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Mitsuo Fuchida's Fascinating Life Story Winds From Pearl Harbor to the Pulpit

Once one of America's most noted enemies, Fuchida converted to Christianity in later years and spent decades preaching across the United States.

Mitsuo Fuchida stands in front of Pearl Harbor in 1966.
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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

When Christian worshippers met Mitsuo Fuchida, many probably had no idea of his past. Americans might have been particularly surprised to know Fuchida had helped shock them once before—former pilot and staff officer Fuchida had been among those who planned the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. 

Captain Fuchida had also flown in the raid, leading the first wave of aircraft and delivering a now legendary signal to begin the attack. “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (“Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”) was more than just the title of a post-war movie—it was Fuchida’s own codeword. When his fellow pilots heard it, they knew they had achieved complete surprise.  

Nobody knew they were coming. With Pearl Harbor effectively defenseless, Fuchida’s pilots began their attack on Roosevelt’s day that will live in infamy. Had America’s aircraft carriers (Japan’s primary target) been there at the time, the U.S. Navy would have been crippled before war was even declared. Fortunately, they were not, but Battleship Row and several other targets were easy prey. Pearl Harbor made Fuchida a national hero, even earning him the very rare honor of a personal audience with Emperor Hirohito himself.

Related: Beyond Pearl Harbor: 5 Times the U.S. Was Attacked at Home During WWII

Fuchida’s eventual transition to preaching reconciliation and peace was unexpected, to say the least. Born in Japan’s Nara Prefecture on December 3, 1902, Fuchida joined the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1921. A mutual interest in flying saw him befriend Minoru Genda, another critical figure in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fuchida would coordinate the aerial attack and lead it personally with Genda in overall command of the air group. Genda had secured Fuchida’s appointment to do so.

Fuchida served until the end of the war. He was involved in the bombing of Darwin on February 19, 1942, still the single largest attack by a foreign power against Australia. The Battle of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in April 1942 was less conclusive. Just as the Japanese failed to destroy American carriers at Pearl Harbor, they failed to destroy Britain’s Eastern Fleet in Ceylon.

The legendary Battle of Midway in June 1942, at which Fuchida also flew, was anything but inconclusive. It was a devastating defeat effectively ruining Japanese carrier operations for the rest of the war. Fuchida later described the crucial moment of the battle, writing “We had been caught flat-footed in the most vulnerable position possible – decks loaded with planes armed and fueled for attack.”

Related: Meet the Japanese Diplomat Who Saved 6,000 Jewish People from the Holocaust

Again, he worked beside Genda under Japan’s greatest naval commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, but to no avail. Grounded by appendicitis, Fuchida was further wounded when his carrier Akagi was destroyed. Transferred to Japan as a staff officer, Fuchida survived the war. Admiral Yamamoto did not. His aircraft was shot down over Bougainville Island by U.S. fighters on April 18, 1943, a targeted assassination code-named Operation Vengeance.  

Fuchida narrowly escaped death. He had been due to attend a conference in Hiroshima in early August 1945 but was unexpectedly called to Tokyo after arriving. 

The next day, Hiroshima became the first city to suffer a nuclear strike and Fuchida returned with other officers to assess the damage. Bizarrely, Fuchida was the only survivor of that group. Himself unscathed by the fall-out, all his companions later died of radiation poisoning. 

Mitsuo Fuchida, a ship catches fire in the ocean
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  • The USS Arizona, ablaze after Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor.

    Photo Credit: Library of Congress

He left the Japanese military in November 1945, later claiming to have attended Japan’s final surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. The bloodiest conflict in history had taken years to resolve. Japan’s final surrender took slightly over 20 minutes. Fuchida’s claim to have attended was later disputed, but his conversion to Christianity was never in any doubt.

Related: 12 Christian History Books That Every World Scholar Should Read

It came unexpectedly and from his former enemies. In 1947, he was called to testify regarding war crimes, a call he resented. Fuchida at the time believed that Americans had treated their prisoners no better than the Japanese had treated theirs. He was wrong, but being raised in the Samurai tradition, it took more than mere denials to convince him.

According to the Samurai code Bushido (‘the Way of the Warrior’), prisoners had no honor having chosen life over honorable death, entitling their captors to treat them as they pleased. Fuchida firmly believed the Allies did the same as the Japanese in this regard. A chance encounter with old comrade Kazuo Kanegasaki convinced him otherwise.

Kanegasaki had long been posted missing, believed dead. Fuchida was surprised not only that his friend was still alive, but had been treated well in American custody. Surprise became amazement when Kanegasaki told him of Peggy Covell, a missionary’s daughter who treated Japanese prisoners very kindly despite Japanese troops having murdered her parents.

Another chance encounter further altered Fuchida’s thinking. In 1948, he was handed a pamphlet written by former U.S. airman Jacob DeShazer. Captured after the famed Doolittle Raid in 1942, DeShazer had suffered greatly in captivity and turned to Christianity while imprisoned. 

Related: One War Ends, Another Soldiers On: V-E Day 75 Years Later

Now thoroughly curious, Fuchida picked up a Bible in 1949 and never looked back. After meeting DeShazer in 1950, he founded the Captain Fuchida Evangelical Association based in Seattle, Washington. He also toured the U.S. full-time, speaking publicly of his conversion and wartime past under the banner “From Pearl Harbor to Calvary”.

When not preaching, Fuchida was writing. He published accounts of Pearl Harbor and Midway from the Japanese perspective while continuing his evangelical work with the Worldwide Christian Missionary Army of Sky Pilots. He also met Colonel Paul Tibbetts, pilot of the Enola Gay in 1959. Fuchida told Tibbetts the decision to bomb Hiroshima was the right one. 

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida in his uniform
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  • Fuchida, in uniform.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to one account, Fuchida remarked “You did the right thing. You know the Japanese attitude at that time, how fanatic they were, they’d die for the Emperor…. Every man, woman and child would have resisted that invasion with sticks and stones if necessary.”

Fuchida spent the remainder of his life writing about and preaching Christianity. Although never a U.S. citizen, he lived for many years in the U.S. where his life’s work was based. Eventually he returned to his native Japan in poor health. Captain Mitsuo Fuchida passed away on May 30, 1976 on Kashiwara near Osaka from diabetes-induced complications. He was 73 years old.  

Featured image via Alchetron