Friendship stands test of time

OLD MATES: Dr Masaki Saito renews his friendship with the New Zealand members of the J-Force, including tour leader Dave Holmes.
OLD MATES: Dr Masaki Saito renews his friendship with the New Zealand members of the J-Force, including tour leader Dave Holmes.

Their unlikely friendship spans the Pacific and more than 30 years.

Now the relationship between Dr Masaki Saito and New Zealand's J-Force has been officially commemorated in a special ceremony in South Auckland.

J-Force was a contingent of Kiwi soldiers sent to Japan to clean up after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The soldiers developed a love for the Japanese people and their country at the same time as they helped pick up rubble, care for the wounded, keep the peace and rebuild cities.

J-Force is not well-known in New Zealand because many of the soldiers did not fight in the war, although they faced dangers ranging from uncovering hidden weapons to radiation exposure.

The experience was life-changing for a young Kiwi called Dave Holmes and his love of Japan remained when he returned home after 18 months abroad.

In 1978 Mr Holmes, who lives in Papakura, decided to take a trip down memory lane and took 48 J-Force members with him back to Japan.

While in Shimonoseki he met a doctor called Masaki Saito who was working out of a tiny clinic. Though their paths had never crossed before, in the 1940s Dr Saito had spent two years as a young medical student working at a camp where J-Force members were stationed.

He says he was very touched by Mr Holmes' love of Japan and invited the Kiwi veterans to his home for a party. Since then Dr Saito has founded a 300-bed hospital and runs a network of clinics and group homes for dementia patients.

But he has found time to continue the tradition started in 1978 - at last count 286 Kiwi J-Force members have been welcomed into his home.

One of those soldiers was Bill Mischefski, the youngest Kiwi J-Force member. He first went back to Japan with Dave Holmes in 1998.

"It was a very sentimental journey in myself, to go back and see what Japan was like now after seeing it as a war-torn country," he says.

"To witness how it had grown so fast in 50 years, to see how beautiful the cities were again after walking in the rubble - especially Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. I've got so many friends over there and I can say Dave started it off."

In all, Mr Holmes led 19 J-Force tours to Japan. His final trip was in 2008 - a stroke has left the 87-year-old unable to travel.

But last week it was 83-year-old Dr Saito's turn to be hosted in New Zealand and to receive a plaque at the Papakura RSA thanking him for his dedication to the friendship between the two countries.

Manukau Courier