Tuesday, January 20, 2009

20. Quake

Aftermath of the 1944 Tonankai Earthquake, Japan
Source: Mie Prefecture Emergency Management Department

It is Thursday morning, the 7th of December 1944, exactly three years after Pearl Harbour. We are all having a day off. The copper production has declined sharply as a result of a great shortage of raw material. There is hardly any work to be done in the plant, hence the holiday. I have just finished my washing and am in the process of hanging a wet pair of briefs on the drying line in the backyard when it comes.

And when it does so, it is swift, without the least bit of warning. There is no preceding shouting of "Look out!", not even a siren to wail us down into the recently dug air raid shelter at the back of the barracks, though an air raid shelter would be the least likely place to go in the circumstances.

I am reaching up to the line when there is a sudden jolt under my feet, immediately followed by a violent jarring of the ground. I cannot stand upright, go down on all fours, clawing my fingers in the grass to find a hold. Dear God! The whole world quivers. What is this, the gigantic explosion of a super-bomb? Turning my face to the sky to find the guilty aircraft, I see the soaring high chimney of the plant being pushed by an invisible force. It wobbles sluggishly and then, before my astonished eyes, it is breaking into pieces and plunging downward in a spray of falling bricks and debris - head on into a surging throng of screaming men stampeding out of the barracks, straight through the door and windows in a wicked tinkling of broken glass.


Hunching my shoulders, I run into the mass of fleeing men, for I want to get inside at all costs. A blinding flash explodes in my eyeballs, a stinging pain in my nose. Wildly pushing and beating about me, I finally work my way inside the building and run to our bay, which is lopsided and out of joint. God, the whole place is swaying, tottering!

A moment later, with her photograph in my hand, I hurry out to the dike which lies about forty yards from our camp. On the wall of earth a milling crowd of frightened men huddle together, seeking refuge from this terrible force they cannot run away from. Neither one thing nor another can offer protection. We cannot even dig ourselves into mother earth, the old instinct of man and beast when in mortal fear, for it is in the very earth that the danger lies!

The tremors cease as suddenly as they began, and the world is still again. It is only then that I realize how foolish I was to enter the building, which could have collapsed and killed me, all because of her picture.

Early this morning the weather had been mild but now, worse luck, a cold wind is blowing while most of us stand here without coats and footwear. About me I see a ravaged scene of crumbled buildings, cracked bitumen and crooked telegraph posts hanging slantwise on their wires. The air is filled with the earthy smell of newly tilled soil and the fumes of fires. From this distance we cannot appraise the extent of the damage inflicted by the quake but it must be colossal. The towering chimney, the pride of Yokkaichi, supposed to be the second tallest in the world, is gone. The is flushed crimson by what must be a tremendous fire somewhere in the centre, probably where the furnaces are.

The sun has set when Handlebar decides that the quake is over, and he orders us inside. But no sooner are we inside than everything starts to rumble and rattle again. Out we run like mad.

Postwar aerial photo of Yokkaichi camp, showing the beach and nearby factories
Posted on the Corvette Forum by Steve Ruse, grandson of
American POW Carl Robert Ruse

Back on the dike the cold is worse, the ordeal lasting longer than before, though the tremors are lighter. Most of us now wear army duffel coats, distributed a week ago, but not thick enough to withstand the icy wind. We stand huddled together, shivering and chattering our teeth. Several men are spattered with blood on their arms and necks. They were the ones who in panic bolted through the glass of the front door and windows. Miraculously none were seriously injured. None of us speaks, as if we feel, rather than know, that the quake is not over at all.

There! Suddenly the quivering becomes stronger, and while we clutch each other in fear there is a forceful shaking and - the dike is moving! Screams and a wild scramble. "For God's sake, stay where you are! Don't get off the dike!" Then, as suddenly as it started, the dike stops moving. A shattering crash sounds from somewhere inside the factory and a broad sheet of flames roars towards the sky, cutting the broken up structures into sharp outlines, only to recede, after a few seconds, back into its searing hearth, leaving a curving ring of shining heat in the night. On the dike silence is restored, all of us rendered mute by an acute awareness of futility, of being totally defenseless against this sort of onslaught. Yes indeed, of no account are all the clever inventions and instruments of man, as foolproof as they may seem, against the natural elements. When an earthquake of high magnitude strikes, nothing will, nothing can, be of any help.

