The main Hiroshima newspaper yesterday ran a story on my Dad and his yearbook – and of international kindness. Fittingly, it was the anniversary of the atomic bombing.
Hiroshima conducts an annual, somber peace ceremony each year on August 6th. A peace ceremony. That’s the message. Peace. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just peace.
They are not calling attention to themselves seeking pity or repentance. While there are still many who feel the Japanese brought this on to themselves, the citizens of Hiroshima have moved beyond forgiveness and are simply seeking to spread a strong global message for peace.
This year, the grandson of President Truman (below) was in attendance. Ari Beser was there, too. His grandfather was Jacob Beser – Enola Gay’s bombardier. Wonderful.
In my short story, “An Atomic Spark and a 1937 Yearbook“, it tells of how two complete strangers from Hiroshima – without hesitation – sought out my father’s yearbook from 1937. They miraculously found one, made a digital copy and mailed it to me through my cousin, Masako, who still lives in my father’s childhood home in Hiroshima. I printed it out and showed it to him a week before Father’s Day this year.
Dad – who is suffering from progressing dementia at 93 years of age – was overjoyed. He recalled so many things from the most happiest years of his life…including being a track star. Riding on the train to get to school with his friend Aoki… The school song. Dementia was put on the back seat for that morning.
In a small expression of thanks, I had sent to Mr. Tsukamoto a flask etched with “Nichuu High School, August 6, 1945”. I also asked he offer a prayer to the students of Dad’s high school on August 6th. Dad’s beloved high school was but 1,500 yards from the bomb’s hypocenter.
Think about it. 1,500 yards from the hypocenter. A Marine Corps sniper armed with a Barrett .50 caliber rifle can take out a target over 2,000 yards away. The school ceased to exist.
As part of the peace ceremonies yesterday in Hiroshima, Mr. Tsukamoto visited the school’s memorial wall. You can see the stainless steel flask on the black center stone in front of a praying Mr. Tsukamoto.
In this photo, Mr. Tsukamoto is offering a symbolic toast with water from the flask.
I will be showing the article to my father this next weekend.
I wish to thank Mr. Tsukamoto, Ms. Kanetou and Ms. Michiko Tanaka, the reporter who authored this article on international kindness, forgiveness and peace.
To say it is incredible falls short. 1,500 yards short.
World War II Military Intelligence techniques are still important and in use today – but for entirely different reasons.
During the war in the Pacific, US military personnel were forbidden to keep notes or diaries in the event they were captured. Nothing more disillusioning to be captured or killed, then have the enemy read about the ammo dump you just left from. Especially for your buddies still stationed there.
On the other hand, Japanese soldiers were allowed to keep notes or diaries. Apparently, the Japanese military saw the diaries similar to “water cooler gossip” at the office.
That was their downfall as Americans like my father translated such documents. The Military Intelligence Service. It was from these diaries that the Allies first began to see that the enemy were not the samurai of lore.
They had gripes of their commander – even by name. They complained of starving, no ammunition, no water. They also had uncensored letters from home – their families were starving, sick or had no home left for the soldier to come back to.
A mortar crewman wrote of how terrified they were to launch a mortar shell at the Marines as for every round they fired, the Marines would send ten back their way.
The MIS did their job faithfully back then on those hell hole islands. Their job was to help kill the enemy.
Today, albeit in a roundabout way, MIS veterans like my father are still doing their job.
Last week, a representative of the “Japanese American Veterans Association (JAVA.org)” contacted me again to enlist the help of my father. As mentioned in an earlier short story, Dad was a “kibei“, or an American of Japanese descent who got schooling in Japan. He was fluent. More so, he still is fluent in reading the pre-war Japanese writing. There really aren’t that many left with this ability. Dad is 93.
Unfortunately, Dad had a bad fall the day the request came in. He fell flat on his face and shattered his glasses in the process.
Apparently, a gentleman had in his family’s possession a captured Japanese flag. Presumably, someone in his family brought it back as a souvenir. Of course, if an Allied soldier brought one home, it may have been removed from a corpse. In the best case scenario, it was taken from a prisoner. You just didn’t find them laying around on the battlefield.
According to the request, the owner of the flag stated he wanted to return it if possible to the family. Not an easy task – even for “I Dream of Jeannie”. These flags were created at the farewell party of a soldier who was going to be dispatched to the war and certain death. There is usually the name of the person for whom the flag was presented. If you are lucky, the flag may have a city or town written. I’m sure my Uncle Suetaro received one.
Even for Dad, the complicating factor is not knowing how to read a Japanese character. It is HOW it was written. These were all signed by brush and charcoal ink. The ink lasts forever since it is carbon. But have you ever tried reading signatures? Try your hand at this one:
You get the picture.
Anyways, Dad – and while his glasses were shattered in the fall – was able to say the person for which the flag was signed was likely for a Mr. Tokio Miyake. Unfortunately, there was no true town or city named specifically. Nevertheless, we were able to make out what appears to be “Kurayoshi Mayor”, or the mayor of “Kurayoshi”.
Last night, I did a little reserch and almost unbelievably did find a town named Kurayoshi. I tracked down the town’s website and sent a blind email (in my broken Japanese) to the mayor’s office and asked if there was a mayor named “Furuya” during the war.
While my Dad did not participate in the hostilities, his Nisei unit did their job and greatly shortened the war according to General MacArthur. The Nisei’s job was a true secret weapon.
Hopefully, this no longer secret weapon can serve some peacetime good and bring two families to peace.
Oh. That was Johnny Depp’s signature. Thought you ladies may like that.
