Japan

By Jerry D. Haight


In August 1945, two massive explosions on the island nation of Japan ushered the world into the Atomic Age. Just two American pilots, one Flying a B297 named Bockscar, carrying a huge bomb called FatMan and the other, a B29, Enola Gay carrying a smaller device, dropped their lethal cargo over Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing over 230,000 souls and injuring countless others who later died as a result of injuries. The numbers are almost beyond comprehension, exceeding American deaths in Viet Nam nearly fivefold and just about equal to American deaths during the entirety of WWII.


Imagine, if you will, a nation obliterating New York City and then a little later Chicago forcing a total and unconditional surrender of our country to people different in culture, mores and values. Would our national response be hatred, resentment, animosity or indifference?  Would we be in “guerilla mode”; sniping, sabotaging, undermining and always planning and preparing for insurrection?  Could our enemy feel safe walking our streets, or perhaps their newspapers would be filled with kidnapping, torture, dismemberment and murder? Should we plant booby traps to ensnare, maim or kill them? Or, just maybe, we might take a different response like the post-war Japanese. I became aware of their response thirteen short years after the their  surrender when our small US Navy ship with the numbers 742 emblazoned on her bow, carrying 104 officers and crew docked at Sasebo, the former hub of the Japanese Imperial Navy. For most of the crew of the USS Dunn County, it was the first visit to Japan. Unlike modern day ports like Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Dhabi and many others, wearing uniforms while on shore in Japan was encouraged.


At first, I could see little difference between the gauntlet-like gate of home port San Diego Naval Base and that at Sasebo with vendors hawking their cheap merchandise and peddling everything under the sun to part sailors from their money, but as I ventured further from the Naval Base, the character of Japan began to emerge. My first encounter occurred when I had ventured further than time allowed and an extrapolation would put me AWOL. A middle aged Japanese man apparently correctly read the worry furrows on my brow, hailed a taxi, spoke briefly to the driver and practically threw me into the cab, sending me on my way back to the Naval Base. That day, I learned my first Japanese phrase; ichimokusan  translated “get there as fast as possible”.


My first taxi ride was a close brush with death in an alley sized street having a row of brick buildings on the right and the sea wall on the left. At high speed, we encountered an oncoming car, rapidly closing the distance.  My expectations of passing on the right were totally shattered when the taxi passed on the wharf side instead, parting me from my breath and aplomb. Needless to say, I made the reporting deadline with time to spare. Then, while on another trip away from the base, looking for a small battery operated stereo record player, I encountered a young couple and we engaged in delightful conversation. They knew about as much English as I knew Japanese and yet, somehow, we made it to lunch together, the three of us learned new words and phrases in each other’s language and laughed hilariously as we murdered our dialect. With food on my face, my brilliant white uniform and the formerly spotless table cloth, I learned to use chopsticks as they raucously roared with laughter.


Later, our ship docked in the Moji Strait on the outskirts of Bepu to wait for the current to change. We would be there about four or five  hours. Shortly after the lines were secure, a dozen Japanese men appeared beside our ship (we were not in a naval base that time). They had baseball gloves, ball and bat and waived their equipment and motioned us to join them in a field adjacent to the dock. Soon we were getting our tails beat in just five innings of baseball (an international language). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, cases of Asahi (a Japanese beer) appeared and a party ensued. Their English was far better than our Japanese but nevertheless we all had a jocular time that even now is one of my most treasured memories, albeit not the most profound.


My fondest memory is when at the Peace Park in Nagasaki, reputed as the very spot under which Fatman exploded nearly fourteen years earlier, the massive Statue of Peace and the tranquil memorial moved me to tears. Embarrassed, I hoped no one was watching, but I was not alone. Too late, our eyes connected and in that brief moment, our eyes forged a bond that transcended generations, culture and language. His dark sun painted face was highlighted by his high cheeks glistening from tears streaming from his brimming slanted eyes.  Neither of us spoke, we didn’t need to. We understood the enormity of the circumstances that brought us together and shared the hope they would never be repeated.  In those moments at Nagasaki, the culmination of experiences in Japan forged a hope that two civilizations so different and so unique could find reconciliation and peace and the terrible scars of war surrounding the park would heal along with the emotional scars of two peoples so recently locked in war. Quietly, he turned, facing me and bowed, I did likewise. We were brothers.

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