Photo courtesy of JMSDF Rear Adm. Akira Saito
Photo courtesy of JMSDF Rear Adm. Akira Saito

In front of the grave of Captain Thompson: The strong bond between JMSDF and USN

JMSDF Rear Adm. Akira Saito

On the afternoon of Nov. 9th, 2018, it is a fine and serene autumn day at the El Camino Memorial in San Diego. On a small hill located approximately 15 km north of San Diego, lies the grave of the late Marshall F. Thompson, who served as a Commanding Officer of USS Walke, decommissioned in 1974.

I have been wishing to pay a visit to his grave since I read an article about the heartwarming story of Ms. Mitoko Yamachi’s interaction with USS Walke crew in Sasebo 67 years ago. Her parents died when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, after which she was orphaned at the age of 8 and adopted by her uncle in Sasebo. She was a junior high school student when USS Walke entered Sasebo for repair after striking an enemy floating mine 60 miles off the coast of Korea in June 1951, which resulted in 26 dead and 40 injured. During the repair period, Captain Thompson, then Commanding Officer of USS Walke borrowed a playground next to the dock.

Playing baseball and interacting with junior high school students healed their mental damage. In addition, several crew members such as Captain Thompson volunteered themselves to teach English during the conversation class. After the USS Walke crew members learned about Mitoko’s background as an “atomic bomb orphan”, they went out of their way to donate some pocket money to present her with scholarship money. The money was entrusted to a bank and sent to her over the following 5 years. Thanks to their financial support, she was able to go high school and went to the Red Cross nursing school in Tokyo. After graduation from the nursing school, she served as a nurse to contribute to society until her retirement in 1996.

In the pre-digital communication age, they lost touch after several moves on each side. But on a day in March 1993, Ms. Yamachi received a letter from a Japanese-American lady living in San Diego. The letter said that Captain Thompson was looking for Ms. Yamachi. In fact, Ms. Yamachi had sent many letters to Captain Thompson, but they came back marked “address unknown”. In the meantime, Captain Thompson made various efforts to obtain her address such as inquiring at the Japan Consulate in the U.S. Eventually, thanks to support by the Japanese-American woman Captain Thompson met by chance in a park in San Diego, he succeeded in sending a letter to her.

In August of the year she received letter, she and her husband visited San Diego and enjoyed an emotional reunion with Captain Thompson and the old Walke crew members. That’s when she, for the first time, learned that in June 1951, Walke had struck an enemy floating mine off the coast of Korea, leaving 26 dead and 40 injured, that the crew overcame their PTSD through playing baseball and other interactions with her junior high school classmates.

In his interviews with media, Captain Thompson said, “We did not help Mitoko by paying for her scholarship. In fact, she is the one who helped us. She had been orphaned and yet, she was always there to cheer up the dispirited officers with a smile.”

Since then, she and her husband attend the Walke reunion every year. JMSDF invited Captain Thompson to the JMSDF training ship Kashima when the ship called on the San Diego port in 1999 and 2000. This October, I had a precious opportunity to make a presentation to USN reservists and introduce this heartwarming story to them. The JMSDF and USN have overcome many challenges and have fostered a strong friendship.

Sixty seven years ago, the USS Walke crew members gave a hand to a junior high school student, and a similar “gene” has been passed down through the US Navy to this day. As you are well aware, the “gene” was demonstrated in Operation Tomodachi, conducted after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. I renewed my feeling that the spirit of mutual support is the very foundation of the Japan-U.S. alliance. As the epitaph on Captain Thompson’s grave is “He will live in our hearts forever”, so the goodwill of Captain Thompson and USS Walke crew members lives in our Japanese hearts all the time.

Lastly, I would like to extend my appreciation to the personnel of the Japan Embassy in the U.S. and other people who provided enormous support for my visit to Captain Thompson’s grave.

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