Tag Archives: Ginza

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 1


A View From Both Sides

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From left: Grandmother, Dad in US Army uniform 1947 and his youngest brother (seated), circa 1943. The writing is my aunt’s; you can see “B-29”.  Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

My Aunt Eiko called me in April of 2011; you can tell she was crying.

“I’ve seen this before,” she said in Japanese.  She was watching the TV footage of the disaster caused by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Dumbfounded, I asked, “How could you have seen this before?  The earthquake just happened.”

“完全な破壊。。。戦争思い出したわぁ。。。” or loosely translated, “From the war…  I remember seeing this (complete destruction) from the war…”

Ironically, she was recalling what she saw exactly 66 years earlier – April 1945 – when Tokyo and many other cities were firebombed in an all out world war.

She was there.

And so was someone else from the other side of the Pacific.

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Through the miracle of WordPress, many of us here have met in the most peculiar of ways –  the hub being World War II…  Perhaps ironic but nevertheless destiny.

For instance, pacificparatrooper‘s father was in the US Army’s 11th Airborne and parachuted into combat over the Philippines with my Dad’s youngest brother killed later on Leyte as a Japanese soldier.  JeanneRene‘s father fought on the wretched islands as a critical Seabee.  Of course, my neighbor Old Man Jack was a sailor fighting to survive in the thick of things on those “stinkin’ islands” – Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Okinawa and Green Island.  Mr. Johnson fought and was wounded on-board CV-6, the USS Enterprise, manning the 20mm AA guns as a US Marine.  Although they returned, they did not return home unscathed.

None of them did.

The Main “Human Beings” of this Story

This series hopes to present the ugliness of war as personally experienced by two human beings – one who was on the ground and one who was in the air.

…The scarring of a Tokyo teen-aged girl on the ground: my Aunt Eiko.

Circa 1932
(L to R) Aunt Eiko, Mom, Grandpa and Grandma. Circa 1938, Tokyo. Copyright Koji D. Kanemoto

…AND the scarring of a young B-29 Superfortress pilot in the US Army Air Force’s 330th Bomber Wing: Capt. Ray B. Smisek who flew bombing missions over Japan.

Capt Smisek 2
Ray B. Smisek (to right of nose gear) after a safe return from a bombing mission to Gifu. Behind him is the B-29 he captained with a crew of ten young men, the “City of San Francisco”. 1945. Courtesy of son S. Smisek (copyright).

There is one sad, dreadful thing about their fateful relationship: neither had asked for it.

Neither had asked for war.

A very bitter war.

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Ray B. Smisek, the Gent

Capt Smisek Catalina island
A “life is good” portrait of Ray Smisek on Catalina Island. Copyrighted photo courtesy of S. Smisek.

One person I met online was S. Smisek.  He has an extensive photo collection on flickr of his father’s service during World War II; that is where our paths crossed (his photo link is here).  His father was Capt. Smisek, the captain of “City of San Francisco”, a B-29 bomber flying out of Guam as part of the 330th Bombardment Group, 458th Squadron.  Born in Minnesota in 1920, he was also a lead pilot – a very heavy responsibility let alone if under attack.

His son shared with me his remembrances of his father.  He shared that Capt. Smisek liked flying above all else – especially open cockpit.

“(His dad) liked Czech and German food, like Sauerkraut, sausage and beer. Polka music. Baseball and football.  He loved baking bread and pastry.  Made amazing sourdough pancakes and Christmas bread. He loved gardening.  He could grow ANYTHING and liked to tinker on anything and everything around the house.  Fix it… or break it if it already was fixed.

Capt Smisek Football at 18 yo Thrid from front right
A young Ray Smisek, third from right. Copyrighted photo courtesy of S. Smisek.

He hated hunting. Did not like to kill anything.  He would pick up bugs and release them outside.  Used to freak us kids out!

He liked his newspaper and watching the news.  He occasionally smoked a pipe.  Wore Old Spice aftershave all the time I knew him (I keep some around to this day.).  He loved licorice. 

He was honest as the day is long.  A man of his word.  A handshake was an agreement.  A promise.  A very strong Republican who loved Richard Nixon and John Wayne.  He liked Louis L’Amour books.  I think he dreamed of being a cowboy.

(Dad) hated racists.  Always gave everyone a chance. Maybe two and that’s it.”

Aunt Eiko, the Teenager

(L to R) Aunt Eiko and mom. Circa 1932, Shimbashi, Tokyo.
(L to R) Aunt Eiko and mom. Circa 1932, Shimbashi, Tokyo.

My Aunt Eiko and my mother had lived with my grandparents in Tokyo since their births in the mid-1920’s. Their childhood home was next to the Ginza at Shimbashi 5 Chome; think of it as Japan’s Beverly Hills.  It is within walking distance from the Imperial Palace.  My aunt says the picture to the left was taken near their Shimbashi home and next to a relative’s kimono shop in the Ginza.

As a child, she was apparently sickly.  They say she was quite skinny from this ailment and that ailment; the food shortage didn’t help much although my grandfather reportedly had black market connections to obtain food once in a while.  Nevertheless, she had a weak digestive system.  She has it to this day.

