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Thursday, December 27, 2007

Dave at his very, very best

I've made note of my admiration for the St. Pete Times and writer Dave Scheiber in two previous posts. Here is Exhibit #1-A of why I love the paper and his work so much:

Southpinellas - Old Warriors, New Friends

WAIPAHU, Hawaii -- The pitch arched through the brilliant blue Hawaiian sky just past 2:30 p.m., carrying 66 years of memories from a generation that changed history.

It was a softball game, but more than a softball game.

It was a day of hope in a place that has become a symbol of infamy.

It was a showdown between the United States and Japan with bats and balls, not bombs and bullets - only a few miles from the shimmering waters of Pearl Harbor, where Japan launched its surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

Old soldiers who long ago faded away into civilian life and retirement returned this week to the Pacific, many for the first time since their war years, for a goodwill contest of reconciliation and renewal.

The U.S. banner was carried by the Kids & Kubs softball team of St. Petersburg, a group of ballplayers age 75 and older. Eleven of the 15 served in the brutal Pacific Theater.

On the Japanese squad, nicknamed the Over the Rainbows, the number of World War II vets was 10.

Here they were, men mostly in their 80s, speaking different languages but sharing a common journey through a door to the past.

They played Wednesday on the diamond at Hans L'Orange Field, a pro park with lush green grass in this little town on the island of Oahu.

In the first at-bat, Toshio Fujioka, trained as a navy air corps pilot in 1945, hit a pitch to third baseman Pete Murphy, an Army quartermaster who guarded supplies during the occupation of Japan.

Murphy fired to first baseman Larry Willows, a torpedoman first-class on the USS Cabot in the South Pacific.

"Attaboy, Pete," Willows called out.

It didn't really matter that Fujioko was the first out.

What mattered was that he made contact.

Making contact was what this game was all about.

The Kids & Kubs take a five-run lead on a grand slam by Jose Merced, a 77-year-old Korean War vet added to help fill out the squad. After scoring, he says he can't wait to call his son, former major leaguer Orlando Merced.


Japan 0 0
USA 5 5

This historic game would never have happened if not for Harvey Musser.

In 1943, Musser was a 20-year-old Army combat engineer in New Guinea, preparing to build an airstrip. He smelled a foul odor and pushed aside some dense brush. A young Japanese soldier lay there dead.

Musser bent down and searched the man's pockets. He found a photo showing the man and his family on a picnic. Just like a photo he always carried.

"Even though he was dead," Musser said, "I remember kneeling there, saying to him, 'What the hell are we doing here?'"

The image haunted Musser for decades. When a New York TV producer named Sho Ishida came to film a Japanese documentary on the Kids & Kubs seven years ago, he met Musser, then the team president.

Musser had an idea, something that would help him get past that image of the dead solider.

Something involving a game.

Murphy stops an Over the Rainbow rally, fielding a grounder, stepping on third for one out, then firing to second for a big-league double play.

Japan 0 0 0
USA 5 0 5

Just 48 hours earlier, Murphy and his teammates sipped coffee inside Tampa International, awaiting an early morning flight to Atlanta, the first leg of their final Pacific mission.

But not everybody wanted to be part of it.

"I've seen what they did to people - tied our guys to the trees and burned them, decapitated them," Hal Fisher, 82, a former Navy bombardier, said last week.

Fisher fought all over the Pacific, in Borneo, Tinian, China and Iwo Jima. He flew cover there in a B-24, bombing the island before the U.S. troops invaded. He saw gruesome photos of fliers who had been captured and killed. The images are burned in his memory.

"I got no problem with the other guys going over there, and part of me would love to play," he said. "But I couldn't go on this trip in good faith. No way."

Yet for others who had served in the Pacific, the game represented a rare opportunity to revisit a painful chapter, to make a statement, perhaps to learn something.

"You know, for years and years, I never talked about my experience, never thought about it," said Irv Abelson, 82.

At 18, Abelson was a Coast Guard seaman in the Philippines. One night, his ship got stuck on a coral reef. He helped drive away Japanese gunboats, shining a spotlight on them from the bridge, then firing at them with a rifle.

"The way I see it, this is a very difficult time for our country," he said. "We've got our problems and need all the allies we can get. And Japan is a great one."

"It was a long time ago," said current team president Winchell Smith, 88, who repaired Army field artillery. "They were doing their jobs the same as we were doing ours."

In the bottom of the third, Tom Panebianco, an ex-Navy mechanic who sailed into Tokyo Bay at war's end, singles to start a five-run rally.

Japan 0 0 0 0
USA 5 0 5 10

En route to Atlanta, the pilot announced that a group of men on board was heading to Hawaii to play against Japanese World War II vets.

Loud applause and cheers rippled through the cabin.

On cue, Panebianco helped lead his teammates in a raucous cheer: "What's the matter with 75?! We're the guys still alive! Ho-ho let's go! Rah-rah-rah 75!"

At their next gate, several players noticed a young Navy seaman waiting alone for the 10-hour Honolulu flight. Team captain Andy Devine called out, "Hey, sailor!"

In moments, they were immersed in conversation.

Trevor Kencsan, a quiet 22-year-old electrician's mate from Ohio, got a rousing pep talk from Devine, a gregarious 81-year-old former Navy radioman from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Devine was thrust into battle in the Philippines aboard the USS Ommaney Bay. On Jan. 4, 1945, his ship was hit by a kamikaze plane in the Sulu Sea.

The plane ripped through the deck and caused a massive explosion and fire. Devine and his crew abandoned ship to safety.

