Living In Occupied Japan 1946 to 1949

After 12 days on a troop ship enroute to Japan, I became a member of  the 317th Troop Carrier Group, stationed at Tachikawa Japan from early 1946 to late  spring of  1949, my first overseas assignment. As a young father, with a newly earned  pilot’s rating I was eager to do some “real flying” and see what was left of this recently conquered war weary country. How were the once proud and very militaristic people taking defeat and how  were they coping in a country that had been so devastated? How would they be able to feed themselves, and accomplish  the almost impossible task of cleaning up all the rubble,  Would there be resentment toward the Allied occupation  personnel?  Would we be subjected to insults, intimidation, violence etc.?

Debarking  at Yokohama, we  loaded onto 6X6’s and were trucked  to the reassignment depot, a large tent city some miles out of town where we went through processing. After a few days we recieved  our assignments, mine was to Tachikawa, approximately 30 miles from Tokyo.

The 317th TCG  had been  given the task of  setting up an “airlines” type operation for that part of the world. There were no civilian flights in the area  nor to and from the states, and of course Japan had nothing left to fly.  So we were tasked with flying  freight, passengers and anything that would fit into an aircraft  on regularly scheduled flights to the  main Japanese islands and to Iwo Jima, Guam, Okinawa, Korea, and the Philippines. We had occasional flights to Hong Kong, to the New Guinea area and other distant  places. The one thing that made these destinations  all look alike was the destruction caused by the war and the great amount of  discarded war materials left laying around. Manila harbor had numerous ships sitting on the bottom, their tops sticking out above the water. A damaged Japanese Betty bomber aircraft sat on the bottom of the bay visible on final approach to Naha, Okinawa.  Tanks, jeeps and trucks could be found in all the jungle areas. Japanese guns used for defense were on all the islands, all damaged beyond repair.  Seemed there was almost enough left over metal  to sink that part of the world! And the jungles on all these islands still had “holdouts”-men still not admitting that the war was over. One of our warnings about  Guam, Okinawa, Iwo and other of the smaller islands was to not stray near or go into the jungle without being extremely cautious.

Tachikawa had been a pilot  flight training base during the war, and had been a  target of  several  B29 raids.  When I arrived in 1946  there were  numerous Japanese  work parties repairing damaged buildings with those damaged extensively were being torn down, the work went  on from daylight to dark.  Other less damaged building were being repaired and remodeled  into a  hobby shop, theater and a Base Exchange. The runways some hangers and the aircraft parking areas were already repaired and in use.

For living quarters,  the Japanese work parties were erecting Quonset huts. A complex of  probably 10-15 huts was finished by mid ’46. We lived in these, six officers to a hut, two to a room. We shared  a bath with  hot and cold water, and a small sitting room. Electricity  was  in and an oil  heater warmed the living room. Each hut had a Japanese “house girl” who came by daily and helped keep the place clean. Some paid her extra to shine shoes and  wash clothes. I still remember being embarrassed  when in the open shower stall  and a house girl  came in for wash water – an early  introduction to this different culture.

Most  on-base streets were dirt and in need of repair. Since we did most of our “getting around” on  foot, you were always picking your way around mud puddles and jeep ruts. Shoe shines faded quickly. Many dirt roads outside the  towns ran between 15-18 foot high clay banks into which  the Japanese had dug caves for use as air raid shelters.

My concern about how the Japanese  would “tolerate” we occupational forces  was quickly put to rest. To my surprise, the majority of the Japanese people seemed subdued and passive with very few outward signs of hostility. The rail system had been repaired enough so that some passenger trains ran from the Tachikawa station to downtown Tokyo. The end car on these trains had a large white stripe painted along both sides  which  indicated the car was for occupation forces only. There were  a few instances where rocks were thrown at these cars during darkness, but this was the only open sign of hostility I was ever aware of.  A big cultural difference was evident  during  my visits to Tokyo using the rail system.  The main Tokyo rail station had only one usable restroom. It was a room some 12-15 ft. wide and perhaps 30-40 ft. long. Along one side were open door stalls. Along the other was one long urinal. Both sexes attended to their needs here. In the more urban areas, it was not uncommon to see both sexes  urinating in the fields, along the sidewalks or into the canals etc., men more often than women.

