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Pearl Harbor and beyond: Building bridges of compassion after WWII

This is second in a two-part series about how Pearl Harbor affected both Utahns and Japanese with Utah ties.

OREM — Gunnery Sgt. Keith Renstrom killed his first Japanese soldier with a hand grenade. When the man jumped into a foxhole, Renstrom and his troops made sure he didn't come out.

"I hated the Japanese," Renstrom said. "The first one I ever killed, I was happy, excited about it. It didn't bother my conscience."

He would not always feel that way. But for the 21-year-old Marine who was tasked with capturing the island of Saipan, killing the enemy was better than fishing, shooting his first deer in Utah's mountains or driving a car.

"I had completed what I had been trained to do," the 89-year-old, white-haired Marine said on a recent winter morning in his Orem home. "I had killed the enemy, been shot by the enemy."

Renstrom carried his hatred like a jungle pack through the Pacific battles of WWII, taking out enemy snipers with his Tommy gun, getting shot through the right thigh and watching fellow soldiers fall around him on red-stained beaches.

"The first blood that you see, an American's blood laying on foreign soil, is one of the shocking things in your life," Renstrom said. "You never get over it."

Dec. 7, 2010 marks 69 years since that tragic day in Hawaii — a surprise attack by Japanese forces that catapulted America into World War II. Immediately, America had a new enemy, and the entire country banded together to vilify and fight against a nation of people many knew little about.

Yet, for many Utah servicemen and women who served in the Pacific Theater, initial hatred, anger or ignorance gave way to compassion and sympathy for the Japanese people. They had seen firsthand how families' lives were decimated by the war, and how Japanese soldiers willingly made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Renstrom's healing moment came in a small LDS meetinghouse in Wailuku, Hawaii. His company was temporarily stationed in Maui to train up to full combat strength, and he went to LDS meetings with a fellow Mormon soldier.

"I opened the second set of doors and there sat a congregation of Japanese people," Renstrom said of that Sunday afternoon more than 40 years ago. "I thought, 'They're not good enough to be members of the church.'"

Though sorely tempted to leave, Renstrom stayed and listened. The first speaker made no impression. But then a Japanese elder shared what he had given up to become a Christian and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"As he talked … I got the strangest feeling I've ever felt in my life, then or now," Renstrom said. "(The thought came), 'Who do you think you are, Gunnery Sgt. Renstrom? Jesus Christ forgave those who killed him. And they haven't killed you yet."

At that moment, the hatred melted away and Renstrom said he saw the Japanese people in an entirely new light.

After the meeting he rushed to the front to shake the elder's hand and thank him for the message. "You taught me more what the Gospel is than anyone in my life, and I don't hate you anymore." he told him.

It was a liberating realization, and one that forever changed the young Marine. He would eventually return to the states and request to serve an LDS mission among the Japanese people. He was sent to the Central Pacific Mission where his first companion was Elder Suya of Japan.

"I asked him, 'How do you feel about me, over here fighting your people?'" Renstrom recounted. "He said, 'Oh, Elder Renstrom. I was in Europe killing your uncles and you were over here killing mine.'"

It was a sobering comment that somehow comforted Renstrom. He realized again that he was not so different from his Japanese friend. In the horrors of war, each man had done his duty to his country, yet they didn't have to remain personal enemies.

Though the Utah soldiers still carry with them the scars from shrapnel and scenes of devastation for which there is no antidote, they learned years ago to cast off the burden of bitterness and anger. They returned to their families victorious; heroes, not haters. Here are their stories.

It's hard for Paul Flandro to describe the devastation of the atomic bomb. Not because he becomes emotional, but it's difficult to capture the magnitude of destruction that had been unleashed in seconds.

"The findings were shocking," the 89-year-old Marine said during a recent conversation in his Murray home. "It was heart wrenching. We reported to our intelligence officers what we found. The material damage cannot be calculated."

Flandro was one of the first U.S. troops to set foot on the southern-most island of Kyushu, home to Nagasaki and neighbor to Hiroshima — the cities where the United States had dropped two atomic bombs on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, leading to the surrender of the Japanese forces.

While evaluating the damage in Nagasaki months after the bomb, 23-year-old artillery officer Flandro and his fellow Marines could tell which way the Japanese people had been facing when the bomb went off, based on which side of their body was burned.

So many had died, Flandro said, while others waited in front of their homes for the release of death. Yet despite the destruction, he knew there was a reason.

"If anyone has a question about the bomb, whether it was good or not, have them come talk to me," Flandro said. "If we wouldn't have done it, everyone would be speaking Japanese today. We would have lost millions of people. The Japanese were training children in how to fight Americans. They don't give up. It was (taught) to them to kill, kill, kill."

