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Charles and Anne Lindbergh fly 7,000 miles to Japan in 1931

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By Patrick Parr

The first time that famed aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) ever sat inside an airplane was April 1922. Five years later—after countless hours in the cockpit as a stunt pilot, daredevil and airman for the United States Postal Service—Lindbergh made history, becoming the first man to complete a transatlantic flight between New York and Paris alone. The moment his single-engine plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, landed in Paris on May 21, 1927, Lindbergh became an international celebrity.

“No man before me,” wrote Lindbergh, “had commanded such freedom of movement over earth.”

Lindbergh’s nonstop 1927 flight took 33.5 hours (compared to around seven today), and his success gave the fledgling aviation industry the icon it needed to secure funding and change transportation forever. About seven months later,  in Mexico City, he met 21-year-old Anne Morrow, who soon became his wife and co-pilot.

''The sheer fact of finding myself loved was unbelievable and changed my world, my feelings about life and myself,” Anne Lindbergh wrote in her memoir Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. “I was given confidence, strength and almost a new character. The man I was to marry believed in me and what I could do, and consequently I found I could do more than I realized, even in that mysterious outer world that fascinated me but seemed unattainable. [Charles] opened the door to 'real life,' and though it frightened me, it also beckoned. I had to go.''

Although their 45-year-marriage would have its ups and downs, in those first few years together Anne fulfilled “a role I could play until I grew up,” and Charles continued to take on new challenges, his love of the air fueling his ego-driven nature: “There were times in an airplane,” he wrote, “when it seemed I had partially escaped mortality to look down on earth like a god.”

Charles & Anne 2.jpg

In those sunrise years of marriage, Charles worked with Pan-American Airlines. In 1931, the company provided him with yet another chance to make history. He and Anne would attempt to chart a commercial air route from New York to Tokyo. All they’d have to do is fly 7,000 miles (about 11,200 kilometers) and end up at Ueno station. Their plane would be a black-and-red Lockheed Sirius, cutting edge at the time and custom-made for “Lucky Lindy”—a 575-horsepower, dual-controlled tandem cockpit, with the ability to land on water via pontoons. According to biographer A. Scott Berg, for protection, Charles had tucked a “Smith & Wesson .38 beside his seat cushion.” 

Their trip, dubbed “the Great Circle route,” began on July 27, 1931, the couple leaving behind their 13-month-old son, Charles Jr. At this stage in their life together, the Lindberghs seemed invincible to the general public, but three months after returning from the trip, Charles Jr. was kidnapped—pulled from his crib on the night of March 1, 1932. The "Lindbergh Baby" scandal would be front page headlines for over two and a half months, violating their privacy and ending their fairy tale life in America, especially after authorities found (if you believe the police report) the half-buried dead body of Charles Jr. on May 12, 1932. The Lindberghs would go on to have five more children together, but the relentless scrutiny they received forced them to leave the country and live in Europe, where Charles developed a non-interventionist political stance against Germany’s aggression, opposing Franklin Roosevelt's views. For his role in forming an America First Committee, Lindbergh would be labeled by many as a “Nazi Sympathizer” for the rest of his life.

Now that you see what awaits the Lindberghs after their Great Circle route, consider then the story you are about to read as the Lindberghs' last gasp of pure exploratory joy, before tragedy and controversy enveloped their life's narrative, and yes, even before Charles ended up having seven children with three different German mistresses without ever telling Anne.

The fog and the fisherman

For Charles and Anne, their first encounter with Japan began on the “harborless,” “uninhabited” and “volcanic” Ketoy Island. Back in 1931, Japan had control over the then-called Chishima (now the Russian-controlled Kuril) Islands, and as Charles and Anne flew toward the city of Nemuro on the eastern side of Hokkaido, they hit the remnants of a typhoon. Weather in this area during August was particularly difficult for flying. As Anne noted while checking her weather forecast notes, the Chishima islands tended to have heavy fog for 28 of 30 days. “Heavens!” Anne later wrote, “it was already the twentieth of August!”

Charles was able to land on the water and drop anchor close to the uninhabited island, but it was a struggle the whole way down: “My young wife and I lay braced against the fuselage walls while waves broke across our pontoons and wind howled through the cowlings,” he wrote in his Autobiography. “Each hour since sunset had charged the violence of the sea. We felt every tug on our anchor rope and knew that a surf was pounding on viciously sharp rocks less than a hundred yards away. For the first two or three hours of darkness, we had gained a fitful sleep. Then we lay awake and waited for the dawn.” It should be noted that they were sleeping inside their luggage compartment, on top of their parachute packs and oar paddles, cans of baked beans and tomatoes around them.

Fortunately for Charles and Anne, the Japanese had been tracking their plane, and sent a ship, the Shinshiru Maru, to monitor their movement. The sailors aboard the ship braved the storm and managed to reach the couple by tapping an oar against the side of the plane. The ship pulled the Sirius to a safer location, and they handed Charles a formal message in an envelope, rain pouring and wind howling: “The Japanese people eagerly welcome you to Japan and await your safe arrival.”

