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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Former Prisoner of War Returns to Japan

Masami Ukon

Feb. 19, 2016

A former American soldier has returned to the spot where his plane was shot down over western Japan in the final months of World War Two.

Ninety-six-year-old Fiske Hanley was an engineer aboard a B-29 bomber that led raids on major Japanese cities until it was downed on March 27, 1945. There were only two survivors.

Hanley parachuted out but was captured on the ground and taken prisoner. More than 70 years later, he visited Japan to honor his lost comrades and to thank the locals who nursed his wounds.

The trip included 4 other American former prisoners of war, and took place in December at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry.

The event was intended to help encourage reconciliation through visits to places the former POWs once knew, and to see the changes that have taken place.

He was transferred to Tokyo and sent to the headquarters of the Kempeitai, or military police. The American says he'll never forget how they treated him.

“No Kemepeitai, bad people, bad, real bad," he said. "Killed people, almost killed me.”

Hanley’s memoirs tell part of the story.

"We were hand-cuffed then blindfolded. They squashed more and more of us into a foul smelling dungeon in a cage about five by nine feet. We survived on three rice balls a day and sometimes a cup of water. We were always thirsty and starving," he wrote.

"Every day they took me to a room to be interrogated, which meant daily beatings. They always aimed for bandaged areas when they had me on the floor," his memoir says.

Hanley said the abuse just got worse during his four months in captivity.

"They poisoned, infected, 30 or 40 holes in me, infected. Nothing more. And those wounds were still infected six months after I was liberated,” he said.

The harsh treatment of downed B-29 crews took place amid intensifying air raids across Japan.

The US had implemented a new strategy of attacking urban areas, as well as military installations. Early on March 10, 1945, Tokyo came under attack and more than 100,000 people are believed to have died in that single operation. Many were civilians.

During their visit to Japan, Hanley’s group toured a Tokyo museum that depicts the destruction from the bombings.

Hanley took part in the March 10 raid before being shot down. He Hanley said that they had no choice but to bomb urban areas. It was supposed to end the war early.

He spoke to a survivor named Haruyo Nihei, who was was 8 years old at the time. She told Hanley something he didn't expect to hear.

"I was always scared of the Kempeitai too when I was a child," Nihei said. "I’m so glad that you made it through all those things they did to you."

“You are a survivor, and I’m a survivor," Hanley said.

After the Tokyo raid, Hanley’s B-29 bombed two more cities until his plane was shot down over Fukuoka.

The plane crashed onto a small island on a river near the town of Ueki.

“I’m just happy to honor my eight fellow crewmen. We were very close,” Hanley said at the site.

Ten of the 11 crew were on the mission. Eight died in the attack and the crash.

"I can feel something, but I can’t explain it. I'm almost ready to cry, but men don’t cry,” he said.

He remembers that locals in Ueki treated his wounds before the Kempeitai arrived.

"I want to thank the people in Ueki, who in my first hours, were humane, nice and looked after me and appreciated that," he said.

The crash was a big event for the town. Hidetoshi Ushijima's father witnessed it.

"He used to tell me that the plane was spitting out fire," Ushijima recalled. "The way he described it terrified me as a little boy."

Ushijima and Hanley had been emailing each other for the last four years. Ushijima was looking forward to meeting Hanley in person, but he said he didn't know how he would greet him.

"I've always taken the position that bombing cities is inhumane," Ushijima said. "I can't ignore the feeling that Mr. Hanley was associated with that."

Ushijima and residents in Ueki held an event to commemorate both the B-29 crew and the victims of the bombings. Hanley reflected with the villagers about the lives that were lost.

There were also some reunions. Hanley met one man who helped carry him to a vehicle after the plane crash.

Ushijiama said he found Hanley to be sincere.

For his part, Hanley said the trip was the culmination of a long-held dream.

“It improved my life," he said. "I’ve always wanted to come to Ueki. And here I am."

After their 9-day visit, the former prisoners of war were on a plane to the United States. They said that they would share their experiences in Japan with their friends and families back home.


NHK World's Masami Ukon joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: We've been seeing this visit, and I've heard there are similar visits happening. But is it always bringing a positive output?

Ukon: For the people who want to visit, yes. But there are still many veterans and their family members who are still holding negative feelings toward Japan, even after 70 years. It's not just Japan's Foreign Ministry but also citizen groups that are volunteering to host former prisoners of war. They're trying to increase understanding but it's not an easy task.

Shibuya: So Masami, now that Mr. Hanley is back in the US, how has he been sharing his experiences?

Ukon: He's been very active. Schools and organizations across the United States are asking Mr. Hanley to come and give talks. So he's been pretty busy telling people about his trip and his wartime experiences. Every time I cover the treatment of the B-29 crews captured in Japan, I feel like it's even more important to try to understand and also empathize with others. Of course there are times when people can't or don't want to understand someone else's point of view, but I still think it's important to keep these personal exchanges going.