And back home in the States, citizens were taught to hate and belittle the Japanese, even going so far as rounding up Japanese-Americans like cattle and shipping them off to interment camps, like the Central Utah Relocation Center, aka, Topaz, near Delta. Flandro said he is sorry about the camps, but remembers the fear that gripped the nation.

"We hated them at that time," Flandro said. "You've got to hate someone before you start shooting at them."

Flandro's hatred was not personal though, he says. It was mostly anger at the mistreatment of U.S. soldiers and the harsh reality of war itself, which meant separation from loved ones, including Flandro's new bride.

"But we did it because it was our duty," he said. "We were not military people looking for a fight."

Yet they had to fight. Like Renstrom, Flandro had also fought in the bloody battle of Saipan, fending off the largest bonzai attack in the Pacific as the nearly defeated Japanese soldiers rushed the beach into the red-hot American cannons. The Marines held the line and eventually won the island.

Flandro quickly learned the Japanese culture was far different than his own, and a sense of honor demanded that they die defending their country rather than surrender. And as the war progressed, Flandro began to feel sorry for the Japanese people, noting the terrible losses the civilians suffered.

After the war ended, troops did all they could to help the beleaguered country get back on its feet, Flandro said. And today he's pleased with the relationship between the United States and Japan.

"I don't know that I can say I have any grudges, but as I bump into people there's a flashback," said Flandro, who each morning posts the American flag and salutes it. "We had hatred of them, but after I came home, I started to be friendly with them. I didn't hold grudges. I was just glad I wasn't fighting them."

As a nurse stationed at the Tachikawa Air Field hospital between Yokohama and Tokyo, Ora Mae Hyatt didn't have much in the way of barrack decorations.

So she and a fellow nurse covered their footlocker with a blanket and added a vase to make a little end table. Each day, the young Japanese girl who cleaned the nurses' station would bring flowers she had picked and add them to the vase.

"With a young girl like that, you can't have hatred toward them," Hyatt, now 85, told the Deseret News. "She was so willing to come help. I don't know if she got paid, but she was just as nice as could be."

Hyatt was a young, fearless army nurse who always volunteered to serve on the front lines in Okinawa, Japan working 12-hour shifts to help the wounded soldiers.

During those long, bloody hours there was no time to stop and think about her feelings, she said.

"I don't remember that I had any personal hatred," she said. "It was talked about so much, how we hated the Japanese, what they did to Pearl Harbor. Well, that's what war is. But I was really concerned with the Americans who were wounded. That's where my feelings were concentrated. It was hard to see the suffering of the wounded soldiers."

After the war ended, Hyatt was transferred to the air field hospital, where she nursed prisoners of war back to health.

"They were so grateful," she said, noting that other soldiers complained about army rations and continual cans of hash. "We would bring them a tray and they would practically lick their tray."

The nurses didn't ask about the camps or the mistreatment, but instead talked about their families back home and shared news from recent letters.

"You have a bond with your patients," she said. "You don't just fall in love with them, but you feel a connection. We're on the same side and they've been hurt trying to win this war. I wanted to help them any way I could."

As a young naval officer in WWII, Crit Killen's goal was to sink submarines. First it was German subs, then Japanese.

He spent months at sea, then suddenly the war was over.

Now, instead of firing depth charges into Japanese waters, Killen was overseeing Japanese soldiers as they swabbed the decks on his ship.

"At first, we wanted to kill every Jap we saw," the 81-year-old sailor said of himself and his crew. "But we got to know them, found out they're not different from us. During that time my feelings changed and I didn't hate them anymore. I realized they were just following orders like we were."

After coming to this realization, Killen would sneak food to his Japanese workers, and then watch as they tucked it away in their mess kits to take home for their families.

"They were all starving at this time," he said. "My heart went out to them, even though they were the enemy."

Yet it wasn't so easy for some of Killen's fellow soldiers, especially those rescued from Japanese prison camps.

"We had a couple guys aboard my ship who … wanted to kill every (Japanese) they saw because of the ill treatment they received, the beatings, starvation. Most of us who had no contact like that, we saw them in a different light. We saw them as just following orders like we were. Blame the officers more than anything."

Killen served four cruises of at least six months on occupation duty in Japan, where life was immensely different than it had been just months before.

"We occupied Japan and we protected them too," he said. "We had our fleet there and if they needed us, we were ready to do whatever we needed to do."

Yet coming home, most couldn't understand his change of heart. They hadn't looked into the faces of starving children nor seen the bombed out remains of once-beautiful cities. Instead they continued to nurse deep feelings of soul-destroying hatred.

"I'm sure, even to this day, some of them do," said Killen, who lives in St. George "Even though they had not been in combat, hadn't served at sea or in the Army or anything, they hated the Japanese. But my feelings had changed, I no longer hated them."