I figured if Mr. Johnson wanted to tell me more, he would have.
But as with Old Man Jack, I never asked for more.
I believe that’s how these combat vets want it.
They don’t want to be quizzed about what they said or asked to describe more.
They will tell you some things of what they experienced. Probably to let the devils out that have been eating away at them for 70 years.
They have a built in limiter to keep more memories from popping back up…the things they saw or did that they try so hard to suppress to stay sane. Every minute for the rest of their lives.
They deserve that respect. Always. And you feel honored they felt enough confidence in your character that you would accept what they were telling you as is.
I feel they appreciated that.
Mr. Johnson and I walked together into the little chapel where Old Man Jack’s funeral service was being held. His flag-draped coffin was proudly presented up front.
It was mostly relatives as all his friends had passed away before him. I felt distant as I don’t recall ever seeing them visiting with Old Man Jack. But they were relatives.
Mr. Johnson and I were likely the only ones there outside of family besides a daughter of one of his fellow employees from the old Northrop plant. We had met once when Old Man Jack was in ICU from a tremendously bad intestinal infection.
His only daughter Karen was busy going over things with the reverend. You will have to excuse me if I used the wrong term for him; it was a Christian service and I am not.
Mr. Johnson and I sat next to each other in the back row.
Karen finally approached us. It was good to see her again. I hadn’t seen her since she moved Old Man Jack up to their mountain home just five months earlier.
We greeted and it was already tough not to shed a tear. She then said, “Koji, we have enough young relatives here to be pallbearers but I know you and dad were close. I think he would like it very much if you would be one of his pallbearers.”
I looked at Mr. Johnson. I guess I was unknowingly seeking his acceptance knowing they both fought a bitter war together.
Mr. Johnson smiled and nodded his head as if he knew I was asking him if it would be OK.
It was emotional. My eye plumbing was already leaking a bit before but it broke loose.
After Old Man Jack fought on “those stinkin’ islands” and had nightmares for the remainder of his life, I was now going to help carry this great American on his last journey.
It is a mark of the Greatest Generation. Forgiveness. Honor to the end.
Just a short vid of the flag presentation to Jack’s daughter. (I apologize for the video quality but they only sell the video cameras with the little swing out screen now. It’s hard to get used to and hard to see the image in bright sun…and impossible to hold still…but towards the end, you can see Mr. Johnson sitting right behind her.)
I wondered what was going through Mr. Johnson’s mind after saying to me earlier “…funerals don’t do a damn thing for me anymore”.
He didn’t get teary-eyed once. A true Marine, I thought. I also briefly felt he had his mind on other pressing matters.
I was about to find out.
After the ceremony, I helped Mr. Johnson back to my car. He hadn’t said much at all nor showed ANY emotion.
I opened the car door for him; it would be a struggle for him to get back into my low-slung machine with his bad back and unsteady legs.
But he stopped short of getting in. He towered over the roof of the car as he was standing on the curb next to other graves. I remember clearly his right arm was on the roof of the car and his left was seeking support from the top of the passenger door glass.
Then he spoke.
“Koji, I’m sorry I was so curt with you in the car…when I said funerals don’t do a damn for me anymore. I hope you’ll let me explain why.”
I didn’t know what was coming. He continued but he had that look on his face. The same glassed-over gaze Old Man Jack had when he was going to talk about something he was trying to forget.
“Koji, the Japs jumped us and they jumped us good. Real good. We were caught out in the open. We had fighter cover but there was just a shit load of them. Just too many. They were coming down at us from every which way.”
He mimicked with his right hand that he had elevated towards the sky toy planes – just like we did when we were kids. But these weren’t toys that day. He was reliving a battle…but he didn’t say where or when. Just like Old Man Jack.
“They just kept coming and coming. We took a bad licking. A real bad one. We just kept reloading and firing at them.
We lost a lot of good men.”
He stopped for a moment. He never once said he was on the Big E.
“I got put in charge of the Burial Detail. There weren’t too many of us left that could get around.” He was, I assume, talking about his fellow Marines. He was a Private at that time and at the Battle of Santa Cruz; you will find out later how I discovered that. But it’s not good when a young Marine private who was in boot camp just months earlier gets put in charge of a burial detail on board the greatest lady of the sea.
