We must realize that those who endured World War II – as combatants or as civilians – are leaving this world daily.
Of those who survived and remain with us today, it is not enough to have seen it as a small child. Of course, I am not implying there was no damaging effect on their souls. If you were such a child and witnessed a bomb blast, that will be in your mind forevermore.
But those who were young adults back then have the most intimate, most detailed recollections. Unfortunately, they would by now at the least be in their late 80s or early 90s – like my parents and Aunt Eiko.
Even so, the mental faculties of these aging survivors have diminished with age. For some, dementia has taken over or of course, many just do not wish to recall it. My dad is that way on both counts even though he did not endure combat. For instance, he still refuses to recall what he first felt getting off that train at the obliterated remains of the Hiroshima train station in 1947 as a US Army sergeant. I’m positive he also went to see the ruins of his beloved high school where he ran track.
As described in my series on the firebombing of Tokyo (link is here), my aunt, mother and grandmother fled Tokyo around July 1, 1945 via train. They were headed for Fukui, a town alongside the Japan Sea, and the farm of Mr. Shinkichi Mitani (He is my second great uncle so you can figure that one out.) My guess is grandfather believed the farmlands to be a very safe refuge. My grandfather accompanied them on their journey to safety but he would be returning to Tokyo after they reached their destination. To this day, my aunt does not know why he went back to Tokyo, a most dangerous and desperate city to live in.
As the railroad system in Japan was devastated, it always perplexes me as to how my grandfather managed to get tickets on a rare operating train let alone get seats…but he did. The train ride is even more incredible given the Allies ruled the skies by then; during daylight, American P-51 Mustangs strafed targets of opportunity at will: trains, boats and factories. It appears they traveled at night.
My aunt firmly recalls the train being overfilled with civilians trying to escape extermination in Tokyo. But with my grandfather’s connections (and likely a bribe or two while spouting he was of samurai heritage), they were fortunate to get seats in an uncrowded private rail car. You see, the car was only for Japanese military officers; the military still ruled Japan. She remembers many of them were in white uniforms¹, all with “katana”, or their ceremonial “samurai swords” as the Allied military forces called them. She said she didn’t say a word. She felt the solemnness heavily amongst them in the stuffy humidity.
She said they arrived at the Awara Station (芦原) at night. Humidity was a constant during that time as it was the rainy season (梅雨, or “Tsuyu”); nothing could dry out and mildew would proliferate. They walked roughly 2-1/2 miles (一里) in total darkness on a hilly dirt trail looking for the farm of Mr. Mitani. Being of an aristocratic family, I’m sure their trek was quite the challenge emotionally and physically. No, they did not have a Craftsman flashlight. No street lights either. The only thing that possibly glowed was my grandfather’s cigarette.
The challenge would escalate. While living conditions in Tokyo were wretched, they had been aristocrats. She was unprepared for farm life. Indeed, she had become a Japanese Zsa Zsa Gabor in a real life “Green Acres”.
Aunt Eiko described the farmhouse and its associated living conditions as essential beyond belief. She was greeted by a 土間 (doma), or a living area with a dirt floor², as she entered. Immediately inside the doorway was a relatively exposed お風呂, or traditional Japanese bath tub. Her biggest surprise was the toilet – or rather, the absence of one. It was indeed a hole in the ground outside. (I know. I used it when I visited in 1974…but it had toilet paper when I went.)
During the day, they helped farm the yams Mr. Mitani was growing. They also ate a lot of those yams because it was available. There wasn’t much else.
Although my grandfather moved them to Fukui as a safe refuge, he was mistaken.
Shortly after arrival, Aunt Eiko said the terror of being on the losing end of war struck again. US warships began to shell the farming areas in the Namimatsu village.³ Mrs. Mitani immediately screamed, “Run for the hills! Run for the hills!” She vividly remembers Mrs. Mitani and all the other villagers strap their “nabekama” (鍋釜), or cast iron cooking cauldrons, onto their backs and whatever foodstuff they could grab and carry. You see, life had become primal for the farmers and villagers. Food and water was their wealth. Everything else had become expendable by then.
They all did run to the hills as the shelling continued, she said. I do not know how long the barrage lasted nor how far away those hills were or if anyone she had met there was injured or killed. Surely, the damage must have been quite measurable on the essential crops or already dilapidated farmhouses if they were hit. For some, it may have become the straw that broke the camel’s back. The years of war would have taken its toll.
The Japan Sea was on the “backside” of the farm, she said (see map above); it was close by. One poignant memory she has is one of watching young Japanese soldiers by the coastal sea cliffs several times.
She says that as the Japan Sea was on the other side of the farm, she watched young Japanese soldiers joyously swimming by the sea cliffs in their loincloths (フンドシ or fundoshi). They were Army recruits and so very young. Aunt Eiko says her heart is pained to this day knowing that all those young boys she saw swimming in the Japan Sea certainly perished.
Preceded by my mom, Aunt Eiko and grandmother returned to Tokyo about a month after war’s end. The Mitani’s had taken them into their already burdened life, provided shelter and shared whatever meager provisions they had. While they have all passed on, she is grateful to them to this day.
As she wrote, the sight of Mrs. Mitani strapping on their cauldron remains etched in her mind to this day.
To Aunt Eiko, the simple cast iron cauldron had helped stew the essence of survival.
1. Being the summer months, the white uniforms were likely worn by Imperial Japanese Navy officers.
2. For a visual on what a dirt floor house may have looked like, please click on this link.
3. While TF 37 and 38 were operating around Japan attacking targets, I was successful in only locating one battle record of Fukui being attacked when Aunt Eiko was there. It belongs to the US 20th Air Force; in Mission 277 flown on July 19th, 1945, 127 B-29s carpet bombed Fukui’s urban area. Military records state that Fukui was deemed an important military target, producing aircraft parts, electrical equipment, machine motors, various metal products and textiles. It was also reportedly an important railroad center. Per Wikipedia, the attack was meant to destroy industries, disrupt rail communications, and decrease Japan’s recuperative potential. Of the city’s 1.9 sq. miles at the time, 84.8% of Fukui was destroyed that day. I am under the assumption that having witnessed B-29 attacks in Tokyo that she definitely would have heard the ominous drone of the B-29s. As such, she maintains it was a naval barrage.