Behind the Scenes: War & Peace

In the December 2007 issue of Reader’s Digest, the author writes about an unlikely friendship between a Second World War bomber pilot and a Japanese man who lived through the horror on the ground in Kumagaya, Japan. Here, the writer takes us behind the scenes of the article. 

Every matchmaker risks the following scenario: You stoke the excitement of the intended “couple.” They meet. They irritate, bore or offend one another. Then they direct their angry disappointment at you, the matchmaker.

This was my worry when Reader’s Digest asked me to organize — then write about — the meeting of two unlikely friends, Vivian Lock and Kenjiro Arai.

Lock and Arai had never met in person, but their lives had intersected once before. Just hours before the end of the Second World War, Lock flew in an American air raid on the city of Kumagaya. Arai was 4,500 metres below, an 11-year-old boy running for his life as American bombs set his city afire.

In the decades that followed, Lock sometimes wondered what it had been like in the city below. And Arai, who moved to Canada to work as an engineer, had always wanted to get an American perspective on that pivotal event in his life.

The two men met online in 2004 through a website that documented the exploits of Lock’s Air Force squadron. They started emailing one another, and their conversations quickly went from polite curiosity to genuine warmth. Don Bennett, Arai’s son-in-law, was impressed by their improbable friendship and wrote Reader’s Digest to see if the magazine was interested in their story.

“It seemed like a natural fit for us,” says Mary Aikins, the editor who assigned me to do the story. “But for it to work as an article, we had to get the two men together and see what happened.”

Both Arai and Lock were excited at the prospect. I, however, was nervous. Maybe their conversation would be awkward and stilted. Maybe their only point of reference was the night of the bombing, a topic they had already discussed at length by email. Worst of all, maybe their real-world meeting would destroy the friendship they had built online.

Arai and I flew from Vancouver to Chicago, then rented a car and drove three hours south to Lock’s hometown of Kankakee, Illinois. We pulled up to the hotel restaurant where we would meet Lock. Arai fidgeted with the collar of his shirt. Here was a war survivor, a 73-year-old businessman who has worked everywhere from Bosnia to Brazil, and he was nervous. “Do you think this outfit is okay?” he asked me.

Lock spotted us the moment we stepped through the hotel’s glass doors. Leaning on his cane, he shook Arai’s hand and then gripped Arai’s shoulder. I could see that Lock’s hands were trembling. Then he said something that, for me, summarized the gratitude both men felt for this friendship built in defiance of war. “Ken,” Lock said, “I’m so glad you survived.”

From that point, I knew their meeting would be a success.

Over the next two days, Lock and Arai shared a river cruise, addressed the local Rotary Club and spent hours in conversation. My article, published in the December issue of Reader’s Digest, ends with their final handshake in Lock’s home, in Illinois. But their friendship continues.

In the weeks that followed, both men reflected on their meeting. Arai was most impressed by Lock’s concern for “the enemy” during the war. Lock wasn’t just compassionate, Arai thought. He was courageous.

Lock emailed Arai on August 14, three weeks after their visit. He wrote, “If I have the time zones figured correctly, it was exactly 62 years ago that the war ended.” Lock concluded with, “I will always be happy that we met.”

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