“I don’t know who the son-of-a-bitches were. They were wrapped up in canvas and a shell would be put inside at their feet to weight them down. Then we’d dump them over the side. We’d salute. Then we’d do it again…and again…and again. I don’t remember how many times I saluted. I didn’t keep count. But that’s why funerals don’t do much for me anymore. I had been in enough of them.”
I was left humbled and voiceless. Too late I realized Mr. Johnson WAS having sickening thoughts running through his mind – from the time when I asked him to help hold ME together.
And I was ignorant to even think he had his mind on other pressing matters during the funeral.
With that selfish request, I instead helped unleash some vile memories within him.
Mr. Johnson himself would pass away shortly thereafter.
More to come in Part IV. I hope you’ll stay tuned.
The carnage he was to experience would be absent even from the worst possible nightmare a nineteen year old boy can possibly have dreamed.
Violence no young boy of 19 should have to endure.
He would have two lives after he stepped into that Marine Corps recruiting station: one of reality during the day and of a nightmare he would never awaken from at night.
I was not close to Mr. Johnson as I was to Old Man Jack; perhaps it was because for the first five years after I moved into this patriotic Naval neighborhood, he and his good wife Marge traveled about the US in their motorhome. They were gone for perhaps six to eight months out of the year. Man, did they enjoy seeing the US of A. After all, he fought for her.
He stayed indoors most of the time when at home while Marge would walkabout during the warm summer nights with her wine and chat with neighbors and me. She enjoyed her Chablis very much. Slowly, her legs would give way to age. Mr. Johnson’s, too.
In the early part of 1942, Mr. Johnson found himself on a little boat out in the middle of the Pacific – the Big E.
The USS Enterprise.
She was one of only three operational carriers in the Pacific. The Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown.
The Battle for Midway
He was on his way to the Battle of Midway (Mr. Johnson did not tell me that. Old Man Jack did.). June of 1942.
A tremendous gamble of scarce naval assets and young men by Admiral Nimitz.
PFC Doreston “Johnnie” Johnson manned her anti-aircraft batteries as a US Marine.
Thousands of young lives were lost during the most critical sea battle – on both sides. But the critical gamble paid off for the US. The Japanese Imperial Navy lost four carriers. They would never recover.
But we lost the Yorktown. A tremendous loss for the United States…but the tide of war changed.
Miraculously, the Enterprise escaped damage.
And as far as I understand, so did the young boy from Basile, Louisiana, Mr. Johnson.
At least physically.
Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands Campaign
His next trial would be Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaign.
It would be an insult to to all the brave men that were there if I were to even try and express in writing what brutal sea combat was like.
I was not there. But every young man there thought – every second – that there was a bomb coming at him. Constantly.
Like hearing shrapnel from near bomb misses ricocheting off the batteries – or striking flesh. The deafening, unending thundering of “whump-whump-whump” from AA batteries. The yelling. The sound of a mortally wounded enemy plane crashing into the water nearby with a likewise young pilot. The screams of wounded or dying boys.
This is taken from a naval summary: “After a month of rest and overhaul, Enterprise sailed on 15 July for the South Pacific where she joined TF 61 to support the amphibious landings in the Solomon Islands on 8 August. For the next 2 weeks, the carrier and her planes guarded seaborne communication lines southwest of the Solomons. On 24 August a strong Japanese force was sighted some 200 miles north of Guadalcanal and TF 61 sent planes to the attack. An enemy light carrier was sent to the bottom and the Japanese troops intended for Guadalcanal were forced back. Enterprise suffered most heavily of the United States ships, 3 direct hits and 4 near misses killed 74, wounded 95, and inflicted serious damage on the carrier. But well-trained damage control parties, and quick, hard work patched her up so that she was able to return to Hawaii under her own power.”
