Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - September 2, 2016

Pen-pal diplomacy

Seventy-one years ago today, Japan signed the surrender to the Allies, bringing World War II to an end. But except for the oldest among us, that war and the men who fought in it have faded from our consciousness. Last year, husband Art and I began working on a "little" project - breathing a bit of life into the 101 "boys" from Riley County, Kansas who died during that war.

The idea was to write brief biographies for each. Art then decided to include the men who died in the war after attending Kansas State College (now Kansas State University).

I have written about several of these soldiers whose deaths had a tremendous impact on their family members, friends and buddies. But Art occasionally comes across a story whose influence extends much further. Richard "Dick" Howard Hamilton's story is one of those.

He was born in 1913 in Washington, Kansas to Howard and Gwen Hamilton. When he was a youngster, he read in a Sunday School magazine about Heihachiro Suzuki, another youngster who lived in Tokyo. Suzuki wanted to correspond with someone in America.

Their pen-pal relationship thus began and continued through the years. Both went to college, Hamilton studying electrical engineering at K-State. Suzuki said in his letters he planned to become a publisher.

Then came Dec. 7, 1941. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the letters ceased. About a year later, Hamilton enlisted in the Air Force and eventually became Captain Hamilton, an expert in what we now call radar. Late in the war, he requested and was granted overseas duty, which meant leaving his wife Lovice and their young daughter Sylvia.

In April 1945, Hamilton was sent to Guam to work on "bugs" in systems being used in the Pacific. He was reported missing in action over Japan on his second flight. His family eventually received a letter from his commanding officer saying Hamilton was buried in a cemetery in Yokohama with other American servicemen killed during the conflict. His wedding ring was returned to Lovice.

Dick's mother sometimes thought about her son's pen pal. She had read many of Suzuki's letters and thought he seemed like a fine boy. So after the war, she wrote to him. It wasn't long before his reply came:

I have received your letter and was much surprised to know the sorry results of the war. I have often spoken of Mr. Dick Hamilton with my family during the terrible war and the days after the time, but never have dreamed to receive the mournful report of him. Having known of his death, of course, I have the duty to visit his grave. I went to Yokohama on April 16. The U. S. Armed Forces Cemetery exists on the southeast of the Yokohama area. I was allowed to enter. Captain Richard Hamilton lies in almost the center of the cemetery. On the day I went, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the peaceful breeze from the Pacific went over the area and all was very clean. The victims of the war lie under these circumstances, one of them my old friend by correspondence. Always, I shall be glad to do whatever possible.

She wrote again, sending Dick's Bible and clothes for Suzuki's small baby. Suzuki replied:

The baby was born April 27 ... the gifts were useful and helpful. She was named Kazuyo which means peace era; we hope she will grow up with a peace mind. My job is the publishing business. One of my books already published is titled: "Know-how of Americanism." I shall try to let the youngsters of Japan know the American way and contribute to the mutual understanding. There are many English learning boys and girls in our land who are anxious to correspond with Americans as Mr. Dick and I did. If you try on your side, it will be useful plan to make correspondence society. The understanding of each other will be the best way to keep the peace.

In a later letter, Suzuki wrote:

On Decoration Day, I will surely go to the cemetery and lay flowers on Captain Dick's grave. I think it is the duty and only way to console you which I can do here. I have never known about Decoration Day. It is significant to visit him on that day.

Hamilton's mother expected perhaps 10-20 names when she agreed to find pen-pals, but by summer, there were 1,000 and by one year 10,000, all to a woman whose town had a population of only 1,500. She appealed to radio personality and Kansas City native Ted Malone for help. His "Between the Bookends" radio program was heard over 208 stations.

And help came - from youth organizations such as the Campfire Girls and the YMCA.

The Malone radio script, reprinted in the June 18, 1948 issue of The Washington County Register, ended with the following:

How wide this exchange of letters may grow, no one can guess ... but for every letter that comes from Japan ... we know now there'll be an answer.

In a May 29, 1955 story from the headquarters of the International Friendship League in Boston, some idea of the exchange's growth can be found.

The only memorial rising above that far-away grave is its little white cross. But there is an unseen memorial: almost 100,000 letters already processed through the Friendship League.

Many years later, the Hamiltons and Suzukis met. In 1972, Dick's sister Marjorie and her daughter-in-law Suzanne visited the Suzukis in Tokyo. Heihachiro had left publishing, but not books. He had advanced to become head of the National Diet Library - the Japanese equivalent of the Library of Congress. The visitors not only dined with the Suzukis and were given a tour of the then not-open-to-the-public NDL, but had the opportunity to ride one of the first bullet trains.

None of this would have happened had Hamilton's mother not been willing to reach out to Suzuki. After the pen-pal letters began to flow, she said:

If by Dick's death, there can come a better understanding between nations ... then I will feel that our loss and sorrow have been turned to victory.

Top-left: Richard Hamilton's listing in the Royal Purple yearbook; top-right: Hamilton's mother in her later years playing pool (source: Ancestry.com); lower-left: Ted Malone (source: Wikipedia); lower-center: Hamilton's tombstone in the Washington, Kansas cemetery (source: findagrave.com). His formal entrance into the Air Force took place in Florida; lower-right: article in the May 30, 1955 Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun about the pen-pals program.

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