Once enemies, but now friends

Trainees and officers of Japan's self-defense force visit the bay area and pay their respects to America's war dead.

Published July 4, 2006

BUSHNELL - They stood in straight military rows, their crisp white uniforms bright against the green grass and the morning sun.

Behind the newest members of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force were lines of perfectly spaced white tombstones.

On Monday morning, the 200 trainees saluted as Rear Adm. Takanobu Sasaki and Consul General Masakazu Toshikage placed a floral wreath of unity at Florida National Cemetery.

All stood in a moment of silence before bringing their hands back down at their sides.

The Japanese force requested the visit to Bushnell as part of its annual world tour. The squadron arrived Sunday on three vessels docked at the Port of Tampa and will stay through Thursday.

The 140-day training cruise began in Tokyo in April and runs through September. In addition to visiting the United States, the newly commissioned officers will stop in Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Panama and the Dominican Republic.

While in Tampa, trainees are staying with host families. A packed schedule includes a trip to Busch Gardens, a Devil Rays baseball game and some fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July.

This week's historic call marks the first time the group - similar to a combined U.S. Navy and Coast Guard unit - has come to the Tampa Bay area.

The proximity of the national cemetery was a key reason for the group's stop. About 41,000 World War II veterans are buried at the cemetery - nearly half of the total number of vets with graves at the 500-acre site.

"The rear admiral wanted to come here to honor the war dead," said Robert Rowen, chairman of the maritime group's welcoming committee. "We are very honored to have them."

At some of the other stops, the squadron also placed wreaths in a show of unity between the United States and Japan, foes in World War II. The group heads to Houston next, Rowen said.

After Monday's 10-minute ceremony, the trainees filed back onto their tour buses. The handful of area residents who attended the presentation departed.

World War II Air Force veteran Bob Cutler was one of several who shook the hands of Rear Adm. Sasaki and Consul General Toshikage.

Looking back on his service in Italy 60 years ago, Cutler, 81, said time hasn't made his memories of war go away. After living on two hours of sleep a night for more than a year while in the service, he still can't sleep for more than five hours a night.

But Cutler, who is also a member of the maritime group's welcoming committee, doesn't hold any grudges.

"We have to remember that people don't make wars," Cutler said. "Governments do."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.