“Repaired at Pearl Harbor from 10 September to 16 October, Enterprise departed once more for the South Pacific where with Hornet, she formed TF 61. On 26 October, Enterprise scout planes located a Japanese carrier force and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Island was underway. Enterprise aircraft struck carriers, battleships, and cruisers during the struggle, while the “Big E” herself underwent intensive attack. Hit twice by bombs, Enterprise lost 44 killed and had 75 wounded. Despite serious damage, she continued in action and took on board a large number of planes from Hornet when that carrier had to be abandoned. Though the American losses of a carrier and a destroyer were more severe than the Japanese loss of one light cruiser, the battle gained priceless time to reinforce Guadalcanal against the next enemy onslaught.
Regardless of who is correct – and we’ll never know for obvious reasons – Enterprise gunners shot down more planes at Eastern Solomons in 15 minutes and at Santa Cruz in 25 minutes than did the vast majority of all battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers throughout the entire war.
She was the last operating carrier in the Pacific.”
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the violence of World War II, perhaps these photos will give you an idea.
Try – just try – to imagine you are on that ship… Nineteen years old. The Japanese planes are shooting at you and dropping bombs on you. Dead and wounded boys are everywhere. Fires are raging… The ship is listing…and through all this, you must continue to man your anti-aircraft guns… Protecting the ship and the lives of your fellow Americans.
Remember these young boys. I always will.
Mr. Johnson was one of them.
Mr. Johnson was one of those wounded.
And I have proof of his valor and guts on board as a US Marine.
“Koji, funerals don’t do a damn thing for me anymore.”
That was Mr. Johnson’s reply while I was driving us to Old Man Jack’s funeral. I had asked him to help hold me together as I knew I would fall apart.
“Oh-oh,” I thought to myself when I heard that curt reply. “I guess I hit a nerve…”
Mr. Johnson was Old Man Jack’s next door neighbor.
Nearly SIXTY years. Hell, I ain’t that old yet. Well, I’m close.
They got along real well for those 60 years… except Jack was a WWII sailor… and Mr. Johnson was a WWII Marine. They reminded each other of it often.
Lovingly, of course.
Old Man Jack happily reminisced that “…us white caps would also tussle with them Marines ‘cuz they thought they were better than us”. But Jack would have gotten the short end of the stick if he took on Mr. Johnson. He towered over Jack and me…
And Mr. Johnson was a decorated WWII Marine.
Decorated twice…that I know of.
Our cozy neighborhood called him “Johnnie”. I always addressed him as Mr. Johnson…He used to say, “Damn it, Koji. I wish you’d stop calling me that.”
I never did call him Johnnie. I just couldn’t.
But in the end, we found out his real name was Doreston. Doreston Johnson.
Born August 1, 1923 in Basile, Louisiana. A tiny town, he said, and everyone was dirt broke.
I wish I knew why he wanted to go by “Johnnie” but later, I discovered Doreston was his father’s name.
After Jack passed away, I visited with him. He opened up a bit.
The Depression made it tough on everybody but then war…
When war broke out, he was gung ho like many young boys at that time.
It was expected. You were branded a coward if you didn’t enlist or eluded the draft. You were at the bottom of the heap if you got classified 4F.
He said went to the Army recruiting station. They said they met their quota, couldn’t take him right away and to try again next week.
He then went to the Navy recruiter. They also said pretty much the same thing but that there was an outfit “over there that’ll take ya”.
It was the United States Marine Corps.
The Marines “took him”…right then and there, he said.
Mr. Johnson said, “I was a dumb, stupid kid at that time” – slowly shaking his head…but with a boyish little grin.
It was 1941… When the United States Navy had their backs against the beaches… MacArthur blundered after Pearl Harbor and thousands of soldiers were taken prisoner in the Philippines.
The country’s military was poorly equipped and poorly trained. With outdated equipment like the 1903 Springfield and the Brewster Buffalo. And most gravely, the US Navy was outgunned.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force.
Thirty-forth President of the United States of America.
An American soldier.
An “American soldier”.
Plain. Straight forward. No descriptive.
But as a simple question… Was he ever referred to as a “German-American” soldier? After all, he is of German descent.
Or as a “Kraut”? No insult intended whatsoever.
I don’t know.
How about General Charles Willoughby?
Never heard of him?
He was General Douglas MacArthur’s right-hand man. Chief of Intelligence during and after World War II. G-2. My dad’s boss’ boss.
