When he first met John Rich, Takeo Sato, a 25-year-old Japanese Imperial Navy officer, had just been pulled shell-shocked from the ruins of a sniper cave here. Placed on a volcanic rock, he braced himself for interrogation by Mr. Rich, a battle-hardened 26-year-old United States marine.
”I expected that as a captured enemy soldier, someone would hit me,” Mr. Sato recalled on Monday. ”But John-san was a real gentleman. He was very levelheaded. He was not forceful.”
Giving his side of the story, Mr. Rich, a former first lieutenant in the Marines, said, ”We realized we had a very intelligent and wonderful man.”
That first encounter, a prisoner interrogation as the sun set over the Western Pacific, began a friendship that has spanned six decades. It was this lasting bond, between onetime victor and onetime vanquished, that brought Mr. Sato, now 85, and Mr. Rich, now 86, back to Saipan this week for the 60th anniversary of the start of the battle that broke the back of Japanese military power in the Pacific.
With the American capture of Saipan and nearby Tinian, both in July of 1944, American bombers were able to launch direct attacks on Japan’s main islands, including the nuclear bomb missions that flew out of Tinian in August 1945.
In the fighting that raged for 25 days over this 72-square-mile volcanic island, about 30,000 Japanese and 3,144 American soldiers were killed, and another 10,952 Americans were wounded. For the roughly 40 American veterans who traveled to Saipan, about 3,700 miles west of Hawaii, it was not the numbers but the faces that brought them here.
Perhaps the most singular reunited pair has been the former Japanese prisoner of war and his onetime American interrogator. The bond was strong enough to bring them together one more time, traveling from their seashore retirement houses — one from Maine, the other from near Yokohama. For Mr. Sato, it was his first return to the scene of his ultimate humiliation as a Japanese soldier, his capture by the Americans.
Drawing on their own experiences, both men say they cannot understand news reports of American military abuses of prisoners in Iraq. Cautious about drawing wider conclusions, they say their friendship illustrates how mortal enemies can overcome the passions of the past.
As cows munched on forest grass and roosters crowed in the distance, the two men toured the cliffs and caves of northern Saipan, the jungle-clad redoubt where Japanese defenders had retreated to make a last stand against the inexorable advance of American troops, fighting men backed by tanks and awe-inspiring naval artillery. In the final days, some 4,000 Japanese women and children had jumped off northern cliffs in mass suicides prompted by fear of capture.
”I was in a cave like this,” Mr. Sato told Mr. Rich as they stood in a high-ceilinged limestone cavern, with vines and roots obscuring the light from the overcast day. Their wives, Doris Lee Halstead Rich and Kishiko Sato, stood on the dry leaves of the cave’s snug interior, quietly absorbing new insights into men they had known for half a century.
”When the Americans landed on Saipan, we knew the Americans meant business,” recalled Mr. Sato, who had attended one of Tokyo’s top technical universities. ”We all knew we were going to die; it was just a question of when.”
”Occasionally, one of our snipers would fire at American soldiers walking nearby,” said Mr. Sato, who as a lieutenant in a navy construction unit had been on the island for four months, building a military airfield. ”The Americans would return fire, but we knew they never fought inside the caves. They threw in grenades, used flamethrowers.”
That final moment seemed to come when an American naval shell hit the cave, blowing open a wall and half burying Mr. Sato. Deafened in his right ear, he came to his senses to see a marine taking aim.
”’Don’t shoot him,”’ I heard another American say,” Mr. Sato said in a mix of English and Japanese, with Mr. Rich’s twin sons, Whitney and Nate, alternating as translators.
John Rich, who arrived on the scene about an hour later, said: ”When they say that marines don’t take prisoners, that’s a lot of baloney. We lost men taking prisoners. A man standing next to me was once killed trying to take prisoners.”
After the interrogation — ”He talked freely but he didn’t blab anything that he shouldn’t have as a Japanese officer,” Mr. Rich said — Lieutenant Sato was sent on a long journey that culminated in an officers’ prisoner-of-war camp in Honolulu.
One day, he received a visit from Mr. Rich, whose home base was Hawaii.
”We became friends with them,” Mr. Rich recalled, noting that his team of interrogators had been eager to improve their Japanese language skills. ”We played volleyball with them at the camp.”
Six months after the war ended, in February 1946, Mr. Rich found himself posted to Tokyo as a wire service reporter. Armed with photographs and the home addresses of six of ”my P.O.W.’s,” he ”wangled a jeep” and, one by one, visited their family homes.
”Two little girls in wooden clogs led me up a little alley to Takeo’s house,” he recalled of the visit. ”His mother and his kid brother, a college boy, were there. His picture was draped in black. They had his posthumous Buddhist name. They thought he was dead.”
The news of their son’s survival provided the bond for a family friendship that has lasted a lifetime. A one-year assignment to Japan stretched into almost 40 years of comings and goings.
”One day, Takeo introduced me to this cute schoolgirl. He ended up marrying her,” he recalled, out of earshot of Kishiko, now a serene 77-year-old grandmother of four. ”She was the daughter of the finest crystal glass maker in Japan.”
For both couples, sons arrived at roughly the same time.
”We used to go down to their place on the shore for New Year’s Eve,” Whitney Rich, now 46, recalled, driving a rental car down Saipan’s main road. ”In the summers, it was Go Karting, swimming in the public pool, camping in the mountains. I gave a speech at Gento’s wedding.”
Over the weekend both former soldiers reflected on their close encounters with death and war.
John Rich visited Unai Chulu, a beach at Tinian where, 60 years ago, he spent a night dug in the sand just below the firing angle of five Japanese tanks. On Sunday afternoon at the beach, he watched the flash of flippers as his 7-year-old granddaughter, Madelaine, and his 10-year-old grandson, Dylan, snorkeled for sea slugs.
”You think of the ones who did not survive, who did not get married, who did not have kids,” he said in the cool stillness of the hillside cave.
”Takeo is a great guy, one of my best friends,” Mr. Rich said, grasping the hand of the man who was once his captive. ”Wars end. People can get along right, if you treat them right.”
Written by James Brooke