West Chester man recalls Japanese general's Pearl Harbor tales in postwar Japan
By Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer
POSTED: DECEMBER 05, 2011
He was six years old then and doesn't remember that Dec. 7 in 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Marvin Baughman later saw newsreels with unflattering caricatures of the enemy. And he witnessed a B-25 bomber crash at a cemetery near the family farm in West Chester in 1944.
Baughman never imagined that a decade after World War II, he'd be stationed at a former kamikaze base, renamed Johnson Air Base, in Japan, and that he'd get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Japanese side of the "date which will live in infamy."
As chauffeur to Brig. Gen. Cecil "Brick" Lessig in the mid-1950s, he overheard conversations between his "boss" and the Japanese military officer who planned the Pearl Harbor attack.
In the backseat of Lessig's 1950 Buick staff car was Gen. Minoru Genda, one of the first naval officers in the world to realize the potential of using aircraft carriers to project air power.
"It was a bone-chilling experience," said former Air Force Master Sgt. Baughman, 76, of West Chester. "I always remember [Genda's comments] around this time, as we get close to the anniversary of the attack."
Baughman said he "felt like Forrest Gump" with a front seat on history.
He recalls meeting or chauffeuring a host of other dignitaries from 1955 to 1958, including Cardinal Francis Spellman; variety show host Ed Sullivan; Chinese leader Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Taiwan President Chiang Kai-shek; as well as a host of world golf professionals.
"I got to see Bob Hope doing a live Christmas taping at Johnson Air Base on my 23d birthday, just before coming home in 1958," he said.
But it's the memory of Genda - with his proud manner and piercing eyes - that still stands apart from all the others.
"I'll never forget him," said Baughman, who married a Japanese woman in Tokyo in 1956. "I had him in the car three times.
"He and Gen. Lessig carried on normal conversations, like two old friends, while I took them to conferences near Toyko."
Genda "didn't fly during the Pearl Harbor attack due to illness," Baughman said, "but much of what he planned was carried out."
The Japanese officer "described the island, explained how the planes went over certain areas for strafing and bombing," Baughman said. "He went into everything in detail, what they planned and what they did."
Genda, who was commissioned a general in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force after the war, told Lessig he had hoped to take the attack much further.
He "wanted to occupy Hawaii and use it as a base to invade the West Coast," Baughman said. "He wanted to invade, through Washington, Oregon, and California."
Baughman said he never thought he'd end up in Japan.
"Who would ever think, in your wildest dreams, that I'd be living among the people we'd been taught to detest so much?" he said. "But you find out, regardless of race, creed, or color, that people are people.
"Whenever I went on trains and came across former Japanese soldiers looking for donations, I always gave whatever I could afford," he said. "They were fellow soldiers."
As a general's chauffeur, though, Baughman often saw another side of society. "One time I had Ed Sullivan in the car," he said. "He gave me a $3 tip when I dropped him off at the Imperial Hotel in Toyko."
Baughman would meet him again later.
"I wrote to The Inquirer in 1971 about his last live broadcast and one of Sullivan's aides sent me two tickets," he said. "I got to go up on stage and meet Sullivan after the show. That was a treat."
Baughman, who was an airman first class in the 1950s, also remembered shaking hands with Spellman and having a brief chat with Chiang Ching-kuo.
Chiang "was in charge of the military on Taiwan," he said. "He was one of my passengers; he came up to me and shook my hand. I was startled. He asked, 'How are you, airman?' "
Baughman also attended the taping of a Bob Hope show in Japan and met the comedian nearly 40 years later at a book-signing event near his West Chester home.
"He was less than a mile from my house, so I stood in line to thank him," he said. "I was so shook up, I gave him a kiss.
"I didn't realize what I was doing until I did it," he said. "Bob Hope said, 'He kisses good, too!' "
Baughman left active military service in 1958 and he and his wife, Haruko, had two daughters.
He was an appliance salesman, then a supervisor and office manager for the former Philadelphia Electric Co. - now Peco Energy Co. - leaving after 33 years.
Baughman worked as a bailiff for the Chester County Court and drove a van for a trucking company before retiring five years ago. He's a former adjutant for American Legion Post 134 in West Chester.
"I was lucky in so many respects to do what I have done. I was a farm boy, just average, even less than average," he said.
But of all the memories, it was the Genda's matter-of-fact description of the Pearl Harbor attack that still haunts him, especially as the anniversary approaches.
"It was mind-boggling," Baughman said. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I get chills, even now, just thinking about it."