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By E.B. Potter
In Annapolis, in retirement, on 30 August 1967 Admiral Burke paid a call on a navy he’d helped create some 17 years earlier—when the scars werg^till fresh.
In October 1943 in the South Pacific, Captain Arleigh Burke, U.S. Navy, took command of Destroyer Squadron 23. After hoisting his pennant, he called his officers to a meeting and passed out mimeographed copies of the doctrine he expected them to operate under. On the cover, the doctrine was summarized in five sentences. The first two are particularly pertinent:
► If it will help kill Japs—it’s important.
► If it will not help kill Japs—it’s not important.
In the following months the eight destroyers of Squadron 23 became known as the “Little Beavers,” and their commander acquired the nickname “31-Knot Burke.” In night battles in the upper Solomons, 31-Knot Burke and his Little Beavers sank ships and killed sailors from the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul, where Vice Admiral Jinishi Kusaka was the naval commander. Kusaka, undersized but fierce, did his utmost by sea and air to retaliate, but Burke sidestepped all his snares. Their paths, however, were destined to cross again—under very different circumstances.
In early 1944, Burke transferred from the destroyers to
Burke and retired Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, a former ambassador to the United States, both worried about Japan’s poorly guarded sea approaches and coastal waters—but to solve the problem they had to re-write part of General Douglas MacArthur’s 1947 Constitution, which sought to keep Japan demilitarized.
the carriers, becoming chief of staff to Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Fast Carrier Task Force. In the spring of 1945, off Okinawa, the carrier task force came under such concentrated kamikaze attack that Mitscher and a shrinking remnant of his staff were obliged to change flagships twice in four days as the crashing suicide planes put carriers Bunker Hill (CV-17) and Enterprise (CV-6) successively out of action with heavy loss of American lives. Burke was lucky to be one of the survivors, but it had been a close call. The war’s end left him with the deeply implanted conviction that the Japanese were his enemies, then and forevermore.
Five years later, during the Korean War, Burke, now a rear admiral, was sent, of all places, to Japan, the lair of the enemy. Here, he was to serve as troubleshooter for Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Far East. Burke was assigned a room in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, taken over as housing for U.S. occupation personnel but run by Japanese. These were the first native Japanese Burke had come into contact with. It gave him an eerie feeling, because he still thought of them as enemy-
For advice on how to deal with such people, Burke turned to his friend Captain Edward H. Pierce, also stationed in Tokyo. Before World War II, Captain Pierce had participated in the Navy’s Japanese language program, which required him to spend three years in Japan, learning the language and observing Japanese customs and ways of thinking. From Pierce, Burke learned the details of General Douglas MacArthur’s demilitarizing program. Mac- Arthur, commanding the Allied forces occupying Japan, had disarmed and demobilized Japan’s armed forces and, in a general “purge,” barred all former Japanese commissioned officers from government aid and from access to public office.
Japanese civilians generally supported the purge. If their view, the generals and admirals had initiated the war and then lost it, leaving the people impoverished, their young men lost in battle, their homes destroyed by bombing, and themselves supposedly about to be ground under the heel of the conqueror.
Former high-ranking officers, thus excluded by the Americans and rebuffed by their fellow Japanese, became destitute. They were members of the gentility, unused to manual labor; yet they were reduced to digging ditches, selling newspapers—anything to keep body and soul, and family, together.
Captain Pierce pitied the starving officers. He brought the subject up indirectly with Admiral Burke. Did the name “Kusaka,” Pierce asked, mean anything to him-
“Yes, indeed,” Burke growled. Vice Admiral Jinishi Kusaka, as the Japanese naval commander at Rabaul, had been his wartime enemy, sending ships and planes into the Solomons to attack Americans, including Burke and his Little Beavers.
Pierce sighed. “Tiny bit of a gray-haired fellow,” he said. “You know what he’s doing? He’s working on the railway, swinging a sledge. His wife’s selling flowers on a street corner. They’re starving. He won’t accept charity, but if you can arrange it, perhaps I can get food to him- t
“To hell with him,” said Burke. “Let him starve.’
As Pierce doubtless anticipated, Arleigh, for all his neg' ative words, could not get the plight of Kusaka and hP fellow officers off his mind. The situation, Burke con' eluded, was ridiculous. The Japanese commanders, con' fronting the overwhelming power and abundant resource5
°f the United States and its allies, had fought nearly four -Vcars before suffering defeat. It was an incredible achievement. Yet their reward was hunger and the scorn of their e|low countrymen. Burke went into action. From the COrnmissary, he had a box of groceries delivered anonymously to the Kusakas.
