Tuesday, January 20, 2009

22. The End of the Road

Photo Source: www.history.navy.mil

14th of August. A beautiful morning.

"Ye hear that? No work today."

"Ain't no work left anyways."

It is true. Our ensign confirms it, adding that there will be no more roll-call.

"What, no roll-call? But that's something!"

"Hell, no. Why should them Nips wanna know who's fit and who's sick, when there's nothing to do?"

"Don't they wanna know if we're all here?"

"Aw, shuddup. Who's running off, now?"

"Whadabout them bamboo spears?"

"Cripes, him again with his bamboo spears!"

But in spite of the bravado the words fall like icy-cold droplets on our hopeful expectations.

A couple of our men come running back from the front gate, exclaiming, "Hey, there are twice as many Nips at the guardhouse as ever before!"

"Oh, God! What for?" Eyes meet in sharp silence, filled with disbelief mingled with shock and alarm, for the news has fallen like a sword in our midst.

I can't, I refuse to believe it. It just could not be true, not now! Running forward to the gate, I see - my God! - at least two dozen or more of them, and with fixed bayonets! A cold, sinking feeling takes hold of me. Sweet Jesus, no, NO! Is this then the end for us, after all we've been through? To be killed off like cattle. Would it be very painful?

The loose board in the fence behind the kitchen, big enough to crawl through!

A moment later I am squatting on my heels before the loose board, just held in its place by one rusty nail. My heart is going like a steam hammer. But this is absurd. What about Roel, the others? I should at least tell them about the opening in the fence. A few minutes later, inwardly glowing with shame, I join the group where Roel is standing with his hands on his hips, as he is wont to do.

"Hey, where've you been? Our ensign is inside with the camp commander. Guard came to get him: Would he please see the officer in charge inside. Can you beat that? Please, he said!"

Minutes pass. Then the faint throb of a motor on the road, rapidly growing stronger. It is the factory lorry, halting with shrieking brakes in front of the closed gate. All eyes are drawn to the entrance but the tall, boarded doors remain closed, which is unusual. They are always opened as soon as the lorry arrives. What's happening? A soldier steps out to open the door a little, just wide enough to let a Jap civilian enter, shutting it behind the man. They talk a few minutes, throwing furtive glances in our direction, making unintelligible gestures with their hands. A profound silence descends on our group while the word "spear" passes soundlessly from one mind to another.

A moment later there is a loud calling from the guard for two men to help unload victuals and rice. The doors are opened wide to let the lorry in, loaded with bags and boxes.

There is the broadly grinning face of our ensign walking up to us. Upending a barrel to stand on, he announces, with a catch in his voice, "No more work, and double rations as from today. Furthermore, orders to be given in English only, or Dutch. Boys, this has got to be it!"

"Anything about an armistice?" someone asks.

"No, he couldn't or wouldn't say, but it is clear enough that this must be the beginning of the end."

I am filled with an overpowering sense of relief. The tension flows from my body and my mind, as if a heavy yoke is lifted and laid down beside me. Is it really true? Everybody is all smiles, including the Japanese.

Breakfast turns out to be rice, not pearl barley. Good old nourishing rice with a generous piece of fish and greens.

Later on in the day we try to get more news from the guards, but they seem to be in the dark themselves as to what actually has happened. The order to stop work and issue double rations came from Tokyo direct. Further instructions will soon follow.

A little while later word comes from the camp commander that we have ceased to be prisoners of war, and henceforth are to be treated as guests of the Japanese! Unbelievably good news. At last, thank God. This is what we have been dreaming of for so long. This is what has been predicted so often in rumours. This is what again and again turned out not to be true, until it was cast aside as something so unbelievably good and so far away that it just could not happen in our lifetime. It now seems to be within our grasp, or is it?

The remainder of the day passes with agitated talk and speculation. Noon-meal consists of rice again, this time fortified with Jap bully beef. Where did it all come from? For the first time in Japan we are not hungry between meals. Though it is not officially announced, we are made to understand that the guard force was doubled to protect us against the civilian population. But why should they want to attack us? The answer sounds vague, elusive. They only have to follow orders, that is all.

