Tuesday, January 20, 2009

21. Toyama

Photo Source: social.consimworld.com

Our number in Toyama, where we arrive on the 1st of June, is only about a hundred men under the command of a Dutch ensign. Handlebar and the boy with the large teeth remain in Yokkaichi, which is one good thing. We work only in the daytime in the carborundum factory producing silicon dioxide, used for making brushes in electric generators and for the manufacture of pyrex glass in aircraft. Every night the U.S. Air Force fly over as regularly as clockwork to unload their hell on the nearby airfield and buildings. Our sector has not yet been chosen for a visit, but we are not deluding ourselves. One day it will be our turn. [1] [2]

Through my rank of sergeant I am made hancho, foreman, of a group of twelve men working on one of the carborundum ovens. It is task work that we have to do here, which means that as soon as we have finished one job, we get a break of about two hours before starting on the next one. The work is back-breaking and the food is even less than we used to get at Yokkaichi. Most of the yasme time is used for hunting down edibles, from the leftovers found in the factory kitchen garbage bin to anything green growing on the factory grounds which we think can be eaten boiled or raw. Sometimes one of us guesses wrong, resulting in waking up the following morning with cheeks swollen to twice their size, lips inflated, eyes reduced to slits and in a very bad mood. As a rule the poisonous effect does not last for more than a day or so. Food is uppermost in our minds; nothing else has our attention during the day or even in our sleep.

One afternoon Roel and I, as usual on our way to the factory kitchen to collect our gang's midday ration, pass the six-foot high timber partition behind which we assume females are working. On previous trips we had occasionally picked up girls twittering and giggling. This time my attention is drawn by a fluttering movement visible through an opening between the boards. Pulling Roel to a stop, I bring my eyes close to the wall to squint. Holy cow! A pretty young woman is undressing herself beside a table on which there is a platter with - oh, mother - delicious baked sweet potatoes! Roel and I silently look and note a thin, misty vapour hovering over the beauties at the table. The girl opens her kimono. Dark brown circles of nipples, slightly sagging breasts.

"See that mist?" Roel whispers. "Must be still quite hot."

Somewhere in the room, outside our vision, a water tap is opened. Probably we are looking into a bathroom. The kimono glides from her shoulders but I see only the potatoes. Would she eat all that herself or would she take them home to her family? Roel heaves a slow sigh. Nudging me softly, he says something. Turning to him for a moment, I notice in his eyes the dull shine of a hungry dog's eyes watching your dinner. Do I look like that too? I return my gaze to the heap of those juicy potatoes. The girl is standing now with her face bent down, squeezing a pimple or something on her arm. The garment is held up half way down by her elbows pressed against her sides. If there would be an air raid now, she would run into the shelter and leave the potatoes on the table, wouldn't she? Her arms rise and the kimono drops. I notice her complete nakedness, the small black triangle, but feel no emotion as my gaze is again fixed on that food.

Great composers of music have attempted to interpret the suffering of this world in symphonic narratives, and were often successful. But is there anything more expressive of that great failure of mankind, war, than the sinister whine of an air raid siren?

It is coming on toward dark when the alarm is given, much earlier than usual. Almost simultaneously the drone of the motors reaches our ears. Just before diving into the shelter I look up and see them, clearly cut out, flying in vee-formation against the deep blue sky. The sight of the Superfortress bombers, "Beenee-gee-ku" as the Nips call them, should frighten me, for these very airplanes could cause our death when our sector becomes the target.
Nevertheless, all the years of silence from our unseen and unheard Allies, when every plane we saw was Japanese, when every shot or explosion we heard was Japanese, have made those American squadrons flying over Japan a spirit-uplifting sight. The tips of their wings, dipped in silver by the setting sun, seem to call out to me, "Don't worry, son. We're coming to set you free."

Photo Source: enolagay509th.com

The old Jap supervisor, sitting beside me, whispers, "Americano owkay, war speedo finish." The distant roar of the high explosives lasts for more than half an hour. Later, when it is over, we find many pamphlets strewn all over the grounds, dropped by the bombers on their way to the mission. In English and Japanese we are informed of the forthcoming raid on our sector, tomorrow night, to be preceded by red flares an hour or so before the attack so as to allow sufficient time to evacuate the area.

"A bit different from what the sons-of-bitches did to us at Pearl," grumbles a Yank.