In the towns, people were  busy  removing rubble and repairing  their  areas and living quarters.  Much of  Tokyo was still flat, block after block of  nothing but burned or bomb rubble. The buildings along the GINZA shopping area had been destroyed.   The Japanese had cleaned these streets  and installed make shift tents and  tarpaulin-covered stalls. From these they sold anything they could produce in  their  home-based economy such as  small dolls, masks, kites etc. Transportation was at a premium. Trains were electric, but with little or no gasoline available, busses, trucks  and autos  were fueled with  gas given off  from  burning  charcoal. A fair-sized burner unit was attached to the back of the vehicle and  fueled with charred  wood. This  worked  OK,  but every few miles it required them to stop and  add more wood, this   caused  the vehicle to emit a steady stream of  blue  smoke from the burner unit as well as the engine exhaust.

The Emperor’s palace in  Tokyo had been placed on the “do not bomb” list and  was intact. From  outside the grounds there was no damage visible. A large moat  about 30 ft. wide and several feet deep completely  surrounded  the palace grounds, setting it apart  from the rest of the city. Occupation troops were not permitted to enter the palace  grounds and US and Japanese guards controlled all  entry points.

A highlight of one’s tour back  then was to be in Tokyo  when the big man himself, Gen. of the Army  Douglas MacArther,  left his downtown office. Being Commander of  the Allied Occupational forces, the Japanese gave him the same respect  and unquestioned obedience as their  Emperor. So to just get a glimpse of this man was almost like seeing a deity for the Japanese, and quite an occasion  for us. He would depart his office around 1500hrs  most  days, crowds would gather, both military and Japanese, hoping  to catch a glimpse.  The day I was there it went just like clockwork. A crowd of 50-75  had gathered, the military police took their posts, stopping all foot traffic and keeping  the area open from the building’s door to the curb, about 15 feet.  Soon  a staff car pulled to the spot opposite the door. A military policeman opened the rear car door and stood at attention. Other guards opened the building’s door, all military police snapped to attention, and out came the great man. He had on his famed slouch hat, a gabardine trench coat and  THE  pipe in his mouth. He exited the building, returned the guards salute, and went to his car, keeping  his head and eyes down all the time. The car door shut, the car departed. The people all started chattering excitedly to one another about the event.

Another vivid memory of early Japan was the “honey bucket” patrols. Some trucks but mostly  slow moving wagons pulled by oxen.  There was no central sewer system so the use of  “out houses with buckets” was the norm. Every morning  collectors would  make their rounds, picking up  the buckets filled with  human waste. These vehicles would hold around 20-25 of these wooden buckets. I presume they would replace the filled buckets with empties, which would be collected  next time. Many of the streets were very narrow and traffic was slow, you always hoped you wouldn’t be stuck too closely  behind a collecting vehicle!  The wastes were taken to the nearby farming areas and deposited in concrete vats where long handled paddles were used to mix the contents with water. From there the mixture  would be ladled into buckets and, using the double bucket yoke type person-carry, taken to the fields and poured around plants. I was told it was excellent  fertilizer.

I  recall flying over Hiroshima and seeing the results of our bombing  there, just a wall or two left standing. Everything else was flat. Many other cities were also devastated by the bombings. My first look into the crater at  the top of  Mt. Fuji  is another permanently spectacular memory.

My wife and children who spent nearly two years there, have many unique memories of those times. We were assigned one ground  end of a six unit former office building, with bomb repairs being made on the other end and issued improvised furnishings for it. Cots were camouflaged with comforters for sofas, a 9’ X 12’ rug issued for a 20’ X 40’ living room with paper drapes for its 6 tall windows. (ordered from the Sears catalogue) The floor of this room was painted dark brown. Every foot print of the 4 Potter people showed. So with the efforts of two determined wives and use of numerous cans of lye, the dark paint was smeared, scraped and scrubbed off and clear varnish applied.  By Christmas our 6 week occupancy turned this place into  “home.”

The issued dining room with a set of blond wood was the most “normal” room in the apartment. One night we head a loud “C-R-A-C-K” and behold the big dining table had split in two, right down the middle! A result of our heated rooms VS Japanese not-so-dry wood.

We  revisited  Tachikawa Air Base 30 years later, during its deactivation period. All American personnel were gone, most buildings empty. We were able to find “our apartment” and other areas that were part of our life back then, now so desolately quiet. Today’s Japan is completely changed of course and it is a vibrant, thriving,  prosperous country. It seems those old ways and days have been forgotten by the new generations of both Japanese and Americans. Perhaps it’s just as well, for war seldom  leaves many pleasant memories.

Francis H. Potter

Col. USAF, Ret.

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