An American soldier.
Did you know Willoughby was born in the town of Heidelberg, Germany, the son of Baron T. von Tscheppe-Weidenbach from Baden, Germany? A royal German family. His real name was Adolf Karl Tscheppe-Weidenbach.
He spoke German fluently. And spoke English with a heavy accent.
Was he referred to as a “German-American” soldier?
Or as a “Kraut”?
I don’t know.
How about my two uncles who received the Congressional Gold Medal? Or even my dad?
An American soldier.
Unlike Willoughby, dad was born here. In Seattle.
He spoke both English and Japanese without an accent. And Ike didn’t speak German.
Is there any difference in Dad’s summer uniform in comparison to Ike’s?
Well, I guess there is a difference. Ike’s has five stars; Dad’s doesn’t… Oh, and Dad’s is wrinkled.
But unlike Ike and General Willoughby, soldiers like Dad were referred to as “Japanese-American” soldiers. Even today. Or just plain “Jap” back then…even when in uniform.
Even in newspapers. Here is one on my Uncle Paul who was bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal two years ago.
Don’t get me wrong. There is no intent to ruffle feathers. Or to be accusatory or express anger. And I certainly am not calling our 34th President a “Kraut”.
This is just history… Albeit, perhaps, from an odd vantage point.
But why is there a distinction made?
Are we – Americans in a broad stroke of the keyboard – bringing attention to minorities in too great a lawyer-driven focus? But considering the popular vote, my friends, the minorities are no longer minorities. Let’s face the facts.
From history, we need to learn. Yes. And we need to look at ourselves as of today… but with a helluva lot fewer lawyers. (Did I write that?)
And people need to be “working” to the best of their ability… to live on their own ability instead of an expectation of assistance. As a fellow blogger so eloquently wrote in “The Value of Ability“, we need to tighten up this ship and boost a person’s confidence that they do have potential and to live up to those expectations.
It’s time to move on from minority recognition…in whatever shape or form. Hiring requirements. College enrollment requirements. Special program requirements. Especially within governments – local, state or federal… Especially in our schools. How about hiring a conservative to be a teacher once in a while..? In my humble opinion, of course.
At times, I mix in Memorial Day with it… I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
They will always be veterans in my eyes.
Dad at Miyajima, Hiroshima in the spring of 1949. I now have a bad case of “tennis elbow” and can’t retouch:
He was part of the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service and served during Occupied Japan. Being a “kibei”, he translated during the War Crimes trials, interrogated Japanese soldiers being released by Russia, Korea, Manchuria and China and translated Japanese war documents for intelligence.
Dad today with my two littlest kids:
Went to pay our respects to Old Man Jack. Sun was just too low in the sky for a good pic… 😦 Miss you, Jack.
And went to see good ol’ Bob, too… What a kind, great man he was.
November 6th – and the horrendous boulevard the public was forced to navigate – took a toll on me.
A form of depression, perhaps?
All the cheap shots. Stupid propositions to fatten someone’s pocket. Pot. Programs that cost millions – millions a state government doesn’t have.
And the bozos that led us onto the verge of fiscal collapse were re-elected. Criminy.
And of the most STUPIDEST state propositions that passed in “my” state was one that will make it ILLEGAL for porn actors to “do their work” without a prophylactic. A rubber. OK. I wrote it.
There are (I’m guessing) several hundred “adult” actors here. A law for several hundred actors. Geez-louise. For what purpose? No need to discuss that.
In a nutshell – with inference to the White House and Capital Hill as a whole – I am depressed about our country’s future. And of our brave souls in uniform stretched to their physical and mental limits protecting those same people with their lives. And what’s REALLY crappy about that is the “special elected officials” get a full salary and benefits for life while our soldiers, Marines, sailors and aircrews can’t even get proper medical care after they leave honorable service.
But there is nothing more depressing than finding only crumbs left in my bag of Lay’s BBQ potato chips.
Will a kind blogger set me up with a four year supply?
