They are returning to the Hawaiian island of Oahu this month to play a team of Japanese World War II veterans. The olive branch will be a softball bat. “I never dreamed that someday I would be playing ball against the Japanese,” says Tom Panebianco, 80, of Redington Shores. He shakes his head while sitting on a picnic table next to the North Shore Park field, where he and other members of the Kids & Kubs over-75 softball team play.
Japanese and U.S. WWII vets at the Puchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu. Alyssa Litoff/ABC News
“This time we will take bats and balls instead of guns and ammunition,” says John Gist, 85, of St. Petersburg. “It’s time to forgive and forget,” says Andy Devine, 82, of Seminole.
Devine, Gist and Panebianco are among eight World War II South Pacific veterans on a team of 15 Kids & Kubs practicing for their Dec. 19 game at Hans L’Orange Field just west of Honolulu in Waipahu. It’s being billed as the Super Senior Baseball Match. The U.S. and Japanese softball teams also played Hawaiian teams on Dec. 18.
The games are the brainchild of Sho Ishida, an independent Japanese TV director in New York. He had filmed a documentary on the Kids & Kubs several years ago. “They want to make a movie and magazine story out of our game,” says Winchell Smith, 88, a St. Petersburg Army veteran and president of the team.
The softball game between U.S. and Japanese World War II veterans. (Alyssa Litoff/ABC News)
The Japanese team, 19 war veterans recruited from across the country, has been practicing since Nov. 15 in Takamatsu City, a sister city of St. Petersburg. On the U.S. side, the decades have softened some of the feelings about the soldiers’ once-reviled enemy.
“I’ve forgotten about 60-some years ago and have no ill feelings,” Smith says. “Our guys did as many bad things as the Japanese did.” Not everyone feels the same, though. One Kids & Kubs member, a war veteran, won’t be making the trip. “He told me his best friend was beheaded by the Japanese,” Smith says.
The teams plan a visit to the USS Arizona Memorial, the sunken ship that is the final resting place for many of its 1,177 crew members. It’s about 12 miles from the ball field. “I’ve been there before and cried when I saw the oil” still bubbling up to the surface, Devine says. “I thought of all the young fellas dying for nothing.”
The U.S. and Japanese players shake hands after the game. The U.S won the game, 14-2, but as one U.S. veteran said, the score did not matter. “We’re like they are, and they’re like us,” he said. (Alyssa Litoff/ABC News)
Devine was a promising minor-league catcher upon entering the Navy after the 1942 baseball season. He was with the Jersey City (N.J.) Giants, the top farm club of the New York Giants, and once got to warm up National Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell. He played against Negro League legends Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.
“The war ruined a lot of careers,” says Devine, who spent 30 years in the Navy and is also a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Six decades later, an influx of Japanese players _ New York Yankees left-fielder Hideki Matsui, Tampa Bay Rays infielder Akinori Iwamura, Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke “Dice-K” Matsuzaka _ dots American team rosters.
“They killed a lot of us, and now they are in Major League Baseball,” says Larry Willows, 81, a Navy torpedo man on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific. “Times change, and you change a lot, too.
“I remember when we picked up a Japanese pilot in the water and the Marines had to drag him off the ship and take him away. He was so scared. And I was at Pearl Harbor years after the bombing when they were still getting bodies out. It was awful.”
Panebianco, a Navy seaman and fireman, says, “War is not as glorious as it’s made out to be in movies. I remember the Japanese kamikaze planes crashing into our ships and losing my shipmates.”
Devine adds, “Your friends got killed next to you. If you said you were not scared, you were full of it.” Their eyes grow distant as they speak. Some grow angry as they shake out the memories that have been packed away. They see the Japanese as enemies again for a few seconds. Then they notice and quickly cut it off, admonishing themselves. Forgiving is much easier than forgetting.
“I want to go back there and represent this team and the USA,”‘ says Devine, who was inducted into the National Senior Softball Hall of Fame in 2004. “I want to do good over there.”
Devine lines a triple into left center field during a recent game. Panebianco has a sweet swing that produces one line drive after another. They jog the bases now, rather than sprint, knee braces as much a part of their uniforms as ball caps. They still love to play, and they do almost every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Their eyes glisten as they pound leather gloves and chatter on the infield before pitches. This game is everything. Which is why it just may be the healing tonic.
“I remember leaving Schofield Barracks and boarding a ship wearing a lei,” says Mike Hungo, 88, a Clearwater Army vet. “They told us to throw the leis into the bay, and that if it makes it to shore it means you are coming back.
“Well, son of a gun, now I am coming back.”