…but Dad passed away quietly at 99 years of age on Good Friday, March 30, 2018 in Los Angeles, CA – at the same facility where his older sister, my Aunt Shizue, passed away just a few years earlier at 95.
Just an eulogy in photographs of Dad:
And my last video of Dad:
Dad, I wish I were a much better son… but I know you are joyfully back playing “oninga” or jump-frog in front of your Hiroshima home with your favorite brother Suetaro. I hope you have all the odango you can eat now. You will be forever young.
Before Pearl Harbor, the US was still not recovered from the Great Depression. With the money printed in great quantity – as a necessity – by the US government, the US war machine rolled into action. Many executives and businessmen taking part in this frantic and mass expenditure of government money with their companies gained their financial fortunes from this great war as did a large number of Congressmen.
The boots on the ground also had fortune – but it was MISfortune. Misfortune fell upon the millions of brave young men who were sent to war because world leaders had their own agendas. Millions were killed like my dad’s favorite brother, my Uncle Suetaro.
Misfortune, unfortunately, also followed home for the rest of their lives those young men who survived combat. Men like Smitty, Old Man Jack and Mr. Johnson. Horrible nightmares each and every night. Some succumbed to the immense weight this horrible misfortune had on their minds and ended their own lives after making it home. Sadly, they are all being forgotten in our children’s history books.
Our little group was afforded a day of sightseeing before leaving for Osaka/Kansai Airport in Japan, once again led by Mr. Yusuke Ota. Here’s a small collection of sights taken in, some during the week (Clicking on an image will show you its location.):
While waiting at the Manila Airport for our connecting flight to Osaka, Mr. Ota took us to the Philippine Air Force Museum where among other items was the Type 99 Arisaka rifle Lt. Onoda kept with him for over 29 years in the Philippine jungle. He was the last holdout from WWII:
A Victory Nonetheless
Seventy years after this most brutal war in the Pacific, the same US Marines and the same Japanese military that sought to kill each other with extreme bitterness are now the closest of allies as shown in the USMC photos below. Now, they sail together on the same US Navy ships, eat together, train together and assault the beaches here at Camp Pendleton, CA together in joint training exercises. The same with the US Army. My gut feeling is one of these gallant young men would die to protect the other if the unfortunate circumstances arose.
Uncle Suetaro lost his life and while Smitty carried the war silently for the rest of his life, they were both victorious because of the above.
It was not in vain.
One War. Two Countries. One Family.
My Thoughts of the Experience
I cannot speak for Masako or my other cousins but what you believe in is almighty. Hope. Fear. Happiness. Sadness. I experienced all those during the pilgrimage to Leyte.
While listening to Masako’s tender letter to Uncle Suetaro, a feeling of deep regrets and the dashing of hope experienced by Grandmother Kono buried me. My heart could see Grandmother’s face in silent torment, resting in Masako’s arms in 1954 as she drew her last breath in the Kanemoto family home.
Just like most American mothers, Grandmother must have clung on to a hope – however dim – that her youngest son Suetaro would come home… the one she decided to keep from returning to Seattle in 1940 so that he could carry on the Kanemoto name and inherit the home and land. That was not to be now. It would have been better to have let him go home. Her son would be alive.
But perhaps Uncle Suetaro would have ended up in the same prison camps that my dad, aunts and uncles were in but would still be alive. Or, he would have answered the call out of camp and volunteered for the US Army as thousands of other Nisei’s did to prove their loyalty, only to die in Italy or France as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during WWII.¹
I also thought about my dad often during the trek. At 96 years of age, this journey would have been physically impossible for him. More so, I wondered if the stirring up of fond memories of his youngest brother would do more harm than good at this stage in his life.
I also felt more deeply the quandary confronting Uncle Suetaro when he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. The decision he had to make to knowingly fight the country your siblings were living in as Americans… and the country he most dearly wanted to return to. However, he wrote in his farewell letter that he will fight to free his older siblings from the prisons FDR sent them to.
Also in his heart and in that of his mother, both knew this was a one-way trip. A death sentence. Japanese soldiers rarely returned from war. In the case of his IJA’s 41st Regiment, only 20 young men returned home out of 2,550.
I’m sure just like any other American boy, he wanted a life that was worth living, a life filled with feelings, emotions, love and dreams. That would never happen and it pains me without end.
