Occupation of Japan

Finally I was at the headquarters of the occupation located in Zama, Japan, for assignment. I was interrogated by officers of the 8th Army and the 1st Cavalry division. I told them: trained as an interpreter, I wanted to be an interpreter. Neither they nor anyone else knew whether I would be going back to the States for discharge in a few months, like the immediate discharge of all soldiers serving twenty-one months that occurred only a month ago or to stay on until my twenty-four months were up. Longer than twenty-four months was also a possibility. They were dubious about my becoming an interpreter. For that need, they used Nisei and local Japanese who understood English and that was enough for them. Would I like to take on a clerk/typist job? No. Well, all right, we’ll authorize you to go to the 7th Cavalry regiment, responsible for half of Tokyo, and see if they need an interpreter.

When I got there, the response was, “Sure, I could use you.” Lieutenant Chester Sargent, who was responsible for regiment intelligence, interviewed me and explained that he could use a Caucasian interpreter. He had to pay for local maintenance people and buy stuff from local vendors. His Nisei interpreter either may not have negotiated as well as he might and/or his language skill was not so great. Lieutenant Sargent wouldn’t know that for sure either way, but if I came along and kept my mouth shut, it would not embarrass anyone. Then later I would apprise him of what I thought. That was a use of an interpreter that the higher-ups hadn’t even thought of. In addition I took on an entirely different assignment too. I borrowed his copy of a Tokyo city map, which showed the boundaries of the regiment, and I made copies of it and of overlays that showed the location of the Japanese police stations and kiosks, and other prominent buildings. He seemed very pleased. I liked the job, but both his jobs were frustrating my desire to be an interpreter. I wanted conversations back and forth and neither task allowed me to do that.

Six months after the beginning of the occupation, some of my Minnesota buddies were working for three days around Election Day under the new Japanese constitution, and I was missing out on that. An interesting development was brewing: I was going on a secret mission. I had no idea of when or what to expect. It came soon enough.

In my bunk sound asleep, I was shaken awake at midnight and told to get dressed and come down to the regiment conference room. I did. A military intelligence colonel was explaining there was evidence implying an attempt to take the life of the newly elected prime minister, Shigera Yoshida. The colonel was there to authorize a top-secret jeep patrol that would leave immediately and find where the prime minister, or PM, was sleeping, stay near it, circle around it, and “keep your eyes open.” The patrol would be kept small to draw the least attention. Also the patrol would operate until noon the next day—about twelve hours of continuous duty—and was just three men: (1) me, the interpreter who was to find out where the PM was staying from the Japanese police who were near him and also might be guarding him, or if and when the PM was about to leave, find out where he was going and when; I was also to drive the jeep; (2) the radio operator, who would advise command headquarters (CHQ) of any developments and receive new orders; and (3) a lieutenant who was in charge of the patrol.

The three of us heard the colonel’s briefing, which emphasized two important things: (1) Intelligence did not know if the attackers would be a lone gunner, a mob, or anything in between. The patrol had to be alert to all these possibilities and fire if and only if necessary to protect the PM. (2) No one (read, the media, I suppose) should know that the U.S. army had to protect the new prime minister. It would make the occupation look much shakier than it was.

Fully apprised and carrying our weapons, we went out to pick up the jeep. The lieutenant handed me the keys. Having never driven a jeep, I fumbled around unable to start. The lieutenant, annoyed, had me change places with him and he drove us off. I was carrying a rifle. The lieutenant asked if I had a pistol. I said that I’d never received training with a pistol. This time he was disgusted. But there was no choice. We all had to obey those orders as best we could.

We circled around the prime minister’s residence with somewhat varying routes over largely a wooded area for twelve hours. The PM never left his residence, and my contact with the Japanese police was minimal but adequate.

Initially I was thrilled with the assignment. This was really big stuff! I could be a hero. In the first few hours I peered into the shrubbery as we passed at a fairly low speed, maybe twenty miles per hour. I looked for motion anywhere. There were no cars parked along our route or anyplace that permitted humans to hide except the shrubbery or the deeper woods.

There came a point sometime within the patrol’s twelve duty hours when I was really tired and somehow didn’t feel there was going to be any attack by anybody on anybody. What had started as enormous enthusiasm and alertness faded into indifference and sleep deprivation. Anyway, we had accomplished our mission. When we returned to regimental headquarters, another team was sent out to continue the same patrol for protecting the prime minister.

Years later it occurred to me that the reason I was chosen as interpreter was that I was white. The colonel did not want the smallest thing to become a political reason for a possible failure. When working out the patrol details, he probably thought, “Yeah, let’s put a white guy in as interpreter!”

It seemed to me that protection of the prime minister by us Yanks was strategically aimed at thwarting the Russians. I was personally having a little problem in understanding why we were fearful of the Russians. In basic training we saw a number of training films, in particular on two occasions there were films to make anticommunists more comfortable with the Soviets. Winston Churchill had said in regard to becoming an ally of the Soviets that he would make a deal with the devil himself if it helped to defeat Hitler. The films showed charming footage of the salt-of-the-earth peasants being mowed down by Nazi machine gunners and depicted “Uncle Joe” Stalin as a “tough but fair” leader. The two films were different but conveyed the same message.

However, in the first week of the PM patrols, I was obsessed by the pro-Soviet training films and a new factor. I had been following the Nuremberg trials for war crimes, where this point was made. If a soldier was presented with an order by his superior, he need not obey it, provided that he was ready to take the consequences if later he finds out that he should have obeyed it. One consequence could be conviction for treason. It meant to me that I, a lowly private, should consider disobeying an order if it were clear to me that the order was wrong, but I had to be very sure. I was neither pro nor anti Soviet. I just thought a good venting of the issue by a respected news source would help everybody understand what was going on, including me and others who wanted to learn more. I knew from the training films that the U.S. was pro-Soviet in 1945 and as far as I knew nothing had changed.

I had been given an A pass, so when I was off duty I could leave the regiment compound and go wherever I chose. In a day or so I went to the office of Time magazine. The office was a small room with a desk and phone for one reporter. I gave him the scoop on the prime minister protection patrol that I thought he would gobble up for a front page story. Instead he gave me a frowning look and made clear that he would do no such thing. I left discouraged and resigned.

Amazingly these patrols continued on and on, 24/7, and were never canceled the entire time I was in Japan. No shot was fired in anger. There was never an attempt on the life of the PM. While I was in Japan, I myself had to do a share of the patrols, about once a week, eight hours of duty. An enormous number of times I had to ask the Japanese police where the prime minister was. On one occasion I could not quite get the answer. One of the policemen, pulling out a piece of paper, was about to write something. I knew what he was up to and I began shaking my head. He was going to write out the name of the place the prime minister was going and I knew too little of the written language to find this helpful. He wrote anyway and, surprise, I was able to decipher two words meaning move and forward out of the hundred Kanji words I had learned in Minnesota. I put that together with what I knew of the politics and habits of the prime minister and figured that he was going to the Progressive Party’s office. The police verified my guess. With my detective work confirmed, I was pleased and on my way.

Later Yoshida, known as “Cherry Blossom,” was succeeded as prime minister by Shidehara, known as “Wisteria.” The codes were used in the squadron and for discussion between interpreters on the patrol and the Japanese police. Now you know them too. To give you a degree of comfort, sixty-plus years later, you are in no danger of having top-secret knowledge. De facto declassification started almost immediately.