YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan –
Saturday was a dreary and rainy day for many at Yokota, but in Shizuoka, where the 42nd annual B-29 Memorial Ceremony was held on Sengen Hill, blue skies prevailed.
Every year, U.S. and Japanese service members hike to the Sengen Hill monuments in honor of those who lost their lives in a B-29 collision over Shizuoka City on June 19, 1945. The crash took the lives of both aircrews and resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 Japanese citizens.
Fukumatsu Ito, a Japanese farmer, came to aid of the U.S. victims-- managing to pull out two of the aircrew from the wreckage. The aircrew later died from their injuries but Ito respectfully buried them next to the Japanese citizens. He then built the Sengen Hill monuments in hopes of promoting peace between the U.S. and Japan.
"The actions of Ito-san serve as an example of the potential for compassion that exists in all of us," said Col Robert Blagg, 374th Operations Group commander. "Let us continue to strengthen the bond our two great nations share and ensure harmony and freedom for future generations."
Dr. Hiroya Sugano, who was 12-years-old on the date of the crash, was inspired by Ito's gesture of benevolence and began hosting the B-29 Memorial Ceremony in 1972. Without exception, 89-year-old Sugano makes the long trip up to the Sengen Hill monument every year to ensure the trail is in good condition before guests arrive for the ceremony.
"I am grateful to see a good relationship between the United States and Japan," Sugano said in his opening remarks. "I hope our ceremony can act as a step toward world peace."
This year's ceremony had two parts: the "Blackened Canteen Ceremony" and the "Friendship Blossom Dogwood Initiative" tree planting.
The Blackened Canteen is filled with bourbon that service members use to pour over the B-29 monument. The gesture symbolizes a final drink shared with their departed comrades.
"The Blackened Canteen is used in the ceremony as both a symbol of the horrors of war and a representation of the humanitarianism shown by Ito on the day of the B-29 crash," said Retired U.S. Navy Adm. Ronald Hays, who served as the unified commander in Hawaii during his naval career.
Hays said that during his many visits to Japan, he admired the lifestyle and culture of the Japanese people. That sentiment led to the introduction of the dogwood tree planting into the memorial ceremony this year. As a boy growing up in Louisiana, Hays was very familiar with the native Dogwood trees that populated the country landscapes.
"Just as the Japanese look forward to the cherry blossoms and ohanami each springtime, we always looked forward to the beautiful dogwood blossoms," Hays said.
100 years ago, Japan presented 3,000 cherry trees to America as a gesture of friendship and good will. In 2012, the U.S. returned that gesture by sending 3,000 dogwood trees to Japan.
"I don't know why it took us 100 years to return that gesture, but I am delighted to say that Japan is now the custodian of our dogwoods," Hays said. "We trust that when you view these trees in years to come, you will remember the act of friendship that brought them to your shores."