Telling the Truth with Compassionate Objectivity

Gregory Hadley
Author of
Field of Spears:
The Last Mission of the Jordan Crew

History has a way of catching up with people – and in a time and place that they least expect.

For me history happened during a trip to England in the summer of 2002. I was driving through the scenic Cotswold Hills with a colleague who is interested in military history. He asked if I could find out why the Japanese city of Niigata had been removed from the list of potential atomic bomb targets towards the end of the Second World War. At the time, I dimly remembered stories that I had heard soon after moving to Niigata about ‘The B-29’ – of it burning brightly in the night sky, and of parachutes. I wondered if this incident had anything to do with my colleague’s question.

When I returned to Niigata at the end of that summer I discovered that there was no relationship between the ‘B-29’ and Niigata being removed from the A-bomb target list. However, soon after I had located documents explaining why Niigata was spared the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my curiosity was sparked by the stories I had heard about the mysterious ‘B-29’. Who were the people on that plane? What had happened to them? With over half a century passed, and given the taboo in Japan of talking about those dark days, would it be possible for me, a foreigner, to learn anything?

My search set me on a three year quest that would lead through small Japanese farming villages, dusty archives and rural American towns. Along the way I interviewed scholars, survivors from the B-29 crew, local eyewitnesses, former prisoners of war, and old soldiers. All were initially suspicious and uncertain. Yet despite the lingering differences and animosity caused by their experiences in the War, both the Japanese villagers and B-29 crewmen were united in their common desire to be heard, to be remembered, and to be understood. In the telling of their tales, however, while each had something valuable to share, they also had something dreadful to hide.

After three years of detective work, and finding myself surrounded by piles of military reports, unpublished manuscripts by eyewitnesses, war diaries, documents recently declassified by the US Freedom of Information Act, and never before seen photos of the actual capture (and lynching) of members of the Jordan Crew, a realization of the horror and confusion of the incident became clearer. The aftermath of the event was tragic – four American men dead, either from their own hand or from being hacked to death by enraged farmers.  Everyone touched by the incident suffered some sort of trauma and lifelong psychological damage.  Bitterness festered in the hearts of the surviving B-29ers, shame in the hearts of the villagers.  Those on both sides who survived the war, in a very real sense, did not return home alive. 

How could one do justice to such a complex and disturbing story?  I decided that the best way to approach this book was in the form of a narrative, and to relate, as authentically as I could, the viewpoints of both the surviving B-29 crewmen and of the villagers who captured them.

Many aspects of this story remain steeped in mystery and controversy. While the unsolved elements added to the power of the tale’s telling, it was the controversial parts that have caused me considerable internal struggle. It goes without saying that in war people can make mistakes and do things that they may regret later on. During interviews I felt a growing sense of respect and compassion for the people on both sides of this conflict, and this forced me to face some hard questions: Do I conceal aspects of this story out of consideration for the participants’ families and descendants, who often have an interest in preserving for posterity the brave deeds of their forefathers? Or, should I write everything that I have learned, even if it risks a descent into sensationalism? How can I negotiate a balance between professional detachment on the one hand and sentiment on the other? Ultimately, for the sake of showing the effects of war on ordinary people, I decided that all of the story, or at least as much of it as I was able to discover, should be told. At the same time, I felt that this story should be told with compassion.

This book would not have been possible but for the courage of the Jordan Crew and the residents of Niigata who, though fragile with age, still found it within themselves to recall the trauma of those terrible days. They were often encouraged by their families to talk about this period, which for some had remained a forbidden topic. During the painful and sometimes disturbing process of sharing their experiences some were able to come to terms with their darker memories and embrace them as part of their families’ lasting heritage.

A number of Japanese educators, researchers and historians were also immensely helpful in this research. They provided me with rare documents, photos, memoirs and interviews of villagers that they had conducted during their own investigations. As we shared notes and spoke together, we found ourselves hoping for greater reconciliation between that generation which has all but passed away.  We also had our eyes on the future in that by recording this tragic tale, the futile cycles of warfare and violence, themes that are all too frequent in both our countries’ histories, might somehow be broken in the lives of others – even for just a moment.  “Field of Spears” is not simply a story about an incident that took place over half a century ago.  As the wheel of history turns yet again, this book offers insight into human rights issues affecting our lives today, and provides a chilling reminder of what awaits today’s soldiers when they fall from their positions of elevated safety into the waiting arms of an angry mob.   

The author is Professor of English and American Cultural Studies at Niigata University of International and Information Studies.

Field of Spears can be purchased at:

Professor Hadley's response to the experience of Mr. Carlos Montoya, who was interned at the Niigata POW camp, can be read at:  Montoya’s Legacy Endures in Niigata