U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Doug Gilchrist was waiting at the airport terminal in Tokyo in 1967 for a flight that would take him to the war in Vietnam when a chance encounter with a Japanese couple changed his life.
He was going to Thailand to fly C-130, four-engine Hercules transport planes over North Vietnam in support of Green Beret ground forces. The colonel would fly more than 100 combat missions with the 376 Air Transport Wing of Tactical Air Command.
“I was sitting at a restaurant in the terminal waiting for my flight when a well-dressed Japanese couple got in an argument with the maitre’d. I asked my waiter what the argument was all about and he told me there were no seats for them in the restaurant,” the colonel recalled.
“I suggested they could sit with me at my table since I had several extra chairs I wasn’t using. The waiter conveyed my message to the maitre’d who suggested it to the Japanese gentlemen,” Gilchrist said. “The Japanese gentlemen gave me the dirtiest look I ever got in my life. If looks could kill I would have withered on the spot.
“After another round of heated discussion between the Japanese gentlemen and the maitre’d, he finally convinced them to take seats at my table,” he said.
“I said, ‘Good evening’ to the man’s wife as she sat down. He just glared at me and turned his back,” Gilchrist remembered four decades later. “She was very beautiful and exquisite in a full-length silk evening dress.
“Occasionally the Japanese gentleman would look over his shoulder to make sure I knew he had his back turned away from me to display his displeasure. His wife said a few words to me in flawless English.
“In an effort to break down the evident hostility toward me and do my part to repair international relations, I ordered drinks for my companions. When the drinks were brought the gentlemen started to pay the waiter. He was informed I had already paid for them,” Gilchrist said with a smile. “He put his drink down and wouldn’t touch it.
“His wife sipped her drink and said a few more words to me. I learned her husband had been a Japanese Naval aviator in World War II. I kept asking her questions about him and somewhere along the way he began to thaw a little. I noticed his drink glass was only half full. I made sure my waiter kept it full.
He also learned Fumioki Asano, was president of one of Tokyo’s major banks.
“She told me her husband had not only been a Naval aviator, he was a Kamikaze pilot. He had suited up for his suicide mission when the war ended. The gentleman never forgave the United States for not being able to fly the mission and die for the emperor,” Gilchrist said.
“I told her I could understand his feeling, but World War II was long over. He should forgive and forget. As we talked she translated our conversation into Japanese for him as he listened but said nothing.
“I added I was headed off to war right now. I explained that I expected to be shot at in Vietnam, but I also expected to return home when it was all over.
“By this time her husband was listening intently to our conversation. I wanted to know more about his emotions when he was suiting up to fly that Kamikaze mission. He explained he was proud to be asked to die for the emperor.
“As I got up to leave to catch my flight the two of them exchanged a few words. Then she turned to me and pulled a tiny silk purse out of her silk evening bag. Inside the purse was an oval gold medal.
“‘This medal kept my husband safe during his war. He wants you to take it with you so you can be safe during your war,’ she said.”
The medal was oval. On the front was a design. The back contained a Japanese religious inscription. It was very similar in size and shape to a St. Christopher’s medal.
“I thanked them for the medal. They told me as I left for my flight they wanted me to call them the next time I flew into Tokyo and we would all go to dinner. I assured them I would. Several times during the next year I went out to dinner with them.
“Just before my 15-month tour in Vietnam was over I made one last trip to Tokyo. They told me not to leave for the States without seeing them first. We went to dinner one last time,” Gilchrist said.
“Every time I tell this story it makes me get tears in my eyes.
“Before the dinner was over Fumioki presented me with a wooden box. It had my name and rank on the outside in Japanese. Inside was a silk case with an elaborate design.
“‘You are the first American my husband felt was honorable enough to surrender to. He would like you to accept his dress dagger,’ his wife said.
“Inside the silk sack in the wooden box was a yellow-handled dagger in a black leather scabbard set off with sterling silver fittings to be worn with a Japanese Naval officer’s dress uniform on special occasions. He gave me his dagger, can you imagine that?” Gilchrist said.
“I felt humbled he would do such a thing. I thanked them both and flew home.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Friday, Dec. 3, 2010 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Gilchrist’s collection in the Library of Congress.
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