“There were times in an airplane when it seemed I had partially escaped mortality to look down on earth like a god.” —Charles Lindbergh

Charles shouted, “Is that all?” It wasn’t. The ship then hooked a “two-inch hawser” onto the Sirius and pulled it to safety toward Shimushiru Island, so repairs could be made. They tried for Nemuro the next day, but were stopped by weather again and stayed for a night near Shana Village on Etorofu Island.

On Aug. 23, 1931, the Lindberghs again had to stop short of Nemuro, instead landing on Kunashiri Island.

More specifically, according to biographer Kathleen C. Winters, they landed “on a small inlet, where the reeds parted to reveal a small sampan poled by a bare-chested fisherman.” The Lindberghs were lost. “Charles pulled out a map,” Winters wrote, “and the fisherman pointed to Kunashiri Island.”

Unable to fly out, the fisherman welcomed them inside “his thatch-roofed hut.” Charles and Anne’s stomachs may have been growling, and Anne, ever-prepared with a phrasebook, attempted to say something along the lines of tabemono, or “some food,” (Anne’s exact word was “shokumotsu”) but the fisherman “looked perplexed.” Charles, deciding instead to go pictorial, “drew a fish in profile, then pointed to his mouth.” The fisherman “smiled,” and soon the Lindberghs had “bowls of fish and potatoes in front of them.”

Charles later spoke to the Japanese press about the kind fisherman, whose “unsurpassed hospitality” made an impression: “We were invited to eat everything the fisherman and his wife had,” Lindbergh said to the press, “and we spent a most enjoyable evening without being able to speak a word to them in their language and without hosts being able to speak our language.”

From across the Pacific

On the morning of Aug. 24, the Lindberghs finally made it to Nemuro, where 12,000 residents had come out to cheer the couple, labeled “messengers of peace” by Japanese officials. They hadn’t had a bath in over a week, and when they reached their hotel, the young couple enjoyed a “divine” wash, as Anne put it. “We poured basins of nice hot water over each other and washed everything—hair, teeth—and soaked under the water to get fleas off.”

On Aug. 25, after 28 days and 7,132 miles, the Lindberghs landed their plane on Kasumigaura Bay, near the Kasumigaura Naval Airport. There they were greeted by thousands of Japanese residents waving flags of both Japan and America. Soon after, they boarded a train that took 90 minutes to reach Ueno station.

Charles and Anne remained in Tokyo from Aug. 26 to Sept. 13, traveling by car to Kyoto and Nara to take in the sights. The two had been together constantly throughout the trip, so this was a chance for each of them to follow what they desired. Charles, who’d perhaps rather continue exploring the world with Anne in the Sirius, instead attended to several diplomatic duties, since his reputation at the time was not just an employee of Pan-American Airlines but also an unofficial symbol of peace in the eyes of both Japan and America.

On a radio program on Aug. 28, Lindbergh gave an address. Before he spoke, the 40-minute broadcast also included Japanese instrumentalists playing an American medley, such as “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Dixie.”

As you read Lindbergh’s remarks, remember that the year was 1931—a time when only a small fraction of the world’s population had ever flown in a plane. For Lindbergh, the cross-continental address was a way to show the world how circuitously interconnected we all are. Now, almost 90 years later, it also shows how far we’ve come—so far, in fact, that Lindbergh might have even been surprised:

Charles Lindbergh radio address from Tokyo, as published in the Boston Globe. Broadcast in the U.S. on Aug. 28, 1931

“We have come to Japan for an opportunity of meeting your people and learning a little more of the country, which in our school days was known to us in America as being on the other side of the world. When we were children we thought of Japan as a land filled with people who were as different from us as though they lived on another planet.

We marveled at their ability to walk upside down and that they kept from falling off the earth altogether. During more recent years, a great change has taken place in our conception of your country. We have many more of your people in America, and more of your products are used in our homes.

Your scientific men have added to our common knowledge, and international affairs have claimed a mutual interest of both our peoples.

With the advance of radio and aircraft, the mystery of distance can no longer exist. We are interested in many of the same things and confronted by similar problems. We have come to Japan over the top of the world, and when we were near the North Pole we discovered that the people in our country were not right side up, and those in yours upside down, but that both were really walking at the same angle. We discovered no lines separating a green country from a purple one on our map. Ideas which we have inherited from past ages become insignificant when we look at people from the sky and speak to distant people through the radio.

I do not know what effect aircraft will eventually have on the world, but I have great confidence in its future. You must not, however, expect too much in one generation.

Undoubtedly the accomplishments of today are but an indication of what will be done before the century is over.

We look upon a distant country as being of no concern to us, but there are no longer distant countries. The distances of past ages have become less significant to us today, the distances of today will become just as insignificant to future generations.

