When I accepted an invitation six months ago to meet a 100-year-old World War II veteran named Fiske Hanley, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. His publisher explained that his memoir had recently been reprinted and that he would be available in the Washington, D.C., area for a couple of days if I cared to interview him. His story sounded interesting, so I agreed.
Arriving at the hotel in Arlington, Virginia, where he was staying, I realized that not only was Fiske there, but so was every survivor of the Battle of Iwo Jima who was able to make the trip. It was their last gathering near the nation’s capital, and the living history was overwhelming.
I approached Fiske at a table where he sat with Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last living Medal of Honor recipient from the Pacific theater. As we moved to a quieter room, Fiske asked me matter-of-factly, “Do you know Woody? He’s my buddy.” Then, for roughly half-an-hour, Fiske told me how his faith sustained him as a “special prisoner” who was tortured in the personal dungeon of the Japanese emperor.
After meeting Fiske, I became obsessed. I pored over his book and steeped myself in his story for weeks while I thought of little else. His suffering haunted me and his resilience inspired me. As I attempted to convey in a profile of him for the Washington Examiner, Fiske exhibited an almost supernatural ability to maintain hope in the most dire of circumstances, while also praying for the most sadistic of enemies.
Fiske was a B-29 flight engineer, a particularly dangerous job. The Japanese reserved especially intense hatred for the soldiers they captured from downed B-29s, since it was from those planes that fire rained down to destroy their homes. They were classified as “special prisoners” and singled out for terrible treatment and execution. When Fiske parachuted from his plane after it was shot down near an ancient castle town, a pack of rural Japanese civilians surrounded him and nearly beat him to death.
Eventually, Fiske was transferred to the Kempeitai prison across a moat from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The Kempeitai were Japan’s military police and notorious for their demonic cruelty. Fiske was subjected to it daily for five months. His chief tormentor was a vicious guard whom the prisoners called “Shorty” because of his small stature. What Shorty lacked in height he made up for in barbarism. Inflicting pain and humiliation on his helpless, starving victims brought him sick pleasure.
As Fiske languished in a cramped, squalid cell with his fellow prisoners, many of whom did not survive, it was his faith in God that kept him going. It allowed him to fight the hatred he felt toward Shorty, whom he tried his best to pray for. Fellow Christians came to him at especially dire moments to encourage him, such as a prison guard who sneaked him a bowl of beef stew on Easter. Every time he told his story, Fiske would say, “The good Lord saved me 14 times from certain death.”
Decades after the war, Fiske encountered mysterious providence again when he found himself working with Mitsuharu “Bill” Nagase at General Dynamics in Fort Worth, Texas. Bill was 15 years old when Japan’s surrender saved him from his imminent kamikaze mission, after which an American colonel sponsored him to go to school in Texas. Fiske later realized that he had flown on the mission that killed Bill’s family. They both had reason to hate each other, but Fiske and Bill became good friends. Before Bill died in 2016, he gave Fiske the war medal his family would have received upon completion of his suicide for the emperor. It became one of Fiske’s most treasured possessions.
In 2015, Fiske was among the five former prisoners of war chosen to appear before Japanese Emperor Akihito to receive a formal apology. While he was there, Fiske got the Japanese Embassy to fly him to the place where he was shot down. There, Fiske visited a tiny village filled with rural Japanese, much like those who had beaten him 70 years earlier. Fiske happened into a solemn memorial ceremony at one of the village shrines, where they had kept the remains of several American soldiers. “The Japanese don’t keep remains, but this little, bitty village did,” Fiske told me. “There were about 100 ordinary Japanese citizens there at the ceremony, and that’s when I forgave the Japanese.”
Of the many great takeaways from Fiske’s life, the one most striking to me is the power of forgiveness; not the cheap sort meted out to everyday nuisances, but the costly, difficult kind spoken of in the Sermon on the Mount.
Fiske died Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020, exactly 75 years after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki dealt the death blow to Japan and secured his freedom. His Aug. 15 funeral coincides not only with V-J Day, but also with the day he emerged from his insufferable dungeon to see sunlight for the first time in months.
The Greatest Generation is quickly passing away, but the virtues of men like Fiske endure as invaluable examples to young people as they head into increasingly dark and uncertain times.
Rest In Peace.
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