“There’s No Toilet Paper in the Jungle of Burma”

Dad and I waiting to go in to watch MIS

Dad broke his silence.

“War is no good,” he said as we left the small community movie theater near his assisted living home today; we had just watched the limited release documentary “MIS: Human Secret Weapon”.  It was about his highly classified World War II US Army unit.  He had silently watched and with a ghostly stillness.  But I saw him wipe his eyes twice after gently lifting his glasses.  Others openly wept…but I had never, ever seen him shed a tear before today.

I was ignorant.  Combat isn’t necessary for the ugliness of war to be buried in a person’s mind.  The documentary made it clear that it is also easily dug out.  All one needs to do is scratch.

Official US Army document certifying his Military Intelligence Service days.

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The documentary reveals the conflicted state of mind of the then young Japanese-Americans who made up the US Army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS).  About 3,000 of them – including two of my uncles – secretly and faithfully served the red, white and blue, hastening the Japanese surrender on board the USS Missouri.

Another 3,000 served during the Occupation of Japan.  My dad was one and worked out of General Eichelberger’s US 8th Army’s GHQ in Yokohama.  That’s when he was able to journey to Hiroshima and see his mother for the first time in ten years…and when a hungry Masako first relished the flavor of Spam.

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Grant Ichikawa, MIS, CGM and me. 2010

One Nisei veteran interviewed was Grant Ichikawa.  He was gracious enough to not only greet me and my family in 2010 near his home in Rosslyn, VA, he also secretly treated us to lunch.  Pun intended.  He had lost his wife Millie just months before.  She was an even rarer female member of the MIS as well.

He and Terry Shima (also interviewed in the documentary) gave me the jump start in finding out about Dad’s involvement in the MIS.  During that all too brief get together, Grant did touch on what he did on the battlefront in a GI uniform.  He also said it “got dicey”.

In this documentary, you learn of one such experience.  He was told there were Japanese soldiers who had agreed to surrender.  Grant said he was the point man.  They proceeded to the rendezvous point where he met the Japanese commander; they were in the middle of an open field.

It turns out there were 200 to 250 of them; all their weapons were in good working order he says in the documentary.  Grant suddenly realized – out in the middle of this field – that these Japanese soldiers were “toukoutai”, or “suicide corps”.  Grant just as quickly and with great consternation realized there were only ten of them… GI’s, that is, armed only with rifles.  I’m sure Grant picked his words wisely.  He is still alive.

“Dicey” was a definite understatement.

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In a lighter moment, Ken Akune described how they were searching a Japanese soldier that had surrendered in the jungle of Burma.  They came across one of the American propaganda leaflets promising safe passage for those Japanese soldiers that surrendered.  It was neatly folded in a pocket.

Surrender Propaganda Written by MIS Nisei.

Akune asked the Japanese soldier if he believed what the leaflet promised since the MIS Nisei wrote it.  The Japanese soldier said no but that it made for good toilet paper.  “There was no toilet paper in the jungle of Burma,” said the prisoner.

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Thomas Tsubota broke down at the end of his interview.  Many did.

Tsubota was one of the top secret MIS members of Merrill’s Marauders.

They had just stumbled across ten Japanese soldiers in a small jungle clearing, he says.  “Boom,” he said, in a split second they killed them all.  He described how his commander, Colonel Beach, called him over to inspect a photo album taken off one of the now dead Japanese soldiers

They looked through the album.  Tsubota told Col. Beach there was nothing of military importance in it but as they came upon the last page of the album, there was a picture of a mother and a daughter.

Tsubota said Colonel Beach’s eyes got red, filled with tears and he said, “Thank you, Tom.”

While crying, Tsubota ended the interview by saying this is why he isn’t enthusiastic about talking about the war.  Too painful.  He doesn’t want to think about that sad moment.  Tsubota is 96 years old.  I thought Dad was old.

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The documentary intensely yet humanely describes the internal turmoil within these young American GIs of Japanese descent.  Quite a few had brothers who were left in Japan when war broke out and were killed as Japanese soldiers.  Deep down, many carried guilt that their own secret actions led to the deaths of their own brothers.  My Dad’s youngest brother – my Uncle Suetaro – was one of those casualties.

But these 3,000 young American boys of Japanese heritage did their job as did millions of other young American boys…but in secret.  They translated diaries covered with blood or offered cigarettes to Japanese prisoners to extract military intelligence while battles were raging.

They endured years of discrimination and intimidation to boot – both from GI’s fighting alongside them as well as back home.  A barber in Chicago wouldn’t cut Dad’s hair because of his race – and he was wearing his perfectly creased US Army uniform with sergeant’s stripes, sleeve highlighted by the proud shoulder patch of the US 8th Army.

The secrecy was officially lifted in 1972 by Executive Order 11652.
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Uncle Suetaro on right.

Just the two of us, I thought, were going to see this movie and that this may help Dad slow down his growing dementia.

I was wrong.

His quiet tears and with his exiting comment, I am sure Uncle Suetaro was there, too, in Dad’s heart – as if it was 1937 in Hiroshima when he last saw his brother alive.

Over the past two years, I’ve asked, “Dad, tell me about what you worked on in the MIS.  What was the one thing you remember the most?  A picture?  A diary?”  Each time, the answer was vague or “I don’t know.”  I chalked it up to senility.

He doesn’t want to talk about it…just like Tsubota painfully recalling Col. Beach and the photo of a mother and a daughter taken from a Japanese soldier they had just killed.

Ugly recollections from war wanting to be masked need not come from battlefields, bullets or bombs.

21 thoughts on ““There’s No Toilet Paper in the Jungle of Burma””

  1. Thank you for writing about your father’s role in the war. It is something a lot of people don’t know. It is up to us as their children to preserve this history that is too hard for them to talk about. Thank to your father for his service.
    God Bless

    1. Thank you, notsofancynancy. Isn’t it odd? Some of our family members were on the opposite side of the war – yet here were are seeking the same goal. I feel that all who sacrificed did so long ago to ultimately make this a better world.

  2. Thank you for writing about and sharing your father’s history. Reading his story…his experiences .. makes my understanding of the world more complete. I am always deeply touched by your families stories, Koji.

    1. JeanneRene, nothing is more honorable or cherished than thoughts and comments from the daughter of a Seabee or the mom of a US Marine. The patriotism of your family touches me greatly. (The link to your blog is also shown on the right side.)

      Thank you again. It is a difficult time for your family as well.

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