We have already experienced the hospitality of your people; your cities and villages have shown us every consideration. The true character of Japan was most impressed upon us when we landed in the fog in your country. We were unknown. Spoke a strange language. They came out in the rain to assist us, and took us to their village for a dinner of rice and fish.

Were we to return tomorrow, we would take with us from Japan, experiences worth many times the efforts of the flight. I thank you.”

Anne’s halo of stillness

Lindberghs in Japan.jpg

The trip was far from just a diplomatic accomplishment. For Anne, she spent days diving headfirst into Japan’s artistically-cultivated natural environment. As she wrote in her beautifully written memoir of the trip, North to the Orient:

“I looked with wonder on the Japanese appreciation of all small things in nature. Is it because their country, beautifully and theatrically mountainous, hardly ever allows a long vista, letting them always see things at a close range? Or have her strange and lovely mists some part in teaching them to see, falling often like a backdrop behind a single pine, separating it from the rest of the world? Or have the Japanese, from generations spent in one-story paper houses, learned a language, an alphabet of beauty in nature, that we, in our houses of brick and stone, have shut out? Or is it, again, only because they are always artists and see more than we do?”

During her time in Japan, Anne visited temples, museums and took part in tea ceremonies. As each day passed, she attempted to understand the sensibilities of Japanese men and women—see in the video above how she bows often to those around her—and came to the conclusion that: “In every Japanese there was an artist. His touch was everywhere, not only in the treasures of his museum but in his simplest kimono, in the signs his brush made writing, in the blue-and-red parasols that blossomed in the street on rainy days, in the most everyday dishes for his food. I began to realize that even the ‘paper and string’ of life was transformed by his touch.”

Anne’s sharp and perceptive observations about Japan continued. “Perhaps, I thought, this is how the Japanese see everything in nature, always with a halo of stillness, and therefore always beautiful.”

The end of a journey

On Sept. 13, the Lindberghs returned to Kasumigaura and hopped back onto their plane, flying to Osaka and staying there for a few days. At this point in time, Charles had expressed to Anne that he hoped to fly back to the United States “the long way,” via Africa and South America, continents they’d yet to adequately explore. This also meant flying to China, even though a large part of the country had been enduring massive flooding from a powerful typhoon.

Still, they tried. On Sept. 17, the Lindberghs landed in Fukuoka and remained there for a day and a half. A 19-year old nisei (second-generation Japanese), Mitsu Fukui, was in Fukuoka for school, and her English was strong enough that she was asked by residents to help interpret for the Lindberghs as they drove around the city. “We drove from one place to another…[Charles] was a very quiet, very dignified man,” Mitsu recalled in an oral history interview with Densho, “and his wife was more socialable.” After Charles introduced himself, he asked her, “What’s your name? And I said, “my name is Mitsu. And he said, ‘that’s a beautiful name you have’. And that’s about all he said.”

Unfortunately for the Lindberghs, their circumnavigational attempt was cut short while in China. Their Sirius plane overturned near flooded waters along the Yangtze river. They returned to Japan by boat from Shanghai, then travelled by train to Yokohama, where, officially, they left Japan. Anne listened to a serenade of “Sayonara” from the hundreds who saw them off, “…the gap of water slowly widening between dock and ship…”

Ten years later, Pearl Harbor and the start of the Pacific War would fracture the bond between the Lindberghs and Japan. Charles, once a messenger of peace, became a consultant for fighter pilots, flying dozens of missions over targets in the Pacific. But the empathy he’d felt on his 1931 trip came back once during a mission over then-Japanese-occupied Papua New Guinea around 1942. Flying low, his orders from the U.S. general were to “shoot whatever you see.”

Along a coastline, Lindbergh saw a man walking alone near the water, but on this particular occasion he could not pull the trigger. “He was too human, too vulnerable; the shot was too easy," Lindergh wrote years later. "I released the trigger and gave him back his life. He reached the jungle and merged into the cover of green…why had I not killed him? I had killed others. Chivalry was not practiced in the South Pacific war. Both sides fought under the primitive law, and by that law, he was my prey. What momentary sense made him my brother? What spiritual bond had formed between us across chasms of war and power, time and space?…For a time that cannot be clocked, that man on the beach and I had escaped from our organizations and the enmity of war…we were neither American nor Japanese, but two atoms of the human species, touching briefly, strangely, or maybe just randomly, through our fields of force.”

Our next Japan Yesterday installment will feature former U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s trip to Japan in 1953.

Previous stories in the Japan Yesterday series:

Volume 2 (September 2019 – present)

Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)

Patrick Parr is the author of The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, now out in paperback, and One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation, due out in March 2021. His work has appeared in Politico, the Atlantic and American History Magazine, among others.

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1 Comment
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Galls calls me to no end that this rotten SOB is considered an American Hero.

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