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Peace is a ball game

The Kids & Kubs hope to play Japanese peers at Pearl Harbor.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 12, 2007

Kids & Kubs batter Donald Osborn knocks a single to leftfield as catcher Menno Diliberto, left, looks on during a practice at North Shore Park in St. Petersburg. Many of the Kids & Kubs members are World War II veterans.
[Scott Keeler | Times]
[Scott Keeler | Times]
Kids & Kubs second baseman Nick Deluca and baserunner Bob Warsaw meet at second base during practice.

ST. PETERSBURG - After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Winchell Smith and Harvey Musser joined the military, fighting their way through remote Pacific islands to help win World War II.

Now these aging soldiers want to fly to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and face off one last time against those who fought for the Japanese.

This time, the Greatest Generation wants to play a ball game.

Smith, 88, and Musser, 84, are members of St. Petersburg's Kids & Kubs, a celebrated softball club for 75-and-older players. Many also happen to be World War II veterans.

"Personally, I think it could be a great thing," said Musser, who served in New Guinea and the Philippines with the 1881st Engineer Aviation Battalion. "I could see history being made here."

The hope is for the former enemies to meet peacefully this December on a ballfield near Pearl Harbor. They would play seven innings near the site of the surprise attack 66 years ago that thrust both nations into war.

"We have the players and we're anxious to go," Smith said. "We want to go have a good ball game over there and show them what we can do."

The men have contacted Japanese baseball enthusiasts, who advertise the battle "with gloves and balls instead of weapons" on a Japanese Web site.

The St. Petersburg group also is searching for a benefactor - a government agency or a corporation, perhaps - that would underwrite the cost of flying a dozen or so American players to Hawaii for a week.

An idea takes root

Smith, who is retired from the machine tool industry and is president of Kids & Kubs, has floated the idea by several local elected officials to see whether there is a chance of winning funding for the trip. So far, no one has committed, he said.

The idea for this game has been dormant in some of the players' minds for a long time, but it came to the surface when Sho Ishida, an independent Japanese television director based in New York, came to St. Petersburg a few years ago to film a documentary on the Kids & Kubs.

Ishida said some players told him he reminded them of Japanese soldiers. He said they told him they never hated "Japs," a word some of them still use. Ishida also said the Americans told him, "We'd like to play the baseball with the old Japanese veterans."

"I was moved by their wish," Ishida said in an e-mail. He and friends are working to assemble a Japanese team, he said, and have found a core of interested players.

One reason for trying to schedule this game is that "we realize we're not going to be around very long," said Musser, who wants to attend but may not be able to play because of recent knee surgery.

Just like yesterday

Six decades after they fought the Japanese, the players' memories of war are as strong as their opinions.

Musser was serving with his Combat Engineers unit in the Philippines when he lost an eye during a Japanese bombing raid. That ended his dream of playing professional baseball. Before the war, he received an invitation from a Philadelphia Phillies farm club, but got drafted before he could try out for the squad.

Musser says he doesn't harbor any hostility toward the Japanese. One day in New Guinea, while searching for a spot to build a landing strip, he came across a dead Japanese soldier with a picture in his shirt pocket.

"I found a picture of him and his wife, and they were so jolly-looking," said Musser, who also carried a family photo during the war.

"I looked at his picture and I looked at mine, and I thought what are we doing here?"

Smith says he's not bitter toward the former Japanese soldiers, either. The way he sees it, "we had to do it and they had to do it ... they were doing their job."

Not everyone agrees. One Kids & Kubs player, a former tailgunner on B-29 bombers, said he wouldn't be able to stomach going to this game. He vividly remembers good friends who were shot down. Some of them, he later heard, were beheaded.

One recent morning at the Kids & Kubs office, Smith said he, too, had seen terrible things during the war, "but that was 60 years ago."

"Yeah," replied the former tailgunner, who is 81 and refused to give his name to a reporter. "But did you have a good friend that was beheaded?"

A fitting purpose

Organizers believe this game could be meaningful.

"You know why I want to do this? " Musser said. "It's a first."

The game, Smith said, would "just bring back memories of what World War II was all about."

And, he said, it might "show that we can all live together now in the world. If we go to athletics and play it that way, there wouldn't be any world war."

[Last modified October 12, 2007, 00:02:16]

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