air ace, Saburo Sakai.

• A group photo of Sakai and the other pilots in his fighter squadron, taken just seconds before the siren sounded announcing the impending arrival of the flight of B-26s that included the Wabash Cannonball, my dad’s airplane.

• A letter written by Sakai, recounting in considerable detail the events that unfolded in the short time between the taking of this last photo and my father’s plane crashing into the waters off Lae, in northern New Guinea, including a second-by-second description of how he had attacked the Wabash Cannonball.

It was, as you can imagine, quite an emotional moment for me.

I was able to add one anecdote of interest to Caidin and Hymoff, the story of how Dad had wound up on the plane that Lyndon Johnson was supposed to have ridden on that mission. Johnson had originally gotten aboard the Wabash Cannonball but had forgotten to take his camera with him. While he was retrieving it, Dad, unaware that Johnson had designs on sitting there, climbed into the seat that his friend had recently vacated. When Johnson returned to claim his place, Dad joked that he would just have to find himself another airplane to ride that day. As fate would have it, the plane that Johnson wound up on developed engine trouble and never made it to the target. The rest, as they say, is history.


For me, though, the story wasn’t over. Now that I knew who had shot down my father, I found I wanted to meet him. I didn’t make any strenuous efforts to bring this about but kept my eye open for any opportunity.

In July of 1987, three years after I had retired from a twenty-seven-year Army career, I was living with my family in Tacoma, Washington, where we had moved in pursuit of my new work in computer systems. One day my wife came upon an article in the local newspaper telling of how Saburo Sakai had been in nearby Yakima, Washington, the previous weekend as the guest of honor at a big air show. The article went on to say that this was an annual show and that Sakai was often invited to attend. The next year, Nancy was on the lookout for Sakai’s possible return, and her vigilance paid off. One Sunday morning she opened the paper to learn that Sakai was to be at the Yakima Air Show that very day.

I immediately called a neighbor who was involved in aviation in that part of the country and got from him the name and telephone number of the manager of the Yakima Airfield. Nobody was answering his office phone. Before I could become discouraged, however, Nancy put a jacket on me and said, “Let’s just go over there and see if we can’t manage to meet him.” It seemed to me that we were about to set out on a four-hour wild-goose chase, but I got into the car with her and set off for the other side of the Cascade Mountains.

When we arrived two hours later, I went up to the first police officer we saw and asked where we might find Saburo Sakai. He told me how to find the VIP pavilion but said that there had been a threat against Sakai’s life and it was unlikely I’d be allowed to see him. Although hardly encouraged by this news, we headed toward the pavilion, where we were met by another police officer who turned out to be Sakai’s bodyguard (and well chosen for the task he was, standing about six and a half feet tall and made out of at least 250 pounds of what appeared to be solid muscle). When I told him that I wanted to see Saburo Sakai, he naturally asked why. Unable to think of a less ominous reason, I came straight out with the fact that he had killed my father some fortyfive years earlier. The officer eyed me with considerable (and understandable) suspicion. After weighing it for several moments, he apparently decided that my story was too implausible to be anything but the truth. He said he’d see what he could do. With that, and after thoroughly searching both me and my wife, he left us standing behind the pavilion under the watchful eye of two other police officers.

Several minutes went by before he reappeared. He walked toward me and leaned over to whisper as he passed, “You owe me.” Behind him was a benevolent-looking Asian gentleman.

Although he had made many trips to the States and had sent his daughter to school here in America, eventually giving her hand in marriage to an officer in the United States Army, Saburo Sakai speaks practically no English. Fortunately he was accompanied by an interpreter, Jim Crossley, who spent the next twenty minutes or so translating for us, as first Sakai-san apologized for killing my father and I in turn assured him that I bore him no malice whatsoever; his act had been the duty of a soldier, as my father’s death had been his duty and his fate as a soldier.

The next year, Sakai-san accepted our invitation to spend the night in our home on the last day of the annual Yakima Air Show. He arrived late in the afternoon, accompanied by the young Japanese-American woman who would serve as translator. He proved to be a gracious, witty, and engaging guest.

He began by asking me if I had any article of clothing that had belonged to my father. When I retrieved my dad’s old West Point sweater, which I had been carrying with me since I first left home to attend the Military Academy myself, he set it on a coffee table in the middle of the living room and said a very brief Shinto prayer over it. He then explained that this prayer, from one warrior to another whom he had slain, would assure my father an elevation to several levels in heaven above wherever it was that he had been originally relegated on his own merits. While I am not a very religious person, I was both moved by this gesture and reassured that, somehow, my father would in fact benefit from this simple yet sincere and powerful ceremony.

Sakai-san next brought out the leather pilot’s helmet and white silk scarf that he had worn the day he shot my father down. While this had a strong impact on me, my wife, and our three sons, who were with us on this most fascinating of evenings, what he related to us next was even more intriguing. For these were the helmet and scarf that he had also worn several months later, on the day he took two bullets in the head in combat over Guadalcanal, after which he flew the four hours it took to return to his home base in Rabaul. It was clear where the bullets had struck, one of them having ricocheted off the metal rim of his goggles, the second having torn through the leather of the helmet near the temple. The idea that he could have survived these wounds, much less continued to fly for hours after that, was all but inconceivable.

Sakai brought out the pilot’s helmet and the white silk scarf that he had worn the day he shot down my father.

The scarf was tattered, but in a relatively symmetrical way. The damage, rather than being the result of the ravages of time, had occurred in one brief and traumatic encounter. The explanation was simple. His canopy had been blown away in the attack that had caused his wounds, but this proved a blessing of sorts in that it kept a steady rush of air blowing into the cockpit, helping him maintain consciousness. He was so severely hurt, however, that more than once, in order to shock himself into fuller consciousness, he had to aggravate the pain by striking his open wounds. In spite of this, he passed out several times, only to be awakened by the reinforced strength of the wind rushing into his cockpit as his plane nosed down toward the sea below.

When we later told Sakai-san that our eldest daughter was not there because she was attending flight training in Arizona to become a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, he was greatly moved. He saw this as a continuation of the warrior line, and it seemed especially gratifying to him that it was in the field of aviation. What was most interesting to us, given Japan’s singular lack of progress in the feminist movement of recent years, was that he was delighted to find that it was a girl who was to carry this tradition into the next generation.

With that he took the tattered scarf and tore from it a piece, which he handed to me. Give it to my daughter, he said, and tell her to carry it with her whenever she flies; if she does, whatever gods there be will surely protect her from the perils of the air.

My daughter still carries this talisman, and while I am still not much of a believer in things supernatural, I rest easier when she is flying, knowing that she has that scrap of silk with her.

And so ended my quest, with a newfound friend, the man who killed my father.

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