"I thought I was a brave kid, but that was scary," said Devine, who later served in Korea and did three tours in Vietnam.

To this day, he remembers the horrible, bone-jarring sound of his ship blowing up.

Japan gets on the board. In the fourth inning, Kenichirou Okada, 75, triples in a run. Moments later, players and spectators hold their breath when second baseman Bert Clearwater, 85, takes a bad hop to the face, loses his balance and hits the back of his head hard on the dirt infield. Play is stopped, but he shakes it off.

Japan 0 0 0 1 1
USA 5 0 5 0 10

They settled back for the marathon flight, crossing time zones, talking, sleeping, wondering.

Clearwater, a World War II flight instructor from Beaver Falls, Pa., saw a woman nearby writing her name on a Christmas card with the inscription:

"Son, it seems like only yesterday you still believed in Santa and Christmas morning brought such a magical smile. ..."

Her son is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in Baghdad.

"You want my autograph?" Clearwater asked with a friendly smile, then offered to have the entire Kids & Kubs combat division sign it as well.

The woman, Pearl Ganon of Hawaii, said she would love that. So Clearwater moved about the cabin, getting signatures.

"When I tell him I was on a plane with men who fought for our country in World War II, it's going to give him such a boost in morale," Ganon said. "It's going to make his day."

In the bottom of fifth, Merced has doubly good reason to call his son. He smacks a three-run homer.

Japan 0 0 0 1 1 2
USA 5 0 5 0 4 14

The jet touched down at Honolulu International at 3:04 p.m. local time.

Smith gathered his weary teammates as pretty Hawaiian women placed leis around their necks. A bus took them to their downtown hotel.

5:30 p.m. They stepped inside the plush, packed lobby of the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani as old men and suddenly became baseball stars. Four film crews from Japan followed their every move.

"We got more cameramen than ballplayers," said John Gist, who served as seaman first-class and storekeeper in New Guinea.

6:30 p.m. Former mortal enemies shook hands at a packed reception, conversing happily with the help of translators.

"It's wonderful," said Shoji Yano, 79, through an interpreter as several Kids & Kubs listened. "Americans are so big-hearted."

7:15 p.m. Event organizer Mitsuru Okoso ushered everyone into a conference room with big round tables, each designated for four American and four Japanese players. A long banner hung on the wall proclaiming, "Super Senior Baseball Match Between U.S. and Japan."

9 p.m. Larry Willows talked at one table. He saw the damage at Pearl Harbor when his aircraft carrier docked there in 1943, two years after the attack.

"They were still taking bodies off the Arizona," he said. He later faced heavy combat in the Marshall, Gilbert and Mariana Islands, fending off kamikazes.

Now, aided by an interpreter, he was engaged in conversation with Hisashi Hisaeda. The two 81-year-olds learned something remarkable: Both fought in the same 1943 battle on Truk Island in the Philippines. Willows, from White Plains, N.Y., was shelling the island; Hisaeda was desperately trying to dodge explosions and survive behind tree stumps.

Both were 17.

"I'm glad to see you here with us, alive," said Willows, smiling.

Hisaeda listened to the interpretation, then laughed and shook Willows' hand.

9:30 p.m. They posed for a snapshot, beaming like old pals.

Japan is starting to fade in the 85 degree heat, normal conditions for the Kids & Kubs.

Japan 0 0 0 1 1 0 2
USA 5 0 5 0 4 0 14

On Tuesday, the Kids and Kubs warmed up with a convincing 11-8 victory over a younger Hawaiian club. But Wednesday was the big day.

At 8 a.m., a tour bus took both teams to a pastoral hillside and the Makiki cemetery for Japanese military. Over the Rainbow players prayed and bowed solemnly before a large gravestone, a symbol of the souls of their ancestors. Kids & Kubs members watched in silence amid boom mikes and cameras.

Next stop, the Punchbowl Crater on a spectacular Hawaian mountainside, site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where 78,000 American war dead are buried. A massive stone staircase leads to a statue of Lady Liberty above the peaceful resting place.

In a light drizzle, Winchell Smith and Yoshimasa Iwao presented a ceremonial wreath as players mingled comfortably.

Then, an amazing moment:

As taps began, a rainbow appeared across the sky, framing the memorial. Larry Willows and Andy Devine couldn't hold back their tears. Just as it had appeared, the rainbow began to fade as the song ended.

"I was just thinking of all the friends I'd lost in the war, and then I saw this rainbow," Devine said. "Never in a million years ..."

"God just had a gift for us," Willows said, still choked up. "It was like he was saying, 'Nice going guys. Good job getting together.'"

As they walked back to the bus, many players on both teams shook hands and hugged.

"My buddy," Iwao grinned, putting his arm around 87-year-old Walt Pawley, once a first lieutenant in the 25th Infantry Division. "My buddy," Pawley smiled back.

Soon they were gazing at the USS Arizona memorial, a large white structure in Pearl Harbor, above the sunken battleship where 1,178 bodies are still entombed. They posed for a combined team picture and joked as Devine got to steer the tourist boat back to land. Next it was off to Hans L'Orange Field. A game awaited.

Here's what stood out: The Kids & Kubs belting out the national anthem as if they were at the Olympics, then belting their eager but less talented competition with help from other military oldtimers Mike Hungo, Karl Sommer, Jim Archey (five strikeouts) and Gordon Scargle (three hits).

In the end, there were more hugs and a team photo where they all yelled "cheese!" then "banzai!"

"I feel like I have 20 new friends," Devine said.

In the background, over the stadium sound system, Judy Garland sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

For two teams of old men who discovered a surprising bond, that somewhere was here.

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