The earth is still, but for how long? The men talk, first in a hushed undertone filled with awe and concern. It happened so fast and with such ferocity. But gradually the voices become louder and soon there is an excited gabble as to what the quake's effect will be on our immediate future.

Then someone yells, "Silence! What is that?" Everybody listens. Yes, there is something - the rush of approaching water, lots of water. The sound is rapidly increasing in force, swelling to the thunder of an immensely great quantity of water. Then the cry, "Tidal wave!"

Is there no end to this visitation?

"God, we'll be drowned!" Pressing forward, some try to run away but are held back by others. "Stay here, this dike is high ground." But is it high enough? Will it hold?

"I don't wanna die, I don't wanna die," whimpers a man, holding a crucifix against his breast.

"Shut yer trap! Nobody's goin' to die!"

Beside me a big man is whispering desperately the nursery prayer of a long forgotten childhood: "...before I lay me down to sleep..." I turn my back towards the sound and prepare myself. Yes, I'm afraid now, Lisa.

Minutes pass. The thundering sound has broken down to a hissing of swiftly spreading water, then nothing more. Thank you, God.

"It's not so bad, men," says our C.O., as calm as ever. "It was only one big roller. There's no tidal wave. Pass it on. There is no tidal wave."

Though we cannot see it in the pitch darkness, we can hear the water drawing back with a sucking, purling sound.

Oh no, there is the jolt again! And another one! The soil under my feet is sinking.

"Dike breaking up!"

Wriggling bodies tumble down the slope, taking me with them. We land on soaking wet ground amidst loud cries and swearing. There is the C.O.'s voice again, but what he says is drowned in the noise. We scramble to our feet to find the earth quiet again. Clambering back on the dike, we wait for what will happen to us.

Tsunami damage in Owase City, Mie Prefecture
Source: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport

There are no more tremors for the remainder of the night but there is the cold and the hunger. At the crack of dawn we plod back to camp, drugged by fatigue and lack of sleep, to find, to our horror, more especially that of the Americans, the contents of the latrines lying on all the lower sleeping bunks. Undoubtedly this was caused by the one big wave, floating the latrines and running into the bays before streaming back to sea. Apart from a general state of disorder through the hasty flight, the upper bunks appear dry, untouched by the filth.

The tremors return at irregular intervals, lasting from ten minutes to a few hours, but become gradually lesser in degree. We don't bother anymore with running outside. It is too cold and our barrack seems to be able to withstand the quake, otherwise it should have been in ruins from the start.

After six days the ordeal is over, and there is the morning when we are sent to the plant. What our eyes behold surpasses our worst fears. Not that we care much about the welfare of the Japanese war industry, but we expect that we will have to mop up the rubble. The ravage is beyond description!

The whole area of the plant has been crushed inward from all sides and upward from the bottom as well. The only remaining operating blast furnace has burst open, releasing its inferno onto the furnace platform until the searing hot river was halted by its own coagulation. It lies there like an enormous, black, hardened custard. On a spot beside the edge of the substance I find a brown, swollen hand, neatly burnt off at the wrist. The rest of the poor chap has been incinerated into an integral part of the glassy matter. We cannot find a single bone of him. The next discovery is also incomplete. Caught in jaws of twisted steel a cluster of white, glistening cords dangle from one end to another. At closer inspection we discover that they are the mangled remains of human intestines. Another body is found with both feet burnt off. He lies at about thirty feet from the custard, where he had dragged himself until a falling beam had crushed his skull. Out in the train yard a gigantic force has pressed together the rails of the densha track into steel garlands and bunting, spiraling up grotesquely in the crisp winter air as in a surrealistic creation by Salvador Dali.

None of the prisoners has fallen victim to the earthquake itself but for a few seriously ill patients, whose end had been quickened by the cold night spent on the dike. Days of hard work lie before us, cleaning and rebuilding the plant which has been practically eliminated by the quake, later to be known as one of the strongest ever recorded, when the earth, in a burst of anger, had wrinkled its face to crumple and lay prostrate the makings of man.

Christmas is gone four months, and the days plod on with the vicious circle of hunger, eating, work, but always hunger.

