Pearl Harbour survivor urges Abe to apologise for attack

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 December, 2016, 11:58am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 December, 2016, 12:17pm

Jay Groff can never forget the morning of December 7, 1941, when “hell came raining down”. At the time of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, he was a 19-year-old member of the US Army Air Corps stationed at the adjacent Hickam Field.

Until such time as a prime minister does apologise, what we call ‘closure’ won’t happen
Pearl Harbour survivor Jay Groff

“Most of us were still asleep in our bunks,” Groff said, recalling that he was on the third floor of his barracks. “I could see the bombs coming through the ceiling. That was the first time I was scared.”

Seventy-five years later, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Pearl Harbour to honour the dead, an event the two governments hope will underscore what some officials have called “the power of reconciliation” that has moved them from adversaries to close allies.

Watch: Abe prepares for year end visit to Pearl Harbor

Groff, now 94, said he welcomes Abe’s two-day trip to Hawaii from Monday, but that the prime minister should offer “a formal apology to the American people” for the attack which killed about 2,400 US military personnel and civilians, sank or damaged several US warships and pulled the United States into the second world war.

The Pearl Harbour survivor doubts Tokyo and Washington will truly achieve reconciliation unless Abe apologises. “Until such time as a prime minister does apologise, what we call ‘closure’ won’t happen,” Groff said in a recent interview at his home in Springfield, Virginia.

Groff was posted to Hawaii in 1940 and served there until 1952. He retired from the US Air Force in 1970 after 30 years of military service.

“We were there at the attack, but it also affected American people,” he said. “We bear the brunt of it, but they had to suffer also because the sons, daughters and husbands were involved.”

“President [Barack] Obama has nothing to apologise for. Japan has to apologise for what it did and what it caused – not only for the Pearl Harbour attack but the war in general,” he said.

Asked if other Pearl Harbour survivors and war veterans feel the same way, Groff said, “I don’t know. You have to ask them. I’m speaking for me.”

“I’m talking to you to bring up the fact that there was Pearl Harbour and it changed history for the United States,” he said. “And it changed my life.”

A number of American war veterans and Pearl Harbour survivors are expected to attend Tuesday’s ceremony at which Abe and Obama will deliver brief remarks.

Japanese officials said Abe intends to pay his respects to those killed in the attack, pledge that war must never be repeated and affirm the value of reconciliation between the two countries. Abe does not plan to apologise because he articulated his views on the second world war in a statement he issued in August last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.

An official of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, an American veterans service organisation, said he welcomes Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbour, regardless of whether he apologises or not, but stressed the importance of remembering the past so it will never be repeated.

“Whether he apologises for the past, it’s up to him,” said Joe Davis, director of public affairs at the group’s Washington office. “Both sides, we lost many soldiers and civilian lives in that war. You have to remember our dead so we can make it better for the living.”

Davis said some veterans think the past is in the past while others still refuse to reconcile with Japan. “But that’s because of the war. These are all personal. This is how they feel after seven decades later, and they have the right to feel however they want to feel.”

Henry Nau, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said that while he fully understands and respects veterans’ feelings, he does not see an apology as a prerequisite for Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbour.

“I think the American people in general are going to see this as a very respectful recognition on his part that this was an aggression on the American people, just as Obama was ready to acknowledge that this was a horrible thing we did in Hiroshima,” Nau said.

The visit recognises “that something happened here that shouldn’t have happened” and “won’t happen again”, he said.

Nau expressed hope that with their respective visits, Obama and Abe will send a message of reconciliation akin to what French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl did during a memorial service for fallen soldiers in Verdun, France, in 1984, 70 years after the start of the first world war.