BEIJING — On a frigid, wind-swept airport tarmac here Friday, a U.S. military honor guard solemnly loaded into a military transport plane aluminum coffins carrying the remains of 10 American World War II fliers.
After five decades, the airmen's bodies had started the long trip home.
More than 1,000 miles to the east, a 76-year-old man in Osaka, Japan, wept and prayed for their souls.
"Do you have any words for the families of the dead?" he was asked.
"I can't say anything," Takeo Tanimizu replied, sobbing into the telephone. "The only thing I can say about the people who were found after 50 years is to pray that their souls find happiness in the next world."
Tanimizu's emotional connection to the U.S. airmen dates to Aug. 31, 1944. On that day, 11 American B-24 bombers, based at the 14th Air Force field in Liuzhou, China, swept into the night sky over what was then called Formosa to bomb the Imperial Japanese Navy base at Takao--what is now Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
Tanimizu, only 24 years old but already a decorated ace, jumped into the cockpit of his Zero and flew alone in the darkness to meet the American bombers. War records say he downed one U.S. aircraft and seriously damaged a second.
But it was not until an American military forensic team arrived in China this week to identify the remains of U.S. fliers found at a remote crash site in Guangxi province that Tanimizu learned who the casualties were of the terrible air battle above Takao Harbor.
After half a century, the human link between the Japanese ace and his victims--the men he said he prays for nightly before the small Buddhist altar in his home--had finally been made.
'Rest in Peace'
U.S. military records show that two B-24s disappeared from the August 1944 mission to Takao. They were among the 1,000 American planes lost in the China theater. Of those, almost 100 are still missing, perhaps in the shark-infested seas or in the mountainous terrain of southern China where the 14th Air Force maintained its World War II air bases.
On Tuesday, a team of specialists from the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii and the Defense Department's POW/MIA office in Washington confirmed that one of the planes missing from the Takao raid--very possibly the one crippled by Tanimizu's fire--had crashed into the side of Maoer mountain in Guangxi province. Peasant farmers found it Oct. 2 while hunting for medicinal herbs on the rocky slopes of the peak whose name means "Little Cat."
On Friday, square, black cases containing the bleached bones collected from the wreckage of that plane were formally presented by Chinese officials to U.S. Ambassador James R. Sasser at the Beijing airport.
"The remains of these American airmen," Foreign Ministry official Mei Ping said at the simple ceremony as the chill wind whistled, "will now be repatriated to their homeland, where they may finally rest in peace."
A U.S. Marine honor guard stood at attention. A recording of taps played as the boxes were loaded into coffins, which were then draped with American flags and placed in the cargo bay of a U.S. Air Force C-141.
After examining the remains, which included some of the airmen's dog tags, specialists from Hawaii determined they were the crew of the 14th Air Force B-24 piloted by Lt. George Pierpont.
That meant the other lost aircraft from the Takao raid, seen plunging into choppy seas off Taiwan, was a plane piloted by Lt. Norman B. Clendenen, carrying a crew of 10 and one passenger, Capt. George K. O'Neil. He was listed on the flight manifest as an observer "attached from 14th Army Air Force."
Troubled by Deaths
After reading an article about the Guangxi crash site in Wednesday's Times, Henry Sakaida--a nursery operator and lifelong amateur aviation historian who lives in Temple City--contacted the paper and said he had researched the Takao mission and interviewed the Japanese pilot who fought the Americans on that night 52 years ago: World War II ace Tanimizu.
"Mr. Tanimizu told me," Sakaida recounted, "that he was alerted to incoming bombers and took off alone because no other pilots in his unit had any experience in night flying. He made several passes in the dark, shot down one B-24 and badly damaged a second. Now, through your article, I can confirm that he shot down B-24 No. 831 piloted by Lt. Clendenen of the 425th Bomb Squadron."
Further, Sakaida knew that Tanimizu lived in Osaka, where he was still troubled by the deaths of the men he had killed in his remarkable military career. Tanimizu is said to have shot down 32 enemy aircraft. But, Sakaida noted, he also demonstrated compassion for his opponents. Sakaida said that on one occasion, in January 1944, Tanimizu zoomed low and threw his life ring to a downed U.S. airman, the late Marine Capt. Harvey Carter of Glendale.
Learning of Victims