By Mike Lyons


"I thought it would be awkward, but it wasn't. I felt like I'd known him for a long, long time -- like he was a real good friend of mine."

Kankakee's Vivian Lock still sounds surprised at the easy grace which attended his meeting Wednesday with Ken Arai, a retired Japanese chemical engineer living in Canada.

Former "adversaries," Arai, 73, and Lock, 87, had never formally met until Arai walked through the door of the Hilton Garden Inn in the company of Reader's Digest writer Chris Tenove.

Tenove is chronicling the pair's remarkable relationship for the magazine's Canadian version.

Yet Lock and Arai aren't total strangers. The pair have corresponded for three years via Internet, a relationship which grew out of Arai's curiosity about World War II and the B-29 bomber crews that burned his hometown of Kumagaya to the ground Aug. 15, 1945.

Lock commanded one of those 330th Bomb Group aircraft, a Superfortress called "The City of Kankakee."

The Kumagaya mission would prove to be the last bombing attack of World War II, a raid during which Lock would drop the second to the last bomb load of the war.

Some 14,700 feet below the wings of Lock's B-29, then 11-year-old Arai and his family struggled to survive the onslaught as 81 heavy bombers torched the town with incendiaries.

Just days before, Arai and several friends had escaped an even closer brush with disaster as they cut long grass from the river bank to be used as fodder for army horses.

Slugs slam home

In an instant, the heavy slugs from six .50-cal machine guns ripped into the river and its muddy bank. The bullets arrived even before the sound of the fighter that unleashed them could be heard.

It was a carrier-based Grumman Hellcat seeking out targets of opportunity.

He recalls seeing the water of the river rise in geysers as the bullets struck.

Those and other memories of the war's closing days filled the hours of "reunion," as Lock and Arai crafted a flesh-and-blood friendship from a shared history and cyberspace conversations about that long-ago August day on the island of Honshu.

Arai's greeters Wednesday included retired Brig. Gen. Jack Kotter, of Bourbonnais, Dick and Sharon Panozzo, who hosted Arai's and Tenove's stay in Kankakee, which also included a boat cruise on the river with Kankakee Community College President Jerry Weber and wife Mary.

Both Lock and Arai were guests speakers at Thursday's meeting of Kankakee Rotary.

"Probably if a family member had been killed, I would have felt differently," Arai said of his congenial feeling toward Lock and the 330th Bomb Group.

Lock wholly agrees, noting "I really felt at first it would be awkward. And I do feel that if someone in his family had been killed, I couldn't have done it," Lock says of the get-together.

Much alike

As it turned out, the former 25-year-old bomber pilot and the former 11-year-old city dweller would become very much alike over the following 62 years, Lock says.

"We're alike. We have the same values. That's why it's been so easy," he notes.

"My grandson said to me, 'You know, when I look at you two, you both dress alike -- you both carry pencils in your pockets and you both have your pants cut to the same length.'"

"I'm completely satisfied with the visit," Arai said late Thursday. "We've talked about the air raid, and everybody I've met has been very nice and hospitable. It's very impressive."

On preparing to leave for O'Hare Airport Friday morning, Arai presented Lock with a doll of exquisite craftsmanship and finish, dressed in the traditional clothing of Japan.

Lock said he thinks it represents a geisha.

On parting they simply said "We'll see you."