It was a small yet precious family reunion. My 78 year old cousin Masako Kanemoto, who flew in from Hiroshima, took a bite out of a “Spam™ musubi” while we were taking a snack break in Kailua, Hawai’i. It’s a slice of Spam sandwiched in between some rice and wrapped in seaweed. “How mundane,” I thought.
Masako then beamed. “We had very little food for so many years. After the war, your father brought us food and clothing when he was in the US Army…” My dad was part of the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service.
She continued, “He brought us much as he could carry. I was so hungry and I will always remember that first bite. I couldn’t believe how something could be so delicious.” She was referring to something my father had brought along with him 65 years ago – Spam.
Emotions tore through me and my eyes welled rapidly. I felt so selfish and ignorant for taking the Spam for granted. I fumbled but snapped the photo of Masako enjoying the Spam musubi.
My grandfather Hisakichi Kanemoto immigrated from Hiroshima to Seattle in the late 1890’s. My grandmother Kono Kanemoto was a true picture bride for my grandfather. Grandmother gave birth to a total of seven children of which my father was the fifth; all but one was born in Seattle – they were US citizens.
My grandparents struggled to survive; the family lived in the Fujii Hotel in downtown Seattle. They worked a basement barber shop in the hotel with Grandfather cutting the hair and Grandmother expertly working the straight razor. A cousin said Grandmother made the customers feel appreciated and made them feel at ease with her people skills. It certainly wasn’t Grandfather – if there were a Japanese Marine, he could have been their poster boy. “By the book”, as they say.
As was customary during that time, many Japanese-American children (“Nisei”) were rotated back to Hiroshima by ship to learn the Japanese language and customs when they were about eight years old. It was no easy cruise has they were crammed into the cargo hold for the lowest fares. They spent about ten years in Hiroshima then returned by themselves when they turned 18. Dad was no exception.
By around 1930, the grandparents and five of the siblings were in Hiroshima; the oldest (Uncle Yutaka) was forced to live in America alone at a young age. I understand he was sad and frightened about that. Their second son, Hisao, passed away in Seattle from encephalitis when he was only about two.
Now fluent in Japanese, dad returned to Seattle on his own in 1937 at 18 years of age, preceded by an older sister Shizue in 1934. Dad was apparently very bright as he graduated from Hiroshima’s Nichuu High School – it was for the higher achievers. He excelled in mathematics as well as in track and swimming. He helped dig the school’s pool. No union labor back then.
Dad is standing, third from left in this rare family portrait taken in front of his family’s new Hiroshima home, circa 1929.
After dad returned to Seattle, Grandmother made the decision to remain in Hiroshima. It was a fateful decision.
In the 1930’s, Japan had already began their invasions of China, Manchuria and Burma; they were on their quest to secure raw materials for their industries and ultimately for their military. National pride was at its peak; military conquests filled the news and the world was taking notice with great consternation. When Japan was condemned for their aggressions by the League of Nations, she withdrew and shocked the world.
The threat of war with America loomed. Anti-Japanese sentiment grew – Americans in Seattle routinely harassed or even attacked Japanese in public. Unfortunately, many of the “Japanese” they harassed were American citizens like my dad, uncles and aunts. Some young Nisei girls were also groped, molested or raped. Folks knew where Hawai’i was at this time but Pearl Harbor was Timbuktu.
They all had the misfortune of looking Japanese, similar to how some Americans look upon Muslims today.
My Grandmother was not exempt from the harassment. She was called “Jap” many times. She was even egged. While she was a fighter, she decided the threats and discrimination were too much.
My dad was close to his youngest brother, Suetaro. They farmed the mushroom property Grandfather owned in Hiroshima; the special mushroom delicacy called “matsutake” grew only during a brief season. Dad, Uncle Suetaro and perhaps three other boys strapped on woven baskets onto their backs and filled them with the precious matsutake. Grandmother would sell them as quickly and as best she could – they had no refrigeration. The earnings would make up the bulk of their income for the year.
While dad had returned to Seattle in 1937, Uncle Suetaro was anxiously awaiting his turn to go back to Seattle. He was to turn 18 in 1939. However, Dad’s youngest sister Mieko died earlier in 1939 of a kidney infection; she was about 15 years old. By that time, Grandmother knew Grandfather was suffering from stomach cancer. His older sister (and the only one not born in the United States) Michie had married and had given birth to a daughter – Masako, my cousin. They lived in another village called “Tomo” some distance away.