Before he met his death, was he drowned in futility or solace? Did he see death up close and come to the stark realization that would be his future perhaps tomorrow? What did he dream about as he took his last breaths or was he blindly looking up at the stars hoping? Was he dreaming about his childhood, playing on the corner of King and Maynard in Seattle with my dad? Was he in great pain or was his death swift and without warning? Did he see the eyes of the American soldier inches from his own eyes in a hand-to-hand combat to the death? Was he hungry? How terrified was he?
The painful mystery of what Uncle Suetaro did, felt or saw in his last days will remain forever so… That is one agony that will be with me until my own time comes. Happily, we at least visited him in his unmarked graveyard among the now lusciously green vegetation with the birds endlessly singing Taps for him.
As Izumi passionately said to Uncle Suetaro’s spirit, “Come home with us.”
Indeed, he did.
He is no longer a soul lost in a faraway jungle.
I wish to thank my Hiroshima cousins for making this unforgettable pilgrimage possible and a special thank you to Izumi whose untiring efforts to follow up on Japan-based leads brought comfort to our family. I also wish to express my sincere gratitude to Akehira and Carmela who made dear Masako’s journey so comfortable and worry-free. And a heartfelt thank you to Mr. Yusuke Ota whose in-depth knowledge allowed us to see our Uncle Suetaro’s last footsteps on this earth and gave Masako peace in her soul.
Most of all, Uncle, thank you for your sacrifice. Indeed, you set your older brothers and sister free.
Rest in peace.
Other chapters are here for ease of locating earlier posts in this series:
My LA cousins held a third anniversary Buddhist memorial service for our Aunt Shiz today (August 15, 2015), ironically the day 70 years ago that Emperor Hirohito broadcast to his citizens that Japan was surrendering.
I was reporting in person to my LA cousins of our pilgrimage to Leyte as well. Bessie, my cousin and Aunt Shiz’s only daughter, shared with me something about her mom that echoed of the reason for the pilgrimage.
She told me Aunt Shiz used to watch “Victory at Sea” on the TV for years. “Mom, why do you always watch it?” she asked.
Aunt Shiz replied, “Because I may get a glimpse of Sue-boh…”
Think of the irony. Aunt Shiz was watching a US Navy-backed documentary series of our WWII victory over Japan… in hopes of seeing her youngest brother captured on some US movie footage.
Indeed… One war. Two countries. One family.
Day 3 – Evening / Break Neck Ridge
After the memorial service during which I read my letters, we went up a winding road. The road had a few stetches where it had given way and slid down the side of the hill. Sure kept my attention but our drivers were excellent.
We then made a stop near the crest of a hill: we were at the actual Break Neck Ridge battle site.¹
There was a flight of uneven concrete and dirt stairs to the top; a hand rail was on one side only yet our firmly driven Masako-san unhesitatingly took on the challenge and strongly made the climb.
Once on top of the hill, you could not help but notice you were surrounded by the sounds of insects hidden in the tall grass and birds singing as the sun once again played hide and seek. Standing at the crest gave you a sweeping view of the terrain. Indeed, the Japanese defenders had the advantage, costing many American casualties.
My July 2015 photo from about a similar location:
According to Mr. Ota and US battle reports, the US would continually shell the hillsides to soften up Japanese defensive positions. However, when the shelling or bombing would begin, the Japanese soldiers would temporarily abandon their weapons and via established and well camouflaged foot trails or tunnels, run to the backside of the hill. There, they were shielded against the shelling. Once the barrage or bombing would lift, they would scamper back to their defensive positions and await the US soldiers advancing up the hill.
There was also another short climb off to the right. The vegetation was thicker, chest high in some places and the grass’ sharp edges irritated your exposed legs as you walked through. To give you a small sense of the surroundings, Mr. Ota is speaking of the defensive advantage and Mr. Kagimoto is coming back down the smaller hill, flanked by the vegetation. The height of the grasses can be easily judged; they’re having a slight drought, by the way:
While American memorials were absent, there were a number of Japanese ones:
We said some prayers for those who are still on this island and made our way back down.
Ormoc City and Port
We then headed south nearly the entire length of Leyte, down the two lane Pan-Philippine Highway towards Ormoc City and its dock. Uncle Suetaro disembarked from his Japanese troop transport on this very dock on October 26, 1944.