Evening brings well-stocked soup, and then to bed go the most contented, if bewildered, "guests" you could find anywhere in the world. The following day all foremen among us, headed by the ensign, are invited to have lunch with the Jap commander in the office. A long table is loaded with food tidbits and several bottles of sake and Japanese whiskey. At dusk all the food has vanished, together with a good deal of the hooch. All our direct questions as to what had taken place were put off by a friendly but firm Japanese lieutenant until a later time.

That time has now arrived. Climbing on a chair, he asks us to charge our glasses, and when that is done and we all wait in a hushed silence, he announces that the war is over.

Pandemonium of loud cheering.

These words, finally spoken, sound so simple, so ordinary, much less impressive than I thought it would be. Certainly not like this - a Jap, slightly swaying on his feet, facing a group of POWs in various states of drunkenness, saying, "Gentlemen, the war has ended," adding, while walking to a portable phonograph on a side table, "I should be very honoured if you would all be good enough to join me in the Lambeth Walk."

Roel, a few others and myself remain seated. We ate and drank with him for the sake of peace, and because we were too overwhelmed with joy and gratitude to let feelings of rancour come between us. But here we draw the line. Dance with this man? Not for all the whiskey in Japan! We ourselves are not exactly sober anymore but that does not stop us from being filled with an ever growing dislike of what we observe before us.

Almost everybody is on the floor, wobbling on their feet as they try to step in time with the tune. A bleary-eyed camp inmate, swaying on his feet and sozzled to the gills, is stammering thickly to the phonograph. Saliva drools from his open mouth onto the revolving record. In the room is a hoarse shouting of "La-la-la-boy!" Is all this not a blasphemy of the sacred moment we have been waiting for all these years? The war is over. How many gave their lives to make that come true? A quick exchange of glances and Roel and I, as one man, rise from our chairs and leave the room.

Out in the fresh night air the effect of the alcohol is quickened, and we get that delightful, high-spirited feeling before drunkenness sets in. After repeated handshaking and hiccups we go to bed to sleep it off.

Lying flat on my back, I try to assemble a coordinate my thoughts. I cannot shut my eyes, for that is when everything starts to spin around and around. Lisa, I am drunk. Sorry, it's just one of those things. You know what? I still feel like I did yesterday! With me there is no difference with what I felt yesterday or even before. Probably it will come later. I guess it is like a bird kept in its cage for a long time, and then one day the cage is opened and it is told, "Now then, bird, out you go. You're free." You have to put your hand in the cage and take the bird out yourself before it understands what has happened to it. I shall have to be removed from this camp, from this land Japan, before I can feel like a free man again.

In my eyelids comes a heaviness. There is a rushing, swirling sound in my ears within the distant din of talking and laughter. The war is over. The Lord be praised.

It will fly over at noon to drop cigarettes and DDT, whatever that is. This is the message brought by a young American Marine who came from an aircraft carrier stationed near the mainland. Escorted by a detachment of Japanese, he had come to our camp early this morning. It is from him that we learn that in May the war in the European Theatre had ended and that Hitler had committed suicide. He doesn't know whether the Dutch East Indies are still occupied by the Japanese. After all, peace has not yet been officially declared. DDT, he explains with eyebrows raised at our ignorance, is a powerful insecticide. A robust, well groomed man, a picture of health is this American Marine, with the smell of a good brand of after-shave lotion about him. The very sight of the member of our Allied Forces brings home at last the indisputable fact that peace has returned to our world. Before his arrival, as incredible as it may sound, the stupendous news of the end of hostilities had somehow not quite spelled out its full meaning in our thinking. It had not yet settled completely in our minds an as irrevocable, historical fact. If somebody had said that it had all been a misunderstanding between the Allies and the Japanese, that the state of war would have to be resumed, we probably would have taken it as a happy interlude, putting away the news of peace along with the other shattered good tidings we had heard before.