Having decided to remain in Japan due to the harassment and threats she experienced, Grandmother then made the fateful decision to not allow Uncle Suetaro to return to Seattle. After all, there was no other Kanemoto left to inherit the house and land. Uncle Suetaro was dejected and very upset but obeyed Grandmother. He was a loyal son.
Grandfather died the next year. With Mieko also gone, only Grandmother and Uncle Suetaro remained in the house.
Uncle Suetaro was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. His regiment was training in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. Aunt Michie with her nine year old daughter (and my cousin) Masako in tow went to visit Uncle Suetaro when they could. She remembers a couple of trips. It was not easy travel in war-torn Japan. For one trip, Aunt Michie managed to take sashimi – in this time of little food, it was a tremendous treat and gift.
On that trip, Masako remembers her mother stealthily sliding over to Uncle Suetaro the wrapped sashimi. He was being stared at by many of his fellow soldiers – they were not well fed either. She remembers Uncle slowly turning so that the others could not see and quickly devoured the treat.
Masako also knows Uncle was well respected by his fellow soldiers due to his knowledge of English in a wicked twist of fate as my father’s top secret US Army unit used their knowledge of Japanese to kill as many of the enemy and to save American lives.
Uncle Suetaro (sitting on the sofa arm) received his orders to ship out to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines; the family recalls it to be 1944. As tradition called, they had a farewell celebration. In such celebrations, the soldier who was facing certain death received a Japanese flag signed by relatives and friends to carry into battle.
Uncle Suetaro was to ship out the next day. Grandmother was like any other mother – she was anguished. More so, she knew that soldiers sent off to war rarely returned unless maimed. Her decision to not allow her youngest son to return to Seattle in 1939 now deeply stabbed at her heart…so much so that she suffered her first stroke the next day.
Grandmother only had use of her right arm; Masako said she would pull herself around the now empty house with that one good arm. Aunt Michie – after working a grueling day at her husband’s farm – would likely have walked several miles to Grandmother’s house to tend to her needs which included feeding her as well as changing and washing her diapers.
This was war time; they used old clothing for diapers. Tide laundry soap? They didn’t have any soap to speak off. A washing machine? They didn’t have one let alone electricity. Aunt Michie washed them by hand with well water on a washboard. She then walked miles back to her farm only to get up a few hours later before dawn to work the farm.
No one truly knows how Uncle Suetaro died.
Perhaps he was killed during one of the numerous Allied artillery barrages or bombings, or was cut down in a futile banzai charge. Perhaps he died in a cave from starvation or illness – or from committing suicide.
Perhaps he never made it ashore and met his death when he was on a troopship being strafed or sunk by airplanes from land-based US Marine Corsairs or carrier-launched US Navy F6F Hellcats or a US Army Air Force P-38 Lightning. The Allies ruled the skies and wrecked havoc on Japanese ships.
Tragically, he was American. While his oldest siblings were imprisoned in US concentration camps for “looking Japanese”, Uncle was thrust into desperate circumstances and was clothed in the uniform of the 14th Japanese Imperial Army, 41st Infantry Regiment… Eerily similar to his mother who was egged and called a Jap while in Seattle, his own countrymen were now trying to kill him with 75mm shells launched from miles away or .50 caliber machine gun rounds in a closer encounter. Not eggs this time.
It is more troubling knowing Ike was of German ancestry and MacArthur’s right hand man General Willoughby was of ROYAL German lineage and spoke fluent German but English with a pronounced accent. His birth name was Weidenbach; imagine if they were imprisoned in Tule Lake with my Dad for “looking German”. No political comment being made; its just historical fact.
Uncle Suetaro’s 41st Infantry Regiment – likely including the other young men who watched him stealthily eat sashimi – was annihilated by the US Army on Leyte. His body was never recovered. Ironically, when I used to watch the B&W news reels of the war on TV or see combat photos of dead Japanese soldiers, I would see them with purely American eyes. Now, I earnestly review them in hopes of seeing a glimpse of Uncle Suetaro…as my Aunt Shizue did for many, many years. She still does at 95 years of age near Downtown, LA.
