Occupying Japan: The Untold Story

Posted on 21 August 2009

As we approach the 64th anniversary of the official end of World War II, you will, like the troops barraged during that long, bloody conflict, be blitzed by the history surrounding this commemorative date.  What you may not read are the personal, eyewitness accounts of soldiers such as me, who helped write that history.


When the war ended, many soldiers were discharged from the service.  They returned home to the joyous, waiting arms of their loved ones, to victory parades, to skies raining colored confetti and sunlight glinting off the brass instruments of marching bands.  I received no such welcome, for I was assigned to remain behind in the Japanese islands as a member of a peacekeeping/stabilizing force in the wake of that nation’s surrender.  There I remained for nearly one full year in a strange land half a world away from my home.


At their council fires, the Native Americans regaled their children and grandchildren with tales of their elders’ valor.  Explaining that, “Too many moons have passed” since the actual events had occurred, the elders signaled that it was time to share those stories in order to keep their legacy alive.  Now that more than sixty years have passed, it is time for me to reveal my own stories that have too long gone untold.


As the dust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sifted down from the sky, I was not privy to what fate held in store for me.  I had been dispatched from the Philippines, as a member of the 24th Signal Company attached to the 24th Infantry Division, to serve aboard the troopship, the U.S.S. George S. Clymer.  As part of the most massive armada of planes and seagoing vessels the world had ever seen, I sailed the Pacific under orders to invade Japan.  En route, I prayed that the rough waters off Okinawa, churned up during a typhoon, did not presage what awaited us on land.  I did not know what lay ahead of me, but I knew full well what lay behind me.  Entering the Sea of Japan, I looked back and saw, as far as the horizon, a majestic and mighty line of ships representing the Allied Forces. The sight was both humbling and inspiring.  To the Japanese, it must have been terrifying.


On or about October 9, 1945, we secured the island of Shikoko.  Upon our landing, the only people visible to us were the Japanese police.  Having seen Hiroshima and Nagasaki fall, the rest of the population had gone into hiding, fearing that they, too, would be harmed or killed. We pitched camp at a town called Matsuyama, the first of our three stops during our yearlong occupation.  There, we lived out of tents and “bathed” out of our helmets.  The weather was cold, nothing like the warmth of the Philippines, and we had not been equipped with clothing befitting this climate. 


Clothing, in fact, is the culprit behind one of the war’s greatest untold stories, which should be recorded in the annals of military procurement.  Lieutenant Parks, who was our supply officer, ordered Corporal P. Gerald Barbato to pick up supplies for the 24th Signal Company, which were waiting for us at the beach.  Knowing how precise the military was in the requisitioning and allocation of provisions, the lieutenant had simply referred to the necessary supplies as “our stuff.” Commandeering a three-quarter ton truck from the motor pool, Barbato drove, as he was told, to the appointed spot on the beach.  Inquiring of his fellow soldiers as to where he could pick up the “stuff” for the 24th Signal Company, he was directed to a very large landing craft loaded with supplies.  With swagger in his step, he marched up the gangway and announced that he had come to pick up “the stuff.”  The officer in charge replied, “Here it is; take it away.”  The Corporal gulped audibly as he beheld a mountain of goods and then cast his eyes back over his shoulder at his truck. The laws of physics told him that there was no way that all of that stuff was going to fit into his truck.  From the beach master’s hut, he phoned in a request for every available truck in our motor pool to get down to the beach to haul the stuff back to camp.


Understand, please that this was wartime, where luxuries were few and far between.  When we did enjoy little extravagances, they were carefully rationed.  On that quiet morning, as the first truck rolled in loaded to the gills with 10-pound bags of sugar, we thought we were seeing a mirage.  I was in the mess hall helping the Sergeant, Werner (“Dutch”) Poppe, prepare lunch for the troops.  In a thick German accent, Dutch ordered, “Quick, Tommy, help me!  Someone’s made a mistake!” Snatching bags of sugar, he tossed them to me, panting, “Hide them; it’s a mistake!”


As we were engaging in this Chinese fire drill, another truck rolled full of canned hams. This was followed by another vehicle carrying clothing and a fourth truck conveying more foodstuffs.  At this point, the entire company was converging upon the trucks like army ants, sampling the goods.  The phone rang in our headquarters and the person on the other end was not happy.  He informed Lieutenant Parks that he had better get the stuff back to the Quartermaster on the double, or Parks would be demoted!


A smiling Corporal Barbato arrived on the scene only to be greeted by a befuddled Parks who said, “You were only supposed to pick up a bundle of olive-drab pants and shirts!”   Sputtering, Barbato replied, “You told me to pick up the stuff for 24th Signal Company and they said, “Here it is; take it away!”   99% of the goods were returned to an incensed Quartermaster, who vowed never to provide us with fresh food and vegetables as long as we were on the island.  Lieutenant Parks retained his rank, but Barbato never rose above the rank of Corporal. 

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6 Responses to “Occupying Japan: The Untold Story”

  1. Mae says:

    I am sure that it is hard for lots of people to imagine the sacrifices you had to make to survive this journey. When we encounter snow storms and can’t get to the market we think that is a total disaster thinking we can’t survive so having to stay on someones good side to ensure that your food supply is forthcoming is quite a feat. Then to take a bath out of your helmet and I sm sure that you had to conserve the water from your canteens. I remember a few times growing up and the water pipes had frozen and we had this huge old tin tub and we went to the kitchen and got water and had to take a bath and we thought that was horrible.
    I am sure it was really hard with missing your family and not knowing when you may get a letter or be able to send one out. Things were much harder in the era with the mail system. When my sister was in Iraq I was able to send her several care packages and she really looked forward to getting some taste of home.
    Educational article. Grew up watching M.A.S.H. but you never know what is really happening until you are the one in the situation so nice to hear about the real deal.

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