Huddled down in our shelter, we wait. The flare-lights were dropped more than an hour ago, so it should come at any moment now. Here and there an opening in the ceiling of dark rain clouds shows the deep, moonlit void. A shiver runs down my back. What an appropriate setting for a night of violent death. The voices in the trench are suppressed, whispering, but for an occasional chuckle. Nerves of course, everybody being scared as hell. Roel is staring with unseeing eyes at the earthen wall before him. Do they know we prisoners of war are here? Are military targets more important than our lives? They say that you don't even have to be hit by the fragments; the air concussion would be enough to kill you instantly. What does it feel like when you get hit? Do you feel anything? Roel says a direct hit on our trench would be the best. Nothing left to bury or to stink. He is a good one to have sitting beside you when an air attack is about to come, but he would be better if he shuts his big trap.

It is very still now in the shelter. Suddenly a cry: "They're coming!" But it is only a truck passing by.

("Is it true that in your country the males stand up when a female enters the room, and do they really help a girl with putting her coat on?" She spoke fluent English while dishing out our rations in the factory kitchen, but as far as Western customs are concerned she was completely in the dark. I told her that it was true and she thanked me really nicely, pouring a few extra scoops of noodles into my bucket. In Japan, she said, females are merely slaves. She had the deep brown eyes of a deer and her lips were like pink petals...

This morning we were lined up in the factory, in front of the wire fence before the carborundum ovens, to listen to an announcement from the director of the factory. When he had finished rapidly talking in Japanese, he stepped back to make room for the interpreter. In doing so, he put out a hand to lean on the fence and, touching it, became blue in the face while his body shook violently. The switchboard happened to be close at hand, so the current could be switched off immediately. These accidents had occurred before, mainly through mysterious leakages in the electric wiring. The current, though not lethal, can deliver quite a shock, and in some way I felt sorry for the old chap, who was very upset and could hardly keep on his feet. Not so long ago it would never have entered my mind to feel sorry at any time for a Japanese man or woman. The translation of the announcement was postponed, and the member of our gang who I know had been an electrical engineer before the war looked like he wasn't very pleased with himself after all...)

A sudden silence falls in our trench. All faces turn upward. The next moment could well be the last for some or all of us, for unmistakeably, high above the clouds, a squadron of machines are approaching! My skin feels prickly all over and tense.

In the air comes a vibration, light and faint at first, but quickly changing into an ominous growl. The sound we are waiting for, the sound feared by us all. There it is!

A thin, high whistle rapidly grows in strength, becomes louder and louder - then a screaming, a hideous screaming - a shattering, ear-stinging roar...

Hell descends upon us all, hell so terrible that none can describe it. Mind-piercing, flashing destruction. With my mouth open to protect my eardrums, I feel with each explosion my saliva sucked from between my cheeks and my gums and blown against the roof of my mouth. Luckily all bombs drop away from our camp, but we are close enough to bear the deadly blasts tearing through the air over our trench. Close enough to smell the sharp odour which goes with high explosives.

The drone of the machines becomes weaker. No more explosions, but we hear the crackling and hissing of enormous fires.

"Hell so terrible that none can describe it"
Toyama engulfed in flames during the night of 1-2 August, 1945

Photo Source: LIFE Magazine

Then again, the screaming and rending detonations cutting into my soul. My eardrums are painful, my eyes ache. Someone pulls my arm and yells, "Let's pray, dammit!"

"Pray yourself! I'm too scared!"

A moment later I am engulfed by a deafening sound, a great white flash, a dull rushing in my head. Something gently tugs my hair, and at the same time a taste of earth in my nostrils and my mouth is full of soil...

"Get back in the shelter, you bloody fool! You wanna kill yourself?"

Hands grip my ankles and drag me into the trench. Unknowingly I had in my fear crawled out, and it is Roel who pulls me back. The whole sky is brilliantly illuminated by hundreds of fires. Large columns and broad walls of white and pitch-black smoke billow in soaring great spirals.

"You want your head knocked off by the blast?" says Roel, his eyes curiously empty in the reddish glow of the holocaust.

Very loudly and clearly a dirty word is uttered by somebody. And then I hear it too. Another squadron is arriving.

"The bastards will get us now!"

There is a new smell in our trench. That of human excrement.

At daybreak we return to our barracks, weak-kneed and shaken, but unhurt. With thankful hearts we move in.

"Holy smoke! Look at the mess!" someone says abruptly.

All windows have been smashed by the air concussion, the glass lying in a thousand pieces all over the floor. The rest of the building is later found to be intact, which is surprising considering the great number of bombs which fell on the nearby airfield.