Like most Japanese “upper society” girls of that time, she was required to know how to play the shamisen, or a Japanese stringed instrument.  She was also trained on the silk kimono – it was an elaborate dress that took a couple of hours to put on properly.

Showa 14 Aki - Fall 1939 / Grandma in center, Aunt Eiko on right
Aunt Eiko on right playing the “shamisen”. Tokyo, Autumn 1939.

Aunt Eiko didn’t disappoint anyone’s ear drums when she saw a bug.  She screamed really loud when a bug got near her.  It was easy to see them since they get as big as footballs there in Japan.  Ok, I’m exaggerating – a little.

She had an artistic flair, with her grandfather being a noted painter and art professor.  She loved “ikebana”, or flower arranging.  In fact, she made it her career after war’s end, becoming one of the top ranked ikebana instructors in Tokyo.

Amazingly, in spite of her stomach ailments, she liked cooking; unfortunately, she had a knack for burning things.  I know.

Most of all, she loved dogs.  After feeding one with her chopsticks, she’d just go right back to using them to feed herself… but with food a scarcity, her love for dogs would have to wait until quite a while after war’s end.

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In Part 2, we will visit the B-29 Superfortress, her crews and the ordnance she would typically carry into battle above Japan.

Hope you’ll stay tuned.

Edit: You can find the other chapters in the links below:

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 2

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 3

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Part 4

The Firebombing of Tokyo – Epilogue

A Blue Dress, Food and Post-war Japan


Cover Shot – Aunt Eiko

After a war’s end, the war for food continues for a losing country.  Japan was no exception.

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In “There Be Gold in My Family,” Taro was mentioned.  He was miraculously able to track down my mother and Aunt Eiko in what remained of Tokyo after Japan’s surrender in WWII.  He was part of the US 8th Army’s Military Intelligence Service and had brought them much needed food, clothing and cigarettes.

L to R: Aunt Eiko, mom, Grandfather, Grandmother and Uncle Shibayama. Aunt Eiko, mom and uncle are wearing clothing given to them by Taro who took the picture. It is dated January 2, 1947 on the back.

After being discharged from the Army in early 1947, he returned to his family’s farming roots in Livingston, CA.  With his meager income, he still managed to buy clothing and shipped them to my mother and Aunt Eiko.  He was a kind and generous man.  To this day, they are indebted to Taro.

One ensemble Aunt Eiko received was a blue dress, shoes, and handbag.  More later.

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When war ended and the Allies began their Occupation of Japan, the population was in rags.  Many had no homes.

Civiians with ration books waiting in line for beans. Note the containers for carrying clean water.

Everyday people suffered from poverty, filthy conditions, hunger, and food shortages.  In order to help distribute food, Japanese people were given assigned rations by the Allies.  This was put into motion quickly thanks to the Supreme Commander, Gen. MacArthur.  He ensured the most humane treatment possible under those wretched conditions.

In reality, living just on the rationed food often did not provide adequate nourishment, and a thriving black market developed amidst the constant food shortages.  Civilians lined up, waiting for their rations of beans as even rice was not available to them at that time.  (The last point is critical to this story.)  They also carried receptacles to carry clean water which was also rationed.  As many young Japanese men were killed, a majority of those lining up were the elderly, women and children.

Of course, Americans were issued food ration stamps as part of our war effort back home and textbooks show many photos of starving and tortured American prisoners.

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Back to Aunt Eiko’s blue dress ensemble.

She recalls how “Western” they looked.  Especially since the outfit was a BRIGHT blue.  Very American.  Very NOT Japanese.  Madonna-esque.  You can tell by looking at the clothing the women were wearing in the food line picture.

Aunt Eiko was so happy though.  She wanted to show off her dress but was fearful of the ridicule or demeaning comments she may receive from passerbys.  You see, even in 1947, only a small minority “had”…  The vast majority were “have nots”.  Neighbors would turn their backs on those that appeared to have received favors from the conquering Americans.

Nevertheless, she was too happy and wore the ensemble through the still decimated Ginza.  She caught a photographer’s eye.  She was asked to model.  So she did.

The photo series ended up in a magazine, a rarity as paper was still in short supply and very expensive.  Another case of have versus have nots.

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Although the magazine now is extremely fragile (the paper quality was very poor), it is one of Aunt Eiko’s prized possessions.  I was so worried the pages would fall apart if I opened up the magazine to scan the pages.  Its odor was typical of old newsprint.  But somehow, the pages stayed together.

This is the original B&W of the cover shot:

B&W original print. Aunt Eiko does not recall why the bottom left corner is cut off. Taken in 1947.

Inside the cover:

Orginal B&Ws of this page:

Original B&W. Note the handbag and shoes sent to her by Taro from Livingston, CA.
On a sofa.

Aunt Eiko cannot recall why the actual magazine took about a year to be issued.

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But what is the connection between a blue dress, food and post-war Japan?

The photographer paid her with “ohagi”.  Out of his food ration. Made out of precious rice and beans.

Ohagi. Rice covered with a sweetened bean paste.