But now, seeing him in his dapper U.S. Marines outfit, calmly smoking a cigarette while being saluted by Japanese soldiers, passing on to his countrymen among us the latest exploits of the Dodgers and the New York Giants - now we know for certain that the end of the road has been reached. After arranging the details for our evacuation, the Marine leaves leaves for another camp in the neighborhood.

The hour of noon finds us all assembled on the patch of sand in front of the barracks, scanning the sky. Then, low over the blackened ruins of yesterday, a two-motored airplane comes roaring over the compound. Now that we know that it does not carry bombs, the sound has lost its threatening quality. We can clearly see the pilot in his cockpit waving a hand to our mad-happy, screaming crowd. The old familiar "Dash-Star-Dash" insignia of the U.S. Air Force makes a U-turn, and on its return two small parachutes pop open to float rapidly down, dead-centre in our camp. Again he returns, tipping his wings in greeting to the whooping and cheering men. One American among them, long ago blinded by malnutrition, cocks up his head and bursts out in an hysterical "Ah can see ya! Ah can see ya, ya beautiful son-of-a-bitch! Hey, you guys, Ah can see!"

"The old familiar Dash-Star-Dash"
B-29s carrying food and supplies to POW camps in Japan

Photo Source: The Long March Into Oblivion

Air-dropped supplies descend towards a POW camp on Kyushu
Photo Source: Ibid.

After the dried Cherry Blossom "smokes" and the rice-chaff pipe, the Chesterfields are a refined pleasure. Later drops bring butter, processed cheese, chocolate bars, coffee and U.S. Army uniforms. Also pamphlets signed by General MacArthur cautioning us to refrain from fraternising with the Japanese. The DDT powder is tried out, offering a different but highly enjoyable diversion. Gleefully we watch its effect in broad daylight, something we had never quite succeeded in before - fast, absolute and observable extermination of the hated tiny pests, the cause of many a sleepless night.

A trip to our neighbouring camp is organised. We walk through the ruins of a village where we are watched by our former enemies. When we see these Japanese men, women and children, some with a smile but most with expressionless faces, aimlessly standing about in their broken village, we forget General MacArthur's order not to fraternise. We have so much, this all-embracing thing, this awareness of being free, that makes us wholly unsusceptible to the brutal principle of a tooth for a tooth. It simply does not occur to us to be unfriendly with anybody, American or Japanese. And so we dole out the sweets, the cigarettes and the chocolate bars, and the smiles break through while they hiss their thanks and the children stare in open wonder.

Alas, there is also bad news. In the neighbouring camp we learn that the American pilot who brought the cigarettes had made a wrong manoeuvre, crashing headlong into the ground. They had to saw his body out of the motor block, which had slammed into the cockpit. Roel and I meet a couple of fellows from Yokkaichi who were transferred to this place shortly after the copper plant was strafed by American P-38 aircraft. A stray bullet entered their bay, killing a man, the one with the big front teeth. The American bullet pierced his rectum, tearing his kidneys apart before burying itself in the timber wall. Poor boy. What part was his in life, what purpose his example? Even his death, in a way, was undignified, a macabre joke.

Back in our camp we hear that it will take another fourteen days before we shall be evacuated. We decide to celebrate with a show. There is a guitar, a violin and mouth organ, so there will be music. I am to adjust a poem I wrote about Lisa to make it suitable for a little choir, to the tune of two waltzes by Johann Strauss. Roel will take care of the more "straight" entertainment, as he calls it - dirty jokes.

An American stage writer will produce a short thriller with a double kill, a detective thing for which he needs a pistol. A hawk-nosed Aussie turns up with a self-made toy pistol which looks like the real thing, but he insists on being included in the cast. That is, he wants to sing "I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal Joe." The man's voice does not suggest talent or even ability for singing, but he has the pistol, so he is put on.