The dock reaches into Ormoc Bay, the sight of tremendous life and death struggles between US airpower and Japanese shipping. Although the Allies commanded the air, MacArthur was slow to catch on that the Japanese were unloading thousands of reinforcements (including Uncle Suetaro) and supplies. Once MacArthur caught on, it was a certain violent end to a number of troops still at sea. Tons of critical supplies were also sent to the bottom, thereby ensuring the defeat of Japanese troops on Leyte.²
Two palm tree stumps across the street from the hotel are left from the war; dozens of bullet holes pepper the two trunks. The yellow steel fencing can also be seen in the lower right of my photo above to help give a sense of where these tree trunks are.
After all took very quick and much needed showers, we enjoyed an informal dinner outdoors, ordering local grilled items from a mother-daughter food stand. It was still quite warm and therefore steamy but a jovial mood took over after a long day. I didn’t quite know what everything was but my cousins – who had very little food for years – happily dined on whatever was brought out.
After talking about the events of the day and on our way back to the hotel, Carmela encouraged all five ladies to experience a group ride on a “tricycle”, which is a 125cc motorcycle with an ungainly but colorfully decorated side car. The only time I’ve seen girls more giddy was when I took my Little Cake Boss and friends mall shopping – twice.
Remember how lots of college kids would pile into on phone booth? Well, those college kids would have been proud. All five ladies piled in!
While we all had a wonderful, relaxing evening alongside Ormoc Bay, I am sure each realized that both Uncle Suetaro and Lt. Nakamura had begun their march to their deaths from these very grounds on October 26, 1944.
The final memorial services for our graveless souls in Part 7.
Other chapters are here for ease of locating earlier posts in this series:
For those interested, this link will take you to an actual WWII “Military Intelligence Bulletin”. Dated April 1945, there is a section of the battle including descriptions of the tactics and dangers of fighting on that series of ridges. Interestingly, the publication was issued by G-2, Military Intelligence. My dad was part of G-2 albeit postwar. Please click here.
The critical Gulf of Leyte sea battle took place between October 23 and October 26, 1944, when Uncle Suetaro was en route to Ormoc Bay. Through critical US ship identification errors by the then superior Imperial Japanese Navy force (including the battleship Yamato), they engaged Taffy 3, a small defensive US naval force. Although the battle had been won tactically by the Japanese, they inexplicably turned back. A CGI recap is here on youtube.
Even way up in Seattle. Her killing me is not restricted to home. It is unrelenting.
While some of her photographs will be shown below, a quick she’s-killing-me story first.
We weren’t even in Seattle for three hours when the onslaught continued. (Don’t think she didn’t try to kill me during the flight. Even my warning her of plain clothes air marshals being on board didn’t deter her.).
After quickly checking in, we met my good friend Rick; like any good buddy, he treated my two kids and me to dinner.
As I had brought some cigars for him but forgot them in the room, we had to return to the hotel. While he and his gal waited in the lobby, I escorted the kids up to the room.
Knowing my Little Cake Boss Diva, I sternly said, “Brooke, do NOT touch anything, OK?”
“Okaaay-ah!” she replied… and I headed back down to the lobby, cigars in hand.
I wasn’t with him for more than fifteen minutes before I returned to the room. Yes, I was worried she was up to something.
So I opened the door. Wham. A rush of frigid artic air hit me. Mumbles (from Happy Feet) would have been pleased.
At the other end of the room, there she was on top of the air conditioner grill…sitting on a blue bed cover sheet with her butt square in the middle with her hands on either side trying to keep the sheet down. She was attempting to stop the flow of air conditioned air blasting out of the A/C. Talk about the Lucy Show. She was Lucy. I was Ricky, down to the “Ai-ya-yai, Lucy!”
Before I could yell, “Brooke!”, Jack immediately ratted out on his sister.
“Papa, she was doing something that she wasn’t supposed to and turned on the air conditioner! She doesn’t know how to turn it off so it’s freezing in here!” He was very pleased with himself for tattling.
Now I could yell, “Brooke! I told you NOT to touch anything!”
“Hee-hee…” she replied with her trademark “I’m VERY innocent” smile making for a happy face complete with adorable chubby cheeks..
I turned off the air then she scampered over to the one cup coffee brewer. What do you all that gizmo? A Keurig? Sure enough, there was one empty slot. She had brewed herself some coffee.
