By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
Many ceremonies are held each year around the anniversary of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attacks to pay tribute to the nation’s military and remind all Americans that we shall never forget their efforts during World War II.
One of the most interesting commemorations might be the Blackened Canteen Ceremony.
This year, two American heroes took part: Army Air Forces Col. Jack Detour, who piloted bombers during the war, including in New Guinea, Okinawa and the Philippines; and Army Air Forces fighter pilot Capt. Jerry Yellin, who escorted bombers to the Japanese mainland during the war and also flew the last combat mission on Aug. 14, 1945, the day the war ended.
One of the coolest parts of the ceremony, though, was that there was one other pilot there – Shiro Wakita, who flew missions for the Japanese Imperial Navy.
That’s part of what makes the ceremony so fantastic – that both American and Japanese veterans take part to remember those who were lost during the war, as well as to continue to highlight the peace and reconciliation that our two countries now share.
So what’s it all about, and why did the tradition begin?
The Blackened Canteen Ceremony focuses on one item – a blackened canteen that was recovered from a B-29 Superfortress that collided with another B-29 over the city of Shizuoka, one of Japan’s larger cities, during a U.S. bombing run on June 19, 1945. The crash caused the deaths of 23 American airmen, as well as about 2,000 Japanese civilians.
According to history, a Japanese farmer named Fukumatsu Ito witnessed the crash and rushed up Sengen Hill, the crash site, to help the American victims. He was able to pull a few of the airmen from the wreckage, but they all died. Out of respect, he buried them among the Japanese citizens of Shizuoka who were also killed during the raid.
Shortly after the crash, Ito built monuments at the top of Sengen Hill, hoping to promote peace between our two nations.
What’s the Tradition?
The only item that was really recoverable in the wreckage was a blackened canteen that still bore the handprint of one of the fallen airmen. It’s become a cherished relic to both countries.
The Blackened Canteen Ceremony represents a peace offering of sorts, one that was started in 1972 by Dr. Hiroya Sugano, who had been inspired as a child by what Ito had done.
Unofficially, the ceremony begins in June, as it takes places in both locations – Shizuoka and Pearl Harbor. At Shizuoka, service members from Japan and the U.S. make their way to the Sengen Hill monuments and pour bourbon whiskey from the canteen onto the B-29 monument, symbolizing a final drink shared with their departed comrades.
The canteen is then brought to Pearl Harbor, where the same actions are performed at the USS Arizona Memorial to remember all of those who died on U.S. soil. Sugano has hosted every ceremony since they began decades ago.
Detour, Yellin and Wakita all helped Sugano pour the whiskey into the harbor. The men, who had been enemies 75 years ago, shook hands afterward.
It was a powerful symbol of the horrors of war, as well as reconciliation and communication – something all generations must understand.
“Thinking of the younger generations – so many of you that are here may be questioning why we do this,” said Ken DeHoff Jr., the executive director of the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor. “It’s to learn to communicate together – to have the opportunity to not only use today’s technology to share a message but to take that message and communicate it to each other so that we never experience a crash like one that happened on June 20, 1945, or a war that was started Dec. 7, 1941.”
So why whiskey?
“The whiskey is really the water of life,” said Daniel Martinez, USS Arizona Memorial chief historian, at last year’s ceremony. “For the Japanese, the highest honor is to pour whiskey, American whiskey, as a part of home. To pour it on the stone that’s in Shizuoka and here at the USS Arizona Memorial, as it falls into the water it’s a way of extending the hand of friendship, forgiveness and peace.”
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