Okay,” he said to Pierce, “you win.” burke was not as anonymous as he supposed. A few tu S. 'atcr his office door was flung open, and in stormed he little admiral spouting Japanese. Arleigh reached in the rawer for his pistol. He would shoot through the desk if e had to. With his other hand, he rang for an orderly, ''mo presently appeared. They got an interpreter. Through im Kusaka expressed his indignation. He had, he said, een grossly insulted. He would accept charity from no- °dy, certainly not from Americans. He wanted nothing to
- with Americans, he concluded, and coldly stalked out. Urke was favorably impressed. Kusaka had done exactly hat he would have done—chosen starvation rather than
ac^ept charity under such circumstances.
'tying another tack, Burke had Pierce invite Kusaka ‘lri(l a couple of his hard-up fellow admirals to dinner in a Pflyate dining room at the Imperial Hotel. Captain Pierce /rived, accompanied by Admiral Timioka and Vice Ad- lfals Sakano and Kusaka. They wore formal dress, now l^rcadbare, and held themselves aloof. Pierce had warned Urke this would happen. In their view, they had been himoned by the occupying power and were obliged to ^e> but they would keep their distance. s . mke managed to get Pierce aside. “Look, Eddie,” he 'he ’ We've 8°tt0 get some liquor in these men to loosen
- 1 don’t know that they can hold it, Arleigh. They ve
too poor to buy liquor.” t leave it to you. You speak Japanese.” cu n an inspiration, Eddie got some tiny ceremonial sake Ps and filled them with whiskey. The cups added a for-
In 1955, Vice Admiral Ko Nagasawa, Chief of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, visited Admiral Burke, by then Chief of Naval Operations, at the Pentagon during an orientation tour of the United States. Nagasawa and other former Imperial Japanese Navy officers had been quietly “depurged” to form a planning group for the new navy and, in time, to assume its active-duty leadership.
mal note and also limited the amount that could be drunk without pause. When the guests declined the proffered drink, Eddie said, “You can’t be rude to your host.”
It took a while and several formal sips, but eventually the three guests were chattering away. It turned out they could all speak English, and Kusaka, who had spouted only Japanese in Burke’s office during his earlier visit, spoke English especially well, having been a naval attache in London before the war.
The dinner was the best the hotel could prepare, and good by any standard. The Japanese admirals, animated by the whiskey and the good food, shed their frostiness and turned a not-unfriendly eye on their host. At the meal’s end Burke rose and offered a toast to his guests.
Kusaka then stood up and raised his cup, saying, “I want to give a toast to our host, but not just to our host, who has been very kind to have us for this dinner. I want to give a toast also to the time when I failed to do my duty, because if I had done my duty I would have killed our host, and then we would not have had this fine steak dinner tonight.”
Burke then got up and lifted his cup. “Admiral,” he said, “could I drink to that toast too?”
Everybody laughed. The ice was broken, and Arleigh’s war with the Japanese was amicably concluded.
Burke asked Pierce to suggest somebody who had the knowledge, the skill, and the leisure to teach him to understand the Japanese and other Orientals. Pierce thought a minute, and then recommended retired Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura. Nomura had been Japan’s foreign minister and later ambassador to the United States, where he was struggling mightily to preserve the peace when, to his dismay, his countrymen attacked Pearl Harbor.
A couple of days after the conversation with Pierce, a Japanese gentleman appeared at Burke’s office and introduced himself as Admiral Nomura. Speaking excellent English with just a trace of accent, Nomura said Captain Pierce had relayed Burke’s request to him. For an opening discussion, Nomura invited Burke to his home, a small house on the outskirts of Tokyo. From this and subsequent meetings, they developed a lasting friendship.
One subject that concerned them both was Japan’s poorly guarded sea approaches and coastal waters. Its only remaining combatant ships were minesweepers and a few other small craft. These, manned by enlisted men and controlled by a civilian, were engaged in removing the thousands of mines planted in Japanese waters by U.S. B-29s. The Japanese had no way of stopping large-scale smuggling by sea, no way of detecting approaching invasion forces, and no way of protecting their fishermen, whose boats were often stripped and sometimes seized outright by Koreans, Russians, or Chinese.
Burke discussed this undesirable situation with Admiral Nomura. They recognized that a main barrier to remedying it was the Constitution of 1947. Mac Arthur’s headquarters—enjoined both to democratize and demilitarize Japan—had written it, and the Japanese had accepted it without question, including the famous article 9:
“Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
“In order to accomplish the aims of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”
Burke read the article to Admiral Nomura and shook his head. “How can a nation become viable without the power to protect itself?” he asked.