“Brooke! What were you doing brewing yourself coffee?! You don’t even know how to use that thing!”
“Welllll-ah! I was freezing-ah! And I can read (the directions) so I made myself something like a latte, okaaaay-ah? Sheesh!”
She’s only twelve. OMFG.
Anyways, that’s one of her traits…besides doing the opposite of what I say. She has to try everything…except clean her room.
So as in my previous post – and not being pleased with the way Jack was taking pictures – she commandeered my pretty new bazillion dollar Canon DSLR for pretty much the rest of the trip.
I only gave her one pointer: to cradle the lens with her left hand while shooting. For once, she actually followed my instructions.
But anyways, here are some of her photos taken with my bazillion dollar camera:
My grandfather, Hisakichi Kanemoto, immigrated from Hiroshima in 1898 with my grandmother Kono coming in 1908 to become his picture bride. They had seven children of which my dad is the last surviving sibling at 96 years of age. Five of those children called “Hotel Fujii” their home at King and Maynard in Seattle, WA. Sadly, Hotel Fujii is no longer standing.
My two littlest kids and I took a short vacation trip to Seattle the week of June 22, 2015. One project I tasked myself was to attempt putting together “then and now” recreations of family photos taken about 100 years ago. Well, mostly 90 years ago but 100 sounded better. Yet, I was only partially successful; it was luck for the most part:
This “then and now” project was only partially successful as I did not consider many things:
Other very successful “then and now” recreations by professionals primarily had one thing in their backgrounds that I did not: a building. I overlooked that fact. The Fujii Hotel was torn down with only a park left in its place, e.g., there were no windows or doors to line up the old photos with. For the most part, that made for difficulty in guessing/placing from where the photos from the mid-1910s to the 1920s were taken.
I did not consider the fact that the buildings on this street 100 years ago were built on a hill, i.e., all were built upon a concrete base that was taller at the west end compared to the east end.
Because of the number of cars parked curbside, I had to resort to wide angle shots. By doing so, perspective in comparison to the original would not be correct.
There were a few homeless at the park who clearly did not want their picture taken. As my two kids were with me, that became a hurdle.
I did not take into account the time of day (shade).
I did not anticipate the construction nor the large trucks, garbage cans and trees blocking the view.
I misjudged the position from where I took the photographs, affecting perspective and angle. I should have been ten more yards east for a few of the images. Too late now.
I also realized that there were no pictures of Uncle Yutaka nor Aunt Michie at the Hotel Fujii. Uncle Yutaka had likely already been in Japan (1913) by the time these old family photos were taken. Aunt Michie, of course, was the only sibling not born in Seattle but rather in Hiroshima.
A lot was learned.
I only wish I had gained the experience before undertaking this family project. I do hope my cousins and children will still find these images interesting if not to merely appreciate our family photos from “100 years ago”.
1. Grandfather (back to camera in center) camping on Mt. Rainier and Mr. Fujii’s 1913 Chevrolet Six:
2. King and Maynard today:
3. The northeast corner of King and Maynard, taken June 25, 2015. The building still stands as it was 100 years ago.
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.
In my seemingly never-ending drive to uncover lost details of family history – both here in America and in Hiroshima – many surprises have popped up. Stuff I could have not even imagined.
For instance, finding out my grandfather went camping – complete with a Coleman stove from that time (circa 1915). It’s odd even for me to see Japanese immigrants camping let alone in shirts and ties:
Or that Grandmother Kono – also from a small farming village in Hiroshima as my grandfather – would pose for a picture on the running board of a brand new 1918 (c) Chevrolet Touring happily holding my Aunt Shiz:
I don’t think even she could have ever dreamed she would be sitting on the running board of an American icon from the poverty she had lived in before coming to Seattle as a picture bride.
On other subjects, I’ve developed unprovable conclusions based on detailed inspection of such photos… but I guess there’s no harm in believing them.
For instance, there are quite a few lefties in my dad’s side of the family. I’ve always wondered from whom that trait came from.
