Mitsuaki Omata’s story is a poignant tale of compassion that has crossed former enemy lines and generations.
The 85-year old’s lifelong quest to fulfill his father’s dying wish – to find the families of American airmen shot down over Japan and listed as missing in action – spans 70 years.
It began in a Tokyo farm field, on the night of April 2, 1945, where Omata, then 16 years old, and his father, Gonjiri, crouched at the entrance of their homemade bomb shelter, watching a squadron of American B-29 bombers overhead.
What happened next changed their lives forever.
Suddenly, one B-29 bomber, downed by anti-aircraft fire, plunged into their field, just meters from where father and son sheltered. Laden with bombs, the inferno killed all 11 crew, including a 21-year-old airman from Illinois, left gunner Wallace J. Pitts.
The crew were listed as missing in action and families back home in the U.S. were left to grieve without knowledge about the final moments of their loved one’s lives.
The journey begins
Even though the two countries were still at war, Omata’s father, a devout Buddhist, decided the unknown airmen should be laid to rest with dignity.
Omata told CNN his father did this out of respect: “Respect for a fellow human, even the enemy.”
The pair gathered the remains of the airmen and placed them in their own ancestral cemetery. Later, after the war ended, the U.S. military reburied the remains in a military cemetery in Yokohama.
But for Omata’s father that wasn’t enough – he asked Mitsuaki to find the airmen’s families to give them closure and to let them know where and how their loved ones had died.
And so began his lifelong quest, spanning two nations and language barriers.
Mission for closure
It became a mission of humanity, of building bridges, and for the families concerned, long-awaited closure. Omata traveled to the U.S. to find relatives and information, painstakingly tracking down each family.
Now 70 years later, Bill Pitts and his wife Brenda are the final American family to visit the crash site on the outskirts of Tokyo to pay their respects at a monument built by Omata. The Kannon, or Buddhist goddess of mercy, honors the memory of those 11 airmen and is inscribed with the crew’s names including his uncle’s – Wallace J. Pitts.
The Omata family’s compassion has astonished Brenda Pitts.
“Somebody came out with love to bury the remains of these men. It is amazing,” Pitts told CNN.
Finally seeing his uncle’s name inscribed on Omata’s monument deeply moved Bill Pitts.
“It just surprises me that I’m tearing up – and I didn’t expect that,” Pitts told CNN.
“How many times can I say thank you? Will it ever be enough? I don’t know, But I’m trying. Thank you.”
For Omata, that last heartfelt thank you ends seven decades of searching.
“My mission is finally complete,” Omata told CNN.
Words of hope inscribed
In the 70 years since World War II ended, the words of one man’s compassion and humanity still resonate.
Just before he died, Omata’s father wrote his last thoughts about the event that changed his son’s life. The words are now carved into the base of U.S. airmen’s monument.
“To pray for the peace of human beings and the world and console the spirits of the courageous eleven U.S. crew members of the bomber B-29 which crashed on this spot during the last World War, I have erected this monument to wish that these eleven brave men should sleep here peacefully forever”.