The part-time job paid only $62.31 a week, but most people in Wapakoneta, Ohio, thought that money couldn’t buy a better mayor than William Lietz. In his 12 years in office, the town (pop. 8,800) saw its roads resurfaced, a new sewage treatment plant opened, the water purifying plant renovated. Yet six months into his fourth four-year term, Mayor Lietz abruptly resigned, stirring a controversy in the town that was covered not only in the Wapakoneta Daily News but in far larger newspapers across the world in Japan.
In brief, William Lietz is no longer Mayor of Wapakoneta because he can never forget what the Japanese did to his ship one morning 43 years ago. Times have changed, of course. Now two Honda plants are located within 30 miles of Wapakoneta, and when the town looks for investors these days it looks more and more to Japan. As a World War II veteran, Lietz finds this peacetime rapprochement too hard to swallow. Last year, when it was suggested that Wapakoneta become the sister city of a town in Japan, Lietz was opposed. And last month when the city council discussed a regional trade delegation that was going to Japan, Lietz, 64, made his feelings even clearer. “I said that I just didn’t want anything to do with the Japanese personally,” he says. “I don’t hate them; I just can’t forget what happened 125 miles off Okinawa.”
The incident that Lietz can’t forget took place on May 4, 1945, when he was a 21-year-old torpedo mate on the destroyer USS Luce. Just out of Blume High School in Wapakoneta, he had enlisted in the Navy five months after Pearl Harbor and had seen action in the Philippines and in the Pacific campaign. As dawn broke, he was at his duty station, manning a 40 mm. antiaircraft gun, when someone yelled, “Bogies!” Lietz looked skyward to see three Japanese suicide planes headed straight for the Luce. “The first kamikaze hit 50 yards off starboard,” he remembers. “I didn’t feel anything, but I knew I was hit because my right pants leg and shoe were blown off. A friend was manning a gun next to me. I turned to look at him, and his left side was just about gone.”
Lietz cradled his dying friend. “I looked down and saw my own blood running down my right leg and my friend’s blood running down my left leg. And then he died—right there in my arms.”
Helped into a life jacket by another sailor, Lietz swam away from the crippled Luce. “From out in the water,” he says, “I looked back and saw men hanging onto the bow. They looked like they were frozen there. They just held on and went down with the ship.”
Of the Luce’s crew of 300, only 150 survived. Lietz, after nine months in hospitals and with shrapnel still in his body, made it back to Wapakoneta. In 1948 he married Rita Kreitzer, a farmer’s daughter he had met in a local restaurant. They raised two sons and a daughter, and Lietz made his living as a bricklayer. Along the way he became involved in local politics, winning his first term as a Republican mayor in 1975.
As wartime animosity subsided, Japanese companies began to expand to America, but Lietz found that his memories of friends dying more than four decades ago overpowered accommodation to the present. On April 6 he made a conciliatory speech welcoming Japanese investment in the Wapakoneta area; then, just five days later, unable to square his remarks with his conscience, he resigned.
Phillip Downing, director of the local economic development council and a member of the trade delegation that visited Japan earlier this month, believes Lietz did the right thing. “I think he saw that it would not be in the best interests of the community to stay on as mayor,” says Downing. “I’m glad he was large enough to step down.” Japanese trade officials did not take offense at Lietz’s position, and told the Wapakoneta delegation that many in their country too harbor resentments over the war. One Japanese executive called the Mayor’s resignation an honorable act.
Lietz, appointed by new Mayor Charles Brading to the city planning commission, has no regrets. “I don’t expect everybody to believe in what I believe,” he says. “They didn’t fight in the war; they didn’t see their friends die. I won’t apologize for what I said. I won’t apologize for helping to win the war, either.”
—By Maria Leonhauser in Wapakoneta