OPINION: Japanese officer’s gift had big impact on young city scientist

An Olympus microscope similar to this one was a gift from grateful Japanese general. Submitted Photo

Phil Egan

Some interesting facts and stories are often churned up by history-lovers in Sarnia responding to my columns.

One of the more intriguing arose from my story about John S. Blunt.

Blunt, a U.S. Navy Seabee, had delivered a wartime address to the Rotary Club about Allied beach landings in Italy. Blunt had been a Beachmaster in charge of the landing craft. He went on to become president of the Holmes-Blunt Group of Companies, which included Holmes Foundry and Great Lakes Airlines. He was also the father of my girlfriend Charlotte back in the late 1960s.

My column drew a fascinating response from an interesting gentleman named David Johnston – the Ontario research biologist – not the former governor-general.

Johnston had his own story about John Blunt. Back in 1950, when Johnston was a Grade 12 student at SCITS, his father, a customs appraiser at the Blue Water Bridge, struck up a conversation with Blunt. Upon learning that Johnston’s son was interested in biology, Blunt offered him the loan of his pricy Olympus microscope.

Olympus is a Japanese company specializing in high quality optics gear.

Blunt told David Johnston’s father that the microscope had been a gift from a Japanese general during the Second World War. According to the story, Blunt had saved the Japanese officer’s life by providing him with antibiotics from the U.S. base medical dispensary. The Japanese general, a high-ranking executive at Olympus, had offered the microscope as a gesture of gratitude.

Johnston went on to become a celebrated biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, and he credits Blunt’s loan of the microscope with setting him on his life path.

Needless to say, I was intrigued.

Blunt, who had served in both the European and Pacific theatres of war, was known to have collected various trophies. A large lantern that I remember sitting on the stone wall of his Lakeshore Road home had come from a Japanese warship, and his daughters remember a Japanese flag.

But nobody knew what had happened to the microscope.

Olympus in New York and Toronto proved unhelpful, but the story gained credibility when daughter Roberta revealed that her father had been stationed for a while in Japan during the occupation following the war.

Sarnia writer Brian Keelan, who often sailed with him, says one of Blunt’s favourite memories from the war was ordering a Japanese general to “get off my damned beach.”

Johnston, who retired as one of Ontario’s foremost authorities on rabies in 1994, is curious to know what happened to the Olympus microscope that helped propel him into his life’s work.

Perhaps a Journal reader has the answer. I always enjoy hearing from readers, who can reach me at philegan@cogeco.ca.