My two littlest and I are wrapping up a four night visit to Seattle, my dad’s hometown. We head back tomorrow.
I had hoped to take a number of photos during the trip… but thievery occurred on the first day. While Jack had brought along my backup Canon DSLR to use, a thief absconded with my primary Canon camera on the first day.
Fortunately, with my last resort – my cameraphone – I snapped a photo of the thief, caught red-handed with the goods in her hands:
Yes, it was my Little Cake Boss Diva. I felt so bad turning her over to my good friend Trooper Gar of the Washington State Patrol… but he was kind enough to allow her to be released back into the custody of her old man.
But indeed, she took control of my camera over the four days. Of course, just like when I escort her to the mall, I end up merely being her porter, lugging around her camera when there is nothing for her to shoot.
But I had one personal goal: to visit my dad’s old Seattle neighborhood for the first time, children be willing. I wanted to put together a “100 Year Family Photo Anniversary and Recreation” of sorts.
Dad and all his siblings (except Aunt Michie) were born in Seattle between 1910 and 1925 then raised in the Hotel Fujii at 620 S. King Street. The hotel is no longer standing, having been replaced with the Hing Hay Park on the very corner Dad frequently mentioned: King and Maynard.
While this will be my very first try at recreating, the final images will hopefully be superimposed upon one another to show the then and now. I can’t do the superimposing here at the hotel as my tablet doesn’t have the necessary editing software; the two stand alone images above will have to do for now . The color photograph of my two kids above are straight out of the camera.
Coincidentally, at the end of our “Underground Seattle Tour” and in the gift shop, we came across “Lost Seattle”, the book in which my grandfather’s barbershop photo was featured.
Listening to Old Man Jack’s wisdom was like cotton candy and a movie. The ones you will remember over time are the movies that get super-glued into the consciousness of the movie-goers in a good way.
A few years ago, I went to see Old Man Jack in the Board Room – his cluttered garage facing my house across our street lined by peppercorn trees. Well, actually, he always wanted me to come over. We’d always have a good chat about this and that or he’d let a demon out from enduring combat in the Pacific during WWII. That day, though, I just wanted to get something off my chest about the wife.
When I started to whine about what the wife did, he stopped me after a few words. Dead in my tracks. He knew what I was going to complain about.
He said, “You poked her. Live with it. Now shut the _uck up.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was Monday, Valentines’ Day 2001. My wife was five months pregnant at the time we moved into this wonderful neighborhood smothered in US Naval glory. After I came back from work the next day, she told me a kind old man stopped her as she was wheeling out the trash bin. She said he hobbled from across our quiet street lined with peppercorn trees then kindly wheeled them out for her.
I found out the “old man” was a World War II combat vet. Worse yet, he was a sailor in the Pacific – he fought the Japanese in World War II.
“Holy crap,” flashed through my mind, “What if he finds out we’re Japanese?”
Twelve years later, I was honored to have been a pallbearer at his funeral.
I was so far off base about my first thoughts on Old Man Jack that even George Burns could have picked me off without being called for a balk…and this while he was in his grave.
I felt so ashamed.
“Young man, get over here and plant your butt in that chair,” barked old man Jack from his cluttered garage across the street. Having lived in that house since 1953, it was filled with his life history.
“But I have my stogie going, Jack,” said I.
“Well, I can see it and I sure as hell can smell it. Now shut up and sit down. I want to tell you something.”
That was Old Man Jack, my dear neighbor who lived across the street. I like to think we were close.
He was 87 years old by that summer’s day in 2010 when he called me over. While he had become feeble, his barrel chest was still prominent. He was a rabble-rouser in his youth. He was always “mixing it up” throughout his young years… Well, he was mixing it up even while working at Northrup in the 50’s. That makes me grin.
His handshake was always firm and warm; you didn’t need to be psychic to sense his insight and outlook on life. He always spoke his mind. He earned that right having been shot at, strafed, and bombed on “those stinkin’ islands” as he so often said during a most bitter war.
I had invited Jack to Father’s Day dinner that summer just two years ago; my Dad who was 91 was coming as well.
Jack knew my dad was US Army but I fretted over what they would say to each other when they first met. Or how they would react to one another. It was more than just a concern over the centuries old rivalry between Army and Navy. It was the bitter war.
Dad was in the front room when Jack rang the bell – right on time as always. Jack had on his favorite blue plaid shirt; he wore it often as it had a pocket for his glasses. I often wondered how often he washed it, though. Jack and Dad are shown here on Father’s Day 2010.
“Dad,” I said, “This is Jack, US Navy, Aviation Machinist’s Mate, First Class, the Pacific.”