They have come in greater numbers than before on a camp Sunday service, and they look at me while I am about to deliver my "sermon". Perhaps the last I shall ever have to give. One moment it is as if all their faces grow together into one single pair of large eyes. That is how I feel, for I know that this moment is singular in my life, that I shall never be asked again to be spokesman for a congregation which has unhesitatingly assembled in gratitude to God.

"There should be no cause for solemnity in our assembly, for we all are filled with happy anticipation of what will come. This indeed is the greatest time of all, as was the day when you started packing for that holiday you had been waiting for all year long. That time of joyful preparation and foretasting you remembered best of all.

"In our prayers at the beginning of this service we remembered our fallen comrades in Japan and elsewhere. Now we wish to give thanks for having been spared, for being able to return home to those we love. Our gratitude is profound. It comes from deep back to those harrowing hours when everything seemed so dark, so hopelessly lost. It is why we are here now together, and it can only be measured out in as many words and phrases as we find ourselves capable of, which is enough. No more need be said. For it is not in the quantity and volubility of words that our appreciation should lie. God knows what is in our hearts. Again, friends, before we offer our prayer of thanksgiving there should be no cause for graveness, but for one solemn promise to ourselves. If we wish to offer something in return for this great gift of survival, let us then, in the days that lie before us, remember that through all the past years of war we went to God because our lives, and those of our families, were in peril. We came because there was no other way out, there was only God left. And so we went, like our fathers and their fathers before them. What man in fear of his life has done since Christianity was brought into this world - he tried to find his Maker. Let us remember that when the days were good most of us had no time for praying, but when the days were bad we found lots of time for it.

"Well, it would seem that the days are going to be good again, and that perhaps some of us in time will discard God again as something out of use. Let us recall that once upon a time we went to church. Not a building designed by an architect, with a tolling bell in its tower, but a patch of grass in the camp grounds, a corner in the barracks, a bathing shed. Let us not forget that once our frightened little souls found solace and strength in prayer, in listening to His Word.

"Not in the dark hours which have passed but in the brighter days ahead, continued worshiping of the Almighty should be our testimony of thankfulness to Him, to whom we went once upon a time, when we cried, 'God, where are you? Please help me!' "

Thirty-first of August. The Ballad of Rascal Joe is dodgily sung, right through catcalls, booing and flying objects, until we pull the hawk-nosed Aussie behind the closed curtain for fear of bodily harm. The second number by our choir draws a fair amount of applause, but Roel as compere receives more acclaim for his assortment of yarns. Then the curtain is raised for the masterpiece of suspense and murder. But alas, no blood will flow. At exactly the moment when the villain, taking the pistol from under his arm, steps forward to his visibly trembling victim, the whole set - yes, the whole shebang with curtain and all collapses, smacking actors, producer and director four feet to the floor! We shall never know the cause of the disaster but the applause from our audience is deafening, reaching its climax when, admist the broken props, the entire cast joins in with loud peals of laughter. A great show!

A certain group within our community has settled back to what they consider normal peacetime life: Gambling the whole day through with money from selling food and clothing from U.S. airdrops, brawling over the card table and nightly trips to the village (much resented by Japanese parents of grown-up daughters). They are a daily worry to our ensign and his aides, especially the drunks among them, who have become a great nuisance.

One evening, entering the kitchen, I find myself face to face with a young lout, temporarily crazed by the sharp alcohol of cheap whisky, who has decided to run amok with a carving knife. Nobody is hurt yet, but only because the cook and his help had bolted in time. Now, leering at me with bloodshot eyes, he slowly advances, holding the glinting knife high above his head. The door bangs open. Enter the cook and his mate, both armed with sticks. The drunk turns to face them and I see my chance. With a forceful shove I slam the narrow end of the kitchen table against his midriff. Shrieking loudly, he doubles up and falls flat on his face, the knife clattering on the floor. Before the punk can work himself up into another rampage, we set him up for a thrashing that will make him think twice in future before putting up a show again.


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