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.