Jeff Jardine: No forgetting or forgiving Pearl Harbor attack, but Oakdale couple later forged relationships with Japanese teens

jjardine@modbee.comDecember 4, 2013 

— When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor 72 years ago come Saturday, they incurred the wrath of America. The payback resulted in the destruction of Japan’s military, cities, economy and way of life.

They instantly evoked a hatred that united and drove Americans in ways this nation had never experienced before and hasn’t since. To this day, you’ll find people here who lost sons, husbands, brothers and friends in the attack on Pearl and in the Pacific campaign, who can’t forget and won’t forgive.

Jack and Mary Lou Fries of Oakdale were among them for nearly four decades. Mary Lou’s older brother, Homer Gillespie, served as a machinist’s mate on the USS Whitney, a destroyer repair vessel in Pearl Harbor to supply other U.S. warships.

“He saw the USS Arizona explode,” Mary Lou said. “He had lots of friends on the Arizona.”

Homer’s ship came through unscathed, and his odyssey lasted the entire Pacific campaign, though 20 days passed after the attack until his family at home received word he had survived.

The Fries and Gillespie families lived at the time in the southwest portion of Los Angeles, where there was a large Japanese American population.

“There were acts of sabotage, and we were near the factories where they made airplanes for the war,” she said. “We were suspicious of the (Japanese). There was lots of animosity, as you’d expect. Nobody had to teach us to hate them. The sneak attack, the ruthlessness of killing so many people in the harbor. ... We listened to the news, and it was compounded by having a brother in harm’s way. I grew up when I was 12 years old.”

Their attitudes changed in 1984 when the Frieses – by that time residents of Oakdale – were asked to do what a few years earlier would have been unthinkable: Would she and her husband, Jack, host a Japanese student for six weeks?

It wasn’t an easy call.

“My mother never would have understood us hosting them,” Mary Lou said. Lucille Gillespie Miller died in 1965, never willing to delineate between the Japanese who orchestrated the attack and those who came along generations later.

But they decided to host.

“They aren’t responsible for World War II,” Jack Fries said. “Why take your animosity out on the younger generation? We said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

Mary Lou’s brother Homer, the Pearl Harbor attack survivor who died in 1998, didn’t necessarily embrace the concept, she said. But he never voiced any disapproval.

Nor did a brother-in-law – a gunner in a B-25 in the Pacific – object, which kind of surprised her.

“He hated the Japanese,” she said. “But he was always cordial to our guests. The feeling was always there, but he realized it was a different generation.”

The second year, they hosted a girl forced by her parents to make the trip.

“She didn’t blend in during her three-week stay,” Mary Lou said. “She didn’t want to be here.”

That girl is the only one of their guests who hasn’t kept in touch.

The couple went on to host several more Japanese students, later adding Japanese teachers to the mix and developing relationships with seven families in all.

“They’re overwhelmingly gracious,” Mary Lou Fries said. “They’re neat and clean. They’re responsible.”

Most have returned to visit, bringing their spouses and children. Some now live in the United States. One of the guests, a girl named Yuko Aoyagi, asked Jack to walk her down the aisle during her 2009 wedding in Hawaii, because her own father had died.

“I’m her papa-san,” Jack said.

They’ve shown their gratitude in other ways as well, bringing gifts from their homeland. And in 1994, the seven Japanese families pooled their resources to bring Jack and Mary Lou to Japan, all expenses paid. They spent a couple of days with each family.

The Pearl Harbor attack is never discussed.

“They’ve never been taught anything about the war,” Jack said.

Yet one family did take them to the Kamikaze Museum in Kagoshima. There, they saw photos of young pilots numbed by sake as they prepared to die for the emperor and kill as many Americans as they could in the process.

The Frieses remember so vividly what happened beginning in 1941. Conversely, they’ve come to know some young Japanese people who are nothing like their forefathers. Would they feel the same had brother Homer died at Pearl Harbor that day nearly 72 years ago?

“It’s hard for me to say,” Mary Lou said. “I don’t know.”

They don’t forget. Nor have they forgiven those who caused the world so much grief and destruction. But they decided a long time ago that hatred had a statute of limitations.

“We don’t regret giving this generation a chance,” she said.

“They weren’t responsible for it,” said her husband.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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