“Jack, this is my Dad. US 8th Army, sergeant, Military Intelligence Service.”
Although not as agile as they once were, they immediately saluted each other.
You didn’t need a sound system to hear them. Dad and Jack are both hard of hearing.
It was easy to hear Jack ask Dad what he did in the Army. During the Occupation of Japan, Dad said he went into a room once a week that reeked of dry cleaning to retrieve a crate. (The crates contained documents, photos and other personal items such as war diaries written by Japanese soldiers. They were removed from a WWII battlefield – read on.) He would then translate the contents for military intelligence (below).
I had to tend to cooking so I lost track of the conversation. It was regretful I didn’t keep tuned in.
So back to being called over by Jack. He was sitting in his favorite blue wheelchair. He didn’t need it but it belonged to his beloved wife Carol who passed away ten years before. They married during the waning days of the war. They had been married for 55 strong years.
“So what did you want to tell me, Jack?” I asked.
He then went into his trance – one signaling evident anguish and remembrances. When he went into these trances, he always started by staring at his hands while picking at his right thumbnail with his left ring finger. He would lift his once thick eyebrows then begin talking in a slow, deliberate pace, never taking his eyes off his hands.
“I went on ID patrol…” Jack whispered while ever so slightly drawing out his words.
“ID patrol? What is that?” I asked.
“They would issue six of us white caps M1’s with bayonets… Then we’d follow two Marines on a patrol into the jungle.”
“Patrol? You? You were ground crew, Jack,” I remarked.
“Ain’t enough of them (Marines) to go around on those stinkin’ islands so we got picked,” he said, still speaking in a lifeless yet pained monotone. He added, “If you got killed, you rotted real quick in that jungle heat. And if you got killed with shit in your pants, you got buried with shit in your pants.”
His stare doesn’t change. His eyes have glassed over. He is in a different world now – one of 70 years ago in a stifling jungle, his sweaty hands trying to grip onto his rifle while wearing a smelly steel helmet. Listening in terror for any sound that may signal a Japanese soldier concealed in ambush. A world that only combat veterans understand. Thankfully, you and I never will. Never.
“The Marines had two bags – one small one and a big one. When we found one, the two Marines would stand guard. We’d hold the rifle by the butt end and use the fixed bayonet to fish out the tags.”
I then realized what he was painfully regurgitating. They were going back into the jungle to locate the dead Marines they had to leave behind after a “tussle” with the enemy as Jack liked to say – a life or death firefight. Jack was only 20 years old. The Marines were likely younger. Ponder that thought.
“We weren’t allowed to touch the dead (Marine) as the Japs would booby-trap ‘em. We’d hand over the tags hanging on the the end of the bayonet to one of the Marines who would put a tag in the small bag. They marked a map for the graves registration guys to come back later.”
Jack’s anguished delivery dimmed even further. “But we’d come across a dead Jap. Nobody cared about them so they rotted where they were. But we’d have to stick the bayonet into the rotting goo and try to fish stuff out. The prize was a pouch or a satchel. Those would go into the big duffel bag just as they were, covered with rot and maggots. We headed back to CP and that’s the last I saw of those bags,” he said.
He abruptly ended but his unconscious stare didn’t change. He was still in the jungle, scared out of his wits. He was still picking at his thumbnail all this time. His head hardly moved while he sat in the blue wheelchair that belonged to his beloved wife.
I thought to myself, “Is that the end, Jack? That’s it? Why did you tell me this?” I knew not to pry any more so I kept the thoughts to myself. He was in torment already. Seventy years had passed but he was reliving the awfulness of a brutal war. Nevertheless, I wondered why he chose that time to tell me about this horrific recall of something he experienced so very young.
It bugged me for several weeks.
About a month later, I understood why Jack told me the story. Apparently, the items they recovered from Japanese corpses were dry cleaned to remove the rotting body fluids. After getting dry cleaned, they ended up in the crates that were in the room my Dad went into once a week when he was in the Military Intelligence Service…and why the room reeked of dry cleaning.
The brief chat with my dad on Father’s Day sparked that vile memory back to life. It had been eating at him since that day. He wanted to get it off his once mightily barreled chest.
I lament to this day that an invitation to a Father’s Day dinner had resulted in an unwanted recall of horror Jack was very much trying to forget. More so, I lament he relived such horrors each night for the last 70 years of his life. Seventy years.
Jack was a great man to have endured combat in the Pacific during World War II. He was an immeasurable giant in learning to forgive – although he was never able to forget.
I miss him greatly. I thanked him for all we have when I visited him today at his grave on this glorious Memorial Day.
Short Stories about World War II. One war. Two Countries. One Family