TOKYO, July 27 (Reuters) - Sixty-two years ago they were bitter enemies -- one a Japanese pilot trained to crash his plane into U.S. ships on a suicide mission, the other two survivors of a ship sunk by one of the pilot's kamikaze comrades.
But on Friday the three now elderly men shook hands and blinked back tears during a meeting that the former U.S. servicemen said finally helped them come to terms with their traumatic past.
"You feel terrible towards the people who did this to you and as the years go on and we get older, it's a terrible burden to carry," said Fred Mitchell, an 81-year-old survivor of the U.S.S. Drexler, a destroyer sunk by kamikaze off Okinawa in 1945.
"My dream has come true," Mitchell said, his voice shaking. "When I go back I can live in peace for the rest of my life."
His feelings about the meeting with Takeo Ueshima, 84, who was trained to carry out what were called "special attacks" but was unable to do so before the war ended, were shared by fellow survivor Eugene Brick, also 81.
"I have no hard feelings for anyone anymore," Brick said.
The meeting was arranged by the makers of a documentary on the kamikaze released in Tokyo on Saturday, which shows that not all the young men who trained for the missions faced their almost certain death gladly.
After seeing the film, "Wings of Defeat", Mitchell and Brick said their views of their former foes had changed, and they wanted to meet some if possible.
"We'd heard that some of these pilots had been chained to their planes so they wouldn't bail out, that they were doped or half-drunk," said Brick, speaking of wartime rumours.
"I am convinced now that it was an act of patriotism on their part. They were fighting for their families just as we were."
Japanese-American director Risa Morimoto sought out former kamikaze after learning her much-loved uncle had trained as one.
"The kamikaze has been a very strong myth in the United States that has not changed very much since World War Two," she told the news conference at which the meeting occurred.
"I never thought twice (about the fact) that they were crazy fanatics, and if I could think that way, I thought there were many others who thought the same -- which I thought was why we should make the movie."
Instead of the fanatics she expected, she met a group of gentle, elderly men who expressed mixed emotions about the past -- feelings Ueshima, who appeared in the film, reiterated.
"We already knew that Japan would lose," he said of March 1945, when he completed his training.
"All we could do was carry out our orders, and protect our families and our country."
The documentary is being shown two months after the release of a feature film on the kamikaze written by Tokyo's nationalist governor Shintaro Ishihara, which celebrates the young pilots as heroes.
The desperate strategy was conceived when Japan was on the brink of losing the Philippines to U.S. forces, with the first attack taking place in 1944. Its success inspired the recruitment of more men for similar attacks.
Roughly 4,000 kamikaze pilots died and 34 U.S. ships were sunk in the last few months of the war, according to the filmmakers.
Brick and Mitchell, who will travel to southern Japan for meetings with more former kamikaze, clearly hit it off with Ueshima, an importer who speaks English.
"Do you have email?" Brick asked Ueshima at the end of the meeting. "That way, we can talk back and forth."