Eleven year old Masako was sitting in her classroom on August 6, 1945; her school was partially behind Mt. Suzugamine just west of Hiroshima’s center. Some windows were opened as it was in the middle of summer.
There was an indescribable, blinding white flash. There was no noise except for some of the girls screaming, Masako recalls. They all left their seats and ran towards the windows to see what had happened. Masako ended up standing behind a couple of girls at an open window.
It was like an invisible wrecking ball slammed into their school. All of her classmates that ran to a closed window to look were pierced by shards of shattered window glass as the shock wave hit, she said. All were hurled backwards by the force. Even the girls in front of Masako were pierced by debris being hurled at supersonic speeds…
As she looked through openings that were once windows to her classroom, they were now windows to a demonic swirling dark mass of blackness. Ironically, she described it as a “matsutake no kumo”, or “matsutake cloud”… The same mushroom my father and uncle had picked as children.
Now, the same hill they picked matsutake from saved Masako’s life. It provided the school partial shielding from the atomic blast. There was nothing left of Hiroshima just around the bend. All that was left of my father’s beloved “Nichuu High School” was a short span of a wall. It was about 1,500 meters from the hypocenter (left).
Masako saw horribly disfigured bodies over the next few days. They had aimlessly wandered from around the bend after the blast. They perished where their bodies laid. Masako was also covered in a thin oily, sticky substance called black rain.
From before the blast, ten year old Masako was tending to the care of Grandmother; by war’s end, there were only shreds of material left that could be used for diapers. It was brown under her fingernails from having to wash her soiled diapers by hand.
While Grandmother had made a partial recovery, she still only had use of her right arm. Then sometime after war’s end, a representative of the Japanese military came to visit Grandmother. Uncle Suetaro would not be returning home. Masako says her anguished scream was one only a mother can own, made horribly worse knowing she forbid Uncle Suetaro returning to Seattle. She suffered her second stroke.
Dad and the rest of the imprisoned siblings and the grandchildren of Grandmother and Grandfather were released from camp in September 1945. A year after, Dad found out he was going to be drafted by the same government that took his passport, fingerprinted him, put him and his family behind barbed wire and made him keep on his person all the time a draft card (on the left) that classified him as an Enemy Alien (4C). There were also guard towers manned by soldiers with Browning machine guns.
According to Masako and other family members, his oldest brother Yutaka (and now heading up the remaining family) then nearly begged him to volunteer for the Military Intelligence Service so he could check up on Grandmother. Dad tells me, “Well, if I get drafted, I’ll be a buck private. If I volunteer, I can be a sergeant – more pay.”
I tend to believe my other family members.
Dad arrived in Yokohama on December 7, 1947 and was assigned to the 8th US Army’s G-2, 166th Language Detachment; this was the Military Intelligence Service. It was kept top secret during the war; nearly all of them were Japanese-Americans. The accomplishments and heroics of his predecessors were not declassified until the 1970’s. Dad was one of the early graduates of the Army’s language school (“DLI”) in the Presidio. He was a Technical Sergeant, 3rd Grade – I’m sure the young Japanese ladies thought his chevrons were captain’s bars.
At his first opportunity, he took a train down to Hiroshima then somehow made it to Grandmother’s home. Masako was a young girl 14 years of age by then. He carried two large Army duffle bags full of food and clothing – including the Spam. They are in the photo on the left.
None of the surviving Kanemoto family members from that time period know how Dad learned of the news of Uncle Suetaro’s death. Regardless, the death of his favorite brother scarred his mind and heart for eternity. Even today, when I see him, he asks, “How is Suetaro?” He never asks of his other siblings.
Masako and I finish our Spam musubi. She tells me of how kind my father was to her, Grandmother and Aunt Michie. My dad does remember how indebted they all were to Masako for giving up a lot of her youth to care for Grandmother.
Masako enjoys Spam even to this day.
On a side street in Kailua, Oahu, Spam had also become a cherished delicacy for me.