When we return to work in the morning we find that the factory also is only slightly damaged, owing to the fact that practically all bombs had hit their mark, the airfield and the adjacent motor plant, now wiped from its foundations. The airfield has been rendered unfit for a wheelbarrow, though it would not make much difference one way or another, as there seem to be no more Japanese airplanes left in our sector. Not one was seen taking off before the bombing. The carborundum ovens have not been hit at all, but the Jap supervisor tells us that owing to the lack of further material, no more carborundum will be produced. Our job is the maintenance of cleanliness.

A few days have passed without further air attacks. The girl who was so curious about Western manners is back on her job in the factory kitchen, where she is now on her own, the cook being transferred to another part of the compound. I am standing before her with the bucket on the floor. We have dubbed her "Hedy" because of her likeness to the film star Hedy Lamarr, albeit on the rather plumpish side. While filling the bucket she tells me that the village was wholly incinerated by the last attack, but with little loss of lives. Thanks to the warning pamphlets the people could be evacuated in time.

She is standing close to me in a short, open, blue cotton waistcoat over her black work slacks. The bucket of fat noodles is picked up by her and handed to me. It is very hot. Her perspiration has made dark stains in the cotton under her arms. Tiny beads of liquid have gathered on her upper lip and at the hair roots on her brow. Her face is passive and undisturbed while she talks to me, in halting but understandable English, about the destruction of her hometown. It is difficult to read the guarded features of her race, trained as they are to hide inner emotions.

Then all at once, an old forgotten thing stirs inside me, something which hunger and fatigue have kept dormant for so long. I find myself sexually aroused by this girl's body. The girlish, innocent quality of her face contrasts with that ample bosom in its tight encasement. The top of her waistcoat is undone, the second button just about held in its buttonhole by the sideways pull of her breasts. She has stopped talking to me, and lifting my eyes from her bosom I meet hers and read in them awareness and approval of my scrutiny and rising excitement. With a pleased intake of her breath, her eyes widen and smile into mine. Nothing of her feelings is concealed in her face. My desire gives her pleasure and she is as frank about it as my gazing at her figure.

"Do you like me?" she asks in a whisper.

"Yes, very much. I've seen you before."

"Have you?" Her eyes are dark, smoky pools. There is a tiny mole beside the base of her slightly flaring nose.

"I saw you in the room there. You were taking a bath," I blurt helplessly.

"Did you like what you saw?" She is quite unperturbed by my statement.

"Oh, yes. You're beautiful, very beautiful!"

I wish I hadn't looked so much at the potatoes, but I can't say that to her now.

Then, rather brusquely, she takes the bucket back to place it on the floor and stoops down to stir the noodles with ladle, quite unnecessarily. She is showing me a short, chubby neck fringed with raven-black hair. Quite alone we are, the silence only broken by the sucking sound of the noodles. There is a desire growing in me for this girl, but it is mingled with an undefinable sense of unrest, so vague, so feeble, that only at a later time, thinking back, I shall recognise it as a foreboding of disaster.

She draws herself up, eyes downcast, and opens her waistcoat wide. A vein throbs in my throat, my blood is racing, our eyes interlock. There is no love between us. There could not be. All there is to it is that we both are in this stinking war, that we have only escaped death so far because the bombs have missed us. Now we wish to forget the anguish and fear, now we wish to grab for ourselves a few moments of joy, for tomorrow, or this afternoon or tonight, we may be stone dead...

First I hear it faintly, from far away.

My subconscious mind receives the sound, before it penetrates my brain, which begins to signal madly. Then I hear it right through the rushing of blood in my ears. The unmistakable sound of an airplane, the deep roar of a big plane. Bomber! Someone outside is calling my name. The drive to stay alive is overpowering. The drone of the aircraft blots out everything else stirring in me...

I spin round to dash away from her and out of the kitchen, to run as fast as I can to where our men are beckoning me, shouting to come quickly. We hurry towards the air raid shelter, seeing high aloft in the cloudless, blazing sky a single bomber, drifting almost aimlessly it seems. That would be the plotter to guide the others, which should arrive any moment now. Suddenly there is the dreaded whistle cutting through the air.

Photo Source: www.ww2aircraft.net

"The sneaky bastard dropped one!" yells a voice, as we hurl ourselves into a ditch beside the road. Seconds later I clearly see the yellow and green painted, spinning bomb screaming across the sky over our heads to slam with a world-splitting roar somewhere in the direction of the factory.

No more bombs are dropped from the single plane. No other aircraft appear. It is just as the man said, one sneaky bomb from one sneaky crate. This one, we learn later, had smashed into the factory kitchen, blowing to kingdom come a week's supply of noodles - and Hedy, who had the habit of hiding in the cavity beneath the fire plate of the stove every time an air raid was on. [3]

It is the last week of July. The air is silent since Hedy died. There seem to be no more military objects left to blow into extinction. Which is good. Worse is that, with the destruction of the factory kitchen, the extra issue of noodle meals has been discontinued.

