- Historic Sites
My Father And I And Saburo Sakai
Half a century after his father’s death, he struck up an extraordinary friendship with a man who had been there
December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
My quest began sometime shortly after World War II. I was a young boy when my maternal grandfather told me the story of how my father, Lt. Col. Francis R. Stevens, had been killed in the skies over New Guinea. In the spring of 1942 Dad was assigned to OPD, Operations Division in the War Department, what Col. Red Reeder, who replaced Dad a few months later, referred to as General Marshall’s command post. Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, was concerned that he was not getting a clear enough picture of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s activities in the Pacific Theater. MacArthur’s dispatches kept calling for more of everything—more troops, more equipment, more supplies—but they provided precious little in the way of information about what he planned to do with all this added capability. The general’s approach appeared to be that if he didn’t tell higher headquarters what he was planning to do, it couldn’t tell him to stop. So General Marshall decided to send my dad and a highly qualified Air Corps officer, Lt. Col. Samuel E. Anderson, on a fact-finding mission to figure out what MacArthur was up to.
At about that time the commander in chief of all U.S. forces was having the very same problem with the Pacific Theater commander. And President Roosevelt had another problem to deal with: a protégé named Lyndon Baines Johnson, a congressman from the great state of Texas, who had reverted from his status as a commander in the Navy Reserve to active duty. Johnson was champing at the bit, eager to get an assignment to a combat theater. Roosevelt was not at all happy at the prospect of his representatives and senators heading for the front. Moreover, being politicians, once one of them did it, the rest would feel compelled to follow. So FDR solved both problems by sending Johnson on temporary duty to Australia for the same mission on which Marshall had sent Dad. While the young congressman was away, the President promulgated an edict that prohibited members of the House and Senate from active service: They could serve in Congress or they could serve in the armed forces, but they could not do both.
Halfway across the Pacific the three men met up with one another. Once they realized that they were there for the same purpose, they decided to combine forces and continue on as a team. They visited MacArthur’s headquarters together and they resolved together to get as close as they could to the front. So they made a side trip to southern New Guinea to take part in a bombing mission over a Japanese base. It was on this mission that my father was killed when a Japanese Zero fighter shot down his plane.
My grandfather concluded by adding that he believed that there were pictures of the action buried away in some Air Force archive. I did not give this much thought. Then, one day some seventeen years later, out of West Point and stationed overseas, I was reading a magazine called Man’s World in a German barbershop. It contained an article entitled “The World’s Greatest Air Combat Photos,” which included a series of pictures showing a twin-engine bomber, like my father’s, being shot down over a body of water and going in. I wrote the magazine and asked if the editors could identify the date and location of the photos in question. They wrote back promptly to say they couldn’t but offered the name and address of the man who had put the article together, one Martin Caidin.
I wrote to Mr. Caidin; he also replied promptly, saying that these were not the pictures I was looking for. The letterhead indicated that Martin Caidin was a professional historian (as indeed he was, as well as the author of Cyborg , which inspired the television show “The Six Million Dollar Man”), and I decided to ask his help in finding the pictures.
When Johnson tried to reclaim his seat, Dad told him he’d have to find another plane.
By that time I’d received orders to proceed to New York City to attend Columbia Uni- versity, with the goal of obtaining a master’s degree in English literature, preparatory to an assignment as an instructor in the English Department at West Point. Since Caidin lived on Long Island, I decided to wait until I arrived in New York, when I would be able to meet him face-to-face.
January 1964 found Nancy, my bride, and me in the heart of Manhattan at a coffee shop on Park Avenue. Having just arrived at this, my new duty station, I decided I should check in with 1st Army Headquarters on Governors Island, which would be responsible for me during the year and a half that I’d be attending Columbia. When I got through on the pay phone to the appropriate office, I was told that they were most happy that I’d finally called in, because the White House had been trying to reach me. I was to phone the office of the defense adviser to the President immediately.
I dialed the number given me, and reached a very pleasant woman in the White House who instructed me to call a number in New York City and ask for a Martin Caidin. Now this was curious indeed. Still operating from the pay phone in the Park Avenue coffee shop, I soon found myself talking to Caidin himself. He said that he was in a hotel less than two blocks away and asked if I could come right over.