Well, in the few photographs remaining of Grandfather Hisakichi, I see some glaring patterns:
Here he is on the right, holding a cigarette in his left hand:
In July 1922, he is photographed here holding his hat in his left hand; however, as in his other photos in a suit, his gold chain (perhaps a watch) leads to a left vest pocket. I am unsure of which direction a watch would have been pocketed:
But there is one undeniable fact. While I cannot find the actual US Immigration manifest, the 1930 Census discloses Grandfather Hisakichi (legally) immigrated here in 1898 when he was just 17 years old.
But because he was a documented immigrant, the government knew he was here. He had to register for the draft in 1918! WWI was raging then. He was 38 years old.
“When it comes to giving, some people stop at nothing.”
– Vernon McLellan
That was Aunt Michie. She gave all of herself and of her life strength to others because her heart knew no other way.
At the moment Aunt Michie watched the ugly mushroom cloud rise from her field that day, her older siblings – my dad, Aunt Shiz and Uncle Yutaka – were all imprisoned in the “war relocation centers” scattered about the United States. These were truly prisons and the popular view is that FDR imprisoned them “for their protection” because they looked like the enemy.(¹)
Life within these “camps” was “sub-standard”. They were forced to live in small, shoddily built wooden barracks covered only with tar paper with little or no privacy. No running water inside their barracks – they had to go wait in line outside, whether it be rain, snow, dust storm or searing desert sun to use public latrines or showers. Food was served in mess halls on pot metal plates at specific times, just like in the military. The food was miserable according to Dad and worse yet, they had to wait in line again. For the first month or so of imprisonment, he said all they had was liver, powdered eggs and potatoes.
But then again, he said it was food.
Aunt Michie and her family were near starving in Hiroshima while dad was imprisoned in the good ol’ US of A.
It is assumed like for the rest of America, Dad and his older siblings heard the news of the atomic bombing but while in the camps on or about August 8th… that one enormous bomb had wiped out Hiroshima. There must have high anxiety and anger as many of the inmates in Dad’s camp (Minidoka) were from Seattle; they had family in Hiroshima as their parents had immigrated from there.
My cousins tell me that sometime after war’s end, Michie’s “American” siblings – my dad, Uncle Yutaka and Aunt Shiz – managed to re-establish contact with Grandmother Kono and Michie. With the Japanese infrastructure destroyed, it was a miracle. And it was no easy task as letters to and from Japan were not only prohibited, it was impossible. There was no telephone in the villages where Grandmother and Michie lived.
But her American siblings somehow managed to send much needed clothing to them. When my father finally reached Hiroshima while a sergeant in the US 8th Army, he carried two duffle bags full of C-rations, candy and Spam. They said it was a feast for them after years of hunger.
Sadako (who savored the white rice Michie made them on the day of the bomb) told me at a farewell dinner two years ago that she fondly remembered my dad taking them to a market of some kind where he bought her a little coin purse. She remembered Dad gave her the money to buy the little purse and was told she could keep the change. She remembers then handing the change – which was a LOT of money back then – to Michie who humbly accepted it. Sadako said she cherished that little coin purse for years.
From exhaustive laboring on her farm… to taking precious sashimi to her brother Suetaro… to walking ten miles with children in tow to care for Grandmother Kono after her stroke… to the pain of learning of her brother being killed in action… to being thrown onto the ground and watching a huge mushroom cloud rise over a small hill… to pulling a wooden cart over a hill… to tirelessly aiding the victims… and most of all, sacrificing her own health for the sake of others…
She never gave up in those thirty years. Would you have? I don’t believe I would have had the fortitude.
But because her soul would not quit, she got everyone to tomorrow… but in doing so, her own tomorrows dwindled.
Michie is still here. The fruit of her sacrifices can be seen today in her six children, all of whom have lived – and are still living – full, joyous lives.
They have their mother, Michie, to thank and they cherish that… and that they were all there at the farmhouse when she looked at each one of them intently one last time before leaving this world.
A most grand mother.
They all love food to this very day.
I wish to deeply thank my Hiroshima cousins for sharing their memories of their life with Michie with us.
Like all Hiroshima citizens I have met, they simply pray for peace.
(¹) There are declassified US intelligence documents which show that a small number of Japanese and Japanese-Americans were performing espionage. Intelligence was able to determine this by intercepting and decoding secret Japanese communications. This information was given a cover name of MAGIC and these documents were typed up for FDR and a very small number of trusted officials. However, rounding up the spies would clearly indicate to the Japanese that their code had been cracked. These documents present another view contra to the widespread belief that FDR imprisoned the Japanese and Japanese-Americans from discrimination and war time hysteria. In other words, FDR used that hysteria as a cover story; by doing so, he was able to remove the “spies” from the West Coast without alerting the Japanese. FDR also stated in communications that there would be “repercussions” from such action.