The kindness continues to flow from Hiroshima. As written in a prior short story, “An Atomic Spark from a 1937 Yearbook“, Ms. Kanetou was credited with locating the last copy of my dad’s 1937 high school yearbook. It was amazing she found that copy as Dad’s cherished high school and the city itself was obliterated on August 6, 1945.
While Dad is suffering from dementia, he cheerfully recalled his high school track days in detail while looking through his yearbook… He went so far as to say he won 1st and 2nd places at track and field events. Needless to say, I was a bit leery given his status.
Well, dumbfounded is the best word in this case. Ms. Kanetou – after learning of Dad’s recollections of his competitions – actually tracked down (yes, a pun) records of the track events from 1936. Such kindness and devotion is just phenomenal. They are below; since I know you all can read Japanese, my Dad’s name is above the red arrows (金本).
Yes, he DID take 1st and 2nd places in the triple-jump, broad jump, 100 meter dash and the 800 meter relay! He did place lower in what I think are more regional competitions but its clear he was quite an athlete.
But when I showed him these reports, his comment was, “5th place? Did I do that bad? I don’t remember that. Pumpkin head!”
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima left a spark – a spark which grew into universal forgiveness and kindness. From that unbounded forgiveness and kindness came a 1937 high school yearbook from a school that no longer existed – but its soul survived intact and gloriously
Dad is simply a very quiet man. For every word he spoke, mom must have said a bazillion words. No wonder he was quiet. (You know, it may have been better to write “every word he tried to speak”.)
But this past Sunday, June 10, dad was a songbird in Spring…even though mom was there.
Dad was eighteen again and back in Hiroshima, riding the train to school with his friend Aoki. Carefree. Young. After 75 years, Dad was looking through his high school yearbook he probably never saw.
How I got that yearbook from 1937 for Dad is a story of unbounded kindness and a love for peace – and driven by a unwavering desire to honor those that perished in Hiroshima.
All Dad had said in the past was that he ran track in his high school days and that the school was called “Nichu”. I thought it was a nickname. He wasn’t enthusiastic to share much more.
I was determined to find out more of my Dad’s past he was keeping hidden.
All I had to start with had been a 1930’s photo (above) of a pennant Dad had stashed away in a shoebox and a couple of class photos. After some exploring, I figured out the Japanese symbol on the flag was a melding of “二” and “中”, or “Nichu”, the name Dad mentioned.
Researching in the Japanese language was an endeavor. I finally came across a possible lead and sent a blind e-mail… In spite of considerable odds, I received a reply from a man in Hiroshima.
Mr. Akira Tsukamoto is a survivor.
In the waning days of the war, school children were put to work for their nation’s war effort in factories and fields. That was their destiny. Mr. Tsukamoto was one of those children.
Their teacher was Mr. Sekimoto; they had a nickname for him, “Mr. Pale”, because of his pale complexion. The night before that fateful morning, Mr. Sekimoto had decided that it would be better for the class to tend a field and clear it of weeds. Preparing the field for crops was more important than having class, he determined. They would be in the northwest area of Hiroshima.
Then came the morning and they were in the field while the other classes fatefully went to school. Then they heard the familiar drone of B-29 engines. They all saw what appeared to be three parachutes and a B-29 flying away. One student recalls seeing something black in shape tumbling towards the earth.
There was a terrible blue and yellow flash. A shock wave blew them down. They covered their eyes and mouths as they had been trained. But the heat from the blast was so searing, they could hear their skin and hair burning.
Their faces and bodies were burned on the left sides; in addition to searing pain, their skin slipped off. All they could use was mashed raw potatoes as a salve. It would take two months for their wounds to heal. They say they were spared for a greater cause.
Mr. Tsukamoto’s story – translated into English – can be read here. It is gripping and without malice. Just kindness.
Fast forward 67 years. Mr. Tsukamoto – the child who was pulling weeds in a field – was the one who kindly responded to my blind e-mail. It turns out he graduated after the war from the school that rose out of the ashes of Nichu.
He did not know me but his survivor’s heart – driven now for world peace and in honor of 300+ young classmates that perished – propelled him to our communicating.
After learning of my search for information on my father’s high school years, he found Ms. Tomoko Kanetou. Ms. Kanetou is an administrative manager at Dad’s successor school. Together, they tracked down an actual copy of dad’s yearbook from 1937. It is the last copy in existence. She conscientiously made high resolution scans of the 48 page yearbook and sent a CD to me here in the United States through my cousin Masako.
They did all this without pause. For a complete stranger across the Pacific. An American. Just incredible.
This past weekend, my oldest daughter hosted an early Father’s Day breakfast at her first home. My father went through the yearbook I assembled page by page. Not once. Not twice…but for almost three hours during last Sunday morning.
He remembered the school song. He said he was on their track team and won 1st or 2nd places in the 100m, 200m, broad jump and triple-jump. He was even pictured, front and center, in Nichu’s track team yearbook photo (right).
Other pages struck me with disbelief and astonishment. They gave a glimpse into life during the “pre-war” days in Hiroshima. He talked about the influence of war on schooling. That will be saved for a later story but further explains why his love and remembrances of his youngest brother are buried so deep in his hidden memories.
My ever-quiet father was not quiet that morning. I have never heard him talk so much and for so long… Truly an atomic spark from a 1937 yearbook. All arising from a peace-fueled and unsolicited joint effort by complete strangers, Mr. Tsukamoto and Ms. Kanetou. Perhaps they weren’t complete strangers after all.
In an earlier story, I praised old man Jack for being a giant in forgiving.
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.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family