The beginning of August. The guards and their commanding officer, a bald-headed veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, have changed their attitude. There is a significant lack of shin-kicking and face-slapping. Hardly a "Koorah!" is heard. The climate is definitely changing. At last the sands are running out for the Japanese.

One among us is caught in the act of stealing tobacco from a fellow prisoner, and is dealt with in the usual way among prisoners of war. After a brief trial, he is run through the "mill", which means that after being delivered a blow by one man he is pushed to the next man in line to be struck again. The "mill" may be as long as twenty men, depending on the degree of the felony. Stealing from a comrade is considered a serious crime. Nowadays thieves are starving and, as weak as we all are, half a dozen blows are enough to have him on the floor, which means (after duly establishing that the faint is not an act to shorten the punishment) that the penalty is paid.

The Japs in the factory have cut themselves mean-looking bamboo spears, which they carry about with them wherever they go. They say that this primitive armament is intended for American paratroops.

Japanese women drilling with bamboo spears, 1945
Photo Source: psychologytoday.com

We learn also about the Kamikaze, the Divine Wind, Japanese suicide pilots flying wooden aircraft comprised of nothing but one large bomb equipped with a motor, wings and tail rudder. Their mission is to commit suicide by crash landing on a warship or other selected target and blowing it to pieces. The night before his one-way trip, each pilot is presented with what food delicacy may be available and the girl of his choice. The rumour that the pilots also get a shot in the arm to drug them up for attack is vehemently denied by our spokesman, who assures us that they know how to die for their Emperor.

Sunday, 4th of August, 1945. The weather is sultry. Since our arrival in Toyama no worship service has been held. With our nerves stirred up as they are by the war news, we find ourselves quite unable to concentrate our thoughts on anything but what we are all hoping for. All day long the wildest speculations as to what will happen race like wind-whipped brush fires through our camp. Once again, we have no time for God.

The story breaks that those bamboo spears are for us, that the Japanese supreme command has issued orders to kill every single POW at the first sign of American landings on the mainland. The killing is to be carried out as quietly as possible, hence the spears! We brush it aside as utter nonsense. Why should they want to kill us? Surely, unarmed and weakened as we are, we could do them no harm. Didn't they say that the bamboo spears were for defending themselves against parachutists?

August the 7th. Yesterday, it is said, somewhere in the south of Japan, a terrific flash of light had occurred, an unspeakable horror, killing people by the tens of thousands in one stroke. Nobody seems to know much more, nor who had spread the news, but there is great concern on the Japanese faces.

What is left of the factory staff is tight lipped as never before. Very little work is left. To kill time we are put to carrying timber from one spot to another. A stupid, senseless task. There is nothing to construct, so the timber could just as well rot where it lies now rather than in any other place. The width of the board on my shoulder makes me hold my head downwards at a slanted angle. Walking like this, I see each time one of my feet appear in front of me on the well worn path, while both ends of the board swing up and down in rhythm with my steps. The distance is short, so the load is flung on the new stack before its weight starts bothering me, and I return for another one. I do this several times, looking at my feet as I carry each new load, and then an odd thought strikes me: those feet belong to my body, the body of me, the lucky one, fortunate to see the end, to survive the war. I do not know or understand what brought it on, but I feel great and happy. A feeling I remember I had many years ago, something I had missed so long that I have to get used to it. I seem to float as my feet make a padding sound on the soft ground. The tips of the board creak in time with my thinking, "I am I, I am I."

Abruptly I halt my stride, for I'm getting confused. Roel, behind me on the path, swears loudly as his plank hits mine and starts spinning, almost throwing him off balance.

"Roel, I feel so suddenly good. I'm happy and my head sings. How come?"

Looking puzzled at first, his face lights up and he replies laconically, "'Cause you're a screwball, that's what. Or maybe it's hunger." Why do I always choose my friends among the soberest of mind? Is it an unconscious self-protection?

10th of August. Yesterday another monster flash was reported, and again thousands perished instantly. What is it all about? An old factory hand says the gods are angry. Nippon has been too long at war, bad, very bad. His sons, four strong boys, all went to war. Yes, the war took all his children, his sons, strong young men, and left them dead on the battlegrounds of Tarakan, Malacca and Java. Left them rotting there, killed on foreign soil far away from the family farm. It was all for the Emperor. The rest he mutters to himself.