There is some very good news in January. It was passed on by somebody in the plant to somebody among our men. The whole camp rejoices when it comes through, and what makes it significant is that Handlebar does not even try to deny it! The news is that General Douglas MacArthur has made good on his promise, "I shall return", by wading ashore on Luzon in the Philippines, taken by the victorious American forces. Then, to top it off, we hear of the fall of Okinawa.

So far, nothing has happened in our area but we do hear the daily bombings on important industry centers in Osaka, Kobe and Nagoya. Could it be that finally the bell will toll for the Japanese? There is a certain uneasiness noticeable among the camp's office staff. All this is inspiring and uplifting. Only it does not take the hunger away.

Then Handlebar, one morning, comes up with a surprising move. All prisoners able to put their views in writing are to prepare and submit an essay on Japan's chances of winning the war! He also makes a point of assuring us emphatically that in giving our honest opinion no persecution will be involved. The language, however, should be decent and pleasant to read, whilst a certain divinity must not be mentioned. This, of course, would be the Emperor Hirohito. My essay, setting out in short sentences, and without mincing words, the impossibility of winning a war against the might of the American production machine and their money, wins first prize! Payable at some later date in the near future, without mentioning in what kind.

"Probably the firing squad", is Roel's heartening remark.

There is not much trading left with the food getting scarcer and the Japs more nervous every day. But one morning in the little shed by the sea, a live rabbit is offered in exchange for a Dunhill tobacco pipe. I don't expect to find anyone in possession of such an extravagance except Hendrik, but he has vowed never to part with his old friend. Anyhow, as a matter of routine I pass the word and to my great surprise a response comes from none other than Hendrik. Roel figures that the old air-polluter must really be starving.

The switch was made a little while ago, and here I am sitting in the beach shed with a big, kicking rabbit on my lap. I have never killed a rabbit before and am at a loss how to do that. But with me is Hank, a six-footer from Texas, a poacher by trade, who is willing to lend a hand. Before I can say "Dallas" he has killed and skinned the rabbit. Taking half for ourselves, we carefully clean and bone the rest, which is put on my head beneath the factory cap tightly pulled over my hair. We cook our half and have a good meal of rabbit stew.

At dawn we return to our camp. A light rain is falling. As soon as we enter the gate I am singled out and ordered to stand at attention. That at any time is bad medicine, as the redskins used to say. Some time later, drenched and shivering like an aspen leaf, I am facing Handlebar, who has walked up to me, his hands behind his back. A moment before, a guard has frisked me but had forgotten to take my cap off, and I naturally had forgotten to remind him of the omission. In a voice full of reproach, but biting his moustache in irritation, Handlebar says that since I have been reported trading with a civilian, I do not deserve the prize for the essay. He adds that, as he is personally very much against bodily punishment, he therefore wishes to be excused. The guards waits until the be-icicled moustache has disappeared behind the office door before drawing a thick bamboo stick from beneath his coat. This is whacked on my head once, twice, three times. It hurts, but without the raw meat cushion under my cap it would have hurt a lot more. I keep standing at attention without making a sound. He is about to deliver another blow when I see his usually expressionless face change into one stricken with stupid astonishment. Throwing the stick away, he orders me to return to my bay, at the double!

Inside I discover what happened. The blows on the meat had beaten out what little rabbit blood there was left, causing it to trickle down my forehead and cheek. The guard thought he had struck a hole in my head! My demonstration of super toughness to stand there rigidly without uttering a single cry had commanded his amazement and respect. As far as he was concerned, the penalty had been paid, so he sent me back to the barracks. What a difference from some of the Japs we have dealt with before. They wouldn't have cared if brains were running down my cheek, as long as the prescribed number of blows were given.

I deliver the meat to my client. Following his advice, I shave of bit of hair off my head and cover it with a bandage. Is he ever right! Who but the guard who had beaten me comes in the afternoon to look me up and hand me a small pack of sugar and cherry-blossom cigarettes as a salve for the wound.

Unfortunately, as a further sequel to the incident, Handlebar has me included on the list of men to be sent to Toyama in a day or two. Toyama, they say, is an aircraft manufacturing centre and a favourite target of the U.S. Air Force. Our new "home", called Iwase camp, is said to be uncomfortably close to the works.

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