Indeed, the difficult struggle for food in enough quantities and quality continued. Black markets for food flourished, particularly in larger cities.
Housing in the cities, however, was extremely tough. As an example, after many cities were bombed out, millions flocked to Kyoto. MacArthur and other Allied military leaders omitted Kyoto as a target for its ancient cultural richness. Many Japanese had heard of that by war’s end and trekked to Kyoto in hopes of finding a roof over their heads. Unfortunately, all living spaces were occupied. No rooms were available, even at a huge premium.
Even in 1948 – three years after war’s end – Tokyo still had tremendous scars as can be seen in one of my father’s photographs below:
Soon after the bomb was dropped, the hostilities finally ended. However, food and essential goods continued to be largely absent. Amazingly, my cousins who went through that hell choose to reflect on these post-war years positively. That is, reflecting on it as a miserable time will but cause a wound to fester. They had seen enough of festering wounds.
But let us step back a year in Aunt Michie’s life.
One month before the surrender, Grandmother Kono was informed by the remnants of the Japanese military that her son Suetaro was killed on Leyte fighting as an Imperial Japanese soldier. The date of death was recorded as July 15, 1945. The Emperor capitulated just one month later. Of course, we have no record of that communication nor when Grandmother Kono was actually told, but the bomb was dropped just around this time, we believe.
A little more than a year earlier, around March 3, 1944, Suetaro walked to Tomo and Masako’s school. He wrote a farewell note on a chalkboard at Masako’s elementary school to say good bye as he was off to war. Masako remembers he had written to be a good girl and that he was sorry he couldn’t say good bye in person. The family took their last family picture with Suetaro (Part 2); he was flanked by his older sister Michie and Mikizo.
We believe the next day, Aunt Michie went to the train depot to say good bye to Suetaro. She was very fond of him and “his American citizenship”. Everyone loved the fun Suetaro and she apparently talked of him often after his death. But at that farewell, deep down, she knew it would be the last time she would see him. I wonder how she felt watching the train disappear.
Soldiers rarely came back. Per tradition, he had left Grandma Kono some of his nail clippings and some of his hair. That is what is in the family crypt.
For hundreds of thousands, entire bodies would never be found. This was true for America, England, Australia, Russia or Germany.
But at least part of him remains there in Hiroshima.
The cousins tell me Aunt Michie grieved for days after his departure… and that she was torn apart when she learned of his death.
The bomb would fall just days later.
According to the family, even shortly after the bedlam caused by the bomb, Aunt Michie continued to care for her stricken mother by walking to her house five miles away when she could. My dad said the road was “pretty” level but that since it is Japan, there were hills along the way, especially near Ishiuchi, a small village.
In December 1947, Aunt Michie started to have contractions while walking over such a hill. She was able to make it to Grandmother Kono’s house where she gave birth to Kiyoshi, right then and there. No, no doctor…no nurse… and Grandmother Kono could not help due to her stroke. It is said she was very happy that the birth took place at her childhood home. She grew up there along with her American siblings. She had felt safe.
My cousins believe their mother, Aunt Michie, gave all of herself for her children and her family. In spite of malnourishment, she toiled in her farm’s fields, cared for Grandmother Kono, gave her all in the bomb’s aftermath, set the example for her children. She put everyone before her.
But soon after giving birth to Kiyoshi, she developed kidney problems.
They tell me that medical care then was still pretty non-existent so she had no choice but to ride it out. However, she pushed herself back into working the farm too soon to care for her children, her own stricken mother and other household duties. That was Aunt Michie.
Cousin Kiyoshi remembers massaging his mother’s swollen legs after a day’s work. He also fondly remembers perspiring trying to keep up with Aunt Michie on a hot, humid summer day as they walked up a hill overgrown with thick, green wild grass. There was a “石じぞう”, or a stone figure representing Buddha, alongside a ridge overlooking a blue Hiroshima Bay. Kiyoshi will always remember that moment, looking at his mother with perspiration running down her face and the blueness of the bay.
In retrospect, they feel that if Michie had taken some time to rest and more often that she may have regained her health.