A grinning Nip soldier, armed with a bamboo stick is chasing me. I try to run away but my feet are too heavy. I can't lift them. In panic, I turn to my pursuer, who has Hedy's face. Holding two enormous breasts in both hands, he screams, "You want them?" Then Lisa is there, her face intensely alive, sharp, unshed tears glittering in the corners of her eyes which are a dark blue, darker than I knew them. She is wearing the dress she wore at that garden party when we ran away and kissed. How long ago was that?

The dream leaves me weary and spent. "You were talking in your sleep. You woke me up," grumbles Roel.

"I dreamed of spears, breasts and...something else." I don't wish to bring Lisa into the conversation.

"You must be nutty as a fruitcake."

"Drop dead."

"Thanks, Reverend," is his retort, and I feel the flush creeping up to my ears.

The wooden faced supervisor says, "No workoo today. Long time yasme for prayers for Nippon."

Immediately most of the men scatter to their daily hunt for greens. I flop down where I stand, and lie on my back in the sawdust heap behind the carborundum oven, one arm across my face to shut off the glaring sunlight cutting through a small hole in the roof. My stomach feels like a great, hollow organ with hunger gnawing at its walls. In my head again is that curious singing sensation. I close my eyes and let myself drift away...

That dress she had on was bluish, with a sash or bow at the back. It made her more girlish than the swimming costume. Under the tree we kissed with the music coming from the distance, flowing over the lawn of the Gunung Sari Golf Club house. She said it was just like a movie, "Love and a Waltz"...

A white, chubby neck, fringed with raven-black hair... In shame, I turn my face sideways, inhaling the strong wood smell of the sawdust mixed with a faint trace of sump oil.

A couple of men are talking. I listen to the intonation of the voices without hearing what is said, until something catches my attention.

"What do you mean, she'll be changed?"

"Well, I mean to say...Well, what I mean is - what do you expect? If she's alive when I get back, she'll be a woman who has been through the war like myself. You know, hardships and all that. She can't be the same as the young girl she was when I went away. She'd be more, eh, mature and probably grown hard in some way. I only hope she hasn't slept with some Jap bastard. I wouldn't want her anymore if she had!"

"I get you. None of them worries for me, my boy. I ain't married."

It hits me with a saddening certainty. The girl I had met, fallen in love with and who had married me, that girl will be gone too. She just couldn't be the same after Lord knows what she has had to go through. The young girl of my youth, of the happy days before the Punch, has gone with time, never to return but in an occasional nostalgic moment. When we meet again we shall see that we have grown older, older than the number of years separating us.

The end is in sight. I feel it strongly. I shall be a free man again. But a little sadness comes over me which I cannot resist. The thin shaft of sunlight is suddenly broken by a sparrow perched on the edge of the hole in the roof.


[1] This particular POW camp in Toyama (there were several) was known variously as Toyama Camp #11, Nagoya #11B Camp or Iwase. The plant was owned by Nihon Soda. See http://www.mansell.com/pow_resources/camplists/Nagoya/nag_11_nihon_soda_iwase/nag_11_main.html.

Ray Heimbuch was also among the prisoners transferred there from Yokkaichi in June, 1945. He describes the Nihon Soda operation: "At this plant we smelted chrome using electric furnaces. The whole process consisted of filling the furnace with ore, heating it for about six hours, then draining the molten slag and chrome into a sand form. We then reloaded the furnace. While the second batch was melting down, we took the cooled slag and chrome from the mold, chipped off the chrome, and took the slag out to the discard pile on a handcart. Then the sand mold was reformed and the process started all over again. This usually gave us about an hour of slack time between loading the furnace and waiting for the slag to become sufficiently cool enough to be handled. There were three of these furnaces in this complex." Ray Heimbuch, I'm One of the Lucky Ones, pp. 98-99.

[2] Frank Samethini's name appears on the Toyama camp Dutch POW roster, thirteenth from the top.

[3] Heimbuch recalls several bomb runs. The first bomb exploded while he was working inside the plant: "After things settled down, I carefully made my way down out of the booth and outside. As I got outside I could see the rest of the guys on the ground. I heard the sounds of a lone B-29, and eventually saw it circling overhead. It was circling at an altitude of at least twenty thousand feet, preparing for another run at us. We lay there and watched as he lined up on us again. What seemed like ages were actually only a few minutes until we heard again the whistle of the bomb. This time we could actually see the sun glinting off it as it fell. It missed the plant by a short distance, but again the concussion shook us quite severely. This was repeated three times, each time barely missing us." Heimbuch, p. 102.

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