Nomura replied, “This article was suggested by your country, and it was accepted by my country. You will have to protect us.”
“That can’t be,” said Burke. “That’s all right for a few years, but it can’t go on forever. No nation can take on the sole support of another nation. It can’t be done.”
“It’s a burden you asked for.”
“You’ve got to reinterpret or cancel that article.” Nomura smiled. “You’re right,” he said. “As a self- respecting nation, we should have a navy. Some day we should.”
In a later visit to Nomura’s home, Burke was introduced to an Admiral Zenshiro Hoshina and learned that a number of Japanese naval officers recognized the need to establish a national navy and had formed a planning group to that end, headed by a Captain Ko Nagasawa. Arleigh was aware that these men had been quietly “depurged,” in order to command the agency’s minesweepers and to advise its civilian head, a Mr. Takeo Okubo. He learned now that the agency also had a few officer-commanded subchaser types patrolling from coastal cities, to do what they could against smuggling.
The Japanese thus had a small nucleus for a navy, and Burke thought about how to expand it a little. At Vladivostok and other nearby Siberian ports were a number of old, beaten-up frigates that the United States had lend- leased to the Soviets during the war. Russia had decided it could now return them. It struck Burke that, though these ships were in poor condition, the Japanese could cannibalize them and make a couple of pretty good frigates out of them if they were turned over to Japan.
Burke discussed the possibility with Admiral Joy, who fully approved. But they were unsure how the suggestion would be received by authorities in the United States. It was clear, however, that the request should not come from Americans, lest it appear they were forcing something on unwilling Japanese. It had to come from the Japanese themselves, and Burke believed he had the man to do the requesting—Takeo Okubo. Okubo had a dignified yet pleasant personality, he was of sub-cabinet rank, and he had the confidence of the prime minister.
Burke paved his way with convincing letters to the off' cials he would have to visit. Okubo left for the United States on 10 January 1951 and returned triumphant a month later. He had been granted everything he sought: transfer of the battered frigates to Japan, possession and use of an airplane to locate floating mines, the right to increase size and speed of the antismuggling patrol boats, and permission to load their guns.
During the first months of 1951, planning for a Japa' nese navy went apace under the guidance of Burke and former officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. Burke played a major role, based on his varied experience and his extensive study of naval and military history.
The planners had actually picked the ten officers to head the new navy, with Nagasawa as its first chief of operations—when the U.S. State Department got wind of what was going on and ordered a halt. The planners were told that talk of a new Japanese navy had better be hushed on the eve of a peace conference at which 48 nations had to be persuaded to sign the treaty.
The peace treaty was signed in September 1951. It recognized Japan’s right to self-defense. When it went into effect the following April, the almost wholly American occupation officially ended. Instead of the barbarous crushing the Japanese had feared, it had been firm but fair- fostering liberty and encouraging commerce.
The Korean War, for which the U.N. forces purchased abundant services and products from Japan, had restored the nation’s economy. In this hopeful atmosphere, the Jap' anese depurged most of their purged officers and officials, and a miniature Japanese navy, the Maritime Self-Defense Force, came into being with Vice Admiral Ko Nagasawa at its head. The Japanese naval officers, then and later, acknowledged Rear Admiral Arleigh A. Burke of the U.S’ Navy as its “mighty benefactor.”
In 1957, Burke, as Chief of Naval Operations, visited Japan. He was cordially received by the emperor and r6' spectfully welcomed by Admiral Nagasawa and his top officers. Burke urged them to strengthen their Self' Defense Force and assume even more responsibility f°r their national security.
Ten years later, a Japanese destroyer training squadron under Rear Admiral Seizaburo Hoshino left Japanese waters for the Self-Defense Force’s first venture abroad. The squadron stopped at Midway, Pearl Harbor, San Dieg0’ Balboa, New York, Newport, and Annapolis. Admit3 Burke, long retired, was on hand at Annapolis to greet the voyagers.
Based on Admiral Arleigh Burke. E.B. Potter. New York and Toronto/Annapo'1’ Random House, Inc. and Random House of Canada, Ltd./Naval Institute PrcS> 1990. Published with permission.
With degrees from Richmond and Chicago universities, Professor PoUe attained the grade of commander during World War II. Later, as cha’f man of naval history at the U.S. Naval Academy, he led his colleagues > writing Sea Power: A Naval History. He has since written The Na''1 Academy Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy and two other biographieSj Nimitz and Bull Halsey. He presented a version of this paper at the Nav Academy’s Ninth Naval History Symposium.