On May 29, 1963, she was laying in the same farmhouse in which she nursed the 23 injured people that fateful day. Her kidneys were giving out. She opened her eyes one last time and looked lovingly at each of her children who were gathered about her then closed them. Thirty years after her father gave away her hand in marriage at 19, after 30 years of a life heaped with physical and emotional demands one after another, world changing events and family tragedies… After enduring the pain of survival, Aunt Michie left this world. She was but 48.
Aunt Michie conquered all and gave her life to others so they could get to tomorrow… and she did that with dignity and unconditional love for her children.
Although the violence of World War II was nearing an end, other aspects of the war could continue against Japanese civilians for years to come.
Their infrastructure was gone. Essential assets such as manufacturing plants, machinery, trains, roads, housing, utilities, even fishing boats had been destroyed.
And most of all, food.
And Aunt Michie’s dignity – the entire family’s dignity – will continue to be tested until the late 1940’s.
For eons, Japan has been unable to produce enough rice for their people let alone food. In fact, it was not until about the time Japan hosted the 1964 Olympics that Japan could produce enough rice for themselves.
The war took a terrible toll on regular folks from getting their “rice fix” – they were just not able to eat it. This deprived them savoring it, the mental and biological satisfaction of just eating it. Think of it this way – what if not just bread itself was kept from you but also the sweet smell of the freshly baked bread with the perfect crust..with melting butter? Talk about attacks on your psyche: deprivation. Deprivation for years. Prolonged sensual deprivation makes for huge changes in one’s outlook on life.
Like the photo of the little boy, millions of civilians would acquire a wild form of brown rice (玄米 genmai) and de-husk them as shown. Along with barley, it served as a substitute for the flavorful white rice with the higher calories.
Confronted by not only the absence of medical supplies, Aunt Michie’s house was now filled with 23 men, women and children with varying degrees of burns. I doubt emergency rooms could handle such a sudden load of burn victims… but Michie’s family did. On top of that, her house was damaged by the atomic bomb’s shockwave. It pains me to even see in my mind what they had to do to make the house habitable enough so quickly to nurse the injured.
It was mayhem and Michie personally did not ask for this horrific situation… but now, on top of trying to provide medical care for 23 people, she was confronted with one ominous problem: how to feed them all. There was no food left in the city of Hiroshima and it was just over the hill. And any food left in the village of Tomo was fresh. It would spoil quickly anyways in the heat as there was no refrigeration. No supermarket. No canned goods either.
She did as Aunt Michie only could. She used her precious reserve of rice and only served it to the ailing victims. I am sure she believed that would be the only way to truly help them survive as all of them were malnourished. As a result of rationing the remaining rice to the victims, her own children who weren’t physically injured were delegated to survive on cooked pumpkins, stems, stalks or taro roots for the duration.
A huge, gut wrenching decision for Aunt Michie, I’m sure.
To help this dire situation, the Hiroshima aunt who was not badly injured went about the area with Mikizo’s parents scavenging for wild grass and other vegetation to boil. That, too, became part of their food. Although likely not very nutritious to say the least, there was no other alternative. And it is important to note such wild vegetation they boiled or ate had been subjected to the black rain…
In spite of all Aunt Michie could do, my cousins tell me some of the burn victims’ injuries wouldn’t heal. They had worsened. Their wounds began to fester or decay for lack of a better description. Pus formed. There was nothing they could do.
The odor of the decaying flesh permeated out of the house. They say you could smell it from the dirt road immediately outside.
It became so intense that people would hold their noses to scurry past the house.
None of my cousins who were there tell me they will ever forget that vulgar smell of rotting flesh… or death. Never.
Just like Old Man Jack.
My cousins tell me some didn’t make it.
Others would pass away in the next couple of years from the effects of their injuries or radiation.
Nevertheless, the struggle for food and other essentials would continue…but my Aunt Michie’s immediate family survived. Even Tomiko who was in Hiroshima proper.
And Aunt Michie’s dignity and strength reigned supreme.
They all made it to tomorrow.
The surrender documents were signed by Emperor Hirohito’s representatives aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.
Unbelievably, Mikizo also survived the war. Although taken prisoner upon Japan’s surrender as a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, he was released from Manchuria and allowed to return to his Hiroshima farm in late 1946.