Pearl Harbor and beyond: Building bridges of compassion after WWII

Published: Monday, Dec. 6 2010 11:56 p.m. MST

Paul Flandro of Murray, a World War II veteran, shows some of his prized memories and medals from the war.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

This is second in a two-part series about how Pearl Harbor affected both Utahns and Japanese with Utah ties.

OREM — Gunnery Sgt. Keith Renstrom killed his first Japanese soldier with a hand grenade. When the man jumped into a foxhole, Renstrom and his troops made sure he didn't come out.

"I hated the Japanese," Renstrom said. "The first one I ever killed, I was happy, excited about it. It didn't bother my conscience."

He would not always feel that way. But for the 21-year-old Marine who was tasked with capturing the island of Saipan, killing the enemy was better than fishing, shooting his first deer in Utah's mountains or driving a car.

"I had completed what I had been trained to do," the 89-year-old, white-haired Marine said on a recent winter morning in his Orem home. "I had killed the enemy, been shot by the enemy."

Renstrom carried his hatred like a jungle pack through the Pacific battles of WWII, taking out enemy snipers with his Tommy gun, getting shot through the right thigh and watching fellow soldiers fall around him on red-stained beaches.

"The first blood that you see, an American's blood laying on foreign soil, is one of the shocking things in your life," Renstrom said. "You never get over it."

Dec. 7, 2010 marks 69 years since that tragic day in Hawaii — a surprise attack by Japanese forces that catapulted America into World War II. Immediately, America had a new enemy, and the entire country banded together to vilify and fight against a nation of people many knew little about.

Yet, for many Utah servicemen and women who served in the Pacific Theater, initial hatred, anger or ignorance gave way to compassion and sympathy for the Japanese people. They had seen firsthand how families' lives were decimated by the war, and how Japanese soldiers willingly made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Renstrom's healing moment came in a small LDS meetinghouse in Wailuku, Hawaii. His company was temporarily stationed in Maui to train up to full combat strength, and he went to LDS meetings with a fellow Mormon soldier.

"I opened the second set of doors and there sat a congregation of Japanese people," Renstrom said of that Sunday afternoon more than 40 years ago. "I thought, 'They're not good enough to be members of the church.'"

Though sorely tempted to leave, Renstrom stayed and listened. The first speaker made no impression. But then a Japanese elder shared what he had given up to become a Christian and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"As he talked … I got the strangest feeling I've ever felt in my life, then or now," Renstrom said. "(The thought came), 'Who do you think you are, Gunnery Sgt. Renstrom? Jesus Christ forgave those who killed him. And they haven't killed you yet."

At that moment, the hatred melted away and Renstrom said he saw the Japanese people in an entirely new light.

After the meeting he rushed to the front to shake the elder's hand and thank him for the message. "You taught me more what the Gospel is than anyone in my life, and I don't hate you anymore." he told him.

It was a liberating realization, and one that forever changed the young Marine. He would eventually return to the states and request to serve an LDS mission among the Japanese people. He was sent to the Central Pacific Mission where his first companion was Elder Suya of Japan.

"I asked him, 'How do you feel about me, over here fighting your people?'" Renstrom recounted. "He said, 'Oh, Elder Renstrom. I was in Europe killing your uncles and you were over here killing mine.'"

It was a sobering comment that somehow comforted Renstrom. He realized again that he was not so different from his Japanese friend. In the horrors of war, each man had done his duty to his country, yet they didn't have to remain personal enemies.

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